One woman serenaded a language – Arabic; a culture – Arab culture; and a country – Egypt – more than any other person.
Umm Kulthum. The iconic image of Umm Kulthum — accompanied by a retinue of male percussionists — is that of her standing on a stage clutching tightly at her scarf. She would throw her voice one notch higher each time, as if reaching for the very heavens, as waves of ecstasy swept her listeners, who wept and called for encores.
Umm Kulthum’s concerts were a must-see in the Arab world; for prince and pauper, for the Gulf Royals and for ordinary Cairo residents.
Another woman at another time is serenading another country — Somalia; and another culture — Somali; and this time a city — Mogadishu. That woman is the Kenyan writer and Daily Nation columnist Rasna Warah.
Rasna has organised, with the help of Somali friends Ismail Osman and Mohammud Diriye, a one-of-a kind exhibition that opens on June 4 at the Alliance Française in Nairobi. The exhibition, dubbed Mogadishu Then and Now, runs till June 22 and will be followed by a book later in the year. The book will be published in English, Turkish and Somali.
Mogadishu is also referred to as Xamar. There are competing narratives as to the meanings and etymology of the words “Mogadishu” and “Xamar.”
The word Mogadishu is variously translated as “the seat of the Shah,” and “abattoir for sheep” from the Arabic “Maq’adu Shah” and the Somali “Maqal – Disho” respectively.
Xamar also has contested derivations — from the tamarind tree (“Xamar” in Somali) or a certain hue of red (also “Xamar” in Somali and ultimately from the Arabic root word for red “Axmar”). It is not clear if the red refers to the colour of the soil in Mogadishu (which it is) or the original inhabitants (“Reer Xamar”), who are several shades lighter than the quintessential, textbook, nomad Somali (think Iman’s dark brown). Reer Xamar are products of interaction between various people, among them the original inhabitants of the Horn and the early Arab and Persian settlers who came to Mogadishu more than a thousand years ago.
Many people think of Mogadishu as a hellhole with nothing much to offer; far from it. As is common with many city-states in the East African littoral, Mogadishu has a rich and variegated history. Start rattling off names like Lamu, Mombasa, Kilwa, Zanzibar and Sofala and you will quickly get the picture.
In Country Cousins, an essay on the travails of Mogadishu, renowned Somali writer Nuruddin Farah describes ancient Mogadishu as “a city-state, the capital of a nation-state and a metropolis with a multiple source of memories, some of which are alien to Africa, others native and of an enduring kind.” He also maintains that the city “owed its prestige and prosperity to its urban residents, many of them Persians or Arabs, from whom it acquired its heterogeneity.”
Rasna beautifully juxtaposes Mogadishu in all its pre-civil war glory and after the devastation and destruction that followed the collapse of the state in 1991. In movie terms, it is Two Days in Paris meets Apocalypse Now — offering a contrast between what the city used to look like and what it has been reduced to now so that people can see that Mogadishu once had a history and culture.
Rasna says this exhibition is important because “there are Somalis alive today, especially the youth, who never knew another Mogadishu. Since most of its history was destroyed by the war, it is important for present generations and future generations to know that Mogadishu was once a beautiful, cosmopolitan, functioning city.”
For Rasna and her colleagues, this has been a labour of love. She became involved quite by accident. In 2011, after the famine in Somalia was announced, many Somali analysts were suggesting that perhaps the famine was being exaggerated as a fund-raising opportunity because the areas that were being declared as famine-stricken were the most fertile in Somalia. The famine was also being reported against the backdrop of a bumper harvest in 2010.
As Rasna started unravelling the famine story, she became aware of more stories about Somalia that she had not encountered before in the mainstream media. She describes the process as being like “peeling an onion” – the more she peeled, the more layers she came across.
“After the famine, the Kenyan incursion took place, then the push to approve the UN-led process of constitution-making and ending the tenure of the transitional federal government.” She says that from that point onwards, it has been about telling the more nuanced story and the counter-narratives rather than the one story about hunger and starvation, piracy and terrorism that dominates the international media. Rasna finally made a trip to Mogadishu in November 2011.
“What amazed me was that here was a city that was not all that far from Nairobi and it was gutted. I couldn’t believe that the international community had allowed the city to disintegrate. I couldn’t understand how billions of dollars had been raised over the years in the name of Somalia yet not a single school or hospital or government office had been rebuilt with that money. I remember thinking, this is Kabul on the beach except in Kabul people didn’t squat in the buildings, they didn’t squat in hotel lobbies or museums or libraries. They squatted on public land, but they built their own houses on the land.” What struck her even more in the gutted, torn-down and bullet-ridden city was that “…you could see the splendour; you could see that this was once a grand city with ornate pillars, hotel lobbies that were grand, there was still this grandeur about it, wide boulevards, and buildings overlooking the sea. In the old town, Xamarweyne, you can see architecture that is common in Lamu, Mombasa and Zanzibar, traditional coral and stone Arab houses that are now dilapidated but which are all connected to the world via satellite dishes.”
One famous Somali musician — Nur Adan Jamac Bulaale (Nur Daalacay) — in a beautiful, lilting and longing song on Xamar promises not to let the city continue in its current destructive trajectory. He implores Xamar to be patient with him in order to deliver that promise. Somalia in rustic, nomadic imagery is compared to a mythical she-camel, the beautiful Mandeeq, and hence the joke “Mandeeq has been milked dry.” Nur’s song, as if imploring a beautiful lover for patience and forbearance, couldn’t be more apt.
Rasna’s trip to Mogadishu and her subsequent piece on it opened up an opportunity to tell the story of the city. She has been writing about urban spaces and cities, their rise and fall, for years. Rasna worked for the UN agency, UN-Habitat, and her photo essays on cities as diverse as Nairobi and Kabul have been published widely. She was intrigued by the question of why the urban space that is Mogadishu was allowed to disintegrate.
Ismail Osman introduced Rasna to a former curator of the Mogadishu museum, Mohammud Diriye, who had photos of old Mogadishu, some of which had not been seen for years for various reasons — the war and fact that some were in people’s private homes. These photos were combined with Rasna’s own photos of Mogadishu from her trip and the idea of the exhibition was born.
The exhibition was first shown at the Istanbul conference on Somalia held last week from the May 31 to June 1. It is Rasna’s hope that someday the exhibition finds its way to Mogadishu so that residents there can see what their city used to look like before the war.
The contested narratives of Mogadishu and Somalia are stark. There is the narrative of violence, clan fighting, starvation, and of internally displaced persons on one hand and resilience and entrepreneurship among the destruction on the other. Rasna reckons that whereas Somalis tend to be prolific communicators and have a lot of websites where they talk to each other, they are not talking to the rest of the world about what it is like being a Somali.
“You should be able to tell your own story; if you don’t, people will tell it for you and they will distort the facts to suit their interests. For Somalis, Mogadishu is or was the most beautiful city in the world; they will say the food is fabulous, they will talk about the theatre, and the stadium where they used to play football – and those are the narratives we are not hearing. If you don’t change that narrative, people will continue talking on your behalf.”
This obviously raises the question of Rasna herself, because she is not Somali: Can someone from another language, culture and place tell one’s story? Do you need to have a lived experience of a culture and language to tell its stories? These are vexing questions even for trained social science scholars; suffice it to say that Rasna, who is of Indian descent but identifies herself as a person of Triple Heritage (the title of one of her books) has done a pretty good job of it so far.
Dr Abdinasir Amin is a malaria case management and monitoring and evaluation specialist. Email: [email protected]
He is also an observer of the human condition.