by Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
THE REPERCUSSIONS OF A DREAM DEFERRED: HOW A QUEST FOR PURITY LEAD TO A BROTHEL IN ETHIOPIA
By Nasir Al-Amin
LANGSTON HUGHES, A giant during the Harlem Renaissance era and referred to as "the poet laureate of Harlem," penned the aforementioned poem “Harlem: A Dream Deferred” as well as coined the insightful phrase: "We have tomorrow right before us like a flame.” So its fitting that I’m writing this from my Harlem apartment about a defining moment, which I believe depicts “what happens to a dream deferred.”
One of my fondest memories of Ethiopia is hearing the Azan (the Muslim call to prayer) echoing through the streets of Addis Ababa summoning its faithful to prayer—“Allahu Akbar-Allaaaahu Akbar.” On one particular day, I found myself in a café with a friend when the soothing call came out, “Allahu Akbar-Allaaaahu Akbar.” I told my friend I needed to make wudu (the act of washing parts of the body with clean water performed by Muslims in preparation for prayer) so I went to the café’s restroom only to thank God for not dying of disgust given its filthiness. I returned to the table and told my friend I would be back later as I needed to make wudu somewhere else. My friend suggested that I go to the nearby movie theater, as its facilities are more modern and hygienic. In a rush, I darted out of the café towards the theater.
Once at the theater, I approached the attendant working the door and in my broken Amharic (language of Ethiopia) I requested to use the restroom, only to be turned away. However, after numerous attempts at trying to convince him that I just wanted to use the restroom he directed me to a hotel a block or so away. At this point I became a bit agitated, as all I could think of was: ‘I just want to make wudu and get to the mosque for prayer.’ Moments later, I reached the hotel and asked the Security Guard/Bouncer at the entrance to use the bathroom. After hearing my broken Amharic he dared not reply back to me in Amharic so he just turned and pointed up the steps. As I made my way to the top of the steps I’m confronted by another Security Guard/Bouncer—in Addis this is a common occurrence, as often in restaurants, hotels and/or places of business there is some sort of guard—who again after hearing my decrepit Amharic turned and gestured for me to pass him and continue up the winding steps. By now I really have tunnel vision, I could see this large fountain style sink at the top of the sidewalk that ran along the side of hotel rooms—as the hotel was a one story building that ran up a hill with all of its rooms on one side—and all I kept thinking was: ‘I just want to make wudu…all this just to make wudu…I just want to make wudu…’
Now as I begin to pass the first room I noticed a couple ahead of me entered one of the rooms. Again, at this point I’m not analyzing anything, nor observing my surroundings all thats running through my mind is: ‘I just want to make wudu and get to the mosque…all of this trouble to make wudu.’ As I continued to get closer to the large fountain I began to pass room after room until I came upon the fourth room. As I approached the door to pass, a young woman appeared at the rooms entrance standing at an angle that made the rooms content visible, as behind this scantly dressed girl, in nothing more than her panties and a bra, was about 20 to 25 teenage girls either in their panties and braw or not dressed at all. I turned my head and speedup my pace as I didn’t know how to process what I just saw.
Once at the top of the hill and at the fountain, I could hear in the distance the snickering of young voices, all in Amharic so I couldn’t make out what was being said. I glanced back and noticed that some of the girls had come out of the room in their skimpy clothing and were standing along the wall talking. I finished making wudu and began down the lone sidewalk towards the exit/entrance of the hotel. Although I know I was walking fast, it felt like I was an infant taking his first steps as the journey down the steps took an eternity. Once I got close to the room more girls had made their way out of the room only leaving those with no bras on at the door’s entrance. However, it wasn’t until I passed the door and got closer to the exit that I began to realize what I just witnessed.
My limited diction prevents me from finding the best word to describe that moment, that feeling. In Arabic the word and/or letters Ya’Sin are indefinable and thus uttered but not translated—the one who speaks it can not give its meaning. Similarly, this was an impalpable moment, a moment that can define and alter one’s purpose in life, evoke internal tears and set one adrift in a sea of ambiguity away from the shore of comfort and security, far from a place where everyone understands you, a place of toned voicelessness as one speaks but there is no resonance… as although one speaks one is unable to convey to the world…