Nadifa Mohamed: Fragments of a Nation


Mohamed reflects on becoming English @ Granta.

I set foot on British soil, or tarmac to be precise, on a frozen February day in 1986. Perched atop my sister’s hip at the top of the steps leading down from the Aeroflot plane, I took one sharp breath before a missed step left us both tumbling down to the icy surface. Bruised and offended I decided that this wasn’t the place for me. Months later, ensconced in a Victorian terrace in Tooting, my mind still perceived threats everywhere: in the creepy power lines that criss-crossed the street, in the curious gas-smell that emanated from the cold walls, but most of all in the cat that watched us interminably from the windowsill of the flat across the street.

It was a source of anxiety not just to me but to my nine year-old sister and fourteen year-old brother. We formed an investigative panel and decided that the cat was no humble feline but a spy, just like the secret policemen in Somalia, but spoke English and reported our daily activities back to its owner. The memories of booted men stomping into our bungalow at night and looking for our eldest brother had left us suspicious and untrusting, but England and the house on that street coupled with that cat exacerbated our paranoia. With a three-inch afro and sweatpants under my school skirt to keep out the chill, I marched to the prison-like schoolhouse every morning as sullenly as a convict joining a chain gang. On the green mat at Mrs Moore’s feet I responded to laughter from bullies with a stern look and a finger drawn menacingly across my throat like a blade, a move copied from the Indian films I had enjoyed in Somalia. All I needed were a pair of aviator sunglasses and a gold medallion and I could have been filmstar Amitabh Bachchan. Slowly, slowly I learned to speak and read English, the script falling into place from Sunday mornings spent piecing together subtitles on the televised drama ‘Mahabharata’. It was full of moustachioed Indian rajas on horseback and simpering ranis in distress; a story two thousand years old but familiar and nostalgic to me.

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