The night Saba’s trial was announced by the camp’s court clerk, I was sitting on a stool in front of my cinema screen. Cinema Silenzioso.
Dusk fell over the thatched roofs. A full moon appeared over the camp I viewed through my screen. Light like thick blue ink splotched on the walls and between the alleys, wood-burning stoves glowed red.
I saw the clerk riding his donkey in the dusty narrow streets. His silhouette skittered among the huts.
You are requested to attend the trial of Saba, the clerk declared through his megaphone. The courtroom is moving to the cinema compound.
On hearing her name I leapt to my feet. The sketch of Saba I was holding dangled above the open furnace next to me. The charcoal strokes defining her nipples glistening in the light of the smouldering fire. I looked at Saba’s compound appearing through the screen like a picture. She was nowhere to be seen. Her lime tree stood frozen against the clay colours of the surrounding huts. Grasshoppers hung off the slant of sugarcane leaves in front of her hut’s window.
When I first built my cinema inside my compound, I was inspired by the memory of the forty-five round lights on the facade of the Italian Cinema Impero in Asmara, where I worked before I fled to the camp. I made my cinema screen from one large white sheet I ironed and tied to two wooden poles embedded in the ground, with a big square cut out in the middle. I placed it near the crest of the hill on top of which my compound was located. Many thought I had done so to let the full light of the stars and the moon cascade over the performers on the open screen, the camp behind them existing in isolation. Like a mural, an artifice of a bygone era.
The real reason, though, was different. From the hilltop, looking through the screen when the light was right, you could see into Saba’s compound, fenced on three sides, letting the hill on which the cinema stood act as the fourth fence. I could watch her all the time, her world a part of mine.
The trouble was that I, like many, had bought into the illusion that the sheet was an actual screen and that everything inside it was a real film – scene after scene made in a faraway place. Illusion nested in my life with each day passing in front of my cinema. And the two worlds, the real one in which Saba lived, and the virtual one of the film I watched, where all is not what it seems, existed in harmony.
I saw her cooking, reading, ironing, working, teaching adults to read and write, but I also watched her do what people do out of each other’s sight. And as I talk to you now, a random selection of images of her replays in my mind. There was that evening she spent masturbating behind the latrine, as her brother cooked doro wot stew for her and her husband.
But that scene is blurred by another one. There she sat on her heels in front of the large curved stone placed on the ground, and, as she crushed the grain on the big stone, her bottom rose off her heels, and the hem of her black dress fluttered as she leaned her shoulders forward to grind the grains by moving smaller stones backward and forward over them. Her burnt thighs were glowing like candles, her history of wounds concealed by the cloud of white flour coiled in front of her and into which her head entered and exited, her hair turned white. Saba’s flour-dusted face exists in my mind next to her made-up face on the night of her wedding, when she sat next to her middle-aged husband wearing a dress once owned by a dead woman. Everything is recycled in our camp, happiness as well as despair.
And I keep returning to her wedding night. I still shiver at the thought of her brother tiptoeing his way to the marital bedroom long after the music had died and the guests had departed to leave the bride and groom to consummate their marriage. How he twisted as he placed an ear to the wall.
Now, I was thinking about Saba, her crime, her impending trial, when she exited her hut and appeared on the screen in her black dress, her other skin. Sitting back on my stool, I returned to watching my cinema and Saba through it. She perched on her bed under her lime tree, a book in hand. The oil lamp by her bedside flickered. Saba always slept outside in the open air, and I would watch her every night as the moon and stars cascaded over her taut skin.
I assumed she would read her book now. She’d been rereading Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog, which the English coordinator had left in our camp with his British newspaper, as if by reading it over and over again she would have an equally happy ending to her own love story. But whom did she love?