Excerpt: In Every Mirror She’s Black

Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Sweden

Told through the perspectives of three Black women in Sweden, internationally-acclaimed and bestselling In Every Mirror She’s Black is a fast-paced, richly nuanced yet accessible contemporary novel that touches on important social issues of racism, classism, fetishization, and tokenism, and what it means to be a Black woman navigating a white-dominated society. Author Lola Akinmade Åkerström shares an excerpt:

Chapter 1

MUNA

Hamama.” Turtledove.

The word, which Ahmed had said in Arabic, startled Muna. She’d been sitting next to him out on the spacious verandah on small wicker chairs. A meager metal table with peeling white paint creaked between them. Beyond them was a still lake shimmering in the morning light, while leaves on nearby oak trees rustled softly in the wind and birdsong filled the air. Poppies and daisies had started springing up all around Solsidan, the sprawling property that was a former monastery turned asylum holding center, tucked deep within the lush countryside three hours north of Stockholm.

The monks were long gone, and their abandoned monastery had been purchased by a Swedish philanthropist who had chosen to remain anonymous. Within months, the mystery person had refurbished its weathered grounds, which held boarding quarters and a large cathedral turned into a dining hall, and had opened its doors for refugees and asylum seekers fleeing wars in various countries, including Somalia, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

Hamama,” Ahmed repeated before turning back to look at her with honey-amber eyes sparkling under the morning light.

Muna had woken up early and started her daily task of sweeping around the main welcome building, pushing wind-blown leaves and flower petals into heaps to discard later. Wandering onto the verandah, she’d spotted Ahmed cradling a mug filled with coffee, a crack racing down its side. He’d been staring into nothingness again, and she wondered what ran through his mind. She wondered if he also had dreams of despair like she often had. Most of their fellow refugees here did. She still knew little about him besides the fact that he was a Kurd, and he seemed to have a venomous relationship with a few other men from Syria at their center.

While his mother tongue was Kurdish and hers Somali, Arabic bridged their worlds. She’d been sweeping past him when he’d gestured wordlessly for her to stop and take a seat.

It had been five minutes since Muna had adjusted her ochre-orange jilbab and settled into a wicker chair next to him. Five minutes of silence.

“I can tell the sounds of so many birds.” Ahmed took a sip of cold coffee. “Doves, robins, nightingales, sandpipers, thrush.” She quietly watched him take another taste. “I know them all.”

“How do you know all these bird sounds?”

“I used to be the most popular gardener—no, landscape artist—in all of Aleppo,” he continued. “I was called a magician because I could create garden oases out of desert sand.” He was fixated on the lake, watching small ripples across its surface. “Princes flew me on their private jets to create masterpieces,” Ahmed said breathlessly. “I knew exactly which flower to plant, which colors to combine, how to create beauty out of ugliness. Eden out of hell. They wanted me. Needed me.”

She watched him lift that mug of comfort to his handsome profile the same way she’d observed him do so for the last nine months. She’d watched that face slowly cover up with a dark-brown beard he refused to shave. Watched his eyebrows arch in pain while his honey eyes tried to focus in the distance.

He’d been rejected again. She knew. They all knew. He had been denied residency by Migrationsverket—the Swedish Migration Agency—and was back on his final appeal. He couldn’t do it anymore. The emotional drain had begun to take its toll, dragging him further down into a place where he rarely smiled anymore.

And all the girls at the center wanted a glimpse of Ahmed’s disarming smile.

She remembered that night when a large bus had brought her, Ahmed, and fifty other refugees from southern Sweden all the way to this sanctuary in the middle of the Swedish woods. Darkness had coated the landscape, and a new type of fear had crept into her. One of isolation in a foreign place.

Her journey had started in Somalia in a company of three. But she’d gotten off the bus at Solsidan alone. Her mother, Caaliyah, and younger brother, Aaden, were buried somewhere deep at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. Aaden had toppled off the rubber dinghy first, and she’d seen her mother reach for him before going overboard herself, her blue jilbab floating like a jellyfish until it had slipped from view. The strong arms of a man from Algeria wrapped tightly around Muna’s waist had stopped her from resembling jellyfish too. That day, Muna learned just how loud she could scream.

When she arrived in Sweden weeks later, her voice was still hoarse. She’d stood rooted by the side of the bus, her small sack in hand, wearing the same ochre-orange jilbab she donned today.

Ahmed had turned around and seen her. He noticed her trepidation and reached back to help carry her sack, which weighed nothing. She looked at him and nodded a thank-you. And that was the first time she’d basked in Ahmed’s smile.

Solsidans Asylcenter: the words on a metal plaque perched by wooden double doors read as they filed into a large hall that night, flanked by two short rows of staff—three on each side.

Välkomna till Sverige! a thickly bespectacled white man, who introduced himself as Mattias, Solsidan’s manager, greeted them, and then followed his Swedish welcome with “As-salāmu ´alaykum!” Mattias looked sturdy and in his fifties.

To Muna, Mattias was suspiciously cheerful for the late hour. The crowd responded weakly. They were hungry and tired. Most hadn’t showered in weeks.

Mattias led them next door to a cathedral where fresh sourdough bread and bowls of root vegetable soup were waiting for his new batch of residents. It had been close to eleven p.m. when they’d gathered in that ornate cathedral to sit around oval tables, slurping soup and dipping bread.

She’d quietly sat with a group of Eritrean and Somali women who had been balancing multiple children on knees and hips. A baby started wailing with guttural sounds of discomfort, and she suspected that baby was crying its last tears. It must have journeyed over mountainous terrain, abysses called oceans, and in conditions that would have killed a grown man. She had witnessed babies of similar age cry their last along the way. She recognized that deep wallow of pain no mother’s breast milk could soothe. A bastion of despair no doctor could fix. That baby had a few days left on earth, she estimated.

She had noticed the shift as tables started filling up with similar languages and dialects. Arabs, Afghanis, Somalis, and Eritreans congregating and convening, and Ahmed, sitting away at his own table. She had studied the handsome stranger who had helped her with her sack and wondered about his story.

Two years later and their sanctuary had morphed into an unwitting prison with Mattias their judge, warden, banker, and omnipresent guardian. Over the last nine months, Ahmed’s disposition had slowly chipped away with a resignation that scared her.

“Look!” Ahmed pointed to a modest garden a mere twenty meters from where he and Muna now sat. “My yellow roses are blooming.” Mattias had finally allowed him to start digging his fingers into dirt again. He’d given Ahmed that small patch of land for him to play with. After all, how smart of Ahmed that he was a gardener, Mattias had always said.

“They are beautiful.”

“Yes. Like you, Muna.”

She lowered her eyes shyly at his compliment. She’d never heard of a Kurd having a relationship with a Somali, so his compliments remained just that—flattery with no prospects of romance. In Muna’s world, courtship led to marriage, or it was all performance done in vain.

“What will you do now?” she redirected his thoughts.

“I don’t know, dear Muna, but I am tired.”

“Please don’t talk like that. Insha Allah khair. Have hope.”

He let out a grating laugh. “Hope?”

“Yes, Ahmed. Hope.”

She couldn’t tell him that she had finally been approved. She’d been allowed to stay in this country. But Muna didn’t want to leave Solsidan. She didn’t know anyone or anywhere else. She couldn’t leave her friend behind. But he already knew.

“Congratulations,” he said, looking at her smooth face framed oval by her jilbab. “I heard.”

“I am sorry.”

“Don’t be. Allah doesn’t will it for me yet. He is trying to teach me something.”

“Haven’t you learned enough?”

He winced and drank once more from his near-empty mug. She continued studying his profile, the long scar that raced down his left cheek, the new bruise under his left eye he’d gotten from a scuffle with a fellow resident who had spat in his face and blamed him as a proxy for the Kurds trying to carve their own country out of Syria and break it apart.

Like Muna, he had no one here. So they often sat together in silence for long stretches of time. Taking solace in the fact that as long as both of them were there, they weren’t fully alone. Two years later, she still knew very little about him.

She watched his lips purse into hard lines, his arms folded across his chest, his look forlorn. And she knew there was no way Mattias or anyone was going to make Ahmed love this land. He had never wanted to come in the first place.

Ahmed interrupted Muna’s thoughts by reaching for her hand, and she recoiled sharply. He knew better than to touch her that way, but the sparkle in his gaze told her all she needed to know.

“I wish I could marry you, Muna.”

“I think you like to look for trouble, Ahmed. I can see it in your eyes.”

He smiled. “Trouble always seems to find me.”

“But not anymore. Look where you are. Look where we are.” Muna swept a hand across her chest in unnecessary exaggeration.

Spring had brought the monastery back to life after a long, harsh winter that found them cursing their decision to flee for their lives in the first place. If this had been an exclusive retreat out in the countryside, people would pay big money for this getaway, she speculated. There were narrow hiking paths all around the lake, winding past oak forests and wildflowers. Soon it would be time to pick blueberries like Mattias had shown them last year. Soon they would make blueberry jam and juice out of the tart berries and make lemonade out of life’s lemons.

The birds chirped louder as the sun rose higher. It was bright now, and everyone and everything was springing back to life. Muna was sitting with a man who knew each birdsong in their current symphony, and she ached for him to open up to her. To tell her more about why he’d run. To explain the long scar that ran down his face, whether he got his amber glare from his mother or his father, and if they were still alive.

Because she wanted to open up to him as well. To tell him about her brother, Aaden, who had loved football with an obsessive passion and her mother, Caaliyah, who had gathered them immediately to run for their lives after her father, Mohammed, was killed. She wanted to tell him in painstaking detail how she had lost them all.

But Ahmed didn’t want to grow roots, Muna was realizing. Not emotionally. Uprooting one’s life was always too hard and like torturously pulling out teeth; she sensed he’d been unwillingly yanked out too many times in life.

So, she remained patient with him.

“At least it is peaceful here. It is only a matter of time before we are free, but it is quiet and lovely living by the lake.” Her voice finally failed her because she realized she didn’t believe her own words.

She watched his jaw clench. Ahmed turned to her.

“My dear Muna,” he started. “I love your spirit. But I would rather go back home and die fighting for something than die here in paradise doing nothing and listening to birdsong.”

Lola Akinmade Åkerström is a Contributor and Photographer at Panorama.