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Dirty Feet

por Edem Awumey

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Nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award: Translation and the ReLit Awards As a small child, Askia was forced, along with his family, to wander the African desert as if under a curse. First driven from their home by drought and hunger, they were then kept from the villages they passed through by the fear and suspicion of others, who did not want to see their "dirty feet" stay for too long. Years later, it seems Askia is destined to relive his family’s curse night after night as he roams the streets of Paris in his taxi. One evening, he picks up Olia, a young woman who claims to recognize his face, telling him that his features are similar to those of a man she photographed years ago. Had it been his father, the enigmatic Sidi Ben Sylla Mohammed? The father who migrated north long before he did; the father he has so often dreamt about; the father whom he aches to meet? With Olia’s help, Askia sets out to retrace Sidi’s steps. But before he can embark on this new journey, he must first confront his violent past. A brutal, indelibly powerful look at the harrowing, often violent lives of those who arecondemned to wander.… (mais)
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Edem Awumey’s Dirty Feet is a slim volume, but its contents are hefty indeed.

Askia’s story reminds the reader that one is wise not to judge insides by outsides, that the dimensions of an individual’s inner life expand even beyond personal experiences, that one can spend a lifetime trying to understand only a single self.

What the outside of this second novel does reveal, however, is that the tale will be told from ground-level, including what lies in darkness. Alysia Shewchuk’s cover design includes an image of the Eiffel Tower that is almost unrecognizable; this is an unfamiliar Paris, a city with an underbelly.

The upper reaches of the tower look like some other landmark, its broadening middle skulking in a dusty banner that matches the darker edges of the night-time photograph, its familiar outline recognizable only with effort. But this is the Paris that Askia knows. If he can be said to know a city. If he can be said to know any place.

His father moved to the music of exile, his mother told him, and Askia’s earliest memory is of his father leading him from Nioro du Sahel on a donkey, with his mother balancing a basket of provisions on her head and walking behind. “For a long time we were on the road, my son. And wherever we went, people called us Dirty Feet.”

Askia has continued living on the road; he travels to Paris, a city in which his father had once expressed an interest as well. He finds meaning in the stories of other boys searching for their fathers (like Juan Preciado in Pedro Páramo’s novel) and in mythology and history (like the tales of Ulysses, a long-time wanderer who was considered a hero by some and the antithesis by others).

He fills his time by driving a taxi, with a bogus licence. He is always on the move, and he carries with him, not only his memories of his father, but memories of other places that resonate with him. As Edwidge Danticat writes in Create Dangerously, the “nomad or immigrant who learns something rightly must always ponder travel and movement, just as the grief-stricken must inevitably ponder death”.*

Askia’s search for his father, however, parallels a much broader search. There are many others like him in Paris, whose fathers are not missing, who also are seeking: “the pilgrims, the runaways, the curious, the unsatisfied, all the souls fated to spin their wheels in the direction of infinity”.

He chooses to frequent places to which he thinks his father would be drawn. He looks for him in many places and believes that he sees him in a photograph in a book, which is actually an image of Askia Mohammed, king of the Songhi Empire five centuries ago. Edem Awumey’s narrator is looking behind him, not only to his own younger years, but to his father’s life, and beyond, to another time, perhaps historical or perhaps imagined.

Askia’s situation is not unusual. As the narrator of Edem Awumey’s novel, he is a character, but the challenges he faces are drawn from life. The Moroccan novelist, Tahar Ben Jelloun, who has lived in Paris since 1971, also writes about Africa's dispossessed: "Emigration is no longer a solution; it's a defeat. People are risking death, drowning every day, but they're knocking on doors that are not open."**

The pages of Dirty Feet do, in fact, contain all of this: defeat and death and drowning and closed doors. Some of this is overt in the author’s creation, but it permeates the text more subtly as well.

The night engulfs an outdoor exhibit of photographs of people walking in various seasons, furniture is draped with an ash coloured sheet, a crippled hand raised above a man’s head is mistaken for a knife, walls are sooty and damp, a casket lurks in the shadow of pillars in a cellar: darkness seeps into the crevices of Askia’s story.

Individually, these images and sensory details appear innocuous, but cumulatively they contribute to a narrative constructed with intelligence and sensitivity from the first to the final page.
The intricacy is not immediately recognizable (like that image of the tower), but the crafting is relentless.

(More on Buried In Print, if you're still interested; Dirty Feet was the first novel I read in 2012 that I needed to re-read immediately upon finishing it for the first time, so yes, I have more to say)

*Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010): 16
**Maya Jaggi, “The Voice of the Maghreb” (The Guardian: May 6, 2006) ( )
  buriedinprint | Jul 18, 2012 |
Dans ce très élégant roman poétique, Awumey fait l'apologie des nomades : hommes et femmes qui traversent les déserts et les continents, jamais accueillis, faisant l'objet de méfiances, toujours appelés vers l'inconnu. Askia est le descendant de princes qu'il recherche sous la forme de son père, mi-homme mi-fantôme, un mythe qui se manifeste sous les propres traits d'Askia. Olia est descendante des Tsiganes qui ont traversé l'Asie et l'Europe; elle-même n'arrive pas à se poser, voyageant jusqu'en Amérique et captant les âmes d'errants comme elle dans ses photos. C'est un hommage aux êtres du voyage qui ont les pieds sales à force de se déplacer et de ne jamais se poser. La fin est brutale, mais sans doute inévitable. Avec elle la légende se poursuit, du Sahel à Paris, en passant par la Bulgarie, les nomades continuent à suivre la route dans l'espoir d'un meilleur avenir. ( )
  Cecilturtle | Feb 21, 2012 |
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Et mon père m'a dit une fois
Qu'il priait sur une pierre:
Ignore la lune
Et garde-toi de la mère...et des voyages!

Mahmoud Darwich
La terre nous est étroite
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tendres pays

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Askia racontait que sa mère, dans son délire final, n'avait cessé d'évoquer des lettres que lui aurait envoyées de Paris son père, Sidi Ben Sylla Mohammed.
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Nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award: Translation and the ReLit Awards As a small child, Askia was forced, along with his family, to wander the African desert as if under a curse. First driven from their home by drought and hunger, they were then kept from the villages they passed through by the fear and suspicion of others, who did not want to see their "dirty feet" stay for too long. Years later, it seems Askia is destined to relive his family’s curse night after night as he roams the streets of Paris in his taxi. One evening, he picks up Olia, a young woman who claims to recognize his face, telling him that his features are similar to those of a man she photographed years ago. Had it been his father, the enigmatic Sidi Ben Sylla Mohammed? The father who migrated north long before he did; the father he has so often dreamt about; the father whom he aches to meet? With Olia’s help, Askia sets out to retrace Sidi’s steps. But before he can embark on this new journey, he must first confront his violent past. A brutal, indelibly powerful look at the harrowing, often violent lives of those who arecondemned to wander.

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