As part of my doctoral studies, I interviewed young Muslims from Sydney. Some of my participants were from the African continent. One young Somali told me about how he was subjected to racism from Arabic-speaking Muslims in Lakemba.
I thought of him when reading American Somali Abdi Nor Iftin’s 2008 memoir Call Me American.
“Growing up with a huge number of Somali exiles returning from Saudi Arabia, I never understood why my mom and her parents dreamed of living in a place [Madinah] where Somalis are unwelcome. It would be many years before I realized that Somalis are pretty much unwelcome everywhere, and dreams are all we have.”
How many Australian Muslims know much about Somalia? Are all Somalis monolithic dark-skinned city-dwellers? Iftin tells us his family was pastoralists from south-central Somalia. Livestock, not notes and coins, was the currency of his people.
Are Somalis overly strict?
“In the bush Somali men and women work together, talk freely with each other, and even play games together … My dad had introduced my mom to several games like high jump, sprint running, and chasing dik-diks, the little antelopes not much bigger than a cat. Mom loved all those games. They would hold sticks five feet high, then take turns jumping over them. Mom learned to jump and land without stumbling. She said Dad never beat her at this game. Mom was shy and respectful to her husband, but when it came to games and fun, she was a fierce competitor.”
The 1970s saw a vicious war between Somalia and Ethiopia. It became a proxy war of the greater Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.
At first, the Soviets supported Somalia but then swapped sides. The US then entered on the side of Somalia’s military strongman. Things became worse thanks to a terrible drought that killed livestock, the currency for the nomadic population.
The author’s parents were displaced and moved to the capital Mogadishu, the first time they had lived in an urban area. People here spoke a different dialect. Mogadishu, on the Indian Ocean coast was a place with cinemas and fancy Italian buildings.
Mogadishu locals made fun of his mother for her accent, for not having memorised the Qur’an and for wearing clothes that had the smell of goat urine.
She was also introduced to strange new practices.
“The women of Mogadishu were circumcised as children, but nomads don’t practice female genital mutilation.”
His mother was pressured as an adult to undergo the procedure with no painkillers. Just the thought of it makes Iftin furious.
“It makes me so angry when I think about it. In my job as a medical interpreter in Maine, I often tell new Somali immigrants that they cannot mutilate their daughters in this country, which surprises them.
This terrible custom is rooted in ignorance and will only change with education.”
Abdi Nor Iftin (2018) Call Me American – A Memoir, Penguin Random House.