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What is the deal with Somalia?

Posted by Eric Brightwell, November 26, 2008 01:35pm | Post a Comment
Somalia in the news
If you're like me, you may feel like the media only provides confusing, fragmented glimpses into what remains, by and large, an obscure part of the world that makes regular appearances in the news regarding (usually) famine, war or piracy. And yet, the newscasters seem perfectly content to repeatedly ask, "What's going on?" and "Why do they kill us when we bring aid?" and (most inexcusably stupid) "Aren't pirates a thing of the past?" Yet they seem content merely to ask and never to attempt an answer. So, in the face of another wave of gawking, 30 second snippets provided by the news, here's my humble attempt to shed a little light on the region; one where long-simmering tensions and colonialist pressure have caused the Somali people considerable strife and difficulty for centuries, with no hope of apparent change in the future. And yet, I hope the music and cultural bits I've thrown in will provide a balance to all the misery.

Horn of Africa Horn of Africa 70

Introduction
Somalia's history (and the horn of Africa, for that matter) for the last few centuries has been a familiar history of extreme hostility and violent retribution. Begrudging neighbors are made pawns of European powers and played against each other with suffering resulting on all sides. Somalia, whilst one of the only countries with only one ethnic group, has never very unified. Originally the Somali people organized themselves on the coasts of the mostly barren country in tiny city states (and later, after conversion to Islam, Sultanates). 


Tubeec & Magool

Ancient Beginnings

In ancient times, the region was widely known and valued by its neighbors, from China to Rome (who referred to the Horn of Africa as "Regio Aromatica"), for its dragon's blood, frankincense, and myrrh-- two of which were good enough for the Christ child and which remain popular commodities today. For a while, everything was apparently chill and, for centuries, Muslim Somalia maintained good relations with Christian and Jewish Ethiopia. The prophet himself commanded Somalia to never take up arms against Ethiopia... unless (foreshadowing here) Ethiopia drew first blood.
 
Zhen Ze with giraffe purchased in Somalia Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Abdullah Al Lawati Al Tanji Ibn Battuta
(Left) A giraffe bought in Somalia by Zheng He. (Right) Ibn Battuta.

Medieval Times
Jump forward a couple of centuries to early 1331. The lengthily-named Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Abdullah Al Lawati Al Tanji Ibn Battuta, a famous Muslim explorer and historian, documented the known Muslim world from Mali to China and, hence, visited the area. He wrote of Mogadishu:

     It is a town endless in its size. Its people have many camels, of which they slaughter hundreds every   
     day, and they have many sheep. Its people are powerful merchants. In it are manufactured the clothes
     named after the city, which have no rival, and which are transported as far as Egypt and elsewhere.


In the early 1400s, the Muslim Chinese scholar, Zheng He, also visited the area. He famously purchased a giraffe which he took back to China.



The Seeds of Enmity
Around this time, Ethiopia began to launch efforts to subjugate the Somali kingdoms, going to far as to execute the Somali king Sa'ad ad-Din II and establish tributary kingdoms which resulted, quite understandably, in Somali revolts and enmity toward their neighbors which is still strong. 
 

Omar Dhuule

In 1527, Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi, armed with guns and backed by the Ottomans, led a scorched earth invasion of Ethiopia, attempting to force conversion there to Islam. The Ethiopians, faced with likely annihilation, appealed to the Portuguese, who sent fleets from occupied India, hoping to enlarge their comparatively tiny colonial presence in Africa. The Portuguese-Ethiopian force crushed the Somali state and the Portuguese attempted to absorb it into their empire. Instead it was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire.

Hibo Nuura

Colonialism & Post-Colonialism
In 1875, following Europe's abolishment of slavery, the European powers attempted to exploit Africa through colonialization. Britain, France and Italy all staked their claims and set about carving up Somalia.
somali people
Some Somali in happy times
 
In 1900, Ethiopia under Emperor Menelik II again invaded Somalia's Ogaden region. Somalia's nationalist Sayyīd Muhammad `Abd Allāh al-Hasan (called "The Mad Mullah" by the British) retook the area for Somalia... which was then given back to Ethiopia by the British in 1945 and remains a barren patch of symbolism that Somalia and Ethiopia still trade fire over.
 
pirates of the Indian
Some really cheerful Somali pirates
 
Independence
In 1960, both Italian Somaliand and British Somaliand gained independence and unified as Somalia. Following independence, Somalia was fairly liberal for a short time. However, Somalia remained a state whose unity was fragile. Things quickly went south with heavy-handed dictators leading Somalia down the road of repression. In 1976, Somalia went back into war against Ethiopia over the barren, largely uninhabited, contested Ogaden region. Communist Ethiopia was backed by Soviet and Cuban troops who practically obliterated the out-gunned Somali forces. They in turn appealed to the U.S. for help but, under Jimmy Carter, America declined the offer to get bogged down in another Cold War front.

somali street scene
Somali street scene

Civil War & the Descent into Chaos
The weakened Somali state began to fall apart, descending into a civil war, openly encouraged by Ethiopia. Somalia's government grew increasingly totalitarian. By 1990, Somalia was under the thumb of a repressive dictatorship and suffering from a lack of resources. Somalis weren't allowed to assemble in groups exceeding three, fuel lines were long and the currency was worthless. In 1991, Ethiopia-backed clansmen toppled the government and Somaliland, in the north, declared its independence (although it's yet to be recognized by any government). The government splintered and the country, once again, descended into civil war. At this point, piracy grew rampant in the face of a powerless government. Famine resulted from the war as well and, due the volatile instability, the UN proved unable to provide humanitarian aid. The US sent in troops to secure the south. It didn't go well.


Ahmed Cali Cigal
 
In 1993, under Mohamed Farrah Aidid, fighting escalated between Somali and American troops, resulting in 1000 Somali casualties and 18 American. The foreign forces withdrew and the state collapsed completely. Mohamed Farrah Aidid was killed in fighting three years later. Since then, the country has divided along tribal and factional lines, with so-called Islamic fundamentalists attempting to impose their medieval codes through force while a central government exists only in theory and exile. In 2006, Ethiopian forces again intervened, supposedly to help the Somali government, but were mistrusted by many Somali for good reason.


Mohamed Nuur Giriig - Dayaxa idhibay Xala

Piracy

Lately the news has been all about pirates, who are discussed like they're from the pages of some 17th century adventure novel. Unlike the sex trading slavers in the Pacific or the the Disney-glorified serial rapists of yore, Somali pirates are mostly fishermen who turned to piracy in desperation and have a reputation for humane treatment and big spending. By some accounts, they treat their captives relatively well, feeding them Western food and providing plenty of smokes. The pirates, who've netted $150 million in ransom money in the last twelve months, are largely credited with turning the coastal villages they patronize boomtowns. The freewheeling, khat taking, booze swilling pirates help create, in the eyes of many, an oases of liberalism at odds with the Islamofacist-terrorized world beyond their influence.


Fadumo Qasim - Habiibi
 
Fragmentation
Nowadays (although there is on paper an official Somali government) the north is run by local leaders in the fairly autonomous states of Galmudug, Northland State, Maahir and Puntland and Somaliland. The central and southern parts of the country are run by the so-called Islamic Courts who brutally apply Sharia law to the suffering people.

Old Music - Hasan Adan Samatar
Uploaded by bishaaros

black hawk down iamn
Black Hawk Down & Iman... all most of us know of Somalia

Somalia in Film and Somali Film
Not surprising, perhaps (due to the harsh conditions of Somalia), the country has produced very little cinema. Most Somali are content to watch Bollywood films and musicals like Riwaayado reflect the influence of India's film-making. In 1988, Abdulkadir Ahmed Said released the 23-minute Geedka Nolosha which won Best Short Film that year in Turin. But that's about it for homegrown cinema.

With millions living abroad, Somali's diaspora make up large minorities in cities like Toronto, London and Minneapolis (as well as neighboring countries like Djibouti, Kenya and Yemen). Therefore, it's not completely strange that the so-called Somaliwood film industry is centered in Columbus, Ohio. Out of the Midwestern town came Warmooge, the first animated Somali film, Rajo, the first feature-length Somali film and the thriller, Xaaskayga Araweelo. There, directors like Iman Abdisalam Aato and Abdi Malik Isak as well as the actress Fathiya Saleban have achieved a level of fame impossible in their homeland.
 
 
Ahmed Gacayte & Amina Abdilahi

Somali Music

To my western ears, Somali music sounds a great deal like most music in the Horn -- lurching, funky, jazzy and with a tonality that probably connotes something completely different to its main audience. And yet Somalia hasn't received the exhaustive Western attention that Ethiopia has. My guess is that part of this is because most modern Somali music uses cheap synthesizers instead of cost-prohibitive, large bands with expensive interests. Ethiopiques producer/cultural watchdog/apparent douche, Francis Falceto has already vocally criticized modern Ethiopian music for not being authentic enough for his patronizing ass so it's unlikely that he's going to embrace a group of musicians even less able to afford to entertain him with music suitably stuck in the past to please his tastes -- especially when music has been repressed and many artists have moved to London, Columbus and Toronto. 

Some of the better known artists to check out (if you're willing to accept the modernization of third world music as you do your own) include Maryam Mursal, Abdi Sinimo, skyhigh family, Waaberi Horseed, Xaaji Baal Baal Dance Troupe, Cabdillahi Qarshe, Hibo Mahamed Hudoon (Hibo Nuura), Ahmed Cali Cigal, Haliimo Khalif Magool, Mohamed Nuur Giriig, Madar Ahmed Mohamed (Madar Yare), K'Naan, Hasan Adan Samatar, Ahmed Mooge Liban, Mohamed Mooge Liban, Abdiqadir Sheikh Ali Sanka, Yusuf Jamac Ganey, Mohamed Saleebaan, Omar Dhuule, Mohamed Mooge, Ahmed Gayate, Mahamoud Mohamed Cige (Buuse), Mohamed Yusuf, Ismail Yare, Amina Abdilahi, Fadumo Qasim, Abdihakim Mohamed Warsame (Calaacal) and Hasan Haji Abdilahi (Hasan Ganey). If you don't live in a town with a large Somali population, the best thing to do is probably check out Amoeba's Somlia section.

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