It's an open secret that foreign soldiers don't go to Somalia out of the goodness of their hearts; they're there for a paycheck. The African Union rotates out whole sections of soldiers from Somalia every year, replacing them with newer, hungrier troops from Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and Ethiopia. The only catch is: they aren't allowed to spend any of their salary while living in Somalia. Most soldiers live off of army rations for the duration of their stay.
By the time they rotate out, they go home to $12,000 USD in an untouched account. That might not be much in America, but it's enough to start a business in Africa. The name of the game is don't die in Somalia so you can live like a king back home. What kind of anti-terrorism can someone like that really provide a country? Anyway.
Kanye West's "30 Hours" played from the speakers of my company's Toyota Hilux. At 6:15 A.M. the sun was already half awake, peaking above the Indian Ocean in tremendous purples, reds, and oranges. I watched the rising sun, after an overnight storm, as it painted the cumulonimbus clouds above the Indian Ocean in brilliant tones too real to believe. I drove near the beach inside the fortified area surrounding Mogadishu International Airport known as Xalane. When I took that logistics job, I didn't realize the history I was walking into and on top of in Xalane.
In the 70s, it was used as a training ground by the Siad Barre regime, a place where Somali civil servants were awoken at 4AM to exercise and handle AK 47s. Imagine an accountant going through basic training, shoulder to shoulder with teachers and doctors. The thinking was that every citizen of Somalia needed to know how to defend the country. Before Siad Barre, Xalane was a military camp for the Italian colonialist forces.
Now, in the Somalia of 2015, it was deemed a city within a city, an enclave of safety for the embassies and foreign companies who purport to do aid work in the country. In reality, it was just a roosting ground for white carrion, from the EU to the UN, all of whom stood in single-file line, ready to pick at the still-beating heart of my country's dying body. I tried not to think of the fact that I was there for similar reasons: trying to survive in Africa after escaping America. Trying to use overseas privilege to carve out a niche for myself in a country devoid of racism. A country I once called home. A country that recognized me just as feebly as I recognized it.
I drove toward Medina Gate, one of three entrances into the camp. It was heavily fortified and led directly to the Medina neighborhood of Mogadishu. There were armed Ugandan soldiers at this gate, like there were at every other gate. The forward guards stood at attention in impossibly clean uniforms, holding brand-new AK-47s. The rear guards held the line behind them, stationed on heavy artillery: anti-aircraft guns that'll make a Skinny levitate like Mobb Deep in "The Shook Ones, Part 2."
Skinny is the derogatory term US Marines came up with to describe my people when they invaded Mogadishu in the early 90s. By that time I was already in Kenya, inside Utange Refugee Camp with my family. I could have died so many times between those places, but I was a toddler, so death didn't really mean much to me. I now know that people dissociate from their traumatic memories when they are young. I now live with the ramifications of that dissociation. And I try to write my way back to a place of completion.
It's funny how death chases us like a dog chasing its tail. A few years before all this, I had barely survived Seattle. My only enemy back then came from within, and back then, life was nothing short of grim. I had wandered the rain-soaked streets feeling greyer inside than the encroaching clouds above me. I used to hurt, I mean, hurt a lot. Hurt so much that I cut. Used my forearm as an ashtray. Put myself in risky situations, hoping for a fight, hoping I'd lose. But that was then, and this is now and, now, somehow, I want to live again.
After finishing my business at the gate, I jumped back into the truck only to get a call from my boss. He said that the UN needs our help. Said one of their trucks popped a tire right in front of a security checkpoint, bringing traffic to a standstill. Further complicating matters, the truck was loaded with one-ton concrete barriers, barriers used for securing checkpoints just like the one they were stranded in front of. I said, "Roger that," and hit the gas.
I drove and drove and drove until I reached the checkpoint with our company crane following close behind. It had recently survived an explosion in Janaale and the operating crew was still alive to tell the tale. One of the assistants was still in the hospital, but the rest of them went right back to work on the same crane, doing the same dangerous jobs in the same dangerous places. I wonder what it's like to go back to a place where you almost lost your life and just carry on like trauma doesn't exist. Life is crazy because there're so many ways you can die, some known and some unknown, but the bills still need to be paid. Even if it means putting your life on the line. If you really think about it, you won't know until you die what it is that will take you out. It's the not knowing part that kills me the most. Anyway.
I quickly assessed the situation and realized that we needed a ladder to do our job. We were next to a café I frequented. I made my way inside and asked for a ladder. They said, "We don't have one, but try the soldiers next door. They're usually chewing jaad* in the midday sun, pretending to work." I walked next door in that same midday sun and, sure enough, there was a soldier lying there with a bundle of chew in his hand.
"Do you have a ladder?" I asked in Somali. I've always had an American accent—a remnant of successful cultural assimilation. I lost my mother tongue to accommodate my new country only to be told in two languages that I'll never belong anywhere.
"What?" he responded.
"Do you have a ladder," I repeated, "we need a ladder for this crane."
I made the mistake of thinking that the badge on my chest could protect me—it read AMISOM, African Union Mission In Somalia. I didn't actually work for them, but being affiliated with them made it easier for me to get around the base. He was a Somali National Army soldier, so I assumed he could recognize my credentials and see that we were on the same team. Assumptions are a dangerous thing to make in a place like Somalia.
"Who sent you!?" he screamed.
His eyes were suddenly wide, his nostrils flared. His disproportionate response unnerved.
"What do you mean?" I asked with a nervous smile. "I live in this camp just like you. No one sent me, I just need a ladder for that truck over there."
As we talked, and as the pitch of his voice along with his body language grew more fervent, I noticed that he was reaching for a handkerchief. There was something inside it. He unwrapped it with an urgency I couldn't place. Call me gullible because the last thing I expected was for a 9-millimeter Glock to materialize in his hand. The guy was off his rocker. I could tell by the green jaad juice leaking out the corners of his mouth, and by the crust still stuck to his tear ducts, that he'd most likely woken up hungover and reached for his chew, never bothering to wash his face. I've seen what that drug does to my people, and it's not pretty.
"Lift your shirt up right now!" he screamed.
The pistol was now pointed at me, though he hadn't yet cocked it. Didn't really matter, though—most guns in Somalia don't have a safety. He was waving that 9mm wildly, left to right, forcing my body to comply like a puppeteer holding strings. I lifted my shirt.
"Hey, man, calm down," I said. "I'm not who you think I am."
"Freaking diaspora!" he shouted. "Who sent you, huh? Who sent you?"
My accent would be the end of me. He could tell that I was from abroad. This incensed him—maybe because he thought I was better off than him for having left Somalia, or maybe because he thought all diaspora returnees were leeches. But most likely it was because he suspected me to be a suicide bomber, which is why he was asking me to lift my shirt. I fit a stereotype no matter where I go. In America, I'm a Black man, typecast as a criminal. At American airports, I'm Muslim, typecast as a terrorist. In Somalia, I'm a young diaspora returnee—presumably back only because I'd failed at life in America, having grown disenchanted with the dream, settled for radicalization, and returned home to blow myself up (not because I was a religious extremist, but because it was a socially accepted form of suicide for those with no options left). At least that's what they assumed of me.
It doesn't matter what I say or where I go. I'll always be a walking nightmare to someone, forever misunderstood. There isn't much I can do beyond being aware of the stereotypes that exist about me and avoiding walking into them. Sometimes I take advantage of them, let people perceive me how they want, but mostly I avoid. I'd heard all the stories and knew what people thought of me. That knowledge did little to help me avoid this situation. I lifted my shirt higher and slowly turned around to show him that there was no explosive suicide belt around my waist.
"Sit down over there!" he commanded, as he pointed with the pistol towards one of the adjoining restaurant's walls. I did as I was told. The Mogadishu sun was beating down overhead, and I was scared. So scared I couldn't swallow my spit.
I wondered if this was how Kurt Cobain felt before he pulled that shotgun trigger. I wondered how many times Courtney Love nearly died after finding out the world was too much for her lover. A year before this, I was in Galkaiyo, in central Somalia, having just returned to the country after a lifetime in America. I was struggling to acclimate to the heat, to the heaviness of my tongue as it butchered Somali, and to the constant stares I got for dressing like an American.
At night, I would smoke cigarettes outside our family home and hold my phone close to my ear so no one could hear what I was listening to. On repeat: Nirvana, "Molly's Lips." With every drag of smoke, I'd reminisce on a lifetime of depression in Seattle, listening to music when I should have been listening to the Holy Qur'an. I imagined all the MDMA that used to course through my veins as I stared into the night skies wondering where it was all heading, when the suffering would end. I wished I'd realized back then how directly correlated the extent of my suffering was with my distance from Allah.
It's funny how, with a pistol staring me down in the present, all I could think of was the regret of my past. I think it's even funnier how people say they want to die. Because nobody really wants to die, they just want the pain to end. Death is inescapable; we're all headed for it and nobody knows what it feels like until it takes them. But the pain of life can become so intractable that we assume death is the only way out—until it prepares to kiss us on the lips and then all we can think about is how much we want to live. I just want to live.
Just before I lost hope, I made eye contact with a young guy from around the way who was working on the cafe's internet. His name was Mohamed and he was tall and lanky—athletic, not awkward. He had perfect skin, dark hair, an endless smile. He once told me that his father taught him the basics of IT before passing on to the next life. Mohamed carried the torch his father passed him and now used it to feed his own family. The kid couldn't have been more than twenty.
"Waryaa, Mohamed!" I yelled. "Help me!"
Mohamed glanced over; saw what was happening; and turned back to his work, laughing. What an interesting reaction, I thought. Is everyone in this city so used to violence? "Let the kid go," said Mohamed. "He's my neighbor."
Just like that, the soldier let me go, telling me to never come back. I tried to act calm as I walked to my truck. In reality, I was too traumatized to have any discernible reaction. I infused every footstep I took with false bravado, trying to regain a modicum of respect after being so publicly embarrassed. The name of the game in Somalia is honor, and I'd just lost all of mine. I walked right past my co-workers who, expecting a ladder, stared in confusion as I came back empty-handed. I hopped into the Hilux and turned the MP3 player to my favorite Young Jeezy track, "Air Forces." I keyed the ignition and mindlessly palmed the manual shift knob. I peeled out, wheels burning rubber as I shifted from first to second to third, pausing only for the military checkpoints and speed bumps, doing at least about 80. Jeezy's voice started to fade in for the intro.
"I went from old school Chevies to drop top Porsches...you couldn't walk a mile off in my air forces."
Damn right, Jeezy. Don't nobody know what I've been through. And if they did, I doubt they could walk a day in my African sandals. I kept on speeding as the bass cracked from the subwoofer, tickling the back of my brain; I could visualize the snare snapping, the tsst-tsst of the hi-hat. Jeezy's gravelly voice zoomed back in after the interlude. I tried to escape my reality in his second verse.
"Black tees, black 1's and a fitted cap... the Mac-11 make me walk with a crazy dap."
I ain't never held no Mac-11, but those lyrics made me feel like I had more power in that moment than I did. It didn't matter how close I came to death; I couldn't stop to think about that. I went straight home, not telling a soul. Well, not quite—I called up my brother who used to work in Mogadishu. I asked him if I should tell a well-connected uncle of mine about the incident, to see if he could have the soldier brought up on charges. My brother told me it wasn't worth it. He said, "In Somalia, you can try to make a case against someone and it becomes a case against you. That's tribalism, baby." It was sound advice from a man who's two parts street smart to my one part gullible.
He told me, "Charge it to the game and just keep moving," he told me. "If you stop to think about it, it'll eat you right where you stand."
"So just charge it to the game?"
"Know that the game don't ever run out of credit," he said, "So keep charging."
When he said that, I remembered another conversation we had, a few years earlier:
I snapped back to the moment and swiped my Game Card, stuffing that painful memory into the corners of my mind, surrounded by hurt and heartache. Sure, I could have died that day, just like my brother could have died on so many other days. But we're Muslim—it's not our place to dwell on what could have been. We believe in God, and in pre-destiny, and my destiny was clear: keep living, keep writing. And I'm still here, still breathing. Still writing and finding gratitude in these words. I know that white America wants me erased and Somalia doesn't have a place for me. Sometimes all I can do is turn up the Qur'an and disappear into the Eternal Words of Allah, the Exalted and Sublime. Ease my pain through remembrance of Him. Say Alhamdulillah for everything. Remember that all praise belongs to Him, above and beyond what anyone tries to associate with Him. Above and beyond my pain within.
For the rest of my time in Mogadishu, I drove to the beach after work and jogged along the ocean shore every evening. There'd be local kids standing on the rocks, near the water's edge; the sudden drop off made it resemble a cliff face, but smaller. They'd lean against the wind with homemade fishing sticks, minus the stick. They would tie bait and a hook to a rock with fishing line. They'd swing the line over their heads like Palestinian kids with slingshots on the Gaza strip, in the Golem Heights. Release with a wisp, watch the rising splash in the ocean.
The fish they caught were all weird and mutated, like those three-eyed ones in the Simpsons. Probably bottom feeders, those fish. The kids once told me how the fish weren't edible, but the feeling of catching something with their hands was empowering. It gave them a semblance of control in a city that could take their life in a heartbeat.
A few feet away, I could see old white men holding fishing rods that cost more than a Somali family eats in a year. I saw those same men inside the UN compounds, working three hours a day in air-conditioned offices, pulling in an easy $10K every month for doing nothing more than pretending to be white saviors. Haitian nationals would work next to them for a fraction of their white colleagues' salary. But that's life, right?
This piece came out of necessity. When I moved to Somalia in 2012, my biggest fear was that I would die there, because I believed all the negative media coverage about my birth country. Turns out I didn't die in Somalia, which is good. I distinctly remember wanting to come back to America at some point and calling my father and asking him if I could do that. He said what's the big rush, you haven't even been there a year yet. I said dad, I don't want to die in Somalia. He laughed and said son, when it's your time to die, it won't matter where in the world you are; you'll die exactly where you were meant to die. I don't know, man.
I used to think a lot more about dying before I learned how many ways you can die in Somalia—and realizing that the chances of me dying there were still slim-to-none. That helped me become a stronger Muslim, to have more trust in God's Will. This essay has meant a lot to me, so much so that when I got the acceptance email, I bowed my head down in gratitude / tears of joy. It was part heartache, part relief. This is an especially traumatic memory for me, one that I thought I'd go to my deathbed with, but one that was forced out of me, and one that eventually took written form.
This piece got accepted to be published at another publication a few months after I'd first written it. It then went through extensive back and forth edits and I quietly held my breath as we got closer to the final draft. Eventually, the editors and I had a strong difference of opinion and things took a left turn. We decided to part ways, but that meant that this piece of me, this walking trauma that I struggled to come to terms with, had to go back on the market. Another six months of rejection letters followed. I assumed that because it'd already gotten accepted, it was only a matter of time that it would get accepted again. I figured wrong. This publishing game makes no sense, and the longer I'm in it, the less of it I understand. I feel like I had better luck when I was first starting, or maybe that's wishful thinking. Either way, it means a lot that this piece is finally seeing the light of day.
For the longest time it's lived only in my heart, in my mind. I've walked around with different versions of this piece in my backpack, on scraps of paper, on this laptop. I've never believed in a piece of my own writing more —because it came from me all in a rush, and it changed shape so many times, sometimes against my will, sometimes because of it. I have such a conflicted mix of feelings about it, but I know that it's in some ways symbolic of what I went through during my 3 years in Somalia—from hearing explosions down the street to being operated on, from watching my brother almost die from his own surgery to seeing the effect of suriving a roadside bombing had on my coworker... it almost feels like having a gun to my head for less than a minute was one of my lesser traumatic experiences.
But the effort of coming to terms with that memory, with the concept of my own mortality having been narrowly avoided, and the effort it took to turn that into an essay that came more from pain than skill or planning... I think that's why this means so much to me. I don't know, man. Somalia is a crazy place. But so, too, is America. And I don't know what I am anymore—American, Somali, something in between—and I don't really care. I prefer to think of myself as a writer. Even when I'm not writing, the words still save me.