Leesfragment: We Are All Birds of Uganda

19 februari 2021 , door Hafsa Zayyan
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Nu in de Athenaeum Boekhandels: Hafsa Zayyans romandebuut We Are All Birds of Uganda, winnaar van de Merky Books New Writers' Prize. Lees bij ons een fragment!

1960s Uganda. Hasan is struggling to run his family business following the sudden death of his wife. Just as he begins to see a way forward, a new regime seizes power, and a wave of rising prejudice threatens to sweep away everything he has built.

Present-day London. Sameer, a young high-flying lawyer, senses an emptiness in what he thought was the life of his dreams. Called back to his family home by an unexpected tragedy, Sameer begins to find the missing pieces of himself not in his future plans, but in a past he never knew.

Moving between two continents over a troubled century, We Are All Birds of Uganda is an immensely resonant novel that explores racial tensions, generational divides and what it means to belong.

 

Part I

1

It is six minutes to four in the morning. Sameer’s eyelids droop, but only momentarily, rescued by his peripheral sight of the time, small and fuzzy at the bottom of the computer screen, and the overwhelming instinct to meet the goal he set for himself: send out the document by 4 a.m. Revived by a sudden rush of adrenaline, his eyes jolt open and the screen comes back into focus. He taps at the keyboard, conscious that it is the only noise in the still air around him: even the A/C gives up at midnight, the soft hum of the machine abandoning the office, leaving the air uncomfortably clammy. He hits send at exactly 4 a.m. Immediately, he reaches for the phone, orders a cab, tries to file some of the hundreds of emails crowding his inbox while waiting, but ends up dozing off until a telephone call from the cab driver rouses him. He barely remembers the journey home.
Home is a high-rise new building in the heart of Clerkenwell – a spacious one-bed penthouse apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows and panoramic views of the city skyline, rented to him for the tidy sum of £2,500 a month. The flat is roasting when he gets in: he forgot to switch off the underfloor heating before he left for work and it has been on in the empty flat for nearly forty-eight hours. As he walks unsteadily towards the bedroom, Sameer begins to strip off his clothes: grasp jacket, unbutton shirt, unzip fly. He cannot remember the last time he felt this exhausted. But this deal has been particularly brutal. He has regularly stayed in the office past 2 a.m. over the last few weeks, and yesterday evening he didn’t make it home: just took a quick nap at his desk for an hour before continuing with a double espresso.
He stands in his bedroom, naked apart from his boxers. His Hackett suit (usually hung up next to neatly lined rows of white shirts immediately after being removed) lies strewn on the floor. Casting a glance at his reflection in the floor-length mirror by his bed, Sameer grimaces; he hasn’t been to the gym for two weeks in a row, and he is certain it shows – his arms seem smaller, his chest softer. His face resembles the pasty colour of his body: it hasn’t seen the sun in a long time. Chand ki moorat, his mother used to say: the pale face of the moon. He considers using the bathroom – there is a slight pressure in his bladder and he can feel plaque on his teeth – but his body makes the decision for him by collapsing onto the pillowy white sheets of the king-sized bed. He doesn’t need to set an alarm: he can go into work tomorrow whenever he wakes up because he has completed a major part of his workstream – for now. Unbidden and unwelcome, the last thing that comes into his mind before he falls asleep is that his mother would be waking up to pray fajr at this time.

It’s midday when Sameer wakes up. He doesn’t remember switching off the heating when he came home, but he must have done because he never made it under the covers and now he is cold. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, he reaches for his phone and takes it with him to the bathroom, reviewing his emails while relieving himself. There is an email in his inbox from Matthew Tenver, the group head, sent at 9.03 that morning, untitled: Sam, let me know when you get into the office (no rush – I know you were here earlier this morning). Deb and I would like to have a chat with you. Matt.
Sameer stares at the message blankly. Deborah Hayes is the human resources manager. He wonders if they’re going to talk to him about the hours he’s been working, about his physical and mental health. The firm had a shock six months ago when one of the junior associates in their New York office had suddenly died of a heart attack after working a 140- hour week. Sameer did not know him personally, but after his death was announced, he’d looked him up on the firm intranet: Michael Pierce. Sameer had scrutinised his picture and read his bio, searching for any similarities between them – a black- and- white snapshot in time, smiling strongly into the camera, goofy teeth showing, thick- rimmed glasses, spiky brown hair; a Yale graduate, Harvard fellow and litigator specialising in antitrust. The announcement had made clear that Michael had an underlying heart condition, but since his death the firm had rolled out mandatory well- being training for all employees. Michael’s death, which had passed through the London office somewhat impassively, had roused an image in Sameer’s mind of his own mother, dressed head to toe in black, sobbing uncontrollably. But he did not mention the news to her, or to the rest of his family.
It takes him less than fifteen minutes to shower, change and leave the flat. His stomach growls, annoyed at being neglected, and he stops to pick up a coffee from the cafe on the corner of the street. The man behind the counter grins and pretends to check the time: ‘Bit of a late start for you, isn’t it?’ Sameer responds with a faint smile, not interested in engaging. ‘Ah well,’ the man’s red face beams as he hands over Sameer’s latte, winking conspiratorially. ‘It is Friday!’ Although they don’t know each other’s names, they know each other well, as Sameer stops here nearly every morning for coffee and a bagel. There is rarely food in his house. The flat is less than a thirty- minute walk from the office.
This Friday is bright and warm for April and Sameer spots a lone cherry blossom tree bursting with spring flowers, steadfast among the concrete, as he heads towards the office. For a moment, with the midday sun streaming onto his face, the coffee beginning to work its magic, assisted in its endeavours by the fact he got seven hours of sleep for the first time in several weeks, and the knowledge that he will not have much to do when he reaches the office, Sameer feels content. He is twenty-six years old, living in the centre of London. He’s good at his job and – what’s more – he likes it. He earns the kind of salary that allows him to spend money without thinking about it; he has everything he could need. His flat is filled with the latest gadgets: a 65-inch HD television, played through a state-of-the-art surround-sound speaker system; the latest iPad Pro, lying in a corner of his bedroom, still unwrapped a few weeks after it was delivered; a drone, drunkenly purchased after a night out. He holidays without needing to save for it (although he cannot now remember the last time he took a holiday). Among these thoughts – whenever he has such thoughts – something else niggles in the back of his mind, but he pushes it away.
As he reaches the office building, Sameer catches sight of the office managing partner, James Butcher, walking towards the office with a Pret bag in hand. Sameer tries to hurry, not wanting to be left to make awkward conversation – but the large revolving doors are automated and by the time Sameer has entered the building, James is right behind him. ‘Hi, James,’ he says politely as they pass through security and head towards the lifts. Their offices are on floor 24 of the building.
‘Sam,’ James nods. Sameer can see a baguette peeping over the top of the Pret bag. Prosciutto flops over the side of the bread as if making a half-hearted attempt to escape.
The lift arrives and Sameer moves instinctively into a corner. ‘Anything nice planned for the weekend?’ he begins, tailing off as a few more people enter the lift, jabbing the buttons for a series of floors below 24. James does not respond. Sameer begins to feel a small line of sweat collect on his forehead. He reaches for the safety of his phone and pretends to be engrossed in the several hundred unread emails in his inbox.
‘Sam,’ James says. Sameer looks up – the lift is now empty apart from the two of them. It arrives at the twenty- fourth floor with a gentle ping and James steps out. ‘Don’t think we haven’t noticed,’ James’s eyes are kind. ‘You’ve been doing a great job.’
Sameer is stunned into silence, this compliment completely unexpected. Before he has the chance to reply, James has disappeared. These types of comments are rare and a small smile surfaces in response. Well, he thinks to himself, it just goes to show how much he is valued by management. It makes all the effort he puts in worth it.
Buoyed by this interaction, he walks to his office with a slight spring in his step, passing row after row of glass doors housing his colleagues sitting behind their large computer screens, files of papers everywhere, the faint smell of coffee lingering in the air. Sameer shares an office with Ryan, an associate who has become a good friend of his over the years. Ryan is staring intently at his computer screen when Sameer walks in: a yellow- and- black banner gives away the BBC Sport domain.
‘Hey man,’ Ryan looks up briefly from the screen. There is a faint northern twang to Ryan’s voice; it is almost lyrical. Sameer has always liked him, particularly since he had found out that – unlike the majority of their colleagues, who came from families of lawyers, doctors or investment bankers – Ryan came from a family of coal miners before the pits had closed. Sameer’s father had once been a refugee. ‘What time did you leave this morning?’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Sameer shrugs. ‘After midnight it’s all the same isn’t it? You didn’t exactly leave early either, mate.’
‘Yeah. I’m getting slammed on Project Skylight.’
‘So slammed you’ve only got time for a few hours of BBC Sport today?’ Sameer says, shedding his jacket and switching on his computer screen, which faces away from Ryan and the prying eyes of the corridor. Even though Ryan and Sameer are the same level of qualification, the roll of the dice in the human resources seat reshuffle had somehow left Sameer with the window seat and, with that, an unspoken respect – partners looked at you differently when you moved up from sitting next to the door.
‘That’s why I’m so slammed,’ Ryan responds drily. ‘Skylight is interrupting my otherwise very busy schedule . . .’
Sameer laughs and swivels his chair to face his computer. He logs on and sends a response to the email received from Matt that morning; a meeting is arranged for that afternoon. The rest of the day passes in a blur, dealing with an inbox he has ignored for several days. A few minutes before 5 p.m., he heads for Matt’s office, trying to control a twitch under his left eye that he developed a few months ago.
Deb, the face of human resources, is already seated when Sameer arrives. She is grasping a file of loose papers that are spilling onto her lap; her cheeks flush as she tries to prevent the pages from falling to the floor. Matt is sitting behind his desk, squinting at the screen and slowly tapping at the keyboard, right hand only, one finger at a time. Sameer wonders how he manages.
Matt looks up, asks Sameer to shut the door, and points towards the empty chair in front of him. ‘Sam,’ he begins. ‘I’d like to start by saying that in the five years that you’ve been here, you have really impressed us,’ and at this, Sameer has to try to contain the smile that begins to spread across his face. ‘Right from your time as a trainee, we knew you were one to watch, and you’ve only gone from strength to strength since then. Your written work is excellent, you’ve managed entire deals on your own, and you’ve built strong relationships with clients. I’ve heard nothing but good things about you from the other partners you’ve worked with. Really – well done.’
‘Thank you, Matt,’ Sameer says, and now he is unable to stop himself from smiling. ‘I’m very grateful for the opportunities the firm has given me.’
Matt nods an acknowledgement. ‘So, why have I called you here today? You may have heard that we’ve now managed to get through the minefield that is Singaporean regulation, and we’ll be launching an office there in approximately six months’ time.’
Sameer’s breath catches in his throat. A little over a year ago, he had applied to go to Singapore to help launch the firm’s newest branch in South East Asia. Only six of the firm’s brightest and best associates would be picked for the job, and although it was a temporary position, with the opportunity to return after two years, there was a chance that if you stayed on and did well enough, you might make partner out there very quickly. For various reasons, however, the firm had been unable to open in Singapore at the time and the opportunity had vanished almost as soon as it had appeared. Sameer had all but forgotten about it – until now.
‘Are you still interested?’ Matt asks.

[...]

 

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