As a matter of saccharine nostalgia, I’ve taken to listening to old Somali songs every morning. The words of Sahra Dawo, Dur Dur, and Hassan Adan Samatar blaring through my cheap plastic earbuds. Each song dripping with the sugary synth that marked the optimistic ’80s; a time capsule of a pre-war Somalia.
I was less than a year old when my birth country collapsed before my eyes in a merciless civil war, a sovereign self-flagellation on an apocalyptic scale. No one would have imagined that I would spend my first birthday as a refugee in Kenya or that, at the tender age of three, I would be shipped off to the United States with my grandparents in search of a better life. When the civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991, the life my parents had envisioned for me was toppled off its axis. The country that they had known and loved had set itself ablaze, and we were caught in its fiery inferno.
In the early years after I left Somalia with my grandparents, I was assured that we would someday go back. Despite the continued political turmoil, Mogadishu was still considered home, and my grandparents convinced me that our country would rebuild and we would safely return home to dip our feet in the pristine blue waters of the Indian Ocean.
As a matter of cultural preservation, my grandparents eschewed all forms of assimilation, learning only enough English to get by and resisting all American conventions. They built within the walls of our tiny Virginia apartment a mini-Mogadishu, a submerged state nestled in the crowded South Arlington suburbs. We began each day with freshly baked injera and black tea spiced with ginger, cardamom, and cloves. In the late afternoons we would listen to BBC Somalia, where we hoped to hear some news of reconciliation or cease-fire. Each evening we would end our days with the thunderous Islamic sermons of Sheikh Cumar Faruuq, which were burned on cassette tapes that seemed older than time.
There had to have been a moment when my grandparents knew we would never return to Somalia. The country I barely knew had become a country they barely recognized. The glimmering white port city of Mogadishu permanently stained gray by a war that had no end in sight. At home, our mini-Mogadishu too was crumbling, my growing proficiency of English and abandonment of Somali threatening the sovereignty of the state they took pains to preserve.
I was about five years old the first time I heard the word “God.” It was my first year of elementary school, and I was sitting on the outside edge of the semicircle my peers made during our indoor recess. Rain interrupted our daily ritual of monkey bars and tag, so we stayed indoors to play with puzzles, draw, and build houses with Legos. Always the quiet one, I sat and listened to my peers engage in many conversations, one of which was about God. At the time, English to me was just a soup of words, all whose meaning seemed a bit out of reach. God just happened to be one of the many words I didn’t know. That afternoon, I asked my aunt to tell me what “God” meant, and she answered curtly, “God is Allah.” In my naïveté, I took my aunt’s response to be a simple math equation I could apply to all words. This meant that for every English word, there was an exact counterpart in Somali. Soon Allah was replaced with “God,” ayeeyo replaced with “grandmother,” awoowe replaced with “grandfather.”