The Book of the Week is “Call Me American, A Memoir” by Abdi Nor Iftin with Max Alexander, published in 2018.
“There were more guns in the city than people. There was more ammunition than food. It became a thing to own a gun to save your life. Most people slept with a loaded AK-47 sitting next to them.”
The above was the author’s description of lawless Somalia (not the future United States) during the 1990’s.
Somalia, formerly two different colonies– of Britain and Italy, became a sovereign territory in 1960. Born around 1985 in Somalia (where birthdays aren’t important), the author had an older brother and later, younger sisters. Years before, his father’s side of the Muslim family, the Rahanweyn clan (farmers and nomads) was forced, due to drought, to give up herding as their livelihood. Fortunately, the father was able to become a professional basketball player. The mother was a traditional female of Islam– expected to bear and raise the children, and do all the chores and housework.
At the dawn of the 1990’s in Somalia, tensions boiled over between two of the five clans who desired to run the government. Warlords took to fighting that involved looting of shops, bullets and rocket fire. Rebels ousted the “president.” Former government employees fled to America, Canada or the United Kingdom.
Common people like the author’s family who were forced to evacuate their Mogadishu homes were caught in the crossfire of the anarchy, and died anonymously and were left in mass graves in droves from the usual causes– bullets or other weaponry, disease and starvation.
The family had no car, so like thousands of others, they walked miles and miles along unpaved roads with cows, donkeys, dogs and chickens, trying not to get arbitrarily shot by sadistic child-soldiers for being in the wrong tribe, or blown up by rockets (supplied to the anti-government Somali rebels by Ethiopia, sworn enemy of Somalia). Occasionally, they got an extremely crowded truck ride from a driver who had no beef against their tribe. Word-of-mouth rumors led them to believe that the city of Baidoa was a less dangerous place to be than Mogadishu. But that was a relative assessment.
In October 1993, sixteen American soldiers were killed in a Black Hawk helicopter attack at the hands of Soviet weaponry supplied to Somali soldiers. In March 1994, the Americans left Somalia. Ethiopia and Kenya supplied qat to Somali soldiers.
Beginning in the late 1990’s, the United States government paid the warlords (as though they were bounty hunters) to catch radical and foreign Islamists. In the single-digit 2000’s, the warlords assassinated the chairman of one of the five merged Islamic Courts that resolved local legal disputes in Somalia. The merging set the stage for a radical Islamic takeover, but ordinary Somalis were angry at the Western-backed warlords.
As a way to escape the trauma and wreckage around him, in the late 1990’s, the author got caught up in the American pop-cultural scene at local storefronts that: sold boom boxes and cassette tapes of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, reggae and hip-hop music; and screened American movies such as Terminator. He passionately learned English and hip-hop dancing from them.
When the author’s family’s circumstances improved, his horrified parents administered the usual beatings when he put up posters of American cultural icons on his bedroom wall, including one of Madonna in a bikini. His mother thought of the United States as a Christian (evil) country.
However, the author was sufficiently street-smart to complete his seven-year education of memorizing the Koran in Arabic, all 114 chapters, 6,266 verses of it, even though the headmaster of his madrassa was a corporal-punishment tyrant.
Read the book to learn further details of the major ironies, among others, that graced the author’s incredible story: 1) the combination of his (sinful) passions and (highly praised) education that provided him with survival skills in a country where life was cheap and any minute could be one’s last; and 2) “Pictures and names associated with America were crimes, not counting the pictures and names on the American dollar bills that they had in their pockets.”