By Ahmed Ismail Yusuf
If a picture tells a thousand tales, this one reminds me of one but times a thousand fold. I will tell that story later but first: this picture was taken in 2008 at the Woodbury, Minnesota home of a friend of mine, Abdisamad Nurbidar, who summoned a group of Somalis for a rare occasion.
I said it was a rare occasion because when we did such a gathering we had a blast but it was usually at another friend’s house, Dr. Fozia Abrar.
At Dr. Fozia Abrar’s house in early 2000, we would meet for nights of waayo waayo where we, Somalis from all corners of the motherland, would let our guards down and chase the night away with nostalgic songs. We would dance to Somalis’ golden music era. There were a few times that we invited legendary musicians, Ahmed Ali Egal and the likes, but mostly we simply would take turns by assigning a song for each of us where the rest would join or would leave the assignee to let it loose. With the past guiding us, we would travel back on memory lane and lament about what a county we once had but lost. In process, we affirmed and admitted to each other how talented our musicians, poets and playwrights were.
So there, the first time Abdisamad and I met, I approached him with the intent to tell him that “I am a writer.” Frankly, my thinly disguised self-promotion failed. I was simply trying to entice him to read a short story of mine that I thought I had completed. I intended to ask him whether he likes to read but in Somali, it came out as patronizing. I remember saying, “Waar Cabdisamad, wax ma akhridaa?” which in Somali translates as, “Are you able to read?” Or worse, “Are you literate?” Imagine asking an Imam whether he knows his fatiha (faatixa). As soon as the words escaped my lips, I felt the sour taste it left in my mouth. Abdisamad, on the other hand, did not only avoid responding in kind but moved on. In the following years, I would come to know that he is that kind of man with many graces.
To make a long story short, Abdisamad and his equally dignified and beautiful wife Muna Gaagaale fed us a delicious meal. What followed was an evening of delightful discourse. Come to think of it, it was the last time we gathered for an occasion of its kind. Luckily, we have a souvenir to show for it: the picture!
So, back to my story about A Picture that Tells a Tale.
When the picture was taken, I was not aware of the other barely visible picture in the background behind us, hanging on the wall. That same picture in the background is the uncompromising, sage Nur Hassan Loyan, known to Somalis as Nurbidar. Nurbidar was the head of Somali Immigration Services (Laanta Socdaalka). He wheeled enormous power when I left Somalia. It so happened that the same man left an indelible mark on me three decades or so ago. If you have not guessed already, Nurbidar is my friend Abdisamad’s father.
Prior to when this night’s picture was taken, every time Abdisamad, who is an avid photographer and a great story teller, threads a tale about the eighties with an Afro-all-pictures-attached, he would not only remind me of Mogadishu, but in particular about an encounter I had with his own father Nurbidar (God bless his soul).
As some of you may remember, passports were the most important documents one could own in Somalia in the 1970s. They were issued to very few individuals who had access to power. Suddenly all that changed one night in early 1980 when the regime permitted anyone who could afford the fee and a trip to Mogadishu to have a passport. Coming to the capital was a harrowing experience for many. Yet people from all corners of Somalia converged on the capital Mogadishu that first year. Among the thousands, I traveled from Ceerigaabo to get mine. From 6:00 AM to whenever the door was closed, people queued under the scorching Indian Ocean heat. Matter of fact, some people would sleep at the gate over night to be the first in line in the morning, which did not always help either.
In September 1980, I think it was, I happened to be among the cheering crowd in line, just because I made it there. But it was quite some days later when my name was called, which normally meant that your wish was granted and your passport was issued. Ecstatic and out of breath, I rushed to the window where I thought the heavenly voice uttered my name. Alas, when I got there the man in the window repeated my name but dismissively said, “No passport for you. You are too young to have one!” Deflated with disappointment, I protested. When I refused to accept his verdict, he called the guards manning the premises. They ordered me to leave. I concluded that there was no hope for me to hang around. I was devastated but did just that.
Two years later, I was back at the same building for the same reason. This time however, the lines were way shorter, people were less aggressive, and I was a Mogadishu resident. The second my name was called, I rushed forward but with caution. When I arrived at the same window that had sealed my fate two years earlier, the man from the same window showed up with a blank sheet of paper rather than a passport. Before he said a word, my rage burst into the open. The man at the window, however, was not deterred. He proceeded to tell me that he was not going to issue a passport unless I adjusted my age. “You are older than the age you claimed. Your picture here shows it.”
There I began to rave and roared like a lion. “Dalkan ma Mareexaan baa iska leh? Miyaydaan ogayn in ciiddani inaga dhexayso? Intee baad murqaa iyo maalka aad dhacdaan isku haysanaysaan? [Is this country owned by Mareexaan clan? Do they know it belongs to all of us? How are you going to keep ripe, robbed fruit for yourselves?]” These are the few words that I think I hazily recall saying from the torrent of indictment I levied at him. I was swinging my salvo about when four guards seized me and sandwiched me to the ground.
Scared out my pants, I heard someone call out, “Waar u kaadsha, waar u kaadsha, waar u kaadsha.” Two of the guards stepped away but the other two held me to the ground, now loosely. I could sense a man of an authority was addressing them but was not expecting a better treatment outcome. Once the man with the authoritative voice arrived, he ordered the guards to let me loose. When they stood me up on my feet, he told them to leave us alone: “Waar adinku isu kaayo daaya.” By this time there was no need for introduction. I knew who the man with the authoritative voice was, Nurbidar!
In seconds he turned to me and proceeded to get the dirt off my shirt with his bare hands. He checked my cheeks and elbows, then asked, “Adeer ma waxbaa ku gaadhey?” Though dusting the dirt off me with his bare hands had already disarmed me, once I heard him utter “adeer,” all the rage and anger in me melted away. He pulled me to the side and said, “Tell me, what made you say what I have heard?”
There I said, “Your men told me two years ago that I was too young to have a passport and now they are telling me that I am too old. Which one is it?”
He looked at me from tip to toe, then held me by the hand, took me inside, and told someone, “Listen, I want you to find his pictures and get him a passport. He and I are both going to be here until it’s done.” With that, he went into his office. A minute later he came back and said, “Listen, can you come back at 1:00 PM? And I am going to be here to wait for you.” He gave me a note, stamped it, signed it and told me to show the guards at the gate whenever I get back.
When I came back, someone handed me the passport. While I was admiring it, Nuurbidaar came out again. He asked whether I was happy now. When I responded in the affirmative, he walked out with me, asked whether I had money for lunch. I told him I did. He shook my hand and put a sealed envelope in the other and said, “Do me a favor, don’t share our encounter with any one and most of all, don’t repeat what you said out there today again. Not that I do care about the Mareexan thing (that you are accusing abuse of power) and all, but for the sake of your safety.” I was stunned. I knew that I had no words to express my gratitude.
Somehow, I also knew that he was kidding about the “not to share it with anyone” part, but I took it to heart and never said a thing for twenty something years. Finally, a few years ago, I realized that if I tell the story, I am not dishonoring this great man’s oath.
Oh, about that envelope. I opened it when I got home. There it was, three hundred and so shilling Somali. I think that was what the passport cost then. In there was a short note as well: “Wadanku waa inaga dheexeeyaa [the country is yours too].”
The weight of these wise words are still with me!
Ahmed Ismail Yusuf
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