A Tale of Two Cities: A Personal Perspective on Mogadishu and Los Angeles
By Faisal A. Roble
Feb. 20, 2005What makes one city a super city and another one a sub city are not so much the novelties of architecture and the marvels of civil engineering only. It is not because one has imposing and impressive collections of sky scrappers, bridges or freeways. It is the dynamic social forces that each city blankets under its belly and nurtures within its womb. It is the magical power of diversity or the lack of it that gives cities the respective labels of super city vs. sub city.
Super city Los Angeles:
Like many other cities in America , Los Angeles city can be called a supper city. Established by 14 settlers in the later part of the 16 th Century (7 Blacks, Two Indian Americans and 5 European Spanish conquistadors), LA, as is commonly called, is a true supper city. It is a city where displaced Americans from the rest belt regions (the old industry-based east coast) and from the farming belts of the mid west immigrate in search of a better future. It is also the gateway to a peaceful life and a more promising future for a great number of Mexicans, Salvadoran Nicaraguan and Asian refugees. More recently, it is recognized to be the city where the east ( Southeast Asia ) meets the west.
An added spice to the touch of diversity in LA city is the ever-increasing Muslim population. And, of course, this city has (according to Los Angeles times – 2004) the largest Latin American converts to Islam. Suffice to say that the city's diversity is accentuated by the presence of mosques, synagogues, churches and temples. In diversity, this city is as tolerant as it gets.
According to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the largest system in the country, there are more than 80 different languages spoken by its students. Most conspicuous languages include Spanish, Farsi, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, Hindi, Amharic…and Somali
Political leaders in the city officially recognize diversity and as such designated the second week of February as an international week. Over nine million people of different cultures, heritages, religions and origin of nationalities, living together in a ceaselessly comfortable zone, make LA a tremendously flavored city. In his book, Los Angeles , a Third World City, Richard Rief, a New York Socialite, documents the fact that L.A. is a mosaic ethnic city where white Americans are no longer the single majority population group. That is why some one like myself, who lives in a new tract-homes subdivision would have Chinese, Indian, White and Black American neighbors.
Millions of people have been pouring in to this supper city for a better future and for a peace of mind. Under the highest degree of diversity, the city of Los Angeles earns the label of supper city status and enjoys all the attendants that strength the fabric of its urban dynamism.
Los Angeles city represents to many a place of a new beginning. It is a place where Iranian immigrants run French pastry outlets; it is a City where Chinese-owned banks link customers to the daily transactions of the emerging Pacific Rim and where Central American Immigrants make the garment industry more profitable than anywhere else in America . It is also a city where liberal generation X youth as well as 1960s Africa-loving former peace corps frequently dine at Little Ethiopia located in a formerly Jewish dominated neighborhood.
To that end, it is a place where I and many other Somalis sought refuge and a better future to escape from the ravages of the 1980s and 1990s Somalia 's civil. Los Angeles city is a reminder of what Mogadishu was once before the civil war downgraded its status.
The Mogadishu We all Lost:
There was a time when Mogadishu was a supper city and was blessed with diversity. It was the time when Hibo Nuura's piercingly powerful voice could be heard with the words of “Ma miliilicdeen wali mana Jidhiidhicooteen.” Or have you really toured and taken by emotions at Mogadishu 's beauty? This song could have passed as a perfectly framed chamber of commerce promotion of the city.
An ancient pre-Islamic city, Mogadishu was a trading center for a diversified cultures and religions. Ned Alpers, African history Professor at UCLA, has documented in several studies in the 1960 the waves of Chinese, Iranian, Indian and black Africans who all traded in and through Mogadishu for centuries. At the same time, different cultures and powers invaded and often burned this city to ashes before they assumed full control of it (Nuradin Farah). The last pre-European foreign ruler of Mogadishu was the Omani Amir, Sayid Said Al-Barqash who chose it as the seat of the once powerful and expansive Zanzibar Empire.
However, different cultures coexisted peacefully in the city even in the not-so-distant past. Although a Muslim city, Christian residents (Ethiopians in Campo Amxaaro and Italian expatriates) have lived in the city for many years with full rights accorded to them. Until recently, the gothic Catholic Cathedral church, with its superb high ceilings and modern art deco plus its easily recognizable European architecture stood for many years undisturbed only less than one mile away from the Cabdul Casis Mosque built in the 12 th Century at the gate of the Old Port, signifying Somalia's religious and architectural affinity with the other side of the Indian Ocean.
As late as the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Mogadishu attracted different waves of immigrants who quietly raised the city's level of diversity. During the struggle for Somalia 's independence and after the unification of Northern and Southern regions, a slew of people from the regions (often referred as Dadka gobolada ka yimid) made Mogadishu as their destination to get a taste of a cosmopolitan life.
All kinds of civil servants, landless peasants and run away girls as Nuradin Farah depicts in his first novel, The Crooked Rib, saw Mogadishu as a place with unlimited capacity to house them. Hence goes the saying: “Jirjirkeed ka geli Xamar waa Jiqay,” or to put it in another way, although Mogadishu is packed, there still is a room for you.”
For me, Mogadishu was the first big city. As a high school student and a refugee from the Somali region in Ethiopia, Mogadishu was the Promised Land – a land of freedom from harassment, torture of the Ethiopian security forces and the freedom from the limitations of clan oriented small town culture. Once in Mogadishu , I was no longer identified by my clan affiliation. Instead, I was, like millions who came from somewhere there, one “hollandees,” or people who come from North of the Shabelle River . It is without exaggeration to state that Mogadishu was the beginning of the de-tribalization process of Somalia 's urban class. It was in this context that Merca's soccer team was my favorite at the once-a-year held regional games.
My late father, a former soldier in the Italian army during the second-world war, narrated to me the superiority of Mogadishu city in the Horn of Africa region. He talked nostalgically about its beaches; its tropical fruits and an unmatched night live that seemed to never end. Since then, like millions of Somalis, I early on seized on the opportunity to dream of the day I will set a foot on this city. It was a place to advance myself and seek the satisfaction of belonging to a cosmopolitan, mosaic culture. It accorded to most of us, boys/girls alike, the sense of belonging to a big city culture.
In 1976, few days after I first came to Mogadishu , I was overwhelmed at first sight when I unexpectedly encountered the beautifully expansive and deep-blue beach of the Indian Ocean that protects and at the same time permeates the boundaries of the city. The Ocean viewed from Lido or Jasira was simply breathtaking and easily overwhelming. It was a totally never-seen-before experience and represented a behemoth to a boy like myself who came from the hinterland.The unfettered openness of the ocean's horizon also was a constant reminder of the venerability of the city to waves of invasions – invasions by people from afar, invasions by weapons smugglers in and out of the region and by the invasion of the culture of contraband and piracy.
In a good day, walking near Shabelle Hotel and its storefronts built to the property line, or standing by Shanema Equatore to catch the last sitiye Monookto mini truck-turned-public-transportation to my destination, Lafoole campus where I attended college, would give me the right dose of belonging to a cosmopolitan culture of a city. Or in my later days in Mogadishu, my frequent dining at Cabachinto Nero, after which time I would pay a quick visit to a Gelato kiosk (ice cream parlor) on my way to the night's highlight – Shaneema Centrale (to see movies like Il Granda Fugo or the Great Escape) where I would be standing next and rubbing shoulders with Minister Bootaan who frequented there – would give me a complete sense of urban life in a city full of diversity. Also, a sense of peace and ultimate security was never missed on me!
In the late 1970s, peace was unmatchable in Mogadishu . Thousands of people from all regions and clans of the Somali tribe crisscrossed the 14 beautiful neighborhoods of the city with no one bothering you. One stayed out till 2:00 a.m. without any fear or any harm to his/her well being, often enjoying the simple visit to a sandwich stand for a late night snack or ideally sitting in front of porches in, say, Billaajo Carab, Cambo Amxaaro, Beexaani, Shinganis, Casa Populare, or Yaqshiid and passionately conducting what is locally known as shukaansi (courting the opposite sex). This was a testimony to a simple, peaceful and better life in Mogadishu in the 1970s. Just look at the diversified names of the neighborhoods that indicated traces of Ethiopianess, Arabness, and Italian culture.
Coming from Jigjiga through Hargaisa (two cities with similar cultures), I learned and often ordered at Mogadishu's abundant and eclectic restaurants dishes like Sparmoonto, Ansalata, Isbageeti Saldaata with banana, Kostato, Arosto Bisketi, Kutileti and, of course a favorite desert called, in Mogadishu's slang, Mishadoonya. The variety and abundance of fruits and vegetables prompted one Somali fellow from Burco region to refer banana as a sweet “quule,” and retorted at the hitherto never-tasted sweet flavor of Banana - a fruit that looks like the fruits of a local wild tree in the Haud region - “Wala Wayn Ilaahay quulahoodii buu u macaaneeyey.”
This saying stands out as unqualified expression of an innocent outsider from a more arid region of Somalia greatly and unreservedly appreciating a good life in the cool breeze and comfortable womb of Mogadishu .
Indeed, Mogadishu was a supper city simply because its daily functionaries were as diversified as their origins. With a Barwani tailor or a Gibil Cad gold smith, the blue eyed garment shop-owner in Xamarweyn, the army fatigue wearing jabhad from the Somali region in Ethiopia, the northern (reer-waqooyi) merchant hanging from the wings of a Nissan truck at Yoobsan, the skilled soccer players from Kismaayo and Marca, the Shaft in Africa look-like Djibouti boys at Bar Djibouti awaiting their flight to Moscow, the pro-ANC South African exiled students near Shabelle and the Italian expatriates at Casa de Italiana, Mogadishu accommodated a high degree of diversified groups that peacefully interacted with each other where each in turn only minded his/her own business.
The one single thread that tied all these different groups of people was that Mogadishu was a peaceful market place. It was the ultimate example of the Somali saying of what a city stands for; that is a city is a center where in the middle of the day every body shouts out of their lungs only to say “war hadeeto iga gad iyo kaa gadimaayo” or “let me buy; no, I won't sell it to you.”
It also represented what a British social critic, James Woods, said of London in the later parts of 1780s, when London was at the seams of its mega-urbanization. He said that every body comes to London to get what they want out of it. So was Mogadishu a place where each and every one of us went about our own business in search of our lofty individualized goals.
Why is then Mogadishu of today refused to house the dead bodies of the diverse group that it housed for thousands of years? Why is the city of immigrants and many cultures and religions succumbed to one that marches to the ordering tune of Yalaxow and Caato who have unmatched aversion to diversity of any kind? Are the factors that hitherto nourished diversity in Mogadishu for many years no longer there?
If Mogadishu remains to be stubborn and refuses to open up its warmth womb to diversity, it may as well be that the city has lost the capacity to do so. If that happens, the rules of urban dynamism would dictate and nurture another city that opens up its doors to all of us. In the final analysis, Mogadishu could as well join the ranks of those that came before it – Bulaxaar, Saylac, Jenin and Timbiktu in West Africa . And that would make this great city a footnote.
By: Faisal A Roble
Faisal is a city planner @ Los Angeles