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  • A Distraught Woman
  • Omar Eby (bio)

I woke in the pearly morning light of Mogadishu, Somalia, to a woman's wailing, distant but steady. The wail was not raised against her husband's beating; it had no physical urgency. Rather, her keen was of a heart in distress, a spirit broken and without words for grief. When the wail seemed to come nearer, I got up and looked out of my barred bedroom window.

A Somali woman thrashed about on the flat roof of the Lind house, she having climbed the metal staircase against the outside rear wall. She cried and thrust out bare arms towards the pale east. Her hair hung loose, fallen from the tight kerchief all Somali women wear. Staggering to the north edge of the roof, she looked down, her body weaving against the knee-high parapet. I thought she might jump. But she turned away and wrapped her long head scarf about her face, blinding herself as she staggered to the west wall. Now I could see her fully, and suddenly she again opened her arms, sheathed in the scarf, and threw them up rigid above her head, as though beseeching the fading western star for mercy, for quick death, her life bitter and futile. And then she screeched—a noise prehistoric and inhuman.

A grief-crazed Somali woman on the Lind house roof, her cries again turning to pitiless keening! What could I do? The Lind family was on holiday in Nairobi. I would have to do something. It was another hour before Ali would come to my house. In a fog of irresolution I pulled on shorts and stamped into sandals and went down to her. When I came up to the house I could no longer see her from below. I climbed part of the way up the steps until my head was level with the roof. She must have heard the metal stairs rasp against the wall, for she whirled and stared at me with eyes wide open, yet, flat, dead in a terrible sleep. My heart pounding with fear, I still managed to call greetings to her, quietly, and urged her to come down.

Had she come, I had no idea what I would do with her. But she spared [End Page 31] me that dilemma, dashing to the farthest corner, all the while, wailing. I worried that any moment now someone early on the street below would hear us, look up, and gather a wrong idea. There came to my mind Mrs. Modricker's account of drunken brawls at night in a house of Italian bachelors across the street from the Sudan Interior Mission headquarters. "Lie down! Lie down!" the men yelled as they chased the Somali tarts they had brought home. There was nothing for me to do but to return to my house and await Ali's arrival.

Later he came through the door, shouting with heartless delight. "She crazy! She crazy! Crazy woman on the roof!"

No, he did not know her. But, yes, he had seen her sometimes crazy in the markets, until someone came to take her away.

"We must get her down," I said. "This is awful!"

When Ali refused to approach the woman, I suggested he go for the police.

Within minutes he returned, the policeman smart in his khaki shorts and blue beret. At first the two men stood below the house and laughed. Something the deranged woman kept repeating—vulgar or incongruous—struck them as hilarious. Eventually the officer, a mere lad, climbed the stairs to the woman, calling and gesturing that she come to him. When she refused, he rushed her. She swirled toward the roof's edge, and again I thought she would jump. But the policeman snatched at her billowing dress and wound her against him. Then shouting and scuffling, the two came down the stairs. The policeman, his voice raised half in amazement, half in anger, called something to Ali. Again their laughter rang out.

Suddenly the distraught woman was docile. But the policeman did not release his hold. In the severe intimacy of his grip, the woman, disheveled and now mute, walked quietly beside him...