What does it mean to be Somali?

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Maxamed Ibrahim.

I came of age in a little town in a little state. I am, for all intent and purpose, blessed. And I know this. I left a country of poverty and war and came to a country of plenty. I came to America. There is a certain privilege that comes with this experience. For me however, there is far more guilt. Guilt that I survived, while so many others starved, or were left behind in the war. Guilt that leads me to ask: “What makes you so worthy,” For a while it was God, my survival was ordained, it was reasoned. But I left that teaching behind. If God had anything to do with this then he should have chosen a more worthy subject to save. Or maybe it was just my own failings. I think, I should have been a little stronger, a little braver, a little smarter. But that’s not how life happens. So here I am in the little state, in Vermont.

For all accounts I had a pleasant childhood. I did not learn to fear the world like Jame Baldwin’s father did. I was not educated into the world by the logic of the streets like Ta-Neshi Coates was. I did not feel I was of the old black immigrants, who came to America in chains or the new Somali immigrants who came to America to leave their chains behind. When I came to Vermont there was only one Somali family in the whole state (as far as I know), now there are dozens. I was one of four black students in my six hundred student elementary school and the only black person in my sixty student high school. And I did, for the most part, just fine. But there was always something within me that stopped me from being a true middle class American. I wanted the world to stop making me cry. Even at seven years of age, I knew the world outside the Vermont curtains were stained red in the blood of other less fortunate children. I think this knowledge produced an anxiety that has lasted my entire life. I ask myself, “Who am I to enjoy this life.” I think it displays a certain truth of the world, its callousness and disregard for life, and yet I ask myself, “Who are you to know things?” Who am I to know truth. But it’s more than the emptiness of truth in a world of untruth and propaganda, what I really know is fear. Fear that I am alive.

In 2013 I went to Mogadishu, Somalia for an internship with the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies. Eighteen years is a long time to be cast out from the place you were born, to be brought to an alien world, to have grown to point where the alien world is the comfortable experience and the home world is the alien experience. This is what it means to have an identity crisis. I was hardly ever fully Somali, what ever that means, but I was never fully American, what ever that means, either. So what does it mean to return to this place 18 years later. It means nothing. And potentially it means everything. I have come to my homeland but I am not “home” yet. It may have been the illusions of some diaspora Somalis that they would feel belonging if only they went back to their motherland, but it was not among my naive illusions, or so I thought. I am not the culturally starved Afro-American looking for the voices of his ancestors, or so I thought. I am not the confused but idealistic Somali who has lived on the stories of their Somali parents. I have no stories of Somalia. I have no stories of Mogadishu. My Somali parents told me no stories. I only have stories of me. And unlike in my childhood, I do not speak these secrets so freely anymore. Because they are my stories and my experiences and try as I might I have learned no one can understand them but me. But here I am. No longer a boy but a man. A man who made his way back to Somalia even if it took him 18 years. To me Somalia was probably more of an idea or feeling than a physical place. In the end it may have not mattered where I came back to, it would all have been alien anyway. Here I am though. Here I am. And I’m still standing. Or at least… I have not fallen. That is all I can say about about what it means. For a long time Somalia was something from my past. It both haunted me and inspired me. I could not go forward without acknowledging its profound physical and emotional impact on my cosmology. All things the same, it would have been far easier if I could forget Somalia. It would have been easier to become American. After reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in a Women’s History class in High School I posed a question to my classmates: “Is the illusion of happiness the same thing as true happiness?” No one gave an answer. Such is life.

I always used my Somaliness to escape from my blackness, and it was easy because Somaliness was something America didn’t understand, so it was easy to hide. I bring up blackness because that is the prism through which I knew no matter how long I live here, no matter how well I speak the language, no matter how American I am, America will always insist I’m not quite American enough. It is also the prism I learned I was, in fact, American. I learned this from whispers of “nigger” and “kiss my big black ass” from the mouth of white people. I learned this from the mouth of Africans too, who will demand to know “where is your blood from,” who will not let me be American, who want me to join them in the security blanket of being an outsider together. I learned this from the assumption that I must be good at basketball. I learned this from the paranoia, that it truly was the first thing America saw of me. As James Baldwin says in his essay Many Thousands Gone: “It means something to be a Negro, after all, as it means something to have been born in Ireland or in China, to live where one sees space and sky or to live where one sees nothing but rubble or nothing but high buildings. We cannot escape our origins, however hard we try, those origins which contain the key, could we but find it, to all that we later become.” I don’t profess to understand America the way James Baldwin did, but I must remark there are some striking similarities.

Places, are strange, it’s hard to become one with it, not matter how well you know it, or are familiar with it. I think partly because we are systematically alienated from the land but also the sense of “community” in America, even in “progressive” beds like Vermont. Even in Vermont, a place that prides itself on its “community” tradition, I find its existence really suspiciously fictitious. They are more about a “certain kind of community”, a preserving a certain history, and often a certain kind of people. “Community” in Vermont, to me, rest on a idea of “open access to the land”, but this alone does not build a community between people. It’s the sort of community that depends on who is there and who isn’t there. The community is not built on a collective ownership of their society. This may seem obvious to some people but this “community, this liberalism, is an oxycodone, it numbs you to the pains of existential awareness. And that’s Vermont, it’s a drug, a drug that administered free of charge to every resident. The parameters of the conversations and the politeness on the public radio station establish this sort of fake security and sincerity.

This mental closeness, this claustrophobia of Vermont makes me say to myself: “One day, I’ll run from this place.” But it’s not so easy is it. For many Americans the dream is the idea of America as it ought to be. Or maybe the dream is security, security from poverty, security from history, and security from the violence of security. But for me, the dream had always been Somalia.

The external quest, the quest of geography, is facilitated by the internal quest, the quest for a peace of mind. The internal quest for me once entailed Somalia. I was Somalia and Somalia was I. But in the last few years I’ve realized that was always false. I dreamed of other places and expected the real to live up to the simulations. My greatest desire has always been to belong; to a team, to a country, to a people, to a crew, to a family. Being from somewhere else has a liberating quality, it allows you to liberate yourself from the history and crimes of the place you are. Someone was murdered here you hear, but you think: “This is not my business, I’m not really even here.” Instead of being a citizen I pretended I was a visitor. As James Baldwin says in his essay Many Thousand Gone “the making of an American begins at that point where he himself rejects all other ties, any other history, and himself adopts the vesture of his adopted land”. But for me, this is not a complete retreat. My mistake was thinking I had to, could only be, one identity. To be Somali, or to be American. When I visited my uncle in Nairobi in 2006 and put this question to him he said: “You are both.” If I only believed. In the same way, it means something to be Somali. It seems there are similar criterias here, specifically you must speak Somali and be Muslim. Two criterias that I can not meet. Nor do I feel that I must meet.

To believe one has “a people” is a liberating and reassuring concept, especially when in the company of other alien people. You convince yourself you have history, your history is their history, and the history of ten million people is far greater than the history of a single life. You are a part of great cosmic order, you have a place, you have a path and it’s better kept and more just than the path of the aliens. This is the great delusion. The delusion that someone knows what they are doing.

In an interview on CBC Radio show Q, veteran investigative Mexican-American journalist Alfredo Corchado had an appropriate comment about his ancestral home of Mexico after his family left it for America. Corachado investigated the drug cartels in Mexico, and like many journalists, received death threats. I think many Africans and especially Somalis will find his perspective a familiar subject. This comment directly relates to the conundrum of third-culture kids, essentially, people caught between two countries, two histories. But it’s also about the role of the diaspora in the development of the homeland. The conversation went as follows:

Shad: “You quote your uncle as saying ‘Mexico isn’t cursed by history but by betrayal’. Do you agree?”

Alfredo: “No I don’t. I mean, there was a lot of things I wanted to prove my mother wrong & my uncle wrong. My uncle felt that–by that I mean the context of that was that he felt that too many people left Mexico. Too Many people saw the United States as the escape valve. And so they would leave. And he was one of these people that felt the future was in Mexico–that we had to do something about it. I don’t know that–I mean I know that we didn’t betray Mexico. Often times during that death threat–I really felt like Mexico had betrayed me”.

As K’Naan says in his song Wav’in Flag (the original, not that Coca Cola nonsense); “But it’s my home, all I have known, where I got grown.” And that it. That’s my realization, my acceptance, my penance to myself. We are not created by the imagined community we want to belong to. Somalia became this place I use to know. Somalia was going to be my savior, even though in my mind, I was saving it. I’m of this place that I am of. This place called Vermont. I shouldn’t regret or be ashamed of the person that I have become because of the place “where I got grown.” This is me winning a battle in a war I was not a soldier in. I didn’t betray Somalia be leaving and I didn’t betray the fallen by not falling.

The first task of a meditation on anything is to not allow it to become a meditation on everything. A habit I ritually perform almost every time. Or is it like those rainy anxiety filled days below the shadow of Mt. Meru in which I wrote frantically “I must write.” And the writing itself, philosophical rambling though it was, was therapeutic. Baldwin writes that any writer “feels that the world into which he is born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talents.” The world one is born into feels alien to the world one feels he or she should be living. The difference between the life you feel you deserve and the life you are given condition you into considering the fault lies within. You are too weak, you are too lazy, you are too dumb. From a strange perspective if you don’t like where you are, how you got there becomes irrelevant. It is important to internalize that other people’s successes are not your failures. To get here you must recognize and appreciate how far you come, to mark your progress. Without this you will be lost in an endless progression of movements to better yourself. To know your history, is divine, but the rest is up to you.

A version of this article originally appeared on Maxamed Ibrahim’s blog. It has been reprinted with permission. Follow Mohamed on Twitter: @MaatMHI.

  • Shukria Omar

    MashaAllah! Very strong and powerful words. I felt as if you were talking to my soul as I was reading this. This topic of Somali identity is rarely talked about, and it has become some sort of a taboo topic to mention to even our own selves sometimes. But we forget that by not talking about it, we loose ourselves, and have this ‘identity crisis’ as you put it. Once again, I condemn you on touching on this topic! Thumbs up! And continue the great work!

  • ugaas

    Nice words and good feeling, but the truth is every body has to build his/her homeland. No one will like you where ever you from.

  • Aidid Aided Madar

    It is very interesting words which put me under control.

  • Ahmed

    Good writing, but then the author did not say anything about his backgroung, even little bit to better the flavour of the article, so in my view he lelf the cup half empty.

  • aa koby

    i really admired the style of writing, very intriguing to keep reading.

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