In the 1980s, I spent the first part of the decade in a small college town in Ohio with little or no interaction with Somali-speaking people. Then in late 1988 I went to Albany, New York, to visit my cousin and her husband. While in Albany, I was introduced to a young Yemeni college student. After conversing with him in Arabic for a while, I learned that he was actually born in Berbera and spent some time there before moving to Yemen. We switched speaking in Somali and I was amazed how fluently he spoke the language after many years of absence from Somalia. I have never felt so nostalgic to my native language the way I did that day; it was as if I went back home. I felt invigorated and rejuvenated. I remembered an incident in 1970s at the old Soccer Stadium in Mogadishu at Campo Amaharo (later re-named Abdul-Aziz) when a Chinese official visited there and gave a short speech during the half-time. The official spoke in Chinese but he had a Chinese embassy officer who interpreted for him in Somali. Every time the interpreter spoke, the entire audience ruptured and applauded loudly in unison. The Somali audience was marveling at the interpreter‘s mastery of Somali language and seemed to care less about what the Chinese official was saying about Beijing-Mogadishu bilateral relations. That particular day, my nostalgia mainly stemmed from a neighborhood in Mogadishu that I haven’t seen for sometime. I grew up in Isku-Raran which had undergone a massive transformation while I was still a child and hence lost its original make-up.
Isku-Raran was notorious for its density and crowdedness. The houses were poorly constructed and were made of bricks and woods or “Baraako” as the Somalis call them. The land mapping, if there was such a thing, was haphazardly drawn and there were many alleys. As a child, I used to seek solace and comfort in a not-so distant neighborhood called Hamarweyne. Unlike my neighborhood, where the tallest building was three-floor height and was owned by SIIDOW (Geledi), Hamarweyne had hundreds of tall buildings which were neatly arrayed. I was drawn to Hamarweyne not because of its tall buildings but to its God-given and priceless feature: the Indian Ocean. I would go to Secondo Lido, not to swim, but to watch and enjoy the beautiful scenery. The section I used to hang around was close to what was later known as Hotel Uruba. There were always some youngsters at the ocean, a small number of Reer Hamar fishermen and some who, like me, were drawn to the ocean for its aesthetics.
If there was any neighborhood in Mogadishu that was unique and fascinating, it was Hamarweyne. The residents of Hamarweyne, considered Arab or Persian descent, are called the Reer Hamar, or “Cad Cad” (light-skinned) as one of my northern friends calls them, are some of the most industrious, creative, and skilled people in Somali Peninsula. They are mostly merchants, tailors, and technicians. The Madhiban and Tumal are also very skilled people as a group despite the age-long and heinous discrimination that has been meted against them throughout Somali history. The Reer Hamar, unlike other Somalis, were mostly concentrated in one part of Mogadishu and perhaps were saved from the internecine clan wars that other parts of Somalia experienced in the 19th century and beyond. During the colonial period, some of the Reer Hamar and in general Benadiri people were in the forefront in the struggle for independence and leaders like Dheere Hajji Dheere, Hajji Mohamed Hussein Maxaad and Mohamed Ali Nuur were among the 13 Somali Youth League (SYL) founders. The Reer Hamar people are a close-knit group, family-oriented, and they generally inter-marry. Once you come to know a Reer Hamar family you are a friend for life. In 1960s, I had a classmate at Moalim Jama School called Jeilani. Sometime in 1970s, my sister came to know a Reer Hamar official, Mohamed Osman, who was the head of the Protocol at the Foreign Ministry one time and who later became the Somali ambassador to Iran and Sudan respectively. Mr. Osman happened to be the father of Jeilani. My sister did a minor favor for Mr. Osman, who was posted abroad at the time, which was delivering a parcel to his family in Mogadishu. At the time, my family was living in Hamar Jab Jab and so was the family of Mohamed Osman. Every week, the Osman family made cake and Halwo for my family even after my sister was posted abroad. The family’s loyalty and kindness was amazing.
Hamarweyne had string of shops that sold many different goods. The day before Eid, my mother would take me to Hamarweyne in order to get me some new clothes and shoes. Long before drinking smoothies became fashionable in the West, there were stores in Hamarweyne that specialized in all kinds of juices. After shopping, my mother and I used to get tall glasses of cool papaya drinks. Hamarweyne Market was the biggest and cleanest market in Mogadishu and natives were not the only ones that shopped there, foreigners would shop at Hamarweyne market as well. Across the market, one would find dozen of men sitting behind wooden tables and typing letters in old typewriters. These men helped people in writing letters and applications. Before I could get my first passport in 1978, I had to go to one of these typists and get a letter typed on my behalf requesting the travel document.
Hamarweyne was unique in a way because it had attracted many diverse groups in its midst. There were Reer Baraawe owned-stores and businesses run by other Somalis. Hamarweyne also had Indians, Arabs, Pakistanis, Persians, and other foreign nationals who operated businesses there. The famous Zulfikar Ali stores across the old parliament were owned evidently by a Pakistani family. So was NISF ADEN store which was owned by the Bin Naafic family. Some of the gold smiths in Afar Irdoodka were Indians. As a child, my uncle used to take me to an Italian pastry shop behind Café Nazionale and Cinema Hamar
As I got older, I saw less of Faraj. He sent his daughter Fatma to Yemen for early marriage. Then, one day, I went to his store and was met by Basharow, a Reer Hamar merchant, who informed me that Faraj had passed away. My visits to Hamarweyne became more focused on seeing the ocean.
It was sometime in 1977, when I started going to the historic Arbaca Rukun Mosque. A young Reer Hamar Sheikh named Muridi Hajji Sufi (Shaanshi) used to give daily Tafseer lesson there. Muridi was one of the disciples of the late Sheikh Mohamed Moalim. His Tafseer was widely attended by youth across Mogadishu. The government was not pleased with the fact that hundreds of youth were attending a religious circle even though it was a peaceful and not a radical gathering. Sheikh Mohamed Guled (Tumal), who was the Director of Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Justice and Religion, attempted numerous times, on behalf of the government, to stop the Tafseer. Sheikh Muridi was an ally of an equally popular preacher named Sheikh Mohamed Imankey (Shaanshi). Imankey, perhaps, was one of the most eloquent and witty preachers I have ever seen. He was widely loved and respected by the youngsters at Arbaca Rukun because he was courageous, and to the delight of many, politically-oriented. Every time Sheikh Muridi was summoned to the Ministry of Justice and Religion, he would take along Sheikh Imankey who was friendly with Sheikh Mohamed Guled.
Hamarweyne had historical mosques but on occasions I used to go to Marwas. The mosque had a Reer Baraawe (Hatimi) Imam who was fluent in Arabic and had a beautiful voice. There was also the Hadith circle (Riyaadhul Salixiin) taught by the late Sheikh Ibrahim Suuley (Dir) a knowledgeable and pious scholar.
After I attended Arbaca Rukun, I would stop by at some of the stores to satisfy my sweet tooth. The “mac-macaan” (Sweets) in Hamarweyne was irresistible. The contribution of the Reer Hamar to the rest of Somalia, from cultural artifacts to literary works, cannot be enumerated here but I will only mention one thing; pastries. Nomadic Somalis can boast about introducing “OODKAC” to a country that does not have a distinctive traditional meal. The food Somalis eat is borrowed from other cultures such as spaghetti from Italy, Rice from Arabia, Injera from Ethiopia, Sabaayad and Samboosa from India, etc. But “Halwo” is purely a Somali invention, thanks to Reer Hamar. What would Somalis do with out halwo? The Halwo is served during weddings and many other occasions.
Hassan M. Abukar
A Tale of Two Cities: A Personal Perspective By Faisal A. Roble
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