Anna Badkhen, Russia and USAWarscapes Corona Notebooks May 1, 2020
In Anna Badkhen's story "Queen of Sheeba Gourmet Burger," told in the first person, a woman spends her hours in an outdoor café in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia musing over the lives of people and places. Narrated by Badkhen with an accompanying video by Pauline Bigotte compiled using footage from the author.
QUEEN OF SHEEBA GOURMET BURGER | Anna Badkhen
On my last day in Addis Ababa, two Ethiopian friends and I stop at Queen of Sheba Gourmet Burger. We sit outside and order coffee and banana beignets. This is my last chance to sit at an outdoor café for weeks or maybe months, since Philadelphia, where I am headed, is already in quarantine, and who knows how long the pandemic will last.
A man is handing out bread loaves to mendicants outside a church down the street, and my friends—I’ll call them E. and Y.—talk about how cataclysms inspire acts of humanity and imperil the vulnerable. They talk about Ethiopia’s economy, which is so dire that three million people are internally displaced by poverty, and thousands each year risk the maritime crossing to Yemen’s warscape in search of jobs. They talk about how much worse life will become for the country’s poorest if the government imposes curfew or bans the cheap kiosks and outdoor markets to curb the pandemic. There will be riots, says Y.
Queen of Sheba Gourmet Burger serves Eurocentric fare, burgers and beignets and salade niçoise, in a neighborhood where the United Nations has its offices and expat housing. Most of the UN foreign staff is gone: the country has closed its borders for entry, and there are rumors that within days there will be no more international fights. The other customers at the café are three young Ethiopian men and a white Anglophone family with a little girl, the parents visibly distressed because the world is shutting down and they must decide whether to stay or leave, and how expensive it would be to evacuate. Actually, I don’t know why they are distressed. One of the reasons I like outdoor cafés is because I can imagine the lives of strangers and later wonder if my imagining makes these lives far more mundane or far more glamorous than they really are.
Our table faces a tall IOM building with a banner that reads Managing Migration for the Benefit of All; a parking lot full of dormant white UN trucks stenciled with olive branches; and, between them, a stucco wall painted maroon and yellow stripes in imitation Moorish ablaq, with an unmarked teal metal gate. When we leave the café E. points at the wall and says, This is a torture place for political prisoners.
During the Red Terror? I ask, using the popular term for the Derg junta that ruled Ethiopia in the seventies and eighties, when my friends and I were children.
No, says E.
Up until now.
Maybe they’re still doing it, says Y.
Later, reading human rights reports, I will confirm that political prisoners were definitely interrogated in this place during this century; that it was once a military office building; that, in the 1960s, it hosted the Peace Corps; and that until recently, the area around it—home now to the UN quarters and Queen of Sheba Gourmet Burger—was a slum of more than a thousand households, which the government demolished to make way for multimillion-dollar real estate development, and only a third of the displaced families were issued compensation. But when I stand before the wall it is so tall that I cannot see the compound behind it, even when I rise to my tiptoes: just the powdery crowns of grawa trees, and a single frangipani in pink bloom. A rusted white van with a blue Nike swoosh on the side noses out of the gate and drives off, and Y. says:
Here we have a saying: may we live our whole lives and never find out what’s inside.
I want to take a picture of the wall. I take out my phone and immediately two young men appear out of nowhere, I swear they were not in the street just a second ago. They are wearing jeans, plain t-shirts—one white, one yellow—and disposable gloves. Surgical masks hang slack around their necks. For a fraction of a second I think, they must be essential workers. They rise before me and say, very sternly, in English: No pictures.
* * *
The first known map to depict both North and South America, called Die Neüwen Inseln, was drawn in 1550 by the German cartographer Sebastian Münster. This map of the Western Hemisphere shows India in China and places a nonexistent sea off the coast of what would become North Carolina, where explorers at the time envisioned a passage to the Pacific Ocean. A mapped landscape is always tailored to reflect the cartographer’s desire, the way when we say acts of humanity we mean kindness, though humanity is just as likely to commit atrocities. For what is a cartographer? A dreamer of worlds.
So do we map out the world: seeing our own projections, filling in the blanks with imaginary stories, or leaving them blank. Some things we don’t want to imagine, so we dismiss them, the way many of us and our governments dismissed the pandemic when the virus was already killing people all over the planet by the thousand. Other things we’d rather not see, so we omit them, the way the Google map of Addis Ababa omits the secret interrogation facility behind the fake-ablaq wall, though you can see the compound plainly on the satellite image: a dozen or so rectangular roofs and a paved yard in which there stand some white cars and what appears to be a white van with a rusted roof.
I have heard that somewhere in Eastern Europe, in a World War I barracks built for Austro-Hungarian cavalry officers, there is a secret lab where scientists are working on a map that, like Borges’s Book of Sand, has neither a beginning nor an end: it is infinite, all-encompassing of our virtues and iniquities. It holds the man handing out bread by the church and each frangipani tree in waxen bloom and all the torture chambers in every country and each rubber raft full of people crossing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and the Mediterranean. No cameras are allowed in the barracks. No global calamity, no matter how great, ever interrupts the labor of the scientists, who are constantly catching up to our transgressions and our feats, and when a scientist dies that, too, is recorded on the map, which will never be finished. The lab is subdivided into sections, and each section focuses on one particular part of the world, though I am not sure whether the parts are physical or metaphysical. No one has ever seen the map-in-progress in its entirety, but I have heard that if anyone does, they would die instantly of grief-ache. Then their death also would be entered into the map, using a particular map key that has already been designed for it.
Anna Badkhen is the author of six books. A Guggenheim Fellow, she is at work on An Anatomy of Lostness.