Photo credit: Michael Lionstar
It is hard to be different in Somalia. It can get you disowned, or even killed. Parents make decisions, kids listen, accept, and follow. The other authority figures are the sheikhs and the madrassa teachers. Somalis are proud Sunni Muslims who grow up with the teachings of the Koran, as well as the Prophet Mohammed’s sunna
or laws. Even during the recent civil wars, the war lords and their brutal militias killed in the name of Mohammed and Allah; they asked their victims to say those names before they shot them. When I was a kid I thought the only world that existed was Somalia and Saudi Arabia, because every story my mother told was either about her own nomadic childhood in the bush or her dream of visiting the holy lands in Saudi Arabia; in fact, she was named after one of them, Madinah. Even though my dad played professional basketball for the Somali national team (before the wars ended all sports), I don’t think he even knew that it was an American game. He had never been inspired by the United States.
But I was different. My love for America began with movies, which I watched on a small TV in a video shack in Mogadishu. As a young boy, Hollywood movies like The Terminator
and The Delta Force
were my escape from the real-life violence on the streets outside. Then I became inspired by the U.S marines who arrived in Mogadishu to protect our food supply during the civil wars. They looked just like the action heroes I had seen in the movies. My world has never been the same.
After the wars began in 1991, Mogadishu became a daily battleground for clan militias fighting for power. They killed or drove away most of the men — my father disappeared — so it was a city of women and children. I was six years old. Our tiny home had been destroyed, so my mother, my siblings, and I lived on the streets for a while until a neighbor took us in. I stayed close to my mother; we slept on top of shallow graves at night and dodged bullets by day. With the war came a severe drought that also punished us. The earth was hot like a frying pan, the sun burned our skins, and the skies remained blue and cloudless. There was no food anywhere, unless you could catch a lizard. Everyone in the city became walking skeletons; if you survived the gunshots you were likely to die of starvation. Graveyards were filled with freshly buried bodies so thin that even the stray dogs who dug up arms and legs could not get much flesh. My young sister was one of those we buried — a baby who could find no milk at my starving mother’s breast. I prayed to join her in death because it felt like peace. I had the same swollen feet and skeleton frame as she did. Life was nothing but pain and punishment.
But one night the angels landed on the sea and brought with them food, water, and security. These angels were the American marines and later United Nations forces.They opened food distribution centers across the country, they disarmed the militias and patrolled the streets with their Humvees and huge smiles. They saved the lives of thousands including my family, but eventually the warlords convinced many Somalis that the foreign troops were there to conquer us and turn us into Christians. This might be hard to understand, but most Somalis could not read or write and had no education other the Koran. Our parents and the madrassa teacher warned us not to shake hands with the Americans because they were non-Muslims who are unclean and smell bad. I got very close to some marines and I didn’t notice any smells. One day a marine gave me a piece of chocolate candy. My mother told me not to eat it because it was probably pork, and those infidels eat pork.
The boys from the madrassa wanted to be the soldiers of Allah and die as martyrs in jihad. I did not want to die. I wanted to live. That was the difference.
Many years later, I learned that not every American is a Christian and that it is actually much easier to be a Muslim in the U.S. than in Somalia, where you can be beaten or killed just for talking to a woman. But in those days I didn’t care if the marines converted me, I just wanted to be like them. I thought they lived in heaven, this place I dreamed of called America, with rivers of milk and honey probably. Then they left after the militias shot down two of their helicopters. All that remained were their dusty boots and torn uniforms, scattered across the dunes around the airport.
With no more real-life action heroes to follow around Mogadishu, I returned to the video shack. Every night I watched the movies and practiced my English. One time, the madrassa teacher caught me in there and gave me a beating. Finally, my parents kicked me out of their home, so I lived on the street, dancing to rap music and writing English graffiti on walls, words like fuck
. I became the translator at the movies, shouting out the dialogue in Somali. That video shack filled up when I was there translating. All this made me feel like an American.
I had a gang of friends who would dance, sing, and swag with me around Mogadishu. I dropped my pants halfway down my butt. My English was not perfect, but to everyone else in my gang I sounded like Eddie Murphy. They wanted to be like me and they gave me a nickname: Abdi American
But as I said, it’s hard to be different in Somalia. I received curses and condemnations from the mosques, madrassa teachers, and parents in the city. Even my girlfriend’s father, an imam at a big mosque, almost attacked my mother because I was an unrighteous boy. They had meetings and thought of what to do with me before I attracted more boys to my gang. Actually, most of the boys from my madrassa graduated and became sheikhs and teachers. They were waiting for the perfect time when the militias would be defeated and Islam would rule. I was waiting for my own perfect time, when the Americans would arrive again. I wanted to work with them and maybe translate for them. The boys from the madrassa wanted to be the soldiers of Allah and die as martyrs in jihad. I did not want to die. I wanted to live. That was the difference.
Their prayers were answered in 2006, when an Islamist militia that eventually became al-Shabaab came to power, removing the war lords and imposing Sharia law.
My madrassa teacher and his students marched on the streets calling for people to show up to trainings, come to mosques, fight for Allah. Down with America’s God, help Osama!
was one of their chants. At least the city was safe again, there was no more clan warfare. Everyone, including my mother, felt happy. They thought God had finally spoken and sent his army. Even Somalis in the U.S. returned and started rebuilding their houses in Mogadishu. But al-Shabaab was about power, not peace. They executed people they suspected were spies. They blew up radio stations for playing music, they threw hand grenades at kids playing soccer, and finally, they destroyed the movie theater where I learned English. My days of dancing and swagging were over.
I was sure that they would kill me since they knew about my nickname. But one day I met an American journalist who was impressed by my English. Soon I was taking a huge risk and secretly recording audio dispatches for NPR, bringing my story to America. Many people reached out to help me. First, they got me out of Somalia and into Kenya to reunite with my brother, who had escaped years earlier. I could dance and watch movies again! But after al-Shabaab terrorists attacked Nairobi, the Kenyans began rounding up Somalis for deportation. I felt like I was up a tree with a lion down below and a leopard on top. There was no escape. But I never gave up praying in English, and those prayers were answered the day I won the U.S. diversity visa lottery.
Now I live in Maine, where I am enrolled in college and working as an interpreter. I now realize that America has no rivers of milk and honey, even if chocolate candy isn’t pork. I see how America is so divided, with so much anger. I see African Americans getting arrested for doing things any white person can do. So many Americans want America to be different
. I get that, but I still believe America is the greatest place, a place where you are allowed and even encouraged to be different. Soon, if all goes well, my nickname will become my nationality. Not Abdi American
but Abdi the
American. For a child of war in East Africa, that would be different.
÷ ÷ ÷
Abdi Nor Iftin
was born in Mogadishu in 1985. He escaped to Nairobi in 2011, and in 2014 won the U.S. Diversity Visa lottery. He now lives in Maine where he is studying political science. His memoir is Call Me American