Friday, September 21, 2018
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Helmi Ben Meriem: A Tunisian Scholar of Somali Studies

By Hassan M. Abukar

As a child growing up in Tunisia, Helmi Ben Meriem heard nothing but negative things about Somalia. It was a country reduced to cultural stereotypes and ravaged by war, famine, and endless squabbling among its political leaders. Little did he know that one day he would be his country’s sole specialist on Somalia. His PhD dissertation, titled, “Writing Dictatorship in Selected Works by Nuraddin Farah, a Foucauldian Reading,” forged an opening for additional studies.

Helmi Ben Meriem

A researcher at the University of Sousse in Tunisia, Ben Meriem is also a fiction writer. He has authored several short stories and is finishing a new novel.

Recently, Ben Meriem ruminated on the remarkable turn of events in his life, from his childhood bubble to adult scholarly discovery.

“As a child, was I supposed to know better that Somalia had more to offer than those two gloomy pictures of war and famine?” he ruefully said.

Ben Meriem’s interest in Somalia did not come overnight; it occurred in two stages. First, as a young man, he would go to the public library as he was fascinated with maps. His initial interest was in landlocked countries, such as Lesotho and Ethiopia, and islands like Sri Lanka and Comoros Islands.

Somalia is neither a landlocked country nor an island, but something about its geography drew his curiosity. It is what Ben Meriem called, “the oddly shaped dagger-like piercing  into its land near Garowe.

Many years later, Ben Meriem learned the reason why Somalia’s strange-looking shape came into being: It was the product of a colonial demarcation of the country, including the role Ethiopia played.

“I was fascinated by Ethiopia’s desire to get as close to the ocean as possible, wanting the salty sea smell to reach its lands,” he said, smiling.

The second stage began four years ago when Ben Meriem and a friend traveled to Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. Ben Meriem did not want to undertake the trip due to his aversion to big, cosmopolitan cities. What happened next was a classic case of the Rashomon effect—multiple telling of a story by the individuals involved in rather subjective, contradictory ways.

His friend insists, according to Ben Meriem, that the two stumbled on Nuraddin Farah’s first novel, “From a Crooked Rib,” at a famous bookstore in the capital.

Memory being a tricky thing, Ben Meriem is adamant that he and his friend noticed a small book fair while strolling not far from the Tunisian Broadcasting Agency. It was there, he recalls, where the two saw Farah’s novel.

“My journey to Somalia and discovery of its literature started at a bookstore famous for its cheap editions and violations of copyrights,” Ben Meriem said, laughing.  “That’s how I came to know Farah, and how I came to know Somali literature. Ebla (the novel’s protagonist) was like the open-sesame that got me hooked on Somali literature.”

Ebla was followed by many others, including Zulekha, Medina, Diriye, Nadifo, Askar, Sharif, and Olad.

Perhaps Ben Meriem was also enamored with something else, something more intriguing. It is, he said, what former Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Egal once termed “the Biblical character of the Somali people.”

At any rate, Ben Meriem’s casual discovery of a novel by Somalia’s eminent and internationally acclaimed writer Nuruddin Farah was a blessing. His research on Farah was followed by study of many others, such as Abdi Sheikh Abdi, Saida Hagi-Diriye Herzi, Sofia Samatar, Hassan Mumin, Abdi Latif Ega, Nadifa Mohamed, Awes Ahmed Osman, Yasmeen Maxamuud, and Diriye Osman.

Ben Meriem’s road to specializing in Somali studies was anything but smooth. It was paved with put-downs, smears, and psychological hurdles. Somalia, after all, was a country that has provided a spectacle of dysfunction over two decades: a tortuous civil war, chaos, piracy, religious extremism, and the lack of a strong central government. Ben Meriem’s choice of study of that country stirred an unusual amount of rumblings among his friends and colleagues. Why study a messed-up country that is gripped by famine and starvation?

“Imagine a person fervently talking about his studies only for someone to say ‘I did not know those starving people had literature,’” said Ben Meriem.

It was irksome for him to be subjected to answering questions about the relationship of class, poverty, and the production of literary work.

“I was faced with people who were so comfortable in their ignorance,” explained Ben Meriem. “Tunisians, especially the educated class, think so highly of themselves and never miss an opportunity to disparage other nations like Libya, Afghanistan, and Somalia. If educated Tunisians can be racists and bigoted, then what was I expecting from the majority of Tunisians who only read half a page a year? Thank God, my American literature professor and a Tunisian friend passionate about Arab literature, who are ever helpful and encouraging, made it possible for me to pursue my interest in Somalia.”

By sheer force of will and intellect, Ben Meriem kept studying Somalia. In spite of the constant discouragement that he encountered, it did not keep him in a suspended state of melancholy. Somalia became his obsession, and nothing could stop him. He had no time for people with a fatalistic view who see a poor country and infer that it cannot possibly have viable literature. Today, Ben Meriem is a walking, talking rebuke of everything that stands for ignorance and cultural stereotypes.

A few weeks ago, Ben Meriem took a picture of some graffiti near a train station in the town of Lamta. It read, “Tunisia is a bitch.” But what was written and drawn next to that phrase was mindboggling and disturbing: the word “Somalia” and a flag with the letter “X.” The five stars of the Somali flag were missing.

Ben Meriem was incredulous.

“The ‘X’ was a symbol of death or poison,” he said. “This association tells everything about how Somalia is perceived in Tunisia.”

These cultural stereotypes that Tunisians have about Somalia are not limited to Tunisia; they are prevalent in many countries.

“I believe that every country needs other people to look down on,” said Ben Meriem.

Three Somali presidents standing together in 2017

Ben Meriem sees bright sides of Somalia other than its fascinating literature. He sees a country that can teach other developing countries a few things about the peaceful transfer of power. As an example, the image of three Somali presidents standing together in February 2017 when power was handed to President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo went viral on social media.

“In a region where dictators cannot seem to force themselves to let go of power, the Somali case seems to be a positive oddity,” said Ben Meriem.

The road to recovery for Somalia is promising. Rwanda experienced a similar breakdown of order and a violent civil war, Ben Meriem explained, yet it has slowly and incrementally recovered and is now rebuilding. It is, therefore, according to Ben Meriem, the responsibility of the Somalis to rebuild their country and change its negative image.

“If the Somalis wish the negative associations to be erased, they—and only they—can make it happen,” affirmed Ben Meriem.

A scholar like Ben Meriem is ever conscious of the role of literature and its power in helping to reshape the history and progress of a country.

“I firmly believe in the power of the arts,” said Ben Meriem, “in not only recording the history of Somalia but also in the shaping of Somalia; of creating hope and possible paths toward progress and prosperity.”

He added:  “It is, as has always been, in the hands of the Somalis.”

Ben Meriem, like Somalia, has a compelling story line: There is poetry to a man once doubted and ridiculed, but now making history and becoming the first Tunisian scholar who specializes in a country that is slowly rising from the ashes—a country that was battered, but still standing. Ben Meriem, like Somalia, will forever represent how minds can change.

Hassan M. Abukar

———————–

Hassan M. Abukar is a contributor to Wardheernews and the author of Mogadishu Memoir. He can be reached at: abukar60@yahoo.com.

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