I don’t often open a newspaper and see a photo of someone I’ve met, but last week there looking out at me was Rhoda Ibrahim. She’s a Somali woman in her late 50s, in the news for her community work in Brent. It’s a part of London that a year ago had the highest coronavirus death rate in England and Wales — three times the national average. Now the death rate no longer ranks in the top 100 local authorities. Rhoda played a key role, alerting the local council to the disproportionate impact Covid was having on her community. Leaders of the local NHS trust came to meet her, and together they have put in measures that have brought about positive change. ‘There’s a big community spirit, which was never there before,’ she says. She talks about being ‘blown away’ by the goodwill and generosity of all parts of the community.
When I met Rhoda she was 27, and organising a Somali cultural festival in a community centre in East London. I had been invited to speak about my novel, A Shield of Coolest Air. Perhaps I wouldn’t have remembered her name but for the fact that a few years ago she emailed asking to order another copy. She wrote, ‘I still think there is no other book like it written about the Somali community in the UK. It helped people in the UK to know us, we who came as refugees in the late 80’s & early 90s.’ Now, seeing the inspiring work she is doing has prompted me to share something of the story of how that book came to be written, and how much I learnt in the process.
It’s an entirely fictional story, but reflects things that could have happened to many of us. Two mothers meet in the school playground and get to know each other through their children. One is a Somali woman who has fled from war … For me the first encounter with recently arrived refugees happened in the English classes which I and my colleagues were responsible for. Each new arrival reflected some disaster in the world beyond — Kurds fleeing chemical warfare in Northern Iraq, Afghans escaping a civil war fuelled by both Russian and American arms, African villagers fleeing rebel armies in the Congo and Sudan, Tamils from Sri Lanka, Ahmadiyas from Pakistan — and suddenly, Somalis. In halting English or through interpreters people began to share their stories. It was impossible not to be moved by them. It was also striking that, wherever they were from, however different their languages, cultures and personal stories, once in the UK they were in the same situation. Their lives were all now dominated by having to negotiate permission to stay. Whatever level of society they had come from, wealthy or poor, highly educated or illiterate, here they were all dealing with sudden poverty, loss of family, place, role.
I called together the teachers who were getting to know asylum seekers and we set up a community support group. I did the rounds of organisations with longer experience of all this. We pressed the local authority for funding to employ an advice worker. She found interpreters, and from a small office in our adult education centre she dealt with a trail of crises. She steered confused people through bureaucratic hoops to access the basic support the state provided, connected them to legal advisers, transported donated furniture and winter clothes to those in need.
I don’t remember consciously making a decision, it just became clear to me that I needed to share some of what all this was teaching me — what it was like to have your life so dramatically cut across by a political situation not of your own making, and if you did manage to get away, the new sets of crises you landed in.
Gradually a story took shape.
Before I had got far I realised that for a reader new to all this I would need to choose one back-story to focus on, the reason why this person had fled. That story became Somalia. The immediate political background I by now knew: in 1988 the dictator Siad Barre had ordered the bombing of Hargeisa, the main town in Northern Somalia, where many had opposed his rise. Half a million people fled across the border into Ethiopia, where vast refugee camps grew up in the desert. A small number managed to move on, and arrived in countries in Europe where they applied for asylum. But beyond that, I was just at the start of what I would need to learn if I were to do the story justice. With the ongoing war, there was no way I could have got myself to Somalia, even if I had been free from work and family responsibilities. So I would have to learn what I could here, in Britain.
I read whatever I could, the limited amount that was then available in English. I visited Somali community centres, talked to people — And I kept hearing about a professor of the Somali language at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Somalis regarded him as a phenomenon. ‘He is a European but he speaks our language perfectly,’ they said. ‘If you hear him without seeing him, you couldn’t believe he’s not a Somali.’ So I approached him, and asked if he would be willing to help me make sense of what I was learning, and take me beyond, to things I needed to know.
B.W. Andrzejewski — Goosh to all who knew him — was Polish, and how he got to be a Somali specialist is a story in itself. He too had had to flee from a war. When he was 17 and at school in Warsaw, the Nazis invaded. He escaped, and through a series of dramatic adventures managed to join the Free Polish Forces abroad. His training took place in Palestine, where his facility with languages first became evident. He was simultaneously learning English, Arabic and Hebrew. As he also knew German, he was given a job as an interpreter accompanying prisoners of war who were being moved from one place to another. After the war he put himself through British university entrance exams, studied English literature at Oxford, and then linguistics at SOAS. He was by now also a poet in Polish.
At that time the British government was looking for a linguist to work in Somaliland, the northern part of Somalia which had come under their administration after the defeat of the Italians. The country is mostly desert. Camel-herding and trading was how most people survived. There had never been an agreed script for the language. They had little need to read and write; the only reason was religious, to read the Quran, but that was in Arabic. A small minority had gone to schools where they learnt to read the languages of the colonial powers that had divided the country, but they all shared their spoken language. The colonial officials wanted a linguist to develop a script so that it could be used for administration and communication. So Goosh was sent to do a linguistic analysis of a language he had yet to learn. He spent the rest of his life studying it, and living it.
He entered into the spirit of my attempt to evoke in my fictional story aspects of a way of life that he knew well but that I had never been part of. A busy man and a tired one (he already had cancer), he generously gave me time. He guided my reading, and talked about things he had learnt through years of living in Somalia. He read each stage of my book in draft, and commented in detail on anything that reflected the Somali context. When I said that I wondered if I was stepping too far beyond my own experience, he dismissed this vigorously, and said something which has stuck with me ever since. ‘One of the most powerful novels about the inner life of a woman,’ he said, ‘is Anna Karenina, and it was written by a man. The whole point of fiction is to imagine lives we have never lived.’
I told him that even Somali refugees in my classes had heard about the excellence of his Somali. He smiled and said it was simply that so few outsiders had ever learnt the language, so to Somalis, hearing him was like hearing a cat speak.
Those conversations with Goosh started me off on an extraordinary journey, discovering things about my Somali friends, and the culture they had grown up with, that I might possibly never have learnt otherwise. And one of the most significant was the role of poetry.
Goosh had discovered very early on in his time there that Somalis are great orators, and extraordinarily adept at learning things by heart. When he asked his Somali colleague, Muusa Galaal, for an example of how a particular word was used in different contexts, the examples Muusa gave were always spoken in a metre. Goosh began to realise that Muusa’s mind carried a vast store of poems, and as the language was not yet written, they had been memorised simply by listening to the words being recited.
To people who have always relied on the written word it is astonishing to discover that generations of illiterate camel herders memorised long, complex poems, which told the history of their people. There was a deep respect for the actual words chosen by the poet. Each carries verbal richness beyond the basic sense, in subtle word play, images with double meanings, metaphors reflecting cultural references. Someone who memorised a poem had an important role as culture-carrier, and was expected to get it 100% correct.
Alerted by what I was learning from Goosh, I started asking my Somali friends about all this. They had never mentioned that their heads were full of poems, but why would they bother to tell someone who didn’t know the language? They found my questions mildly perplexing. Why wouldn’t they love poetry? Surely everyone does? Nor did they have any feeling that by fleeing Somalia they were now cut off from their poetic roots. They are historically a nomadic people, and poetry travels with them. Some of those in exile were composing poems about what they were experiencing, and sharing them with others who had landed up in other countries. They recorded them onto cassettes and posted them to each other, so it was still primarily oral poetry.
The deeper I got into my novel, the clearer it became that poetry was going to have to be part of it.
In the translations that Goosh was giving me there was a great deal that I couldn’t connect with. Extravagant praise of war-like leaders, decrying one’s opponents, not unlike passages in Shakespeare’s history plays —
But when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood …
Spurring people on to kill others isn’t something I go for, in any language. But there are also poems expressing the despair of those trapped by a dictatorial society. Written more than a century ago, they speak to people today, like this one by Raage Ugaas, and translated by Said Samatar:
When men closed their doors
before the awful darkness of the night
there emerged from the depths
of my tormented being a deep groan
like the rumbling thunder of a gloomy rain
or the roar of a prowling, hungry lion –
Moments of lyricism give us glimpses of a way of life, in a harsh landscape where young men are away from home for months at a time, moving with their camels and goats to find fresh grass; where a nomadic family will move house by packing all they own onto the back of a camel; where, in a drought-stricken land, rain acts as an image for the unexpected joy of finding love:
You are like a place with fresh grass after a downpour of rain
on which the sun now shines
The imagery is vivid because it is so specific; but the poets know that the thoughts and feelings they express are common to us all:
For of course that life is sweet I grant you
And where terror dwells, are not all men the same?
That commonality was at the heart of my story.
The title of my book came from a poem by the early 20th century poet, Sayyid Mohammed Abdille Hasan, in a translation by Margaret Lawrence, a Canadian novelist who lived there at the time Goosh was doing his analysis of the Somali language. It’s a poem of farewell, to someone who is setting out on a long and hazardous journey:
Now you depart – And though your way may lead
through airless forests, thick with hagar trees,
through places steeped in heat, stifling and dry,
where breath comes hard, and no fresh breeze can reach,
Yet may God place a shield of coolest air
between your body and the assailant sun …
I am glad to say that the novel was published while Goosh was still alive. He was now retired so I journeyed out of London to his home to give him his copy. He knew he didn’t have long to live, but was calm about it. He said it was like being in the doctor’s waiting room, waiting for your turn to be called. It was the last time I saw him.
The novel had been rejected by more publishers than I can remember. When I had published it myself, it got seven reviews in national and regional newspapers and many radio interviews. I remember the sense of shock when I saw the review in ‘The Scotsman’, which filled half a page. I had sent it out to journals that looked as if they might have an interest in asylum seekers, Somalis, or just humanity generally, and reviews kept coming in, for almost a year. In the end there were over 30 of them. The story had touched something that connects many of us. I wouldn’t like to try to put words around it because they would sound too profound, and what I mean is something quite basic. There’s a sense of it in a comment by a reviewer that I have always valued, perhaps more than any other. ‘She writes with great simplicity about ordinary people, yet that ordinariness is universal.’
Adapted from my forthcoming book Journeys Without a Map: A Writer’s Life, out on 28th September 2021.
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The articles about Brent & Rhoda Ibrahim are by Aamna Mohdin, published in The Guardian on 27 June 2020 & 13 July 2021 – you can read them on-line.