In the opinion article "A Somalia Notebook", published by Arab News on 15 January 2006, the writer, A.J. Akbar, marshaled all the expletives he could muster to insult and ridicule the Somali people of the Horn of Africa. I wracked my mind to find a single justification for such uncalled for and invective diatribe which may even cause some of the most racist writers to blush.
Setting the tone for his sworn crusade in a cliché description of Somalia's well known situation as a war-torn country awash with armory where nearly 250 trigger happy teenagers with some technicals could turn a rogue into a warlord, the writer surges ahead by describing Somalis as pirates, slaves, inferior people who couldn't wait to sell their land and pride in a whistle to European colonizers and excessively fat due to their voracious appetite for food. He also brands them as pusillanimous beings who readily allowed their mosques to be turned into churches to save their skins, backward people whose only experience with modernization are the Ak-47 guns, Coca Cola and mobile phones and pathetically ignorant stock who trust their life and fate with shamans and fraudulent Muslim clerics whose only qualification of religion is long prayer beads in which they practice their faulty Sufism brand of Islam.
The writer gathers his testimony of infamy during his short encounter in Mogadishu and through a tour de grand through what he calls " the Almighty Google". He selects quotes out of context from notes ranging from the medieval Arab traveler Ibn Battuta, 19th century European missionaries and other odd sources with a premeditated intention to inflict maximum harm on the Somali people, may be with an erroneous misconception of all Somalis being ignorant people who will not be able to read his spite. A good proof of this is the strange juxtaposition of fiction and facts and viewing all people with Muslim names he encounters from Mogadishu to Harar and Addis Ababa as Somalis, thus giving himself the wide liberty of rubbing every despicable characteristic he finds on his hapless Somali punching bags. It didn't matter to him whether Amir Abdullahi who ruled the city state of Harar in the 19th century was of the Harari or Oromo ethnic race, or whether the modern shaman squatter of the mosque-turned Church was an Afar or any of the many races that live in Ethiopia. For him any person bearing a Muslim name and was engaged in something cowardly and ignoble, had only one name - Somali.Now using the same modality of selectivity and premeditated goals let me highlight the bright side of the Somali people that M.J. Akbar tried to suppress.
Where the eminent Journalist's perceptive eyes could see only AK-47s, Coca Cola and cell phones as the only symbols of civilization in Somalia, they failed to register the more than 10 universities that have been established in different parts of Somalia and breakaway Somaliland, thus showing the Somali people's resilience despite problems. Other significant developments that slipped the writer's attention are the more than a dozen private airlines that reach every corner of the country where Somalia used to have only one national carrier during the heyday of Siyad Barre's rule. A little more investigative work would even have revealed to the writer the peace, stability and robust trade taking place in places like Somaliland and Puntland.
The widely admired achievements of the breakaway Somaliland often called by foreign observers as the "Africa's Best Kept Secret" and "The Little Country That Could" has been beyond the reach of the writer's eyes. It is a mystery how the Mighty Google failed to show him the peace and stability and the impressive democratization process that has been taking place in Somaliland over the last 15 years. It almost questionable how any objective Journalist would miss to notice a country that held three peaceful and fair elections including municipal, presidential and parliamentary elections under international observers. A visit to other major towns other than Mogadishu such as Bossasso, Beletwein, Merca and others in Somalia as well as Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland, would have shown the writer that the Somali people have the will and the wisdom to build and prosper.
In an out of context quotation from Ibn Battuta's travelogue, the writer brands the Somali people as extremely fat. He ignores that Ibn Battuta stayed only few days in Mogadishu and his contacts were limited to the city's ruler and his entourage. No serious intellectual will take few opulent traders as representative of the whole people. Besides Ibn Battuta didn't meet Somali nomads who are the real Somalis. Despite that the writer sidestepped other good things that Ibn Battuta said about Mogadishu and its Sultan. He said:” Upon arrival in Mogadishu harbor, it was the custom for small native boats ("sunbuqs") to approach the arriving vessel, and their occupants to offer food and hospitality to the merchants on the ship...on Friday, the Sultan sent clothing for them (Ibn Battuta and his delegates) to wear to the mosque. The clothing consisted of a silk wrapper (trousers were unknown), "an upper garment of Egyptian linen with markings, a lined gown of Jerusalem material, and an Egyptian turban with embroideries."
Amazingly, the writer failed to notice the unique physical features of the Somali people, a phenomenon that has bedazzled foreign writers since the dawn of history. They unanimously describe the Somali people as being tall, slim and handsome. The writer has not only decided to sidestep this fact but he branded the whole Somali race as corpulent although he didn't hesitate to voice his admiration for the beauty of the Ethiopian people; at least a redeeming act for his otherwise slanderous piece. Why even internationally acclaimed Somali super models such as Iman and Waris Derie didn't come to his mind is indeed a cause of suspicion. I will quote below only a few of the Western writers' admiration for the good looks of the Somali people. Describing the different races including Somalis he saw in Aden during British rule, David Holden writes the following in his book Farwell to Arabia:"...These are financial lords of Aden; the serfs are in Cater's slums, a dusty, geometrical grid of streets where all the styles and faces of Arabia and the Indian Ocean have fetched up over the years of imperial rule. Arabs of the coast and Arabs from Sudan, in long white dishdashers and turbans; Arabs of the interior and the Yemen in printed cotton Futas, or kilts, and bright, embroidered Kashmiri shawls wound their heads. Somalis, proud of carriage and skinny of leg, stalking among the rest like black and glistening warding birds in a throng of chattering sparrows. Indians crouched in dark cubby holes with sewing machines and Pakistanis squatting sleepily among bales of cloth..."
The versatile 19th century English adventurer writer Richard Burton, describing the beauty of a Somali girl in Dobo, Harawe valley, wrote in his First Steps in East Africa:"... The head was well formed, and gracefully placed upon a long thin neck and narrow shoulders; the hair, brow, and nose were unexceptionable, there was an arch look in the eyes of jet and pearl, and a suspicion of African protuberance about the lips, which gave the countenance an exceeding naiveté. Her skin was a warm, rich nut-brown, an especial charm in these regions, and her movements had that grace which suggests perfect symmetry of limb..."
Joe Palmer, a former American Professor of English, who stayed sometime in Somalia in the sixties wrote ". Somali men are handsome, wiry and tall, as fit as marathon runners, full of pride, quite self-contained, having no need of you. They are tall because of natural selection; tall people see trouble in the bush coming sooner. Their beautiful maiden sisters, crowned with tonsures of black ringlets, are the infibulated property of their fathers."
Describing Somali boys watching their vehicles against theft in Mogadishu, he wrote "...Many of them were beautiful, with clear almond skin, large, dark eyes, noble noses and aquiline features that distinguish the noblest Somali from other."Visiting modern Damascus, another western observer Bob Cromwell couldn't miss the beauty of Somali women:"Damascus is a fascinating place to see and the people are fantastic. A fascinating ancient city, from before there was history. The most multi-cultural place I've been -- walking down the street you see a mix of Bedouin just in from the desert; urban dwellers; Yemeni and Somali women in brightly colored robes, looking like supermodels."Ignoring all these facts at his fingertips, our writer chose to resort to two of Ibn Battuta's erroneous observations on Somali people that they were corpulent and that the Somali people of Zeila were rejecters or Shiites, while history and reality on the ground vouch for the Somali people being 100% Sunni of the Shafi'i school.
Relying on his patchy excerpts he couldn't wait to accuse the Somali people being inferior and weak people who genuflected for the colonial favors to buy their land and their pride:"...The clans did not wait to be conquered. They took the easy way out and sold their rights, most often for less than a hundred dollars. The treaties were remarkable for their three-point simplicity. Point 1: All rights are yours. Point 2: I get 70 or 100 dollars. Point 3: You have the last word in all disputes..." He added that neighbors could hardly resist exploiting such weakness and the Abyssinian Emperor Menelik II, founder of modern Ethiopia, spread his suzerainty to the Islamic city state of Harar where the Emir Abdullah had readily handed over the town to the Emperor and accepted the Grand Mosque to be turned into a Church.Again one may remind the writer of Joe Palmer's words that "...The first lesson a Somali boy learns is basic spearsmanship. How will you live if you do not know how to kill an attacking leopard?.." Surely a man who can wrestle with a leopard has no feeble hearted. It is also obvious that the British description of the Somali people as the " Irish of Africa" for their pride and unruly independence has never reached the ears of the eminent journalist.A brief glance at history will also expose the writer's ignorance of the Somali people's heroic struggle against foreign occupation from the 16th century to the colonial days and beyond. Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi (c1507-1543), a Somali Imam and General who was born near Zeila, capital of the medieval Adal State, conquered much of Ethiopia. His forces exhausted and devastated by the Imam's assault, the Ethiopian emperor Lebna Dengel (reigned 1508–40) appealed to Portugal for help. By then, the Imam, known as Gran or Guray, left-handed, marched all the way to the province of Tigray where he defeated an Ethiopian army that confronted him there, and on reaching Axum destroyed the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in which the Ethiopian emperors had been coronated for centuries.A Portuguese force led by Christovao da Gama, brother of the famous explorer Vasco da Gama, and included 400 musketeers and a number of artisans and other non-combatantswho landed at the port of Massawa on February 10, 1541, in the reign of the emperor Gelawdewos. The Portuguese led force eventually succeeded to defeat and kill the Imam after fierce battles.As American Ethiopian expert Paul B. Henze wrote "...In Ethiopia the damage which [Ahmad] Gragn did has never been forgotten. Every Christian highlander still hears tales of Gragn in his childhood." Henze said Haile Selassie referred to him in h is memoirs: "I have often had villagers in northern Ethiopia point out sites of towns, forts, churches and monasteries destroyed by Gragn as if these catastrophes had occurred only yesterday."
At the turn of the 20th century, the Somali hero Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, described by one scholar as the George Washington of Somali nationalism, led an exhaustive and long resistance war against the combined colonials powers of Britain, Italy and Ethiopia (1898-1920).Not being able to break the will and resolve of the Mad Mullah, as the British called him, the British colonial government resorted to its Royal Air Force (RAF). In Jan - Feb 1920, RAF units made sorties against the Mad Mullah's dervish forces in what it called the RAF's first "little war". The airborne intervention, the first in Africa, was "the main instrument and decisive factor" in the success of the operation. Ten dH9s were dispatched to form "Z Force", and were used for bombing, strafing and as air ambulances according to military documents from the British Archives.Bent on not leaving any insult unpeeled, the writer throws his last salvo by accusing Somalis of taking comfort in the past and boasting of Ancient Egyptians importing “slaves of a superior sort” among other things from their land. This is a pathetic attempt by the writer to insinuate Somalis taking pride in being slaves, albeit of better stock. It is a historical fact that Somalis were never taken as slaves, although their ports of Zeila and Berbera were used as embarkation points for the inhumane slave trade going to Arabia Felix.
While turning a blind eye to all these facts, Akbar didn't fail to underline the superiority of his pedigree to that of Somalis and indeed Africans by proudly highlighting the Indian achievements in Ethiopia as architects, traders and civilizing agents. In fact apart from Akbar's pomposity, the Somali people draw great pride in their strong historical commercial and cultural relations with India, a fact that their folklore heritage celebrates until today.