Reflection on Hassan M. Abukar’s ‘Mogadishu Memoir’

Hassan M. Abukar in California in May 2015. [Photo courtesy of Hassan M. Abukar]

Hassan M. Abukar in California in May 2015. [Photo courtesy of Hassan M. Abukar]

Hassan Abukar, Somali writer, who left Mogadishu in 1978 at the age of 18, has recently written a memoir on his early life in the city.

Hassan was born in the early 1960s during Somalia’s independence and at the height of Somali nationalistic fervor. It was a period when the northern British Somaliland, in the interest of Somali unity, willingly joined with their southern brethren, the then Italian Somaliland, to form the Somali Democratic Republic.

Hassan’s childhood evokes a different time and a place which is hard to imagine for those born especially after the Somali civil war of 1991. Current Mogadishu, to use the words of former Washington Post foreign correspondent Keith Richburg, looks like “a Mad Max movie set,” an image that Mogadishu is slowly shedding with the political transitions in the last four years and the pushing out of al-Shabaab from major urban centers.

Hassan writes about a period of Somali history where close social cohesion was the norm, a period of relative freedom and cosmopolitan values of tolerance.

The book opens with a poignant chapter, Close, yet far away, on young Hassan’s relationship with his father. At the age of six or seven, Hassan is asked by his larger-than-life mother to come and greet his father who had come calling on the family:

“Go, greet your father,” my mother commanded me. I was six or seven years old when I first met my dad. My parents had found themselves in a verbal altercation a few months before I was born, and they had decided, according to local Somali tradition, to terminate their marriage after my birth. My mother, my five-year-old sister Lul from a previous marriage, and I had all moved to Mogadishu 30 kilometers south of Afgooye, my birthplace. Afgooye, a small farming town with beautiful scenery, was the weekend getaway for Mogadishu’s affluent and middle class back when the country was relatively peaceful; it was also where my father’s family and his Geledi clan lived. My mother, on the other hand, hailed from the northeast region, hundreds of miles away and not long ago a bastion of piracy. My mother made sweet tea for him. He seemed a good conversationalist, but perhaps not a good listener, because at times he appeared to be engaged in a monologue with himself. In the midst of the conversation, my father gave me five Somali shillings, an amount equivalent to one U.S dollar. I was so excited to have paper money that I left immediately to go to a neighborhood store to buy cold soda and candy. My father was still talking and laughing when I returned to the house. I watched him closely, studying his every move. I wondered if he had come to visit me or to consume large quantities of tea. Once in a while he would ask me a question, but most of his conversation was directed to my mother. He was as loquacious as my mother was reticent.”

For many Somalis of his generation, the scene is emblematic of the austere family patriarch who focuses on protecting the family from the harsh outside world, leaving the intimate family life largely to the womenfolk. It is a scene which could be out of Neguib Mahfuz’s Cairo Trilogy where the patriarch, Ahmad Abd al Jawad, is as strict and authoritarian as he is tender and sensitive.

Hassan’s motivations for writing the book were many. He wanted to make sense of his childhood and his difficult relationship with his father. A clear “father hunger,” feelings of abandonment, and a need to come to terms with that period of his life is apparent.

Hassan also wanted to leave a legacy for young Somalis, including his immediate family members, who grew up during or after the civil war and who could not imagine a non-violent Mogadishu of cafes, cinemas and wide boulevards.

“I wanted them to know before their time that there was another Somalia that had existed which was peaceful, tolerant, and intriguing,” he says.

What is striking about the book is its honesty about issues that are hardly discussed in contemporary Somali society: the clan for instance. Clan conflict has been blamed as the main factor in the civil war with atrocities committed in the name of clan, especially in the capital city Mogadishu, where Lidwein Kaptjeins claims in a recent book that “clan cleansing” actually took place.

In an effort to bring about peace, clan had to be factored into the political reconciliation process with the main clans represented in parliament through a proportional representation system.

At the same time, open talk of clan is frowned upon among contemporary Somalis. For a post-civil war political system based on clan, and many other aspects of social life, there is certain hypocrisy of politesse about talking about clan.

Not so in Hassan’s Mogadishu Memoir. Hassan freely describes his neighbors, their clans, their quirks, and their humanity in an honest and unabashed manner.

Memoirs are exceedingly difficult to write because of their personal nature and the risk of invading the privacy of people mentioned in the work. This is even made more difficult by the nature of Somalis who are stereotyped often as “secretive people.”

“We Somalis are by nature secretive. We frown upon talking about marriages, relations, and ourselves,” Hassan writes. “I have no problem talking about my failings and vulnerabilities.”

Hassan described apprehension among his family members, especially about his references to Abdirahman Jama Barre, former foreign minister of Somalia (and the brother of late president Mohamed Siad Barre), to whom Hassan is related by marriage.

“I have written about [Abdirahman] Jama Barre and [late president Mohamed] Siad Barre before, and it was always contentious in my family. Simply put, I made some members of the family irate.  Although I always disclose my relations to [Abdirahman] Jama Barre in my political writings about him, I make sure to separate between [Abdirahman] Jama Barre, the politician and the public figure, and [Abdirahman] Jama Barre, the relative.  There is this unsubstantiated apprehension among some members of my family that I am going to tarnish the reputation of [Abdirahman] Jama Barre. Unfortunately, my writings about Somalia have generally alienated some members of my family to the extent that I did not even get permission to publish any pictures,” Hassan says.

The book is written in a series of self-contained chapters, each focusing on a different theme: father-son relationship, celebration of motherhood and the resilience of the Somali woman, communal relations in Isku-Raran and Hamarweyne (the neighborhoods where Hassan grew up), schooling, and respect for teachers and elders in traditional Somali society, among others.

The descriptions of arbitrariness of life under Mohamed Siad Barre’s dictatorship are succinct and matter-of-fact, like the descriptions of Nuruddin Farah’s trilogy of “Variations on the theme of an African dictatorship,” the novels Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), Sardines (1981) and Close Sesame (1983).  Hassan describes what happened to one of his famous neighbors:

The first floor of Sidow’s building [Sidow the landlord] was occupied by the family of Dr. Yusuf Osman Samatar “Bardacad.” It consisted of his wife Zeinab, a Somali Arab, and her three children, Libin, Libaan, and Mahad. In the 1960s, Bardacad, Somalia’s preeminent communist leader and longtime friend of Moscow, was the head of a small progressive party, the Somali Democratic Union (SDU). His daughter, Libin, was perhaps one of the prettiest girls in the neighborhood. I used to play with her two brothers (Libaan and Mahad) who were my age. Tragically, Bardacad spent at least 18 years – out of the 21years Siad Barre ruled Somalia – in prison without charges ever being brought against him. Bardacad’s ties with the Soviet Communist Pary and the international socialist movement presumably posed a threat to Barre.

Hassan hopes that Mogadishu Memoir will “…inspire some of the young people to strive to make our native country [Somalia] a better place to live and a place to cherish.”

The book, published by AuthorHouse, is available on Amazon in both paper and Kindle versions and costs between $3.99 and $14.95

Abdinasir Amin is an editor at Sahan Journal. You can follow him at Twitter@nasirowabass or send him an email at nasirke@yahoo.com.

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