Excerpt from A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Man of Good Hope

by Jonny Steinberg

A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg X
A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2015, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2015, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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I store this oddity in my notebook, not quite sure what to make of it. It is only later, after several weeks of conversation, that I come to understand what he invests in his teeth—­they are his most vital connection to his father.

Asad refers to him as Aabbo, "Dad" in Somali. His memories of Aabbo take two forms.

The first is a medley of recollections, some of them images, others just disembodied ideas. Aabbo left early in the morning and returned very late, after the children had eaten dinner. In the first sequence in the medley, the children are summoned to the living room in the evening where their father receives them in the manner of a patriarch, quizzing each child about his or her day "top to bottom," Asad says, like a stern inquisitor.

Aabbo was often away. "He traded somewhere in the Arab world," Asad recalls, somewhere on the other side of the Gulf of Aden. On some days Asad says he does not remember what his father traded; on others he talks about animal skins bought from the nomads who came into Mogadishu, and sold on to Arabs in Yemen or Saudi Arabia or Dubai. He remembers that his father was once arrested and jailed in connection with his work—­something to do with taxes or duties.

"My memories of this are not concrete," he says. "It is just a piece of knowledge that floats in my head. I don't remember the adults talking about it. I don't remember whether they were worried. Maybe they were worried; the regime could keep you locked up a long time."

Asad's other memory of his father takes the form of a single, vivid image. It was early evening. Asad heard footfalls in the yard. He stepped outside to find his father standing there, a bag over his shoulder. He had been away, somewhere, on business; Asad had not been expecting him. "Aabbo," he said.

In reply, his father put down his bag, flashed the broadest smile, and opened his arms. Asad ran to him and found himself lifted up to his father's face. They were so close that their noses almost touched. He inhaled Aabbo's breath; it was fresh, it smelled of a sweet herb. He observed the pores in the skin of his father's cheeks above his thin beard: they glistened; the skin was a little oily. But what remains with him most vividly is the smiling mouth into which he stared: the wide, pink tongue; the teeth so long and so perfectly shaped they seemed like narrow ivory tombstones.

"I have his teeth," Asad tells me. "When I look in the mirror and examine them, I think of the evening I looked into his mouth."

I think of Asad examining the smiles of the many Somalis he has met on his journey; he is judging his distance from them by what he sees in their mouths.

And then there is the madrassa. It was quite literally across the road from his home, as he remembers it. The journey from his front gate to his classroom took less than a minute.

That the making of ink is his most cherished memory of school is no surprise, for the rest, it seems, was not very nice. He remembers his teacher Dahir by his ceaseless voice and by his thrashing stick. Dahir had been reciting both books of the Koran for so long that he could shout passages of the Holy Book in rotation to twenty students at a time, each student at a different place in the text.

That is what Asad remembers. He clutched the handle of his loox in one hand, his pen in the other, and waited his turn. His cup of ink lay ready at his feet. The sound of Dahir's voice, hurling holy passages at one student after the next, would grow closer. Then it was Asad's turn. Dahir would shout; Asad would write on his loox. He kept his writing small, for if both sides of the loox were full before his passage was complete, he would have to try to remember the remainder of the passage by the sound of Dahir's voice.

As soon as Dahir moved on, Asad would begin to memorize what he had just written, for the clock was ticking; in the late afternoon, he would have to wash the ink off his loox with a damp clod of grass. The following morning, he recited what he had learned to Dahir. How much Asad failed to recall determined how heavily Dahir beat him.

Excerpted from A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg. Copyright © 2015 by Jonny Steinberg. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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