We were in Cambridge, Massachusetts, waiting for a table at a popular restaurant. There were only two benches and a chair arranged in an L-shaped pattern in the beautiful backyard which served as a holding area. Most of the adjacent patio was set up as a dining area with tables and umbrellas, either to accommodate the overflow crowd, or to provide an outdoor star-lit dining experience for the more adventurous. It was a nice summer night. We had shown up rather late, without reservation, hoping to spend some time together in a nice cozy environment. Our children had decided to give us a treat for our wedding anniversary.
Another group, three young women and an infant, joined us as we were chatting, and it was then that he caught my attention. His eyes were twinkling mischievously and he looked at me as he rested comfortably on one of the woman's lap. I couldn't take my eyes off him, as she kept on adjusting him on her lap, sometimes putting him in an upright position with his back leaning against her stomach, and then picking him up and holding him in a horizontal position. He did not seem to mind being tossed around in this fashion, and kept staring at me (or so I imagined) as he and his female companions tried to shuffle him around to make themselves comfortable. I did not have my glasses on and the lighting was not very strong where we huddled; I was hoping that they would take the seat next to mine so that I could see him from up close. I got up, and offered my chair to the lady holding him, but she declined. One of the other women in the group sat on the chair I had vacated.
He looked incredibly cute, and now he was starting to put his tiny hand in his mouth, and even sometimes suck his thumb. I was a little puzzled that he was doing so since I started to wonder: how does a little baby so young learn to lick its thumb (I did not know how old he was). Two of my younger brothers had sucked their finger(s) so when they were young, but as far as I can remember they did so when only a few months old, whereas this baby did not seem to be more than a few weeks old.
My wife complimented the woman holding the baby on his cuteness and his demeanor. The women replied, “My nephew, Henry, is a happy baby and we are sorry to see him go!”
“Where is he going?” we asked, now that we were all smitten by this lovable baby.
“Where in Africa?”
At this point I, my wife, son and daughter all paused and took in the information. We were all very well-travelled and had visited many countries either for sightseeing or to visit family and friends. We also knew of Zimbabwe, from a personal perspective, as well as the political, social and economic history of the incumbent Mugabe regime. Why on earth would a baby, who looked very non-African, sitting with three very attractive young women who were waiting for a meal in one of Cambridge's most well-known eateries, be heading for Zimbabwe, where nothing but chaos and misery rules, if one believes the Western press? And what fate would await a young, innocent, child sitting now so comfortably on his mother or aunt's lap, as soon as he would land in Harare?
I wanted to know more about Henry but realized that my inquisitiveness might not go down well with the women. I had in the meantime informed them of my elder brother, who died in Zimbabwe, just outside Harare, in a road accident. I did not want to turn our little time together in this pleasant setting into a discussion of Mugabe, roads in Zimbabwe, and the pain and loss I have endured since my brother passed away. But I could not conceal from them or from my family the excitement I felt at meeting a new baby who is going to Zimbabwe, as did my brother, and who would live there and even travel the same roads my brother did. I also, probably with my enthusiasm, made it clear to them that I considered Zimbabwe to be my favorite country in Africa and was happy to meet another soul heading for Harare. I've never been to Harare, although I had promised myself time and again that I would do so one day.
All this time my children and my wife were chatting with each other though I was by now totally immersed in Henry's world. The memory of losing my brother in Zimbabwe often haunts me, and I frequently search for his wandering soul all around me, but tonight I was going to put aside any dark thoughts lurching in the shadows. I was determined not to entertain any feeling that could tip the balance even slightly.
Right then, I saw the hostess coming in our direction to inform us that our table was ready. As the hostess waited for us, I looked at Henry again. He was calm and appeared to be ready to say goodbye. Without thinking I wished him “good bye” too and, as an afterthought, said, “Bon voyage.” I was then thinking of leaving him with a parting message, “See you in Harare.” But before I could, I felt a gentle tug on my sleeve from my wife, I turned around and started walking. As I walked behind my family and followed the hostess towards our designated table, I knew his eyes were following me. I don't remember if I said, silently, “See you in Harare soon!” but I dragged my feet as I entered the patio and took my seat.
Then, a lightning bolt struck me; I thought of asking for Henry's contacts in Harare. I got up, and excused myself on the pretext of going to the Men's Room. I went back to the waiting area and looked for the family from Harare. Frantically, I went next to the dining area and scanned it for the family but could not locate them anywhere. This increased my anxiety and I went desperately from one dining room to another, hoping that I would be able to find them sitting comfortably and getting ready for drinks or in the process of ordering them. After five minutes, I went to the head hostess, and asked, “Miss, there was another family of three women with a baby waiting for a table with us. Do you know where they might have been seated?” She looked puzzled and after checking on the computer screen, came back and said, “Sorry, I didn't see any group with three adults and a child on our guest list.” She moved on, only to leave me there completely befuddled.
Abdullah Shibli lives and works