This piece is a continuation of the two “chapters” posted—confusingly, in blog fashion— underneath it. If you are just arriving, please scroll down to Chapter 1 to begin.
the map of my dakar
The Corniche is a road that winds along the western coast of the Dakar peninsula with the unquestioning, unwavering, almost-blind devotion of a younger sibling. It is on this length of road and its little neighborhood-y off-shoots where I spend my days, and thus my life, in Dakar. Today is no exception. We leave Point E, incrementally cross the intersection where six roads converge without a street light, continue through Fann and turn onto the Corniche by Sea Plaza Mall where snipers stalk the roof and men in black search for terrorists in glove compartments, and we pass the pyramids of limes and oranges for sale, and the man sitting patiently, selling the limes and the oranges, and we pass the art shacks with the two-ton stone head sculptures that perch on the dirty expanse like tortured giants buried to their necks and writhing up from the sand.
The child in the back seat, himself a younger sibling and inspiration of much analogy, is chirping on about sunny things. My husband and I are listening, but not speaking. A mature silence fills the ether around the boy’s words as we drive along the Corniche, along the compound wall of the embassy fields, and the smooth mauve wall of the international school compound, and pass the bilingual school with its controversial traffic issues and the villa across the street with the lazy patio festooned with Louisiana vines (someone feels at home here, it always reminds me). The grip of silence loosens a bit, however, when the unfettered expanse of Atlantic Ocean opens before us, as if life’s big picture suddenly reveals itself and the stupid details fall away. The towers of the Mosque of the Divinity, built down in the cove, rise up to the Corniche from the beach below where fishermen and pirogues gather on the beach, and athletes leap like crickets, and where the women come to slaughter goats for the sake of the ill. Before and above us, the great African Renaissance Monument rises, massive and obscene.
Beyond the monument, Almadie’s diplomatic and humanitarian riches. And beyond that, the fishing village of Ngor and in Ngor, nestled beside Grand d’Or patisserie, where the talibe scuttle for coins and bread & old men in wheelchairs lift indifferent palms & SUVs pull in and out in a sort of perpetual ballet for croissant, poire caramel and hundred dollar gateaux, by the Miss Kya Spa and Kodak AMA photo, next to the Western Union Money Gram and Exotica Restaurant Rapide de qualité noiveau concept “Restaurant Exotica”, past the work horses tethered to discarded bathtubs in dusty lots, settled by a broken sidewalk, dusty steps, dangling chords of electrical wires and rusty gates is my true love—my blanchisserie, my nottayage—my dry cleaner, a boutique of serenity and kindness, within which hangs one Burberry navy-blue linen blazer with its blue pocket, its little secret and this story’s eventual fate.
And that, if you are still reading—if you even care (and why you might I do not know)—that, my dear reader, is the map of my Dakar.
I never meant to cause you any sorrow
On December 28, 2014 at three o’clock in the afternoon, several hours after our flight out of JFK landed on the tarmac of the Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport, a taxi came around this bend above the Mosque of the Divinity and below the African Renaissance Monument. It was driving from the other direction, from Almadies and heading to town and in it, we came for the first time upon the expanse of sea brushed with turquoise, the dry dirty cliffs crumbling into the burgundy Atlantic. I had prepared for many months for this move to Dakar, and yet (I knew already) nothing had prepared me. Within a few hours and I knew I was doomed in this semi-arid Muslim, French-speaking region. A five year contract and no house back home, my shock and panic was mounting. The taxi came around the bend and before me lay the source of the familiar lull and hush of the sound of ocean waves breaking throughout the rooms of my childhood, and here I encountered my first deceit. It was like running into 100 ex-lovers at a nightmarish party. The shock and disgust of meeting my intimate companion in this harsh, alien setting was not a reassurance. I felt no connection, no love, and the rejection felt worse than the alienation of the desert that surrounded me. It took months to process how an ocean can be as multifaceted as the human character: one shore delivering while the other deceives.
Past the cove, the coast continued wavering down to Plateau, the old city, in the distance. This was not Dubai nor anywhere in India; it was not the cities in films I had seen about Beruit, Jerusalem, Mogadishu. It was perfectly Africa, yes, but not my Africa—not Kampala, not Kigali. Perhaps Mombasa—of course, Mombasa. The port, the smell of stagnant water in the gutters, the call to prayer and the Muslims robe’d in the sweltering heat. But so close to the United States, it was not Mombasa either. It was more dainty, and certainly French.
We turned the bend and came upon the landscape of Atlantic against the brittle coast, the dirt cliffs slipping into the sea. The old city in the distance shimmered in the dusty heat. Our luggage had been delayed and I was still wearing my New York clothes from my previous life—from my life that was just the night before, when we had climbed into an Uber on 67th Street leaving the apartment empty, the still-lit Christmas tree, the abandoned cat and the kind grandmother who stood on the sidewalk as we pulled away willing to take care of the million overlooked details. My breath had been white in the cold air. The holiday streets had felt intimate all week, I had run into friends in the shops and at the park. I had run into my old high-school friend on Madison who was returning from the show at MOMA. My friends from church were back in their apartments decompressing from the holiday, having changed out of their choir robes and fancy clothes. Their children were watching cartoons. The church was dark and quiet the day we left. The streets were quiet too, but the skating rink at Central Park was teeming with skaters. That had all been yesterday.
It was three o’ clock in the afternoon Dakar time when the taxi turned the bend above the Mosque of the Divinity and something solid fell away beneath me. I entered a severed life. It was that moment, when we turned the bend onto the expanse of blue and I saw the coast running down to Plateau and I tried to place the city into some sort of context, that I entered a state of shock. I became an exile, a voyeur, an observer and a judge. From that moment on, I looked through kitchen windows at the broken lot of revving cars and bony children; I caught glimpses into squatter’s rooms along the highway; I watched the older French men with their breathy African wives push carts in the grocery store. I watched mouths speaking French at me and watched the lips move making sounds; and I slept. I slept for three weeks. When I woke up, I pushed through a daily, alien landscape that was not my life but a constant theater to observe and, apparently, to judge.
Characters from history and culture haunted me like spooky opium-addicted aunts (child brides in India, the Madoff son’s suicide, Ada McGrath landing on a 19th century savage beach in New Zealand, her chiffon dress and tightly-wound braids). My previous life haunted me too, dwelling in memory pockets along the Corniche were the industrial stairs at the Asphalt Green gym on a blustery grey Tuesday at 4pm, after a cab-ride rush uptown, watching the traffic on FDR creep downtown as I talked to friend about the CDC estimates of Ebola deaths that day. The path around Central Park Reservoir where, through the magnolia and the rhododendrons around 90th street, I once saw James Gandolfini throwing a ball to his dog. Beyonce on the car stereo and the Dakarois driver in the front seat with his fine, polished shoes. My husband at work, my children at school, I filled each hour drifting into my imagination and my past, desperate to extract a familiar out of this new alien home.
BUT MY GOD MUST WE GO ON?
I am simply drained by writing this. It’s taken everything out of me, I assure you. Just thinking of that time raises complex issues— because who am I to complain? Who am I? Was I not, there and then, nestled in that taxi with my lovely children and doting husband? Was I not sheltered by love, was I not the most fortunate woman on earth? Is it not enough, dear reader, for a woman to pull her child’s warm cheek against her own? To applaud her husband’s achievement? To relish the adventure? Why must we constantly long for the unattainable? Why must we ask for so damn much? Why, they look at me now and enquire, Why can’t you just be happy?
Because soon—with time—it would be lemons imported from Morocco, true friends, dusty sunsets, even the occasional cheese fondue, I suppose, and once a blessed hour of afternoon rain when I drank coffee and watched the ripples of invisible drops emanate on the surface of the pool. With time, I would decipher the seasons for mangoes and seasons for goats and seasons when the winds blow in from the desert. With time, the slender men, spectral in white cotton robes, would cross the Corniche above the Mosque of the Divinity on Friday afternoons like clusters of white lilies and with time, my dear reader, my friend, my love—with time, the mosque itself—listen to this—built on the inspiration of a dream.
“Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues and when an individual enters a strange culture, all or most of these familiar cues are removed.” A 1954 lecture by Dr. Kalervo Oberg who, based on his doctoral dissertation The Social Economy of the Tlingit Indians of Alaska coined the term ‘culture shock’.