Abbas Yahya does not like to remember the past. A refugee from Darfur, he does not want to dwell on war, on poverty, on death. Still, sometimes, it is worth it for him, on the 20-minute drive home from his warehouse job in east Baltimore, to turn on an album he played again and again as a teenager. Sometimes he lets the somber, swaying voice of Mohammed Wardi drift around in his car, emanating from the dashboard’s built-in speaker and soaking the night air, and he remembers the summer of 2001, when he was 16, and he found glory in the form of a boombox.
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The village in which Abbas had grown up was called Noye. Noye was a loose affiliation of 500 houses situated at the far western edge of Sudan. It had once been part of Dar Masalit, a rebellious, scrappy kingdom chronicled by historian Lidwien Kapteijns, and residents still boasted of their ancestors’ triumph over the French in 1910, but as long as Abbas had lived there it had been a rural farming village.
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Everyone in Noye, it seemed to Abbas, farmed peanuts and millet. His mother farmed peanuts and millet. His favorite half-brother, Isaac, farmed peanuts and millet. To supplement peanut and millet farming, his father raised and sold animals, but these did not seem to expand his horizon. Abbas liked animals but hated the onerous work of farming. Hoes looked morbid and dangerous, like long-handled axes, and the act of raising one over his head and slamming it into the ground punished his back muscles. As he got older, he dreaded the time when he, too, would inevitably become a farmer and plant peanuts and millet in the earth.
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A few years earlier, Abbas visited his cousin in El Geneina, the capital city of Western Darfur. Geneina had changed something in Abbas’s mind. The city was beautiful, all wide streets and buildings of three, four, five stories; there were laundromats and flour millers, shops and mosques. Noye had always been lovely to Abbas, but after visiting El Geneina, Noye looked small and shabby. Its clay floors and grass roofs were not enough.
So the summer he was 16, Abbas left home to take on the world. With his friend Abdelrahim he caught a ride to Mourni, the nearest town, and when a large, flatbed lorry trundled through Mourni on its way to El Geneina, the two boys leapt aboard, joining 60 others who filled the bed and the top of the cab. Abbas and Abdelrahim each drove a stick between their legs and wedged its end in the crevices in the truck bed, then they hung on tight to their makeshift poles for the hour-long ride along the neglected highway to the city.
In Geneina, Abbas followed Abdelrahim to an old woman he knew, who hired them both to deliver water from bladder pouches strapped to the backs of two of her donkeys. She put the boys up in a room attached to her own house.
During the three months they worked for her, Abbas became enamored with the city. He saw the clothes the city men wore — nice clean slacks or starched white, floor-length jalabiyas — and he thought, “Why am I waiting? I can go get the same thing.” The possibilities clicked like an equation in his mind. It was simple: He was here, in Geneina, with a job and access to all of the shops that sold such cultured clothes. He could use his money and buy the clothes he wanted. Even if he couldn’t do anything about his embarrassing and prominent snaggletooth, he could dress like a city man.
His first month’s earnings went into new clothes. He was delighted to find that he had become sophisticated overnight, amazed at how easy it was to look like an urbanite. He poured his next set of earnings into new dresses for his mother and two sisters, and new jalabiyas for his brothers back in Noye.
Abbas and his siblings were not used to receiving gifts. His father was a herder and a rich man in the village, but he was stingy, marrying serially and cutting loose each family when they began to strain his pocketbook. When Abbas begged him for a gift — a calf, or baby goat — his father always refused.
Abbas’s father’s rebuffs had made him devoted to his half-brother Isaac, who was 26 years his senior and lavished him with presents. Abbas adored Isaac, whose grin was punctuated by a gold incisor, and who once gave Abbas a jalabiya that was so beautiful, of such strong Pakistani cloth, that all the neighbors told Abbas it seemed unbreakable. “Oh, Abbas!” the adults said, “Your white is too strong!” He wore the jalabiya everywhere to show how it never seemed to tarnish, until one day when his mother sent him with the coal mug to fetch some hot coals from a neighbor for her fire. Abbas took the clay mug and dutifully borrowed the coals. But walking back to his mother’s house an incredible thought came to him: The jalabiya was so perfect, its fabric so strong, why couldn’t it carry the coals for him? He paused, and with his thumb and forefinger pulled open the front breast pocket of the white jalabiya, then carefully tipped the coal mug so the hot coals dropped inside the pocket.
“I thought it was so strong that even fire could do nothing to it.” But he felt the heat of the coals through the cotton, and seconds later the coals were on his skin, a hole burned straight through the pocket. Tears sprung to his eyes. He howled and cried, trying to pull the front of the jalabiya away from his body, shaking it until the coals and their embers fell down his front and onto the ground. The burn marks on his chest eventually faded, but the jalabiya always had a hole in it over the left breast. Abbas continued to wear it anyway. Even after Isaac was murdered in his millet field and robbed of his gold tooth, that jalabiya was still the most beautiful thing Abbas owned.
Abbas desperately wanted to shower his family with gifts. He kept the dresses he bought for his sisters and mother, and the jalabiyas for his brothers, safely tucked away in the old woman’s extra room in Geneina, waiting for Ramadan, when he could travel home and present the fine clothes to his siblings. He continued working for the old woman, walking the donkey around Geneina and selling water from its back, and began once more to save up money. When he had enough, he purchased a final luxurious accessory.
He bought a boombox. It came new, in a cardboard box, as long as one of his arms, its two speakers each the size of his splayed hand. It took CDs and had a nice, wide handle on top for carrying. With it he bought more than a dozen CDs, and the old woman who owned the donkey generously added to his collection. She had a huge box of CDs and urged him to choose some: “Take whatever you like,” she pressed, and so he chose seven, rounding out his library of classic nightclub hits and old instrumental music with some of his favorites: Mohammed Al-Amin, Wadi Jabel — “that music is just happiness” — Asha Al-Falatiya.
In his room in Geneina, Abbas carefully pried open the cardboard and extracted the boombox, opened the CD player and slipped in a Kamal Tarbas album. He pressed play. Kamal’s voice came out through the speakers, quavering and sweet. Abbas was elated. He replaced the CD into its case, and the boombox back into its box, re-sealing it meticulously so that, when he opened it at home in front of his family, they would know it was new.
Before Ramadan arrived, he bought an extra pack of batteries. Ten days before the holiday he packed up all of the new jalabiyas and dresses, more than 20 CDs and the boombox, and loaded them with him onto the flatbed lorry from El Geniena back toward Noye. On the ride from El Geneina to Mourni he felt relief. He had never lived away from home for so long before, although he had watched his older brothers and sisters explore the outside world. He was proud to have gone into Western Darfur and worked, and to be bringing home the spoils of his earnings. But he was just as glad to be returning to the safety of his mother’s house.
Abbas reached Noye by four o’clock in the afternoon. His mother’s house was in Jedideh, the central neighborhood of Noye, on the bank of a creek that ran from the mountains down to feed the village’s main river. The river didn’t have an official name, but everyone called it the River Noye, and down its center ran a line of mango trees which were impossible to reach during the wet season when the river ran deep and wide.
Abbas’s mother’s compound comprised three little round huts tucked inside a rectangular courtyard, surrounded by a hedge and a grass wall. Abbas’s father had built the original compound, but over the years, Abbas’s brother Mahmoud had installed upgrades. First came the wall bisecting the courtyard, and then a shade pavilion on the boys’ side to give them a place to chat on long, hot afternoons.
Abbas’s favorite part of his mother’s compound was its seven trees. They speckled the courtyard, added shade, and two of them bore fruit in the fall, guavas and lemons that exuded the smell of citrus. He was excited to come home, and eager to show everyone what he had brought from El Geneina.
Even before word of the boombox got out, friends and neighbors came by the house to greet Abbas upon his return. Then, someone saw it — “Hey, Abbas got a boombox!” — and more neighbors began to trickle into the compound as night fell. The children begged him to play something, so he drew out his CDs from his bag, and pushed the Mohammed Wardi album into the machine. Everyone listened in silence; from the speakers came Wardi’s voice, the sound of violins and the twanging oud. Then Abbas changed CDs. He pulled out Wardi and pushed Wadi Jabel into the mouth of the boombox, and waited for the tune to strike up. When it did, the kids’ silence broke. They began to dance.
All night Abbas crouched in front of the boombox, near the pavilion Mahmoud had built. Half the neighborhood was there. His mother and sister, Jamia, kept busy heating up water and pouring tea for the neighbors, and pushing dates, biscuits and store-bought candies onto the guests. Eager to hear every CD, the dancers would thrust one at him before the current one had finished. The only one who knew how to make the music play, Abbas spent the night sitting in front of the box and benevolently taking requests for songs.
In two and a half years, there would be terrible sounds: the scream of planes and whine of bombs; the crackle of flames as Noye burned; the slosh of Abbas’s legs in the water as he and Abdelrahim fled the Janjaweed militia. His mother’s compound burnt to the ground along with the rest of Noye, leaving the boombox a melted ruin, the CDs warped and destroyed. The only thing left standing was the seven courtyard trees.
Those trees were the last image Abbas carried with him when he and his family fled across the border to Chad. In years to come, there were more boomboxes — Abdelrahim brought one to Abbas’s wedding in 2008, to blare music outside the refugee camp hut from which Abbas emerged with his bride. In 2010, Abbas gingerly tucked earbuds into the soft ears of his first son, to play him the music he loved. And sometimes, on nights driving home from work to his first apartment in Baltimore in 2016, Abbas sought this music again, smiling even as he ached from the weight of loss that surfaced with the melodies..
But that night in 2001 did not hold specters of things to come. It was pristine. That night set the tone for the entire summer. The crowd tried out every CD Abbas had brought, some twice, even as it grew later and later and the neighbors started to slip away. “Abbas has come a long way,” they said, “Leave him alone so he can sleep.” After they left, he slept very well, in his mother’s compound under the stars. And that summer, Abbas learned what those before him have learned, and what many would learn after him: If you have a boombox and good CDs, and if you are willing to buy six-packs of batteries when the music fades, then there is little between being 16 and being king.