Abdi Latif Ega


Whether lauded as a beacon of democracy, or vilified as a failed state overrun by pirates and warlords, Somalia’s narrative, as a nation-state, has primarily been dictated by outside powers. At the time of its independence in 1960, the West superficially touted Somalia as an example of Western ideals making a foothold in Africa. Internally however, the civilian government was weakened by its inability to respond to social problems stemming from clannism. By 1969, a coup d’état led by Siad Barre overthrew the civilian government, and the military junta that came into power claimed to do so to properly address the needs of Somali people. Before the coup, all of the government’s dealings were determined by the deep-rooted loyalties of the clan, or qabil. One of the primary objectives of the junta was to do away with clannism as a way of making Somalia more modern.  

The novel is set during this moment of tension and transition in Somalia. Its title Guban is a name given to volcanic mountain range in the northeastern part of Somalia also means "burnt" in English. Abdi Latif Ega creates a narrative where the struggles of a nation dealing with the conflicting forces of tradition and modernity are contextualized by following the lives in one family. The novel is set in motion when Haogsaday, the head of a Somali family, is arrested without evidence and charged with high crimes against the state. The state, having recently undergone a coup d’état by Western educated military General Beheyeah and General Kumanay, is at the stage where visions of modernity struggle against the persistent customs of the past. Haogsaday's family, led by his wife Tusmo, undergo a journey to try and combat the charges against him in order to reunite the family. The resulting quest reveals a state rife with corruption and held hostage by clan politics. In the events that follow, Ega examines the world behind the deceptive facade of a country marching towards modernity. He intertwines the effects of the Cold War, the Socialist revolution, a military junta, with the experiences of a compelling cast of Somali characters. 

This excerpt entitled “Stock Exchange” is set during an extravagant gathering to introduce and expose the character of Colonel Ali Deray who wields power through corruption, the dynamic between the characters of the city and those of the Hinterland, and the role of women. In Ali Deray's home, both entertainment and patronage share equal weight. He is known as a “magnet for making money” and the guests there know Ali’s impression of them could make or break them. In this scene, Colonel Deray ridicules a clan visitor from the hinterland, much to the amusement of all his guests. This scene gives a glimpse into the dynamics of the powered elite and the machinations occurring during a period of transition.

Warscapes partner African Lookbook has a complete oral history with the author Abdi Latif Ega. Click here to read...

Chapter Seventeen

Stock Exchange

The home of Ali Deray as usual was the hub of the city’s jet-set not because he was this brilliant conversationalist, but because he was a magnet for making money, and a lot of it. They said it flowed through Ali, and he was the money flow because he was the interlocutor between the always elusive officialdom and the eager, very greedy sell-your-mother type of entrepreneur. It was a pretentious lot that gathered there, usually bearing gifts for Ali’s voracious entourage who could possibly make everything crumble into a ‘no deal’ if certain overzealous gestures were misconstrued as negligence, or worse, a sign of disrespect.

The treasures of these gatherings were the very beautiful women from most any and everywhere in the nation of the Somal. These were free spirited often stunning representations of the kaleidoscope of the Somal’s legendarily unique and unadulterated natural beauty. Depending on the position they occupied in this patriarchal society, these women were articulate and highly opinionated in such irreverent ways that they pushed Somal’s already egalitarian tradition. They neither sanctioned the institution of marriage in a society built on this particular notion of fidelity, nor were their interactions with the men around them ones of inequality.

These men sought solace and feminine engagement beyond the much defined gender roles that were largely subservient. Often, these successful males did not marry this type, but, on the other hand, practically did. They spent most of their private afternoon hours in the women’s company, sometimes individually or as a group. There was a heavy tone of sexuality in the ambience at these closed door sessions in what was usually the private residence of one of these women.

Music and musicians, and all manner of artists joined the gatherings as well. There was an interesting interaction between the normally feared officials and the artist whose power lay in articulating the mood of the masses. Dissent was in this era as much as in the yesteryears, dominated by revered poets and their poetry. This form of lyrics now put to music was, though very much hidden in the idiomatic subtext of the rural nomadic existence, a conceptual wellspring through the centuries of Somal existence.  

The afternoons started off with the heavy scent of the burning of perfume. The traditional frankincense and myrrh mixed with a combination of perfume baked into a cake and burned on a charcoal fire, creating smoke which enveloped everything the body, the clothes and the whole environment.

Their afternoons in this ambience of ancient lure scent and the beauty of women accentuated by their loose translucent bright pastels and brave long dark complexions- and set with a luxurious mane of provocative, unruly, glowing curly hair. The innuendo of their shapeliness less than concealed by the see-through pretentious barrier of very flimsy silk, the men adorned by the multicolored ma’wiss skirts slightly more soberly colored slick, both dazzled in this indoor attire suggestive of the gathering’s opulently cozy ambience.

Everyone showed up here with the customary bundles of chat, stimulus for the artists and greedy, ambitious deal-seekers alike, and great also for animated conversations at such an intimate gathering of a very few choice people all connected by different pleasures. They sat together in very close circles, pairing off in twos and sitting on the lush cushioned carpets surrounded by tea, the perfumed smoke, and the gentle wind of the sea breeze from the Indian Ocean. Since the Somals were naturally newshounds, here in part was where Ali gathered the latest news from the previous nights’ rendezvous – here, at the elite watering holes where a lot of discussions on all types of concerns – political, clan, personal, on prominent people’s mishaps  and embarrassments, and so forth. The crazy atmosphere at these tourist retreats, especially when induced with the reduced inhibitions of the already uninhibited Somal disposition, made for rambunctious evenings heavily doused with inebriated congeniality, all stoked by the blaring infective rhythms of the live band coupled with a wonderful cool sea breeze, a great apology on behalf of the sun, by the ocean.

Ali came into the gathering amidst smiles and salutations from the cozy group who had already started their chat session.

Warya, Ali, you are so busy running this town, you are late.” Ali strutted in with an air of great self-importance.“Yes, you know how it is. I was kept waiting by one of those young ignoramuses from the Hinterland.”

Four throats agreed with a loud reassuring,“I know, I know.” “Yes,” said Ali, “the idiot was a young clan member, so fresh you could smell the camel odor of his ways, and he didn’t know anything, yet he insisted he should get a great paying job because he was my clan member. He said he didn’t want the job when I offered him the regular jobs he was qualified for. He arrogantly declined, said it seemed such a preposterous position when the entire government belonged to him.”

“He queried what was the use of the President appointing me to this position when I was not really helping him, a clan member, get a job with all the perks deserving of his noble lineage. He became increasingly agitated and as the conversation continued along a path he saw no gain in it. You should’ve seen this nomad. He never saw what he looked, nor saw any of his shortcomings. He just didn’t see any of it as his own serious inadequacies. He really took offence at my sticking to him some crazy rules that I made.”

“He even once was so disgusted by me that he said he was dumbfounded that I, such a weakling, should be anywhere near ‘the clan’s business.’ After besieging me, I quickly decided to give some him money for a few days, and told the driver to take him to the clan hostel. I also guided him to see an elder, because I simply could not make this guy an officer in the military nor give him a position he wanted without causing too much strife. “What I did do was basically, I got rid of him with a bribe.

I told him he shouldn’t worry about such a position at the moment, but to first get acclimated to the city ways. I insisted on this, although he was not convinced of the wisdom of it. In his eyes he never wanted to be anything like I was. I wish you could have seen his facial expressions. He was so disgusted with me, he just thought I should be shot at first dawn.”

Everyone present in the large expansive living room gathering was teary eyed throughout Ali’s narrative. There was so much laughter at this character, they all knew so well, seemingly, the great oppositional differences between their world view and those of the people of the Hinterland.

Ali then laid the stuff he was carrying down, and went to take a bath to wash and cool his body from the relentless heat of the day. The others continued laughing and expounded on this incident with anecdotes of their own. This, after all, was a favored topic of the city dwellers as it elicited great consternation about the behavior of their uncouth kinsfolk.

The conversation was then directed by Ali on his return, he was all refreshed and ready to tackle the forthcoming chat session with a much savored anticipation. After sitting down in his luxuriously prepared space, with every little detail taken care of by instructions to the maid by the women of the house, he sat on a small mattress covered with perfumed  sheets. Immediately in front of him were his cups of spiced tea, an ashtray for his cigarettes, and water. He had already changed into a sleeveless tank top, and next to him sat his bundles of this ancient plant, wrapped in a wet towel to keep it alive by lessening the rapid dehydration which makes it lose its potency.

It was such an extravagance when you looked at the time and related things that went into the creating of this ambience. There was, underlying all this, a great and almost spiritual reverence, and this whole gathering centered on a certain religious type of feeling. They literally brought themselves together primarily to go on this induced journey of the mind.This stimulant released the more acute conservativeness involved with issues of gender, primarily sex.

The artists – be it playwrights, poets, or song lyricists – were frowned upon in this society, ironically revered for the magnificent work they put out. This stemmed from a religious idea that such endeavors were, at best, foolhardy. They were also contra to the harsh camel ways of arduous work. The society enjoyed the intrigue of the lyric and sophisticated symbolism involved in the choice placement as posed within this arduous life of the Somal.

Suddenly, one of the women broke into a much loved song of the past about a camel breast when it is lactating and full of milk; the work of milking is done by two men. Everyone joined in on singing the well loved camel song put to music. The descriptions were detailed and deeply involved with the landscape, the special condi tions of certain plants in certain seasons working as an allegory to Somal.  

The conversations assumed a more reflective pace as the afternoon wore on and the chat starting taking its effect on the gathered. The tones had become more modulated to the intimacy of the interaction between pairs of males and the females next to each other. But everyone was now moving towards a larger session discussion, and simultaneous discussions within earshot of the first person very close next to them, sometime breaking into a communal singing of a popular tune, or one in the stages of composition.

Click here to read an interview with the author of Guban, Abdi Latif Ega. Compiled by African Lookbook. 

The news of so and so was also freely filtered in, but by in large this was a group trance, with connotations of business dealings and power corruptions moving within. The male standing within the society in relation to private enterprise was largely a misnomer, for the women wielded influence for those ones who wanted to get ahead finan- cially in the city or even elsewhere in the nation. One could easily say they ran a great deal of interference in the world of government and senior government officials.

This group was sought after because they could break stringent walls erected for the consumption of the public. Those who were in the know, in the group of those who could make things happen, could virtually circumvent the rather inhibiting laws of the land, and thus the definition of a criminal was actually quite its opposite. 

Later, after the chat session was complete there was the rendezvous  around the expensive watering holes of the large hotels which catered to mainly to Somals domicile overseas and the few officials of the usual international organizations. Every group had a favorite spot that they frequented to drink and be merry as in Robin Hood, but this time the poor  stole along with the rich and kept themselves there.

This is where all those who were in need of Ali’s assistance be it business or otherwise – would meet him in Somal, and he had an associate, literally an extension of him, called Small limb, who would arrange such appearances at this or that lush venue. In part to see the seriousness of the inquirer, and also to sort of economically ascertain to some extent the depth of their pocket, for they usually picked up the tab.

Also, most of the wealthy were in the ranks of traditionalists so they had their younger relatives in this milieu, both trying to break out at the same time paying their dues to the family business.

For Ali today, the great well-known watering hole of Tale’h awaited just such a visit. He had headed there right after dusk and was ushered to a table in the inside but open air. He was familiar with most of the Somal around and he stopped at these tables on the way to his, chivalrously engaging in laughter about something or the other. He then requited himself at his table with his assistant, briefing him on the nature of the business that was to be commenced shortly when their expected guests arrived. Meanwhile, the waiter brought the usual drink for Ali Deray a bottle of rum distilled from Somal cane in Jowhar, not too far from Mogadishu, and dubbed with a feminine name Asha Wal, the demon Asha, for obvious reasons.

Every foreigner who was ever brought this rum as gift from overseas, which happened whenever the visitors were from around this general area, they would inquire on how they could possibly replace such a pleasurable drink they had run out off such a long time ago.

The business guest had arrived and was now sitting with Ali and his small limb. The matter at hand was started with a slight clearing of the throat by Small limb. 

“Ali, this is the smart young man I had been telling about. He has been very anxious to meet you, and I was telling him how you’re very smart yourself in such matters. I think the two of you will do wonders for this city.”

Ali took all this in stride and smiled a knowing smile of self- acknowledgement, clearing his throat as if to say something. 

“Please, let’s start with what you are asking Ali to help you with.” “Yes, first I want to run it by you so that once you understand the issue, then you can give me your input. The State has been receiv ing a lot of food from America and other Western countries, and the Government has appointed some state organs to distribute this food stuff to the public. The shipments are already arriving as we speak and all of us merchants will feel the pinch once the rice and other grains are out. A number of us merchants are in this situation and are aware how this will affect our usual market. Once this hits the stores, the price will dive down so it will make the price of our market price really dive way below the initial buying price we paid for. So this is the problem a group of us foresee and it is the reason I am before you here today. We are very willing to make all that you require from the gains and whatever separate fees you come up with to resolve this issue.As you know, we are talking a great deal, based on the quantities we traditionally import from outside.”

Ali listened attentively, looking engrossed, imagining how  this would move him up a further notch within his circles. He was beaming, as was his smaller limb, as they all partook of Asha the demon. Everything was beneath his feet in the world as he saw it. He could not imagine anything, no matter  what, stopping him. People he could dismiss and liquidate as he had done in the past, if indeed they even dared pose any type of obstacle in anyway, shape, or form to him. He would just send his brute cousinYusuf to visit them with all the power of the State.

“Of course, there were the more cautious of the ruling circle, who kept on advising, and disapproved of my ways, but those against it, like myself, were many. If people like him were left to their own means they said, then we would have been out of power a long time. 

The nomad,  my senior said,” “they  knew not of mercy, they only thing they subscribed to was fear,” and I am the symbol of that in what I do in many ways.”

He beamed slightly, feeling the juice of Asha, smiling contemplatively at extra limb, and then at the young entrepreneur. Now Ali, looking for the most dramatic effects to enhance and conjure this elusive spring of great power-invested in his person, spoke very succinctly, stressing each syllable, “Listen, I will talk to those concerned. I am sure there is some solution to this problem. Matter of fact, rest assured that I will handle it.”

With that the meeting was postponed, once Ali had said he will handle it, then who could question this? With that, the group indulged in the pleasure at hand at this very lively spot filled with music, Asha Wal and the beautiful fairer sex, all making merry camel style.

Abdi Latif Ega is a long-time resident of Harlem, New York. He loves and plays jazz. Abdi has had an abiding love affair for the history, literature and research of Africa and the new world African. He is heavily influenced by writers of African descent from all corners of the world, and follows in the their tradition of speaking the truth to power. Guban is the first novel in a series of novels on the Horn and specifically Somalia, from the medieval times until the present. The author self identifies as an African-American originally from Somalia. He studied Jazz theory and Performance, and has an undergraduate degree in History and English. Abdi is currently a PhD candidate at Columbia University. He is currently working on The Doorman, a novel set in Manhattan.