In 1970s, two men in a Mogadishu neighborhood –one Issak and the other Reer Hamar- were talking about another man. Both agreed that the man in question was a wicked person. The Issak said, “I don’t want to talk about this guy anymore because he is DAMEER (a Donkey). The Reer Hamar man stood up and protested, “War Kan Dameer maaha, Geel waaye” (No, he is not ‘Dameer’ he is ‘Geel’ (camel). A true story.
Before Somali children started regular schooling, they had to attend Dugsi or Ardo (Quran School). Children as young as three or four attended Dugsi to study the Quran and learn how to read and write Arabic. In hindsight, I can only ruminate about the wasted resources and time for letting children memorize the Qur’an without ever teaching them its meanings. A typical Dugsi was coed and the children sat on the floor with wooden tablets. Every day, children wrote their daily lessons with charcoal ink and they would cleanse the tablets after the end of the school day. Teachers were religious clerics “Xer” who had memorized the Quran. Somalis view Dugsi as an integral process of their children’s educational development. It is very rare for a child not to have attended Dugsi before enrolling in public schools. Those who run or teach Dugsi are generally respected in their communities. Dugsi attendance fulfills the religious obligation of teaching the Quran to youngsters at an early age and also it serves as a necessary steppingstone for a possible success in regular schools. I heard the anecdote of men who were invited to lunch (Alla-Bari or Zab) and then after the meal each guest was asked to recite quietly twelve “Qulwallah” (Surat As-Samad; the shortest surah in the Quran). One man from Eastern Ethiopia (currently known as the Somali Region in Ethiopia) stood up in disbelief and said, “Had I known twelve Qulwallah, I would have opened Ardo”. The man thought twelve Qulwallah meant twelve different Suras of the Qur’an which he thought were too many.
Our Dugsi was owned by Teacher Maryam and she was assisted by a string of religious clerics, but everybody knew that she was in charge. It was rare in the country at the time to find a woman who had memorized the entire Quran and was also running a Dugsi. That was a feat unheard of in paternalistic Somalia. She was in her late fifties and never had children. I do not recall if she was ever married. Teacher Maryam ran the Dugsi efficiently. She was an assertive woman who evoked fear and respect among the students. Although she was a close relative of the Prime Minister, and later President, of Somalia at the time (Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke), she never exploited her unique position for personal gains. She lived in Hodan District, but she used to come, from time to time, to our neighborhood and spend several days in our Dugsi. Children always tried to please her, and, when she was around, their behavior drastically improved.
Although Teacher Maryam was never violent with her students, her disciplining approach was nontraditional and crude. For those children who couldn’t memorize their lessons or misbehaved, she had something special for them. She would call their parents, report the infraction, and ask the parents to spank their own children in front of the students. I thought that was a mean and demeaning way of addressing the problem. One teacher in our Dugsi, for a while, deployed an inhumane method of punishment by blind-folding students who did not memorize their daily lesson and letting the rest of students pinch them as they pleased in a span of several seconds.
When Teacher Maryam was returning to her home, some of the students would accompany her to get a cab. She reserved those rare occasions for two or three students who did something exceptional. It was a great honor to walk with Teacher Maryam for several blocks and assist her getting taxi. She was a magnificent lady. In early 1970s, Teacher Maryam built a big mosque (Dhagax-Tuur Mosque) next to her Dugsi. Several years later, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia built the biggest mosque in Mogadishu “Is–Bahaysiga” two blocks from Teacher Maryam’s. Many people preferred to pray in her mosque rather than the government- run and Saudi -sponsored mosque.
Most of my teachers in middle school and high school were from the north. In elementary level, the majority were southerners. When I was growing up, the school system was divided into three levels: Elementary (4 years), Intermediate (4 years) and Secondary (4 years). A student had to pass a national standardized examination before he or she could move to the next level. In elementary, all the subjects, with the exception of English, were taught in Arabic, but in Intermediate and Secondary levels, the language of instruction was English. No official script was adopted for the Somali language at the time. It was odd that elementary subjects were taught in Arabic because Somalis are not Arabs. Sadly, I had difficulty understanding most of the subjects during my elementary years because they made no sense to me. The level of Arabic grammar offered to us was mind-boggling. I guess, all we did, as students, was to memorize the material. My first day of school was special. My uncle, Mohamed Farah Hilowle ‘Farmajo’- who was married to my aunt-Madino Said Muse - took his son (and my cousin) Abdinadif and me to Moalim Jama School. Mr. Hilowle, a product of an Abgaal father and a Majertein mother, was one of the 13 leaders who founded the Somali Youth League (SYL). This remarkable man became a diplomat and was one time stationed in Ethiopia.
The elementary school was all boys. But in the intermediate level, I was exposed to a coed education of a small magnitude. The percentage of the girls in Moalim Jama School was less than 10. There was a Caucasian girl in the school who spoke Somali fluently. Initially, I did not know who she was but it turned out that she was the daughter of Suleyman Mohamud Adan “Suleiman Gaal” (Issak); at the time the Director General of the Ministry of Education. The girl’s mother, obviously, was from the United Kingdom.
Our class had about 40 students, and five were girls. It must have been terrifying experience for these girls. Two of the girls, Zahra and Zuhra were twins who lived in Isku-Raran. I was very shy boy but my friends, Abdifattah Sheikh Khalif, a Majertein boy from the Somali Ethiopian Region (Gallaadi and Dhudub), and Aweys (Abgaal) were the ones who led the constant teasing of the girls. The girls were a microcosm of Somali society; the twins were Reer Hamar, one girl was Bantu, one Hawiye, and one Darod. The girls always fought back and were not to be bullied. Most of the time, I accompanied Abdifattah and Aweys and I silently observed the barbs and the playful spirit between these two boys and the girls. Abdifattah, teasingly and affectionately, called the girls the “Shanta Shimbirood” (the Five Birds) and the girls called him all kinds of names.
Abdifattah was a gregarious, flamboyant and well-liked boy who must have been older than most of his classmates. His father (Reer Khalaf) was an Islamic Judge in Eastern Ethiopia and the boy was living with his sister and her husband, a banker, in Boondheere; a middle-class neighborhood in Mogadishu. Abdifatah was not into academics but he had a veritable obsession of becoming a singer. Oddly, he was the one who introduced me to Somali music and the world of entertainers. I started knowing who was who in the music industry. His cousin, Abdikhadar Hassan, was an aspiring young singer who later became famous across Somalia. Abdifattah and I used to go to Abdikhadar’s house in the Weliyow Adde neighborhood and engage in idle talk about the latest gossip of musicians. I must admit that I myself entertained the idea of becoming a musician once but my bashful demeanor and, not to mention, my bad voice fortunately saved the day.
Among the girls, was N.H.A. She was beautiful, confidant, and a hard-working student. NHA (Habar Gidir) lived in a distant neighborhood from the school with her single mother, a medical doctor trained in Italy. Her father, a driver, was a loving man who used to visit NHA in the school regularly. The girls and NHA found me as shy, nerdy, and reserved and I seconded that assessment. But, interestingly, I became infatuated with NHA for a short period. Since I was eleven at the time and too shy to express my feelings, I confided the matter in two of my friends in Isku-Raran who were not attending my school. One day, a story had it; NHA came to my neighborhood with her friends. Some of the kids allegedly teased her and called her, “Hassan’s girl friend”. NHA, not only was embarrassed, but she became incensed. Next day, I was summoned to the principal’s office. While I was heading to the office, I saw NHA and greeted her, but she did not respond. I was puzzled by her strange behavior. The principal, who belonged to the same clan as NHA, asked me my name and ordered me to leave the school immediately and bring my parents in the afternoon. I was flummoxed. “What did I do”, I pleaded. “Get out of here and bring your parents,” the Principal barked. I left the school dejected. Later that afternoon, I brought my mother to the school. There was only the janitor, an elderly man rumored to be Christian, and the principal in the school. The principal told my mother that I was harassing a girl in the school; an act unbecoming of any good student. I protested and told the principal that the charge was scandalous and vexatious. “Your son is given a warning to stay away from this girl,” the principal commanded. My mother thanked the principal and we headed home. I never had behavioral problem before and my mother neither reproached me nor did she say a word to me because she doubted the veracity of the story.
I was heartbroken by the entire episode. I was angry with NHA for the false accusation; angry with the principal for unfairly suspending me from school, and angry at what I perceived as clannish nepotism. Interestingly, after several years of that incident, I had another Habar Gidir principal that came to my rescue at a critical juncture of schooling. In 1976, I tried desperately to transfer from Hawl Wadag Secondary School to Benadir. The Gadubiirse principal at Hawl Wadag thought at the time that I was a militant because I skipped a technical class taught by a Russian widely believed to have been a KGB agent. The latter only came to our school two hours a day. The school staff believed that the Russian was no ordinary teacher because he had a flexible schedule and a jeep in his disposal. At any rate, one day, I skipped the Russian’s class out of laziness and became involved in an imbroglio with the principal. Since the academic year started only two months earlier in my new school of Hawl Wadag, it was a herculean task to transfer to another school. I pleaded with Mohamed Haji Abdi (Majertein), who was the Director of Hamar School District in the Ministry of Education, to allow me to transfer to Benadir Secondary School but to no avail. The Director’s name was not strange to me because he was the brother-in-law of my best friend, Abdikarim M. Farah “Wariiri” (Dhulbahante) and my classmate in middle school. “Wariiri”, a brilliant student and now an accomplished Economist with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) could have helped but I felt shy to ask him to intercede on my behalf. But then, Principal Mohamed Farah gave me a rare opportunity to accept me at Benadir. I was elated and felt like ‘walking in the air’. Benadir, to me, was ten times better than Hawl Wadag and more prestigious. In the 1990s, Principal Mohamed Farah became one of the top lieutenants of General Aidid.
Back to Moalim Jama School, I had difficulty understanding why a principal would punish a student for an alleged act that supposedly happened while the school was not in session? I did not harass NHA nor did I even make her uncomfortable. That incident made me cut my relationship with the five birds. I avoided them for months and acted that I did not know them.
Weeks before the end of the year, something weird happened. I left school one day heading home when one of the birds-Sa’diyo- came running after me. “Wait Hassan,” she said, “NHA is in front of the school and wants to talk to you.” I started walking back to the school apprehensively and wondering what the scheme was this time. I saw NHA, elegantly but bashfully, standing in front of the school gate. “Hassan, I apologize for what I did to you. Please forgive me”, she sheepishly said. I was stunned by her apology and, all of sudden, became speechless. “It is ok,” I said and then I left. Being eleven years old, I kept wondering what the underlying reasons for the apology was. My own theory was that the final exams were approaching and the girls needed my academic help since we used to study together. But one of the senior birds, Zeinab, told me two or three years later that she asked NHA to apologize to me. My mother and the caretaker of Zeinab became friends, and the girl, apparently, felt embarrassed that we were not in good terms. With or without NHA’s apology, I became somewhat cool, but civil, to the girls and steered clear of them.
People Who Made a Difference
An Image of Somali Primary School
Teacher Abukar (no relations) was my sixth grade Arabic teacher. This Hawadle, tall, lanky, and reticent man seemed to be a typical Arabic teacher at the time; boring and uninspiring. But one day, our Geography teacher became sick and a substitute teacher who used to read to us the famous, but licentious, book, Arabian Nights, was not available. The principal sent Teacher Abukar to our class to fill the hour. We were disappointed with the sight of our Arabic teacher coming to our class to fill the void. But we were in for a big surprise. Teacher Abukar told us the story of Prophet Mohamed, Peace Be Upon Him, from childhood to his marriage of Khadija. Now, the way Teacher Abukar told the story was nontraditional.
The Prophet Mohamed the school system was teaching us was a man who was sent to his people to fight corruption against a feudal Qureish lordship. He was a man who loved his hometown, Makka, and felt sad when he was expelled. This Mohamed was a man who taught his people basic morality, like telling the truth, helping neighbors and loving one’s country. But Teacher Abukar told us a side of Prophet Mohamed that we, children, could identify with and in which super natural tales did not mar its narration. It was, mostly, a tale of a small boy growing up in Makka; A boy who lost his father, and then later his mother, but had close relatives looking after him. What fascinated us the most, as children, was the love story between Khadija, 40 years old, a distinguished business woman known for her beauty, good character, and remarkable pedigree, and young Mohamed, twenty-five years old, an honest man who happened to be her employee. I had never heard this side of the Prophet’s background before, and it humanized the man and the legend.
The Prophet I used to know was a man quick to dispense sagacious statements and who wanted me, as a child, to pray and fast. My mother used to tell me, from to time, bits of information about the Prophet. Initially, I thought Prophet Mohamed was Somali because everybody talked about him by relaying his Hadiths (Prophet’s sayings and tradition) in Somali. But when I found out that Prophet Mohamed was an Arab, I was very angry. This discovery, of course, happened before I was six and it was devastating to me because I had already formed an image of the prophet being a Somali figure. Like many Somali children, I was raised with a stable diet of Somali nationalism. I was taught that Somalis were the best and smartest people in the planet. Therefore, for Prophet Mohamed, the man who was my source of inspiration, being a foreigner was unfathomable. It took me a while to recover from that rude awakening and sophomoric belief. Professor I.M. Lewis, in his Modern History of Somalia, alluded to the notion that Somalis are generally respectful and courteous to foreigners but that they also have “deeply ingrained suspicion…an aggressive self-confidence and, traditionally, open contempt for other people.” As a child, I was more or less, confused.
Teacher Abukar’s hour with us ran out quicker than we wanted. It was a lovely and educational treat. After that fateful day, students used to look for Teacher Abukar every time we had an hour to fill and ask him to tell us more about the history of Prophet Mohamed, Peace be Upon Him.
Aden Nuh Dhulle
Mr. Dhuule (Issak) was my sixth grade science teacher. He was also tall, slender, and always projected that type of seriousness that makes you respect the person. Mr. Dhuule was not the kind of teacher who joked with students or doled out compliments. He did not have a pretentious bone in his body. He came to the class, taught, and left immediately after the period was up. I had the view that Mr. Dhuule was anti-social and indifferent. Many of my classmates did not like him but I thought that one had to work harder to earn his approval. On rare occasions, Mr. Dhuule would flatter some of the students if they did something extraordinary, and, on some occasions, I was fortunate to be on the receiving end. Mr. Dhuule taught in our school, Moalim Jama, less than a year. After his 9-months’ National Service stint, Mr. Dhuule was randomly selected, among others, to work for the Ministry of Information and Guidance. He was assigned to Radio Mogadishu and worked there as a broadcaster. Few years later, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) hired him as a newscaster. I always admired Mr. Dhuule’s unique way of delivering news because it was a reflection of his personality; serious and not ostentatious.
This was an Arabic/Religion teacher that I had at Benadir Secondary School. He was an Iraqi Baathist teacher who was tall and boisterous. There were many students who used to skip the Arabic class because it was, to them, boring or badly taught. I remember seeing this burly and hulking Iraqi teacher screaming at students out of frustration. The first day I saw him was my first day at the school and the teacher asked each one of us to read an Arabic passage. As indicated before, Arabic was not a subject many of the students enjoyed because it was alien to them. When my turn came, I read the passage flawlessly. I saw the teacher coming to me impressed. He asked me my name and he wrote it down in a small piece of paper. That was the beginning of a teacher and student relationship that left sentimental memories. This teacher encouraged me to study Arabic and gave me books, magazines, and cassette tapes. He was also crucial in helping me organize an educational symposium, along my schoolmate Abdirizak Jama. I remember the school principal, an Issak guy nicknamed ‘Jilbaweyne’ being apprehensive because he was afraid that we would politicize the symposium. The Iraqi teacher was instrumental in pacifying the principal and the symposium went well without any incident.
My relative Asha Mohamed Abdi ‘Asha Dheer”was tall, strong, and beautiful. She was married to ‘Shurubo’, who used to own a truck. Asha used to stay with my family when she visited Mogadishu from Bossasso. She was never blessed with children, but her husband loved her dearly. Asha was funny, sociable, and talented and had a strong personality. I remember her complaining to me about two Reer Hamar (Shaanshi) women in our street who were bad-mouthing each other. “Hassan, why do Reer Hamar women wait for each other when they are engaged in verbal assault? One speaks and heaps on the other all kinds of insults while the other patiently listens and waits for her turn to insult”, she retorted. One time I was walking with her near El Gab cinema when a man tried to make a pass; “Abaayo, iska warran [Sister, what is going on?] “The man asked. “Waar halkee baad ii dirsatay ee aan kaaga warramaa” (where did you send me so I can bring you some news) she answered with contempt and walked away. She was a famous poetess (Buraanbur) in the Northeast. When Asha, was pleased with me, she would glowingly say:
Xasan Sharaf, Shan-ka-roone, Shiikh Maxammad Abuukar.
(Hassan, the Honorable, the Remarkable, [son of] Sheikh Mohamed Abukar)
But when she was upset with me, she would jokingly say:
Xasan Shuruf, Shiiraaye, Sheeloweyne
(Hassan, the Malodorous, the Smelly, [with] Enlarged Prostate
It was unfortunate that Asha Dheer got killed by masked assasins in her house in Bossasso some years ago.
Mogadishu in peace times
As a teenager, I came to know a young man who was a teacher but later became a journalist. It was convenient that he lived close to our new house in Xamar Jab Jab. His name was Abdisalaam. He was Rahanweyn and lived with his older brother, Colonel Dafeedow; the second highest official in the Department of Corrections. Daafedow was rumored to be an ally of “Mama Khadija” (Siad Barre’s wife). At any rate, Abdisalam and I became friends even though he was at least several years older than me. He was not happy with his teaching profession and he aspired to become a journalist.
After numerous attempts, he succeeded in becoming a journalist. He was the one who introduced me to journalism in mid 1970s. I used to go with him to the famous Samatar Bookshop in Mogadishu, which was a block away from the American Embassy. Abdisalam was fluent in Arabic and used to purchase leading Egyptian papers like Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar, and Akhbar El-Yom. Even though these papers were few days old, if not weeks, Abdisalam would buy them. He would give me the papers after he was through reading them. I could not afford purchasing papers because I had no income. I loved reading these papers and I fell in love with journalism. My sister, meanwhile, used to read Al-Hawwaa, a woman-geared magazine published in Egypt. I did not care but I read every publication that fell in my hands. When I had extra money, I would go and buy these newspapers. At Hamar Weyne market, there was a man who used to sell used publications like Newsweek, Time, and National Geographic. I loved buying used periodicals from this vendor because his prices were three times cheaper than the ones sold at the bookshop. I am grateful to Abdisalam for introducing me to the world of journalism because it was the only reason that made me come to the United States.
Hassan M. Abukar
Disclaimer: I mention the names of the people in my memoir and their clan. I do so for historical reasons and for the fact that the clan in itself is not the root cause of Somalia’s problems. I am from the old school that knowing one’s clan is not scandalous but using clan affiliation as a pretext to stereotype, discriminate, and humiliate is unacceptable. As the Quran says;
“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)” (Sura 49:13)
- Hassan M. Abukar is working on a memoir about growing up in Mogadishu in 1960s and 1970s.
Read part I and II of his memoir "Mogadishu Memoir: Close but yet far away", "Mogadishu Memoir Part II :A Unique Woman"," Mogadishu Memoir Part III: Defying the Odds", Mogadishu Memoir (Part IV): A Neighborhood in Transition
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