In Arabic they are shib-shib.
In Eritrea we say –, and Kurdistan –.
Pata-patas in Zambia.
Flip-flops are not the same as sandals, I explain. Sandals are stronger. Sandals don’t come apart on your nine hundredth kilometer between Sudan and Kenya.
I hold up photos in a book as if there were no such thing as a projector. Red rice and fish in deep metal bowls. The underside of a painted boat. Mosque spires, bouboued women, kneeling men, the cliffs by the sea.
The room surges as the pages turn.
I could have brought the book before, but I wasn’t ready to show them who I really am.
Dakar et moi, a woman from Ecuador wrote on her paper, like she would find the book and make it her own. But she is not who I was thinking of when I tilted it off the shelf in a rush to the tram to Piazza Venezia to the bus up Via Nazionale past Desigual and Max Mara and down steep stairs to the stone basement of the church that morning.
Not one of the lost boys from a home I lost myself.
To Aliou and Babacar and Mohammed, I wax like the brown book about the bubbling city on the edge of the cliffs. How I was once in the place they just left behind, because I want to say I know. I want to know. I know I don’t know.
To the distinguished Palestinian accounts manager, who would take over the class if I let him, I speak of Dubai, and very purposefully not Israel, but – it’s not for him, either.
He is not Babacar who organized a plate of djeboudjem from a mama in the vicino. Who shows up with his giant smile and spikey hair and easy adaptability to the games no one else seems to enjoy – about opposites, about Pictionary, Simon says.
The students we create the lesson for.
Class is over and Babacar sits opposite the teacher’s desk, has turned the book so he can study each page. He murmurs in French about his wife and children, how there’s nothing for them here in Rome and how to get to America.
Can you find out for me? Visa?
He flips the pages and four fingers swipe at his eyes as he searches for traces of home.
Tej Rae is a freelance writer currently living in Rome without a car. One day she hopes to work up the nerve to ride a Vespa. She has written for The Washington Post, BBC Focus on Africa, Yogalife Middle East, Dance International, and The National in the UAE, among others. She has two children and travels with her husband who works for the United Nations