The JRB presents an excerpt from Truth Is a Flightless Bird, the debut novel from Akbar Hussain.
Truth Is a Flightless Bird
Nice travelled light. No carry-on, other than her wig of chestnut ringlets and her battered purse.
And the quarter kilo of bespoke narcotics.
This short flight to Nairobi had left her dry-mouthed. Biting her lower lip, she thought about the dozen drug packets, each as big as a thumbnail and painstakingly coated in red candle wax, in her belly. She could still taste the acidic tinge of the orange juice she had washed them down with. She stifled a gag.
Her scalp tingled under the wig as the humid air poured into the aircraft cabin. It had been a spontaneous thing, the wig, but now she was glad for it—it made her feel jaunty, in control. And it was one more layer of camouflage.
The seatbelt signs pinged off and passengers began opening the overhead compartments. With the sound, Nice felt she had met another milestone in her trip and she lapsed into an expressionless good humour, even allowing herself a languorous rub of her tummy, without self-consciousness or hurriedness. As pregnant women are wont to do.
A bearded man in the aisle seat on her left stood up, knocking Nice’s reading glasses with his elbow. ‘Sorry.’
Nice straightened the glasses and gave her neighbour a half-smile. She was getting useful insights from her debilitating morning sickness—for one, it focused the mind on important things. The important thing now for Nice was to not vomit into this man’s lap, to get off the plane, into the cool Nairobi evening.
Nice stood to look down the aisle to the exit. She took a pained breath, watching the harried parents, the mewling infant, the cowled and bird-boned Somali women, and the pinstriped businessmen exhaling self-importance in the cloistered cabin.
The bearded man gestured shyly at Nice with his hands, cupping what seemed to be an invisible offering.
This perplexed Nice, until she thought to fumble at her nose. Her nostril bled onto her upper lip, unseen and unfelt. Ruffled, Nice turned away to her shuttered window. She fumbled for a sharp-smelling moist towelette in the front pouch of her seat. The skin around her nostril burned as she dabbed at it. Nice opened the shutter of her window and watched the bearded man in the plastic reflection, only turning to exit the plane when his wavy ghost had entered the aisle, turning to look at her one last time.
Under the harsh lighting of the arrivals hall, Nice caught sight of herself in a mirrored wall. A wispy yet feminine frame, under a fashionable head of hair.
Aid worker. Smuggler. Time bomb.
The gaunt face tightened, and she leaned forward, resting her hands on denimed knees. She seemed, to herself, unworthy of terms such as ‘Mother’ or even ‘pregnant’. Those were for other people, pushing strollers in sun-dappled suburbs.
The dizziness passed. Nice turned to enter the immigration line, bumping as she did so into an unseen person behind her. ‘Sorry.’
The tall policeman looked bemused and smiled, but only with his mouth. His teeth were small and gleamed under the fluorescence. ‘Hakuna shida. Are you okay?’ He seemed to be studying her face closely, as if trying to recall her, or match her to a profile.
Nice took in his neat potbelly, his shiny belt buckle bearing a trident and the unreadable eyes. She nodded and apologised again, longing to meld into the queue. She turned to leave.
‘Excuse me,’ came the policeman’s firm voice. More insistent now, as Nice risked another step away from him.
‘Excuse me. Madam.’
Nice stopped and turned back, with what she hoped were also unreadable eyes. She forced herself to walk several steps in the policeman’s direction and look directly into his eyes.
The policeman withdrew from under his arm a hide-bound cane and gestured with its bulbous brass top at Nice’s face.
They stood under the humming tube lights.
‘Heeya. Heeya.’ He stabbed at the air with the cane, towards her face.
Nice, feeling stupid and alarmed, dabbed at the nosebleed with the back of her hand. ‘Sorry, I’m OK. Where is the washroom, please?’
The brass head levitated over and beyond Nice’s left shoulder, hovering at her earlobe. Nice nodded in thanks and turned to walk not-too-quickly towards the sign for the toilets.
The policeman handed Nice a handkerchief of white linen, still sharply creased. The handkerchief smelled damp, yet Nice wanted desperately to press it to her bleeding nose for the dignity it would afford her.
The policeman nodded his assent to the unspoken question.
Prior to her pregnancy and the astonishing morning sickness which had ensued, Nice would never have soiled a stranger’s handkerchief with her bodily fluids. But now she inhaled the dank scent of the cotton cloth, feeling it absorb her stubborn blood. ‘I’m sorry for the mess.’
Nice walked with brisk steps to the washroom. She was not frightened yet.
- Akbar Hussain’s debut Truth is a Flightless Bird has been optioned for an eight-part television miniseries. Hussain is also a successful entrepreneur, co-founding a financial technology start-up while living in Nairobi. He has common and civil law degrees from McGill University. When not writing fiction or running the fintech, Aki can be found walking his labrador Lucy, with his partner and their three children.
President Obama’s impending arrival to Nairobi is the electric backdrop to this dazzling debut. Yet, beneath the glittering celebrations, beats the pulse of a city aflame.
It is into this crucible that Nice lands, fleeing her Somali drug-dealer boyfriend, her brutal UN work in Mogadishu, and the life choices stalking her. So desperate is she to flee that she involves one of her oldest friends, Duncan, an American pastor heading a church in Nairobi. On the way back from the airport, their car crashes, and Nice is abducted by a crooked immigration cop, Hinga, and Duncan finds himself having to delve into the moral complexities of the under-city to rescue Nice. But how deep can Duncan go, without destroying his faith, and himself?
Truth is a Flightless Bird is a brutal love letter to the frontier town that is present-day Nairobi: a studied observation of the failure of bare-knuckled capitalism, the inequality machines our cities have become, and—ultimately—the profoundly irrational human capacity to hope, to risk everything in order to have something in which to believe. With Truth is a Flightless Bird, Hussain establishes a remarkable voice, one truly his own.