Published: September 8th 2005July 30th 2005
The Big Daddy
This is where the major league plays ball...
The Horn of Africa. The self-declared and officially non-existent Republic of Somaliland, occupying the northernmost part of the fictitious country of Somalia. For some reason the word “warlord” pops up in my head when I hear “Somali”. Somali Warlord. Like Apple Pie. Images of brave marines killing hundreds of skinnies
for every one they lose. The overwhelming and irresistible firepower of Democracy. Black Hawk Down. When I told him where I was headed my brother asked me if it was possible to find a more dangerous place.
As people you meet on the street will tell you, there are 5 parts to Somalia: Djibouti - the French “Department”, the Ogaden region in Ethiopia, a part of Kenya, Somalia proper - formerly an Italian colony and now further divided into the mini-state of Puntland (there is no government in Mogadishu), and (here, at least) Somaliland -- the former British Protectorate of. Our journey to Somali-world began in Ethiopia, before crossing the border into Somaliland.
We spend a night in Jijiga, the capital of the province, a fairly low-key affair with plenty of qat
in Ethiopia) consumption, wind-blown dusty streets populated with sarung-wearing men and women with hijabs reaching
And the dog and camel shall scavenge together, and a little child shall lead them.
down to below the knees. Imagine my surprise when I saw the unmistakable features of US soldiers lounging around in off-duty uniforms and dorky hats, occasionally resorting to their field-glasses to examine something on the horizon. American soldiers? In Jijiga? “For the hell of it” we walked into the hotel and were immediately stopped by a kalash-bearing guard: “Yellem! Yellem!” No room. Someone came out and explained that the entire hotel had been booked by the Americans. Extravagant as always. We waved at the soldiers on the way out and asked them what they were doing here: “building a school!” And suffering from a complete lack of imagination. Later on we walked past a patrol car on the main road with Americans in dark sunglasses saying something into their radio as they sat in the shade of a tree. Feels like Iraq!
I can’t believe the US government would go to such lengths to ruin my trip! Instead of the sympathetic backpacker, I was received as the faceless potential-American, and a kid who spoke English said bystanders were insulting us in Somali. That didn’t stop us from spending the afternoon in a complete stranger’s house, together with a group
of people assembled to satisfy their various addictions: qat, cigarettes, sheesha, Ethiopian music videos, Bollywood films. Even then I felt that these people would either like me - in which case I’d be safe and everything would be cool - or they’d dislike me - and I’d be screwed. No in-betweens. We spent the rest of the night trying to remember our Arabic, and trying to fall asleep amidst our last blaring Teddy Afro. X had one final beer to prepare him for the abstinence ahead, and I cautioned him not to try flirting with the Somali girls - not without signing his travelers’ cheques and sufficiently distancing himself from me, that is. In the morning someone paid for our breakfast, and the ride was uneventful (and no bickering over luggage-handler tips!), apart from the frequent internal customs stops to weigh and assess fees for transporting qat. It was even worse between Harar and Jijiga: all these people carrying a single kilo of qat each, constantly made to disembark and pay “fees” to various people. Qat only grows in the highlands, and it’s quite a bit more expensive to buy it in the lowlands, so transporting it can be a
lucrative business, which must be taxed.
At the border we ended up walking over to the Somaliland side first, then had to return to the Ethiopian side for our exit stamp. Then ensued a surreal discussion with the border official who kept asking us for our exit stamp, while we tried to explain that we were there to obtain
an exit stamp. It eventually took about 10 minutes, 2 people and 3 languages (English, Arabic, French), plus a French-speaking translator (and the many bystanders) to get the point across. Then, “Welcome to Somaliland”, an “ENTERY” (sic) stamp, and a slightly crammed ride to Hargeisa in a LandCruiser. At the many checkpoints along the way officials examined our Ethiopian
visa with a “hmm!” and waved us on. One practiced his English with X: “Give me money!” He foolishly thought he could compete with the Nigeria-hardened Frenchman. X later lost points by throwing a bit of a tantrum when he lost a ring given him by his final conquest in Ethiopia.
Initial impressions of Hargeisa can be summarized as “different”. The streets are covered with inches of sand, the sun is very bright yet there’s a continuous wind that keeps
MIG in Hargeisa
The landmark in Hargeisa, this Somali plane was apparently shot down during the civil war. The planes used to do bombing runs from the town's own airport, bombing the city street by street.
things cool, there are a couple of standing bombed-out buildings from the fighting which once demolished the entire city, but for the most part things are pretty unremarkable. There is little to nothing to do. The nightmarish plastic bags are back: after a brief respite in Ethiopia, the plague of plastic bags is back with a vengeance, completely lining and partially filling the dry river bed that divides the city into two. They’re in the trees, shredded and strewn among bushes, partly buried or proudly coloring the landscape blue-and-white. I hate plastic bags. I don’t know how Ethiopia managed to avoid the problem, but they need to share their secret and fast. I don’t know how the country survives. They import everything (even used newspapers), mostly from the UAE, don’t seem to have any industry and almost no agriculture. Apparently they once exported camels to Saudi Arabia but that’s currently on hold. Fruit is also much more expensive here than in Ethiopia. Reminds me of Sudan in many ways. Standard food would be a plate of pasta or rice or beans. Or, one the many varieties of meat. All eaten with hands. After giving it a shot, I am now
Kid in Berbera
They have the obelisk things in most crossroads, mostly with the Somaliland flag painted on.
convinced that God intended us to eat spaghetti with our hands: it’s so much faster and more efficient. And despite what various websites or guidebooks may tell you, Internet is plentiful, fast (satellite) and cheap ($1/hr) in Hargeisa.
In an effort to conserve our precious US cash, we exchanged TCs in Ethiopia, intending to convert Birr into Somaliland Shillings once here. Yes, they have their own currency, with the dollar being roughly equivalent to 6400 SlS, but the largest note is 500SlS, so you need 13 bills for one dollar. Now imagine changing $100: that’s 1300 notes! If the guy doesn’t try to give you bundles of 100SlS, that is. There are moneychangers all oer the market area, sitting behind boxes of chicken wire full of bundles of money. Apparently theft isn’t a problem. Money is kept in bundles of 100 notes, fastened with a rubber band, and you might as well do as locals do and assume there really are 100, and not try to count them all. We had a lot of fun exchanging money, haggling over the rate which got worse every time we came back, and walking away with plastic bags full of money. We
took comfort in the fact that thieves would probably target the people carrying money in wheelbarrows (no exaggeration) first.
One thing about Hargeisa is the stares. Like hostile stares. We tried to work through that with “assalamu alaikum”s to everyone we saw, but then they’d demand to know if we’re muslim and give us doubly dirty looks upon getting a negative response. Plenty of people would stop us, ask where we’re from and if we’re muslim, then turn around and walk away without a further word. Maybe assessing our targetability. Not too many people saying “you’re welcome, we’re all the same!” here. It also became quickly obvious that my long hair is out of place. This was clearly communicated by the women sitting by the road motioning for me to cut my hair. There were also more exciting encounters such as when someone in a car told X to get me out of there or I’d get killed; or the time someone with an angry face asked me if I was looking for a barber and offered to pay. One particularly stressful encounter involved a guy following us around loudly saying something about us being Jewish, which he presumably
Once upon a time this must have been a really busy international port. There's little to show for it now.
thought was great fun. I have nothing against Jewish people, but being Jewish in a country like this is like jumping to a pond of piranhas: you’re asking for it. There are plenty of people on the street who seem plainly insane to some degree or another. I suspect it’s a combination of over-consumption of qat and too much direct sunlight. They’re generally recognizable by a f*cked-up quality in their eyes. All told, I’m glad I have a travel companion to back me up. At the same time, I get the impression that the bystanders would step in to our defense if we were assaulted, but best not to try. I get a kick out of it every time women say “bismillahirrahmanirahim” as if they’d seen some evil creature, when they see me. They’re beautiful but fully covered, and we tend to keep our gazes lowered and avoid eye contact. Best to not go down the path that leads to castration. Occasionally women can be seen hanging around, faces covered by some green paste (the nature of which I have been unable to determine) but is presumably to make their skin lighter. Too bad they don’t realize black really is
A small group of qat consumers, kicking it in the late afternoon of Hargeisa.
We met a kid on the street who took us back to his place and offered us tea, which we were very pleased by. He came over the next day and proceeded to give me a long (and very confusing) account of the history of Somaliland. As often happens, after a while he paused to look at me and was not pleased by what he saw. Then the barrage of questions: Why don’t you cut your hair? Why aren’t your clothes ironed? Why don’t you trim your mustache? I tried to explain that different people may differ in taste. I cover my hair in the street -- to minimize the impact of a man-with-hair on the morals of society - but I’m not about to cut my hair for the couple weeks I’ll be spending in Somaliland. He tried to solicit X’s support by saying my hair was like a woman’s, but X put him in his place pointing out that women don’t have beards. Then the topic turned to religion (not our doing), and he was persistent about “why aren’t you muslim?”. He cited a law allegedly passed in Canada allowing women to walk around topless (Jeff,
you lucky man) as an example of the decadence in non-muslim societies. Said that’s the way goats behave, not human beings. He’d freak if I told him people race naked through San Francisco. X tried to explain that he may disagree with, but should be tolerant of others’ choices. I pointed out that westerners also have a negative view of the hijab, and that tolerance is in everyone’s interests. I don’t think we were very persuasive. Things went from bad to worse with him essentially insulting us before leaving. The next day some brat on the street followed X around saying “WHY don’t you believe in our Prophet?”
I think it’s telling that Turkey is the other muslim country I’m aware of that is also pretty intolerant of other religions: it’s also another country with a religiously homogenous population. I say it’s the intolerance of modernity, and things are getting worse, not better. There used to be Jewish communities throughout the region, including in Berbera and Yemen. East Africa has traded with Indians (Hindhus) for hundreds of years. The Ottoman Empire had many Christian subjects and officials in high places, and they were given great autonomy. But it was
Smalltime Money Changer
The really good guys have that box full of cash, and some overflowing on the top, sometimes topped off with a blank Somalia passport for sell. They quoted the price at $50.
the West that expelled the Moors from Spain, that initiated pogroms against and kicked out the Jews, who persecuted all sects and religious minorities, and defined Europe as a “Christian Continent”, and are still scared to death lest a Muslim country join their exclusive club. Contrary to popular belief, bigotry is the tradition of the West, while tolerance is that of the East. But modernity has sown its tares. The latter day Ottomans massacred and deported the Armenians, then “exchanged” the local Christian population with Greece’s Muslim population, and finally in the 50’s there were government-supported anti-minority riots and looting in Istanbul. The local Jewish populations were expelled from their countries all over the middle east, and Israeli citizens now cannot visit most Muslim countries. Now people in this part of the world are afraid of and dislike the Other, just as it is in the West. And, perhaps (as in Turkey) in the absence of any examples - other than Bush, Blair and Sharon - of non-Muslims, they can be excused their outlandishness when they meet one. Things seem a lot more civilized when multiple religions co-exist, even when as precariously as in Lebanon.
We met some of
Houses of Berbera
The houses have a distinctly Arab look-and-feel to them, but I get the impression that the locals weren't the ones who built them.
the NGO crowd, in the process of trying to contact a friend of a friend of X.. The ones we met were unlike my stereotype of an expat, and were down to earth and friendly. We tried to obtain information about places to visit and about the overall security situation for Berbera in particular. We were told it would be best to go with an armed escort, as there have been many instances of aid workers being killed. They are not allowed to leave Hargeisa, may not walk anywhere, and are shuttled in 4WDs from fortified and guarded office to fortified and guarded house. Seems pretty depressing. For fun they fly to Nairobi and spend spend spend, partying.
Bored of doing nothing in Hargeisa, we left for Berbera (without an armed escort). While on our way to take the bus, some people came out to yell at us to “Go! Go!”, as in “go away”. So good to feel welcome. After waiting a couple hours to find the 8 passengers to be crammed in the station wagon, we head off, only to be stopped at the first checkpoint and told that we needed an armed escort. Thankfully the fellow-passengers helped us out and they let us go. There was a rest stop on the way where one young guy with a full beard tried to convert X (they don’t try with me; I guess they don’t want me on their team), outright rejecting X’s assertion that they’re all the same - there’s only one God. He said Christianity and Islam are as different as the East is from the West, and rejected my friendly advances with “no, but you’re wrong, you must be muslim!”, even when I said “Allah maak” (God be with you) by way of goodbye. The next day we saw him driving around and he honked and waved so maybe he forgave us. Needless to say, the road seems perfectly safe.
Within minutes of landing in Berbera, we had checked into a decen hotel, met nice friendly people, and were already loving it. The town is built near the port, but there is a vast wasteland of plastic bags and graves between the end of town and the (deserted) beach. We had to ask someone where the sea is because it’s not obvious. It’s way hotter in Berbera than in Hargeisa: my thermometer reads a constant 36C in my room at all hours. As it’s way too hot to be outdoors in the middle of the day, we spent a lot of time napping or reading in our room. It’s not the kind of place where you go to a café for a cappuccino and to read your book. People lounge around in the shade chewing qat and/or sipping tea with milk. Things get a little more lively in the afternoon when we emerge to walk over to the sea for a swim, and top off our tiring day with some delicious delicious fish. For $2 you can eat an enormous whole fish, usually a barracuda. The dangerous and exciting life of a traveler. The fish restaurant has satellite tv which shows Euronews, and I’ve decided Europeans aren’t necessarily more intelligent than Americans after all. I love Berbera and wouldn’t mind staying there for a very long time. In the short time we were there (one week) we established a small group of people we’re friendly with, had a regular beans-or-pasta joint, and an excellent fish restaurant; and if one doesn’t mind the continual streaks of sweat running down your face, the heat isn’t so bad either.
Berbera (and possibly the whole country) has the feel of being abandoned. As if the original owners just packed up and left, and the newcomers don’t quite know what to do with what they’ve inherited. It’s just a feeling I get when I see the collapsing villas, or the rows of whitewashed houses which like they were originally shops. It’s like a ghost town with people. (After writing this blog, I learned that Berbera was actually an Ottoman town, and the Turks left as the British were arriving around the turn of the century. That explains a lot.)
We’ve been remarkably well informed, having BBC at the hotel in Addis Ababa, and satellite TV at the restaurants here. We watched Bush’s state of the union address, saw live coverage of the London bombings (and the ridiculous mess the American media made of covering it), the car bomb in Kusadasi, Turkey, the copycat bombs in London, and last but not least the grenades thrown at 3 hotels in Jijiga. I was reading online articles on the latter, and they tried to connect it to violence over the elections. Anyone who has recently been in Jijiga - felt the tension in the air and seen the man at the restaurant saying “French and Turkish are OK, but Americans should be killed” - can’t help but laugh at that assertion. The grenades were thrown at hotels
because they were targeting the school-builder American soldiers. Simple as that. The chief of police in Berbera took on himself to give us a lift home from the fish restaurant (200m or so) every night - says it’s not safe after dark, although it seems fine to me. He ironically noted that Berbera is safer than London, and that the day the US (and Britain) change their foreign policy, and bring a just solution to Palestine (and, I may add, withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq, quit bullying Syria and Iran, and stop supporting repressive regimes throughout the world) the suicide bombs will end. And he’s absolutely right, no matter what Tony Blair or W Bush say. The self-righteous “leaders of the world” all emotionally read the same speech after the London bombings: while they (the G8) are trying to save the world, these barbarians are trying to destroy it. It couldn’t be further from the truth: forcing African nations to adopt neo-Liberal policies to ensure new markets for western corporations, all the while dangling the carrot of debt relief and ignoring the fact that there’s a serious problem of mismanagement and corruption… it doesn’t sound so altruistic. The media devoted hours of airtime to the attacks, interviewing survivors and striving to catch every detail, all horrified at the deaths of 56 innocent civilians going about their everyday lives. I agree wholeheartedly. A couple of days earlier there was a scrolling headline at the bottom of BBC’s screen (the kind of news they don’t actively report on): 17 civilians confirmed killed by US air attack in Afghanistan. No pictures, no interviews, no investigation, not even airtime. Just a silent statistic: 17 (barbarian) civilians killed by the (civilizing) forces of the (most civilized) US. Maybe we can begin to imagine an answer to the hysterical self-pitying cry of “why do they hate us?” - inevitably answered by “experts” reassuring us that “they” hate our freedom. No, they hate the way we oppress them. Anyone keeping track of how many civilians killed in Iraq? They say they won’t leave because the Iraqi army isn’t ready to deal with the insurgency. Yet the insurgency exists
because of the US presence. I bought the June 20, 2005 edition of Time magazine which details the dehumanizing, horrible torture visited on “the 20th hijacker”, and justifies it all by concluding “in the war on terrorism (sic), the personal dignity of a fanatic trained for mass murder may be an inevitable casualty.” Just let that sink in. No charges, no proof of guilt. Sure, Abu Ghraib was the work of a couple of bad apples. Torture is banned by the Geneva convention, but we’ll just wave our hands and say it wasn’t torture. After all, it’s difficult to define. Sort of like “terrorism”: if we do it it’s justice (infinite justice), if they do it it’s cowardly terrorism. And if any particulars are mentioned (like sexual humiliation) we’ll just say the Geneva convention doesn’t apply. And while we’re a it, we’ll tell people what they’re allowed to believe and call it “stamping out fanaticism”.
Lets talk about the evidence against the London bombing suspects. They’ve been to Pakistan, and spoke with people from (and may have even visited) religious schools (madrasas). One was in Israel when there was a suicide bomb. Such irrefutable proof of terrorism! I match the above criteria. I just hope I’m not in the wrong place at the wrong time and give them an excuse to take me away for interrogation. Or maybe 5 shots to the head by undercover police for being the wrong color (as in the case of the Brazilian man). Am I the only one who finds this ridiculous?
It’s the world (not Somaliland) that’s a dangerous and uncertain place, and it’s getting worse. I don’t think many places are currently safe for US citizens, and I can see the list rapidly growing to include British and other western countries’ citizens as well. Like the Hungarians stabbed in Cairo “to protest the West’s attitude towards muslims.” I don’t care if everywhere they go there’s a suicide bomb, grenade or RPG waiting for the f*ckers responsible for this mess. They deserved it. But they rarely travel, and are heavily guarded, and so it’s the easily accessible travelers (or tourists, or aid workers) who get nabbed. Not that I think someone would try to kill me after getting to know me; it’s just that anonymous moment of danger when as a white man you are a symbol (not a person), and the only accessible target to a desperate person intent on letting the world know this aggression will not stand. That’s when you have to worry.
For all the stigma associated with it, I’d say Somaliland is indeed much safer than London (or NYC). And I prefer “are you muslim?” questions to 5 bullets in the head.
Well, I can't seem to please anyone with this blog. I would have assumed the Somalis (ok, Somalilanders) would be the first to say "thanks for talking about our country; maybe more people will visit in the future". While I was there many people took the time to request that I tell "them" that Somaliland is really safe, and (of course) that it should be recognized as a country. But although this article seems to be getting the most hits, the Somalilanders don't seem happy.
Based on the comments, it seems I'm too left-wing radical for some white folk, and too right-wing(?) for the Somalis. I'm assuming the latter is mostly an issue of not reading the friggin article
before jumping to conclusions. Guys! Read the blog again. And then re-read it again. I'm on your side! I'm trying to objectively understand the reason for the animosity I felt from some quarters while I was there. If your english level isn't adequate, get someone to translate for you!
Yes, a lot of people were really friendly. Yes, I believe Islam teaches people to be accepting and tolerant of each other (read the blog). Yes, I don't think Somaliland is necessarily a dangerous place (read the blog, fool!) -- that's actually a line from Hal Hartley's short film "Ambition": "The world is a dangerous and uncertain place".
BUT, just because you happen to be of Somali (or whatever) extraction, don't try to tell me what I should think. Your experiences when you visit "back home" are much different from what we (as foreigner travelers who stick out and "don't belong") go through. Somaliland is *not* a safe place for Americans. The whole of the Middle East isn't. I can sense animosity, even if I haven't studied the local culture. When some asshole calls out "do you want to fuck?!" (just because you're white) and only backs down when you're ready to kick his ass... don't talk to me about "culture". Oh, and about visiting "non-christian/white/western" countries... I've spent the past 14 months traveling the middle east, so go bark up some other tree.
Parenthetically, I don't think things are better for Somalis living in the West. I actually think they're incomparably worse (but then, you should know that if you read the friggin blog) -- hostile stares is a minor inconvenience for me. But my blog is about *my* experiences in Somaliland, and isn't supposed to be a comparative study of sticking out in the West vs Somaliland.
I appreciate all comments, but please RTFM before posting some ignorant remark accusing me of inciting to "hate".