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silence is my mother tongue sulaiman addonia

Silence is My Mother Tongue

Sulaiman Addonia now lives in Brussels and studied in London. He grew up in Eritrea and – in the wake of a massacre in the Eritrean independence struggle – in a camp for refugees in Sudan. Addonia’s second novel, Silence is My Mother Tongue, is also set in a Sudanese camp of Eritrean refugees. The novel follows the story of siblings Saba and Hagos and begins with a court hearing in a makeshift cinema. The defendant is Saba. She is accused of abusing her brother, who has been mute since birth. It quickly becomes clear to the judge and everyone involved that they don’t actually know anything about Saba, and after this dramatic opening, the book offers Saba’s perspective on her relationship with her brother and on the confusion and challenging conditions of life in the camp.

Saba reports on everyday life: fetching water at the river, using the public open-air toilet (which is actually a field behind the simple mud huts of the asylum-seekers), encounters with the randomly mixed-together neighbours, new friendships, queuing in front of the quarters of the British aid organizations. Saba dreams of becoming a doctor, but at the same time harbours feelings of guilt in relation to her brother for her dreams and the possibilities open to her, since it is his place at school she has taken because he is mute. It seems throughout the novel that Hagos’s disability, while a limitation, is also a tool that allows the siblings to see and question social norms more clearly. Hagos does much of the housework – that is, typical women’s work – and even though Saba wonders if he is thus surrendering to his fate, he still seems to enjoy it. He also enjoys picking out her clothes and doing her hairstyles. Saba often speaks for him and performs tasks that are more commonly understood as men’s work. Her ambitions and desire for independence lead to regular reprimands from adults, including severe physical injuries.

Physical and emotional traumas form the bond that connects Hagos and Saba and serve as a thread that runs throughout the story. Even if some dialogues or characters seem a bit clumsy, the book offers moving insights into an absolutely exceptional situation. The book deals with a lot of horror and I found myself holding fast to the moments of light as I read. I particularly enjoyed the dreamy owner of the camp’s makeshift movie theatre and the focus on Saba’s unwaveringness.

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