“As my African Express flight from Nairobi made its slow descent into Mogadishu, I looked out the window of the plane and saw the shores of the Indian Ocean. The blue water and white sand dunes looked exactly as I had left them. A warm and welcoming feeling of home enveloped me.”
Bashiir read those words from several pages he printed out the night before. His voice shook a little as each syllable stuck to his dry mouth like small ashy particles. He took a sip of water from a bottle he had on the side of the podium. Bashiir tried his best to shield his eyes from all the expectant gazes on him. He felt their hunger for the profound lessons he had learnt from his return to Somalia for the first time in twenty-three years. Or failing that, an exciting adventure story.
A month ago, this seemed like a good idea. Bashiir got an email from his good friend and former classmate in university, Kayin Akinsanya, a boisterous Nigerian who was now the Chair of the African Studies Department at the University of Toronto. Kayin invited him to speak at the awkwardly titled symposium, “Unraveling Somalia: Interrogating the Politics of Diasporic Identity.” A month ago, Bashiir relished the thought of standing in front of an audience, telling them about the things he witnessed during his trip. When Bashiir returned from Somalia, Kayin was one of the first people he called. Bashiir and Kayin met in an undergrad course on “The African Novel” at Queens’ University, and their heated debates about the legacy of colonialism on their beloved continent became famous among their circle of friends. A few minutes into their telephone conversation, Kayin, in his still-pronounced Nigerian accent said, “Eh, you must come to our symposium on Somalia. You must tell us the things you saw.”
On the phone, the idea of taking part in a symposium sounded fun, but he wished he had turned down his good friend’s invitation. For all his other ambitions, Bashiir never fancied himself a writer. He knew he didn’t possess the gift of synthesizing the complex emotional and sensory experience of seeing his hometown for the first time in two decades into a thirty-minute provocative and/or inspirational speech. Hubris had caught up with him, but he soldiered on with his prepared remarks. Bashiir felt a single bead of sweat trickle down the small of his back. He remembered the words of one of his professors in teacher’s collage, whose advice for dealing with first day of teaching jitters was to find one student, lock eyes with him or her, and talk to that one student. Bashiir’s eyes desperately scanned the length of the William Doo Auditorium. His eyes finally fell on Nuur, his student whom he invited to the symposium. It was a benevolent act. He wanted to take Nuur out of his humdrum life in suburban high-rises and introduce him to parts of the city he wished someone had taken him to when he was Nuur’s age. But as he stared into his student’s familiar eyes, he felt grateful to Nuur for providing him with a manageable, trusting audience of one. Suddenly, it all seemed doable.
“I closed my eyes and saw myself as a boy, swimming at Liido, one of Mogadishu’s famous beaches. It was a Friday afternoon and I was spending the day at the beach with my family. As a giant wave hit me, I felt the sting of the salty water in my eyes. I smelled that peculiar earthy, salty scent of the ocean, an aroma I had not experienced anywhere else in the world. From the air, the water looked as cool and inviting as it did when I was a boy. A part of me thought: maybe things aren’t so bad after all. But it didn’t take long for the Mogadishu of my memory to clash with the reality on the ground. On our way to the hotel where I was to stay for the next five days, we drove on Maka Al-mukarama, the most famous boulevard in all of Mogadishu. Suddenly, it hit me just how bad things really were in my childhood city. Two decades of bombardment had made my city a stranger to my eyes. Buildings with gaping holes where doors and windows should’ve been, garbage-strewn sidewalks, and hills of sandbags used as bullet shields were all that remained of that once beautiful street. That’s when it hit me: Mogadishu, this city of over two million people, a city teeming with so much life, was still a war zone.
“The SUV we drove in, courtesy of a well-connected cousin in the government who promised to make my stay in Mogadishu safe and pleasant, zigzagged on the road to avoid craters left by mortars. An armed man drove, with a bodyguard sporting an intimidating Kalashnikov. The bodyguard – a short, sweaty, hairy mass of compact human flesh – told the driver to slow down. Before us was a fast-moving convoy of gray armored vehicles with ‘AU’ written on back, telling us that the convoy belonged to the African Union troops. Afraid we might be mistaken for a suicide bomber, the bodyguard advised the driver to put some distance between them and us. Part of the city was under the control of the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government, with the help of troops from African countries like Uganda and Burundi. But large swaths of the city were still controlled by Al-Shabab, the Al-Qaeda-liked terrorist group.”
Bashiir wished he had erased that part. It sounded too newspaper-ish, like something written by a novice reporter on his first foreign assignment. An assemblage of seemingly important facts strung together for the edification of a reader ignorant of the facts of Somalia’s civil war. But it was too late to change it, so he ploughed ahead.
“From the window of the car, I watched a one-legged man with a crutch, trying his best to navigate the uneven, unpaved sidewalk. One of the many walking wounded I would encounter during my stay. I wondered what had happened to his leg. Did he lose it in one of the countless battles that took place here? How did he get around a city so unfit for the handicapped? I lost sight of him as we drove on.”
That’s better, Bashiir thought. Less affected. More observational.
“At last, we got to the hotel. A heavily fortified oasis of white walls and well-kept gardens. The green courtyard, the lawn chairs, the flowing tea and the animated conversations of the well-heeled guests were almost enough to make me forget that I was in one of the most dangerous capitals in the world. The aroma of Somali tea – a concoction of loose leaf tea, ginger and cinnamon steeped in boiling water, and served with milk and sugar – gave me a delicious, Proustian moment that transported me back to a lost time. A time that will never be regained.”
A Proustian moment? What the hell was I thinking? Bashiir thought. He didn’t even get past Swann’s Way. What on earth was he doing making Proustian references when he couldn’t even bring himself to finish the damn book? He could still remember the first day he encountered Proust, in Somalia, of all places. His father had a leather-bound collection of the complete volumes of In Search of Lost Time, which were among his father’s most prized possessions. He picked up the first book and sat in the garden of his childhood house among the red hibiscus flowers and delved into a world he found remote and alien. Bashiir was suddenly overcome with a dull but all-encompassing dread about the futility of the whole enterprise.
“Since security concerns made going out after sunset unwise, I entertained myself by exploring the old hotel. One night, I stumbled upon one of its many patios. I spent a good chunk of time alone on the patio of the top floor, which overlooked old Mogadishu. Laid out before me was an impressive tableau of wreckage. In every direction I looked there was a landmark that was once a prominent feature in my childhood. To my left was what remained of Hotel Al-Curaba, its lovely arabesque windows still recognizable. To my right were remnants of the red brick façade of the old Parliament, and straight ahead was the Cathedral-style structure of the Italian church, or more accurately, the one wall of it that still stood. These ruined landmarks struck me as a painful reminder of things we lost in the war.”
Bashiir took another swig of his water. “The next day, I left the hotel early to visit my childhood home near the famous Bakare Market. On our way, we drove by the now dilapidated National Theater. I asked the driver to stop so I could snap a few pictures. It felt wrong to just drive by the place where I saw my first play. I was thirteen…”
As he read the sentence, Bashiir’s mind flooded with memories of that first play—a Somali version of Romeo and Juliet—a melodrama about two young lovers from warring clans. His father Yasiin Ilmi, who loved live theater, took him, hoping to instill in his son a love of theater. His father, an Arabic literature professor and a foremost authority on Arabian Nights, loved storytelling. He often told his son that in order to understand the world, one needed a narrative of it. “We need an idea of the world in order to make sense of the world,” his father often proclaimed in his booming, professorial voice. But much to his father’s disappointment, Bashiir never took to storytelling. He loved facts. Observable, quantifiable, scientific facts.
“I tried to focus the lens of my camera on the now graying block letters that read: The National Theater,” Bashiir continued. “Suddenly, I heard the angry screams of a thin young man, front teeth stained from too much khat, a Kalashnikov dangling from his shoulder and two long bullet chains wrapped around his bony torso like a shawl. He had taken offense to my picture taking. Livid, he demanded that I stop photographing him. The driver and the guard, who were equally armed, exchanged angry words with the young man, who looked as though he hadn’t had a decent meal in weeks. I tried to explain to him that I was taking a picture of the theater, not of him, but he seemed too paranoid to accept such an innocent explanation. I wondered what had happened in his life to make him so fidgety, so paranoid. I had no delusions of being James Nachtwey, willing to die for a good photograph, so I tried to placate the young man by deleting the offending photographs as he watched me. Miraculously, it worked. The boy disappeared as quickly as he materialized. Still a bit shaken by the altercation in front of the National Theater, we moved on to the one place in Mogadishu I wanted to see more than anything else: my childhood home. Unfortunately, that part of Mogadishu was contested ground between the forces of Al-Shabab and the government, and they often exchanged mortar shells over my old neighborhood. So the driver warned me that we could only stay there for a few minutes.”
Bashiir took a deep breath and wished he had written this section of his speech with more sensory details. He wanted to linger here and tell the people what it felt like to witness his childhood home in ruins. “On our way to my home, I had played all sorts of moving scenarios in my head about how I would feel when I finally saw the house I grew up in. It was a white, five-bedroom villa with a large garden of red hibiscus flowers protected by a blue metal gate. It saddened me when the driver told me that he was going to keep the car running.”
Bashiir continued reading his speech in a slow, deliberate tone that allowed the audience to follow him one sentence at a time. He occasionally looked away from the paper in front of him to find a few older men and women nodding as if they too were remembering the homes they had abandoned. As he continued to read, his mind drifted back to that hot, windy day when he visited his childhood home. He could hear his voice telling the audience the story, but his mind was back in Mogadishu.
* * *
Bashiir sat forward, practically thrusting himself into the tiny space between the front seats of the car so that he can give the driver the directions to his old home. They went down the hill from Maka-Al-Mukarama on the nameless street that ran past his house. He had trouble recognizing any of the stores and cafés that once lined the street. Nothing was familiar. There was no sign of the photography shop where they had taken a family portrait in the early eighties. The two-storey white villa that belonged a wealthy family with a yellow dog tied to the gate seemed to have disappeared entirely. The dusty playground where Bashiir and his friends played soccer was overgrown with cactus trees. He was disturbed by the eerie sound of complete silence. Never in his life had he heard such total and menacing silence. It felt as though at any minute a forgotten landmine could explode under their car or a teenager with an oozy could pounce from behind one of the cactus trees. Anything was possible, and this knowledge sent a wave of fear and thrill through him.
The driver finally managed to plough through a sand hill that Bashiir thought concealed his childhood home. He was right. Just behind the sand hill and some shrubbery was what remained of his once beautiful home. Gone were the large red flowers that covered much of the garden. Also gone were the ceiling, the windows, doors and the metal gate with the peephole. All that was left of the house was the foundation showing the divisions of the various rooms. It looked as though a hurricane came and left behind a mere blueprint on the ground.
The soft hum of the car engine was the only sound in the neighborhood save for the occasional chirping of some birds. Bashiir walked around the house, stepping over the concrete foundation that separated the rooms. He stood in the area that used to be the garden. He tried to picture the flowers, their vivid red pedals swaying gently in the breeze. All he could see was a tattered black plastic bag stuck to a cactus plant, blowing in the wind.
Bashiir remembered the neighborhood goats that used to taunt him by eating the soft green leaves of the flowers whenever the maid forgot to close the gate. He hated those goats for destroying the flowers he had come to love. It was his chore to water them, and in so doing, they became family pets of sorts.
Bashiir stepped over a few large rocks whose origin he couldn’t make sense of and stood in the middle of what would have been his mother’s bedroom, where in 1998 his half brother Isaaq, who had never fled the war, was killed along with his new wife. Bashiir learned from a relative that Isaaq and his wife of three weeks were sleeping when a mortar came through the ceiling, instantly killing the newlyweds in their bed. Bashiir kicked some small rocks and sand with the front of his shoe and felt the slippery texture of a tile under the dirt. The afternoon sun shone on part of the blue ceramic tile. He squatted down and brushed away the sand and dust with his hand until the tile was fully visible. A thick crack ran across it. Bashiir burrowed his fingers under each side of the tile and tried to reclaim it from the ground. It wouldn’t budge. He used all the strength he could muster to dislodge the tile. It finally gave way, breaking in two and sending Bashiir falling back on his bottom.
He got up and dusted his khaki pants with his hands. It occurred to him that the small piece of tile the color of the ocean was the only concrete remnant of his past that he could take with him back to Canada. So he put one piece of the tile in his pocket, threw the other half and walked back toward the SUV. Once inside, he closed to the door quietly, as if afraid to disturb the ghosts of his brother Isaaq and his wife and all the squatters who sought shelter in his home and who might have met their end there. He closed his eyes and gave himself in to the comforting sway of the car as it navigated sand hills, rocks, mud holes and everything else that twenty years of war had wrought.
* * *
As Bashiir continued his speech, a part of him wished he had written about the multitude of ways his heart broke when he saw his childhood home. But it felt too intimate a loss to share with a room full of strangers. So he moved on to recounting his trip to a feeding center run by a distant relative who wanted him to see the good work the NGO she founded had been doing, as if to scold him, as if to say while you cowardly fled to the West, we have been here saving lives.
“Later that day, I was invited to an early dinner by a good friend of my mother who never left the country, unlike so many people who had the means to go abroad after the civil war. We ate at a new private club where Mogadishu’s business elites and returned Diaspora congregated. As we feasted on mango salad and succulent goat meat, the absurdity of my day hit me. In the morning, I was talking to the mothers’ of acutely malnourished babies, some of whom had walked for days to save their children from a certain death. And in the evening, I was enjoying a four course meal that made me forget, temporarily, that I was in a war ravaged country.”
Bashiir turned to the next page to be confronted by two pages of an unadulterated rant, a diatribe against the evils of clan-based society; against the brutality and carnage warlords have visited upon his country; against the ineffectual efforts of the international community to put his country back together. But Bashiir saved his most venomous attack for Al-Shabab, a group whose perversion of his faith allowed them to justify unspeakable cruelty against its own people. It was too angry, too moralizing; too ‘you don’t know the shit I’ve seen.’ These angry remarks might have sounded great in the privacy of his consciousness as he typed them late at night on his laptop. But here in front of the sixty or so people who had gathered to hear a piece of travelogue, an adventure story, a political rant would’ve been a disaster. Bashiir quickly scanned the length of the page to see if any of his remarks could be salvaged. He had to decide what to do and do it fast, for he could already hear the confused murmur of the audience. He made a quick editorial decision to chuck the next two pages and moved on the final paragraph.
“In my last night in Mogadishu, I tried to write down some of my thoughts and feelings about the absurdities of life in the capital. I was a jumble of contradictions. I felt grateful for having left Somalia before the outbreak of the war and for having made a life for myself elsewhere. But I was also filled with shame for leaving my childhood city after only five days. It felt as though, once again, I was abandoning it.”
Tears welled in Bashiir’s eyes as he read those lines, clouding the words on the page. The tears had gathered so quickly he didn’t have time to figure out what had prompted them. He heard his voice crack, cleared his throat and took a gulp of water from the bottle. He glanced up at his audience as if they might provide him with an answer for the tears. “Sorry,” he said and looked back down on the page. “But I forgave myself for these contradictions,” Bashiir continued, his voice gathering strength and conviction. “Somalis are, after all, a people of profound contradictions. We are fiercely loyal and proud. But we can also be cutthroat. We can be nauseatingly patriotic but also sell our nation out for personal gain. We are a country famous for astonishing poetry and folklore. But we’re also a place where hands are chopped off for petty theft, adulterers are stoned to death and girls are raped with impunity.”
Bashiir looked up at the audience. He had recaptured them. They were with him. He glanced back at the page and saw that he was almost at the finishing line. “The following morning as my plane taxied for takeoff, I was unwilling to say goodbye to my childhood hometown with so many sad memories. So I did my best to banish the catalogue of horrific images I carried in my head and instead thought of the famous resilience of my people.”
* * *
After the other guests spoke and the Q&A portion of the evening was over, Bashiir shook the many hands that greeted him and thanked a few of the students from the African Studies Department who put together the event. He made sure to thank his friend Kayin and signaled for his student, Nuur, that it was time to go. Moments later, they were outside in the cold November air. As he pulled up the zipper of his jacket, Bashiir looked at the clear sky and noticed the tiny stars that dotted it. A sharp pang of gratitude hit him. “So?” Bashiir said to his pupil in a tone of muted excitement. “What did you think?”
Nuur paused for a moment as though he were running the entirety of Bashiir’s speech in his head, selecting the parts that warranted comment.
“Well?” Bashiir said, a slight impatience creeping into his voice. A touch of shame fluttered somewhere deep in him for being so solicitous.
“How old were you when you left Mogadishu?” Nuur asked, as if no other part of the speech left an impression on him.
“Fourteen,” Bashiir said. “Why do you ask?”
“It sounded like. You sounded like, I don’t know, like you left a part of you there.”
Bashiir took a sharp inhale of breath as if punched in the gut. It never occurred to him that he might have left a part of him in Mogadishu. He had always prided himself on his ability to adapt. Survive. Move on. They walked quietly for several minutes on a small, tree-lined path that passed the music building. To their right, the office towers of downtown glimmered in the distance like a million little stars. To their left, the windows of the old, ivy-covered music department showed a small group students rehearsing what sounded like a chamber string piece. The deep sound of the cello pierced him. Bashiir slowed down to take in the melancholic music that seeped through the windows. He recognized the piece as Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major and for a fleeting moment, the sound of the cello filled his heart with remembrance of things Past.
Hassan Ghedi Santur is a Somali-Canadian novelist and a freelance broadcaster. He immigrated to Canada just before the outbreak of the country’s civil war. He is the author of the novel Something Remains. He lives in Toronto, Canada. In 2011, he traveled to his hometown of Mogadishu for the first time in 21 years. Inspired by that trip, “Proust in Somalia” is an excerpt from his recently completed second novel, The Youth of God.