I am Ethiopian through and through, though my father is Thai - and my great-grandmother is Iranian. Bits of my great-grandmother are in a plastic bag, in a drawer back at home. I am just a pair of trousers but an important emotional memory, says the bearded stranger. I think I’d better explain.
The stranger turns up one day in Kashan, a town in Iran. Ali, his friend from university, isn’t there but Ali’s family welcome him; his parents, a sister and a younger brother – and some hot weather which the stranger isn’t dressed for. The sister can’t be seen in the market with a foreign man so the young lad takes him to the bazaar and they buy some cloth. With a lot of clucking around on her Husqvarna sewing machine the sister turns the cloth into some local-style pyjama trousers (shalwar). Now the family can sit around the courtyard, all dressed comfortably for the heat, and await Ali’s return from Teheran.
Now if I tell you this was over thirty years ago, you’ll understand. Of course, the first generation trousers wore out after a few years but the stranger liked them so much he took them to a tailor when he was in Dubai and said ‘I’ll buy some cloth; make a copy of these trousers please’. Some years later the same happened in Hong Kong. Then again in Bangkok. And so to me, in Gondar, Ethiopia. The bearded stranger was only going to be in Gondar for a couple of days, mostly spent admiring the extraordinary castle which is so unlikelily like a European castle. He went to the market, avoided the tailors’ shops where the boys shouted at him and went into one with a fine variety of cloth. He and the tailors didn’t need, nor did they have a language in common. He chose some cloth and handed over my father: it was made clear that a copy was needed. And a new pair of shalwar was delivered in two days. Me.
The stranger never saw the Iranian sister again. He met her in 1978 and a few months later she was dead, shot by the Shah’s soldiers as Iran erupted towards revolution. So yes, my ancestors and I have been of use and comfort to him, in hot climates and in cold, but above all we are an emotional memory.