Ireland Is My Africa
“Went to the Unknown
didn’t know what I’d find,
And if I ever get back
It’ll take years to unwind”
The Mad Dalton – from an unrecorded song
In 1880, after many aborted attempts, the man formerly known as the “enfant terrible” of French poetry, made his final escape from his family’s muddy farm in the Ardennes region of France, to the Arabian Peninsula.
From there he would go on to live, work and eke out an existence in a remote and unforgiving region of East Africa, re-inventing himself over 11 years as a hard-nosed tradesman and explorer.
That Arthur Rimbaud helped lay the foundations of what eventually became modern day Ethiopia, he could not have had a notion even as he participated in pre-cursory events that were to rid Abyssinia of European Imperialism for good, that this had always been part of some cunning and ulterior plan.
In spite of living in one of Earth’s most arid climates and risking his life to explore trade routes in terrain no European had ever seen, in spite of the harsh conditions and being swindled by rogue traders, not once by his own free will did he return to the “civilisation” of his homeland, a country that was only just beginning to get hip to the startling verse of his youth.
The fact was, he was too busy re-inventing himself to look back, having abandoned artistic pursuits in favour of commerce in musk, ivory, coffee and the very rifles Menelik’s armies would use to defeat the Italians at Awash. Meanwhile, his contemporaries back in France yearned for news of his life amidst a growing fame he remained oblivious to. Something kept him in the Africa so barren of the comforts of home, but what was it?
Fleeing France in 1880 may appear far different to departing Canada as I did in 2003, but the Africa of that era posed a similar quandary as a place like Belfast did after the Troubles.
Of course the world is a much smaller place now than it was then and one would struggle to find a modern map now with the words ‘UNEXPLORED’ etched upon it in cartographer’s font.
However, both places have at different stages represented a veritable ‘Unknown’, be it in the re-defining of a city, a country and the collective journey of its people whether through peacetime or the creation of nationhood itself.
I wanted to write about spending the past decade in Belfast because what has kept me here is perhaps not always apparent.
I am often asked when I am returning “home”, as if “home” is not here, but elsewhere: a land of “milk and honey” across the Atlantic and beyond the horizon.
Voices on telephone calls become silent or sound surprised when I am asked where I am based and I tell them ‘Belfast’. This admission is often followed by stony silences or vaguely curious retorts, as if I’ve dug up the name of some long-lost relative I wasn’t supposed to. Some still don’t know what to make of this city anymore than they do when you mention Ethiopian cuisine: many still think ‘Troubles’ or ‘famine’.
So did the young Rimbaud who arrived off the boat at Aden’s Steamer Point in Yemen, really plan to settle in a place, so wild, so tainted by un-rule, corruption and unrest far from the relative stability and predictability of his home country and family?
Perhaps it was ‘convention’ itself he was fleeing and that Africa represented something similar to the way the open road unfurls before the hitchhiker, watching whatever troubles may be ailing them disappear in the rear view mirror – a heady and intoxicating muse to be sure.
When I arrived in Belfast I thought was just passing through and not settling here, but here I am ten years later.
For me, it’s not difficult to say why or how I came all this way out here, leaving a place most people are normally hoping to flee to and come to a destination most people have traditionally tried to leave. So why have I stayed?
I recently asked a friend whom I’ve known for the past decade, why they remained in Belfast. I especially wanted to know given that he is a non-native and because as an expert in his field he could get a job anywhere in the world should he desire.
‘It’s intensely interesting’, he said, taking a sip of his wine. I nodded, because I could not disagree.
The city has come a long way since my first visit here and interested from well before I was called the N- word as an unsuspecting tourist taking in a mural tour. Nowadays, walking along parts of Belfast’s Antrim Rd, it is not uncommon to come across Africans, some in traditional costume, speaking in a tongue that perhaps Rimbaud himself might have been familiar with: Amharic, Tigrinya, Somali…
It’s true that moving countries is no small undertaking: there are new customs, new systems and sometimes no system at all for recent arrivals to get to grips with.
Personally, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be somewhat in a state of permanent culture shock. I feel as though I’ve lived most of my life that way. It’s helped me keep my wits.
People ask about Toronto as though I had left the ‘Garden Of Earthly Delights’ itself. This is the same city that recently made the news for having a crack smoking capitalist obese mayor that nobody seems to want to admit they voted for.
Having a neo-Conservative federal government in place doesn’t help especially one offering their expertise on the ‘fracking’ practice to the G8 taking place in Fermanagh this week. This is the same practice that has polluted future water supplies and which has involved the disturbing consequence of decimating traditional and pristine Native Canadian land.
Contrary to popular belief and in spite of it’s many positives, it’s important to illustrate that the sun does not shine out of the country’s posterior. Every country has issues, no matter where you go.
I don’t hold Toronto or Canada in contempt however and certainly not in the way that Rimbaud held France. I worked and played hard there, all the while paying my taxes and I am proud that I continue to hold citizenship of that country.
I was also equally glad to leave for pastures new, particularly when I saw a crooked road unravelling before me.
Call me a riverboat gambler, a risk-taker, or a daredevil but don’t ever call me a runaway. I chose to leave the relative safety of a career path I had forged myself, less because of the fear of regret than for what I’ll call: ‘mad appeal’
The ‘mad appeal’ which when fulfilled, raises the hairs on the back of yer neck like the last line in a good poem, when everything has suddenly fallen into place and come together, the universe once again in order.
The ‘mad appeal’ of love and the things you’ll do under its spell. I was just happy to be here when I first arrived, holding my then partner in my arms and I took many odd jobs to scrape by. There was the Entertainment Co-Ordinator job, which included toilet-cleaning duties. There was the charity fundraising, the volunteer work as a Peace Monitor and the job as a manual labourer that seemed like the Belfast equivalent to the Gulag. It involved hauling panes of glass on my back up four floors of stairs in the building that was to become Belfast’s new courthouse. After a temporary bannister on the stairway suddenly disappeared, I knew it was time to bail and I left my heavily tattooed work companions muttering “fuckin’ Yank” and the risk of a 300 foot drop behind me.
Living in Derry soon after, I walked each morning each morning past the ‘Free Derry’ mural and then as the dawn lifted on the bus, past the still, silent beauty of the misty Foyle on to Strabane, to a job I was never paid for.
We were suddenly so poor that at one point we took to scouring the back alleys of Cregan Hill, searching for anything combustible we could use to burn for fuel and get the house warm that winter.
I was working hard on parts of a book when on a trip back to Canada, my written notes were stolen in a bag along with my Canadian Passport and ID. It took me years to get the ID replaced, the book itself, I was not so lucky with…
The transition from being here w/ someone, to being on my own, with no family or anyone else of note was not an easy one and for awhile I became ‘The Belonto Kid’, an anagram of Belfast and Toronto, writing about his ‘Last Days’ and not sure whether I should come or go.
But still something kept me here…
I decided to become a homeowner and eventually formed a community group, which led to a meet w/ the Irish President and I was also invited to join a political party (an offer I politely declined).
In Belfast, I met friends from my hometown of Dundee and w/ them formed the Emerald Isle Arabs Supporters Club. A interview for a sales role w/ the local ice hockey team turned into an invitation to be the Special Assistant of the Belfast Giants.
‘The Mad Dalton’ was slowly but surely beginning to rear its head, coming to life again even as my new partner and I were forced out of our home by the impact of the downturn in the inner-city.
I started writing again and got acquainted w/ the comforts of the Linenhall Library and made it my second home.
All this, in a town facing the same 21st Century problems that exist in all the world’s major cities.
There are some especially unique issues here but there is also optimism, an appreciation for the arts and the desire of this city’s younger generation ‘to move on’ and provide the diggers and bulldozers with enough fuel and traction to plough through the remnants and debris of the ugly past full steam ahead. If we all continue to will it and support it, this population will eventually mature to carry a new flag w/ no controversy.
That’s why I’ve stayed, so I can ride atop those bulldozers but you won’t see me waving any flags, not Canadian, not Irish, or British…
Belfast is only just beginning to experience now what Trudeau’s Canada began to see in the 1970’s – an influx of multiculturalism and people who are choosing this location as a destination of choice, a real testament to what this city is capable of at peacetime.
There will be second generation Africans, Chinese, Eastern Europeans and others growing up speaking in a Belfast accent.
You want that West Indian roti-shop on the corner, you want that ethnic food you’ve never tried before there at a whim! You want the cultural festivals and the dilution of the lines down which the boundaries of two communities have been drawn for so long.
I am continuously buoyed, particularly in recent months as I have brought my songs/music out of the bedroom and into the public eye, by how determined this city’s young people are to operate freely, w/out the pretension or entanglements of the past. The baggage is being lost amongst many of them.
I know this by the warmth and reception that so many people here in Belfast have offered me, free of lofty airs or expectation but rather with an excitement, a curiosity, pride and a thirst to experience more.
Bands no longer skip over this and make it a vital stop on tours. I can get tickets for a show here far easier than I ever could in Toronto and see gigs in venues that are not generally hockey arenas either.
What is also often overlooked, is that this island and the two countries on it, are a gateway to Europe and Rimbaud’s Dark Continent, so instead of a weekend in Ontario’s Cottage Country, by remaining I’ve have settled for breaks in places like Dublin, Co. Kerry, Paris, Berlin and Prague.
The reality of returning to live in Canada now would mean 40+ hour workweeks for 3 weeks less holidays. One can never say ‘never’ and perhaps that eventuality is just a prolonged crisis away, but there is a calm on this side of the pond and in this city occasionally under siege by forces outwith our control, hat is both ironic and surprising.
Rimbaud’s demise was anything but comfortable, w/ a belt not long removed from his waist laden so heavy w/ gold that it caused his abdominal walls to bleed.
The very reward that kept him in Africa also helped to seal his fate.
And it was a fate made worse in that he was carried back to the same Peninsula in a makeshift stretcher where he had begun his journey all those years before, a European doctor examining him was so shocked at the advanced state of a growth on his knee, that he ordered Rimbaud return to Europe immediately if he wanted to live.
He died in Marseilles and was buried in the very place he had tried all those years to flee. His Mother and sister reaped the spoils of his African adventure heavily ‘editing’ his life story that took biographers years to sort through.
It doesn’t always work out, but Rimbaud had died trying and left no trace of himself in Africa.
Being on this side of the pond allowed me to make the pilgrimage to Charleville in 2004, for what would have been Rimbaud’s 150th birthday and there, I scattered Ethiopian coffee beans on his grave, imbibing the cemetery air with the ‘mad appeal’ that first drew him to his spiritual home. I also left sarsaparilla root, a ‘New World’ herb, symbolic of one of the few places he did not visit.
That was his fate and we all remain entwined in the lives we lead, making the very choices that will one day seal our own.
Forgiveness, humility and loyalty must be the rewards on the journey of ‘mad appeal’.
Jim Morrison asked us to hail the ‘American Night’, but I hail the ‘New Belfast’, as long as it remains home or at least until my next escape
If it’s goat herding in the Caribbean, reading Bulgakov at Patriarch’s Pond in Moscow, rummaging through old manuscripts and photographs in an Ethiopian market or just running around this city’s Waterworks at dawn w/ a newly found chip on my shoulder, the madness of it all is lost in its appeal.
And whenever or wherever it may be to, I will hope to smile then as I do now, thanks to the people and mad buzz of this city that have kept me here through twelve birthdays. The endearing love and loyalty of a beautiful woman doesn’t hurt either.
The island of Ireland has become my Africa with ‘New Belfast’ as it’s capital.
Whatever you may choose to call these whims, having the ‘Total Freedom to be completely yourself’ is the best thing a true friend can allow you to have, even if it means following a ‘crooked road’. It is a road of hope and w/ THIS birthday, it is not the end of ‘Youth Part One’, but merely the beginning of ‘Youth Part Two’.
“Straight roads with improvements
are easy roads to travel,
but the crooked roads without improvements
are the roads of genius”
Peter GW Sumadh (aka The Mad Dalton)
June 15th, 2013
Written by themaddalton | 2 comments