Sailing past Africa

My first memory of Africa is a glimpse of the coastline through my parents’ eyes as they sail  to Pakistan two years after their marriage. It is 1960, the Year of Africa, the year seventeen African nations win independence from France, Belgium, and Great Britain. That same summer, Subhani and Zarina, Abu and Mummy, board the RMS Circassia from Liverpool.  The Ports of Call are Gibraltar, Port Said, Aden and finally Karachi.

  • A room with tables and chairs around
  • RMS Circassia at anchor
  • A verandah with chairs

Life on RMS Circassia

“The first day, I stayed in my room. The turbulence on the Bay of Biscay was nauseating,” says mummy when I ask her about the trip.  “With a ten month old and the second on the way, I had my hands full.” This how they begin their thirty day voyage to Karachi.  

This is what we’ve always known about their start of their new life.  They sail around the coast of Spain and Portugal through calm waters. As they pass through the Straits of Gibraltar on a clear night, they might witness the distant lights of the Port of Tangier, Morocco

At Port Said, they leave the docked ship in search of stable ground.  They might have strolled down Palestine Street in the Arab quarter. After much haggling, they buy a Fez. That’s all it takes to convert Abu into the recently deposed King Farouk of Egypt for a fancy dress party on the ship that night.

“We have seen two films: Upstairs and Downstairs and The Journey with Yul Bryner in it. We also went to a fancy dress dance but only of course to sit and watch and talk and drink iced cola’s. Subhani, needless to say, went as Farouq and I don’t know what I was, but I wore a gold sari with white and gold sandals and an amber stone set in gold and black on my forehead. Sophia Ahmed lent me the sari, the rest were my own, i.e. the petticoat, blouse, sandals, and jewelry. They said I must be a maharani. When we see these films etc., I creep out every 40 minutes to see if Afshi is OK...”

“We have seen two films: Upstairs and Downstairs and  The Journey with Yul Bryner in it.  We also went to a fancy dress dance but only of course to sit and watch and talk and drink iced cola’s. Subhani, needless to say, went as Farouq and I don’t know what I was, but I wore a gold sari with white and gold sandals and an amber stone set in gold and black on my forehead.  Sophia Ahmed lent me the sari, the rest were my own, i.e. the petticoat, blouse, sandals, and jewelry.  They said I must be a maharani.

When we see these films etc., I creep out every 40 minutes to see if Afshi is OK…”

Zarina reading her letter

Mummy Writes Letters to her Family

I imagine Mummy finding a quiet spot on the deck of the RMS Circassia, close enough to her room in case her ten-month-old baby woke up from her nap. In her letters she tells her mother, Lily, of the new sights she has witnessed.  

Abu is in the letter, arguing voraciously about politics with his fellow Pakistanis on the ship.  Mummy promises her mother that he will add a line or two at the end of the letter, but true to the man I knew, he decides to let Mummy have the last word.

Mummy, a twenty-year-old English teacher traveling from London to Pakistan for the first time, marvels at the millions of stars in the sky and the reflection of sparks at the base of the ship as it winds its way through the Red Sea. 

The Red Sea

She tells of the party the night before. She tells  them about all that fascinates her. The water for showers is pumped from the sea, so she has bathed in the waters of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and is looking forward to doing the same in the Red Sea, Yam Sup.  She might have even imagined Pharaoh’s army drowning as Moses led the Israelites to safety.

They do not stop to visit the pyramids of Giza.  They by-pass the 200 pyramids of Sudan. They sail past Eritrea and neighboring Ethiopia thinking of the ghosts of early humans who left the motherland.

Mummy and Abu do not stop for any of these sights.  They are in a hurry. They do not have time to stop that summer of 1960.  With a ten month old learning to walk and the second baby due in three months, they need to arrive at their destination, Karachi.

This boldly beautiful young couple is quick to make decisions. Both from such different worlds, they defy expectations and after a brief courtship choose to live their lives together.  That takes courage.  Then, they take a ship from Liverpool to Karachi with a ten-month-old baby and another on the way.  That takes grit.  And if that isn’t enough, they arrive in Karachi during the sweltering monsoon.  Now that is heroic!

But that magic of Africa stays with me till as an adult, Selma and I cross the Straits through which our parents had traveled. We visit Morocco.  There we are welcomed by tour guides to Mother Africa.


The poem Parola/Word by Ribka Sabhitu reminds me of myself and mummy and our wanderings and wonderings.

Holy Word/inscrutable essence/land of the foreign/wandering woman!

Parola/Sacra Parola,/misteriosa essenza,/terra della straniera/che girovaga! 

           

Who are you? “In an attempt to give an answer to this question, Ribka Sibhatu, Italian writer and essayist of Eritrean origin, presents the history of her homeland in her current city, Rome.”

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