By Abdisalam Garjeex
Three weeks ago, when I read Abdi Nor Iftin’s new book “Call me American”, it reminded me Hassan Abukar’s Book “Mogadishu Memoir” which I read two and half years ago. Both books reveal stories of two different periods in Somalia which many Somalis including myself have firsthand experience. Iftin remembers the civil war mayhem and the subsequent Alshabab conflicts – he was only 6 years old in 1991 when turmoil started and remembers it with a vivid recollection, even at his young age. In contrast, Hassan’s book ponders life before the war, the sixties, and seventies and up until early-eighties. For those of us who have lived that time, we all remember it as “Golden Era”.
The reason that I’m fascinated with these two stories is that both authors reproduce events similar to my life experience before and after the war. Not only Hassan and I happen to be around the same age, but we have crossed each other’s path. In 1979, as a young Somali civil servant working for the defunct Somali Airlines, I was sent to the Somali Airline office in Cairo, Egypt for training and to obtain experience working as Somali Airlines representative in overseas offices. Hassan was already working in the office and it was a great opportunity to get to know and interact with him.
When it comes to Iftin’s, his story touched me in many ways – in 1991, the beginning of the war, I was working and living in Mogadishu and saw and went through all the tragedies. Like Iftin, I fled with my family to Baidoa and when he and his family went back to Mogadishu, I continued a harrowing journey to Kenya and eventually being admitted as refugee in the Netherlands. Iftin and his family suffered appalling conditions for the next two decades in Mogadishu, including the loss of his sister for starvation. After 4 years of stay in Eastleigh, Nairobi, it was a great day when he won the diversity visa lottery to USA and moved to the US state of Maine. In a similar circumstance, I won the lottery visa more than two decades earlier and moved from Netherlands to USA. I’m currently residing in Ashburn, Virginia, a town situated 30 miles to the north-west of Washington, DC.
“Call me American”
Iftin’s story is very captivating, but at the same time heartbreaking – its conclusion is human triumph. At the start of the civil war, Iftin’s father abandoned his family after he couldn’t take the suffering and agony of his inability to protect and feed them. They ended up becoming homeless and beggars on the street of Xamar. Iftin and his older brother started helping their mother at very young age. They learned survival techniques and fetched water containers for the family on the dangerous streets of Mogadishu. All the years of the upheaval, it was the Somali mother, the backbone of the society who stood to save the family by selling tea and Khat on the streets. The Somali men either disappeared or got involved in the war and as result many lost their lives. Iftin was left with two choices either to be recruited as child soldier by Al shabaab or spend his time watching American movies at Falis movie shack; he chose the latter. He learned English from the movies, helped Falis with cleaning the shack and translating for the movie goers – that generated a bit of pocket money for him. He aspired to be a movie actor like Schwarznegger and desired a good life and craved someday to go and live in America. His wishes countered with his mother’s plan; she threw him out of their makeshift house.
In peace-time, orphans use to sleep in the streets and sniff glue to get high, but overall they were safe, but during the war a homeless kid will be killed or starve to death. Like Iftin, in a different state of affairs, in the early seventies, when I was enrolled in the American Mennonite high school in Jowhar, because of the inspirations of the American teachers, I wanted to go to USA; our motto was “one night you live in New York is better than 100 years in Somalia”. On the top of that, the teachers encouraged us to learn and convert to Christianity – that burning desire to live in the USA one-day took me in early 1981 to State University of New York, New Paltz.
Iftin’s best day came when he met a well-guarded BBC reporter who understood the talent and sincerity in this man and offered $40 to buy a cell phone and connect with him. Iftin began sending dispatches to the world with the latest news of Mogadishu and
Al shabab atrocities. For the first time, I listened these reports via NPR program “The Story” by Dick Gordon. World-wide listeners tuned to Iftin’s stories and decided to save him from dangers of Al shabaab and move him to Eastleigh, Nairobi, a place called “little Mogadishu” where a huge number of Somali refugees call an adopted home. The Kenyan police hunt the refugees, accusing them as members of Al shabab in order to extort money – Iftin and his older brother were caught up in this dragnet. Luckily, He has achieved his long dream to come to America after he won the US lottery visa and was sponsored by some of his listeners
Iftin became a celebrity sought by TVs and Radios such as CNN and NPR for his recent memoir “Call me American” – it’s a must read if you want to know more about three decades of carnage. If you read this book, you will know why 1991 is called “the catastrophe”, a year we lost everything, our nationhood and sovereignty.
Hassan’s book is fascinating to read, it’s a story that details his early life and the Mogadishu neighborhoods, particularly “Isku Raran” where he grew up. It provides a glimpse of how life was like in Mogadishu after the independence up until early 1980s. In the sixties, population was small in Mogadishu, but that period marks a time when many citizens migrated to the capital and “Isku Raran” was formed as settlement for the new comers. The residents were among the founding fathers of a newly independent nation – they were civil servants, businessmen and politicians. As an11 years old looking to further his education, I briefly moved with relatives in “Isku Raran”. I didn’t forget one day when I was lost in the narrow alleys and couldn’t find my way back home; I freaked and a stranger finally helped me find the house.
Hassan’s reminiscences echo how different clans coexisted peacefully and the cultures that prevailed in those neighborhoods. This period as Hassan describes, Somalia took a giant leap to build the infrastructure, the schools, hospitals and develop agriculture. Literacy improved as the Government implemented new Somali scripts and embarked a campaign of literacy in the countryside. In 1974, Hassan was one of the students sent to Jamame; at the time, I was in boarding high school in Jowhar when I was sent to Dusamareb to participate the literacy campaign – it was a moment of high achievement.
A significant part of Hassan’s Memoir discusses the role of his single Mother “Dahabo” played his life. She single-handily raised him and his sister. She provided all the basic necessities in life and without her support, he wouldn’t have become what he is today. I understand these responsibilities as single father who raised five children for the last 20 years. The author’s good memory of names of individuals and families and where they lived is a center piece. I heard long ago about the love story of Abdiweli and the song “Abyan” before I even read the Memoir.
I have given keen interest in the chapter that discusses the education of a generation – We were all of us through Quran learning madrasa (Dugsi) before we attempted to enroll in elementary school. 1965 was the year I sat first grade and the Government streamlined School systems in the North and South and changed the Italian language to English as a medium of instruction. We started with Arabic for the first four years and English in the Intermediate and Secondary Education and standardized exams were also introduced. Teachers from the National Teachers Training Centers in Afgoi and in the North had been sent to all schools, teaching English and were mainly from the North of the country. Anyone who lived that era will remember Hassan’s stories of the 70s, the Revolution, Mothers and “Gulwadayaal” Associations and what they use to do in the community – It was fun to be in the orientation centers and listen speeches and patriotic songs.
For those who were born during the civil war or in the diaspora and have not seen Somalia in good old days, it’s a must read and thanks to Hassan for producing such a timely work.
Ashburn VA, USA
-Mogadishu memoir: A book review– By Adan Makina
–Mogadishu memoir: A book review– By Ahmed Ismail
-Read more: Book Review at WardheerNews Book Shelf
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