Saturday, July 21, 2018
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My Encounter with Al-Shabab While in Pursuit of a Resort

By Abdisamad Nur-Bidar

“I fail to understand why the stories of important [Somali] personalities are not told, to be documented for archiving.” Adan Makina.

Ultramodern Sahafi Resort

I heard Mr. Makina’s message loud and clear. It was a clarion call for decent and honest Somalis to raise their voices and focus, tell, and highlight the positive human stories of our people and land—the folks worthy of our praise and emulation. On a flight to Central America with my family for Spring Break, my mind was preoccupied. Along with Mr. Makina’s exhortations, I was contemplating the thought of when I will finally take my children to the country of my birth–a country blessed with over three thousand kilometers of coastline and probably with more pristine and beautiful beaches than the beaches of our destination, Costa Rica. But then, I thought about the lack of adequate facilities when, all of a sudden, my memory became alive with flashbacks of a specific “resort” in Somalia. This was an aha moment consistent with Mr. Makina’s message! I dusted off old notes and finally put it on paper—my recollections of a visit to a resort in a dangerous zone in Mogadishu.

On a lazy Saturday afternoon in early 2011,  while browsing through social media, I came across  fancy, glossy pictures of a resort in Somalia–the land of endless, mindless physical and political wars–a place the world associates with lawlessness, butchery, extremism, piracy, misery, and hunger.  Having visited and stayed at a few resorts over the years with my family, I looked at them again with heightened interest. Believing and accepting that these pictures were indeed somewhere in Somalia required going through a surreal mental gymnastics to square them against my very established image of Somalia both in the distant past and in the present. Perhaps photo shopped or fake? And yes, this was the way before the word ‘fake’ seeped into the lexicon of the world.

The Tropical Village Resort, of all places in Dayniile, a mostly military zone prior to the civil war and now Al-Shabaab stronghold! How could that be? I was baffled but intrigued, thinking maybe things were not as they seemed, especially to those of us who left the home country decades ago, before the start of the civil war. Whose crazy, outside of the box idea was this?  Only a dreamer with a far-out vision, and most definitely with profound exposure to the outside world, could conceive and start implementing such outlandish ideas in a county ravaged by unceasing war and conflict. Being partial to resorts and being the curious person I was, I wanted to find out more about it.

As luck would have it, on May 21, 2011, I met the man behind the preposterous concept of a resort in Somalia. It was a “coffee shop” frequented by men of the old Mogadishu. Men from the first urbanized families in Somalia; most of them attended the first schools established in Mogadishu as well as the Somali university.  They had known each other personally or of each others families since they were young and in primary school. They hailed from all corners of Somalia.

Mohamed Ali Jesow certainly fits into that demographic of the old guard of established Mogadishu families. A graduate of Banadir Secondary School in 1977, he earned an MSA degree in Accounting and Taxation from Oklahoma University in 1984 without government provided scholarship. His education in the US was entirely self-funded. Jesow arrived Oklahoma in 1981 penniless–an American state whose nickname is “The Sooner State.” Courageous and determined to succeed in life, he did all sorts of odd jobs including graveyard shifts. Disillusioned with the political development of Somalia in late 80s, he moved to Canada where he established an accounting firm specializing in taxes.  Eventually, he went back to Mogadishu, Somalia in mid 90s to establish a fishing company among various businesses. For many years he would divide his time between Toronto and Mogadishu.

Suban and Jesow

In the friendly, civil chitchat but sometimes overheated coffee shop discussion, Mohamed was gadfly, courteous, affable, somewhat splashy and prone to exaggeration but confident. He certainly had a contrarian view of the civil war and the resultant property ownership disputes. I was impressed. I bluntly told him that I didn’t believe such a resort existed and that the pictures could have been doctored. He extended me a personal invitation to be his guest at the resort in Mogadishu! Moreover, he would guarantee my personal safety while being his guest. He provided me with his number in Somalia and encouraged me to call if and when I get there.

Fast forward to July 2011 

I ended up in Mogadishu after 29 years. On a cool, crisp and misty evening at Sahafi Hotel, on August 9th to be exact, and after having seen the new Mogadishu for a few weeks, I finally gathered myself and made the gutsy decision to call Mr. Jesow.  He was surprised and ecstatic. He asked if he could come and pick me up early in the morning—next day!

It was then I let on and shared my secret and plan with my cousin and niece. They enthusiastically asked me if they could join my adventure.  My niece Suban Khalif fled from Mogadishu with her family when she was 5 years old. The ultra-modern, exceptionally designed house she was born was in a ramshackle state m, right next to our Hotel, Sahafi, an affluent area then and now. Suban grew up in Minnesota, where two years earlier before our historic peregrination, she had earned her bachelor’s from the University of Minnesota. She made this trip to reconnect with her birthplace. We decided not to let anyone, including Suban’s father, know of our planned trip to Dayniile for fear they would stop us from going. The fear of al- Shabaab, and Dayniile was real and terrifying.

At 7:00am sharp, Mr. Jesow, with his fedora trademark, just like inspector Kojac, in the old detective series, along with another gentleman and a single driver picked us up in a white Toyota minivan that was popular in Xamar, right in-front of the heavily guarded Sahafi hotel. Right away I noticed there was no security detail with him. In a defiant and confident tone, he informed us he didn’t have one and had no need for one as this was his city. He gave the impression he was annoyed with my inquiry, sort of lending credence to the “picture” of clueless returnee, lost and unfamiliar with the new Somalia.

Suban and Abdisamad

Mohamed Jesow serenaded us with great stories as we set for Dayniile on the Road to Afgooye. The last government checkpoint was at Afgooye control and beyond that was al-Shabaab country.  It didn’t take long before we came to the first checkpoint manned young men with covered heads and faces. They just peaked through the car windows and waved us to proceed. The ever present and aware my niece Suban snapped a picture of their flag at the checkpoint. How daring?  Had they checked my camera, they would have seen pictures of me at Villa Somalia. We passed perhaps 2 or 3 checkpoints until we finally got to the resort: The Tropical Village Resort.

I was blown away. It was much, much later upon reflection I realized that Mr. Jesow was indeed a visionary and risk taker extraordinaire.  He is a builder and not a destroyer like the folks Somalia had gotten used to for the past 30 years. Though the resort was not anywhere complete or close to his ultimate vision, the facility, its design, and architecture were topnotch. It had a breathtaking commanding view of Mogadishu City and the Indian Ocean. The environment was clean and pristine with horses, camels, and peacocks wandering around the grounds of the priceless resort. Jesow’s horses were neither of the Bucephalus breed of the Equus caballus species of Alexander the Great that died June 26 BC nor of the shorter, sturdy Equus ferus caballus type of Genghis Khan of the Mongol Empire. The splendour and outlook of the horses reminded me of Somalia’s nineteenth century war horses that have been categorized into Eastern and Western breeds respectively. No wonder the Somali dromedary looked familiar. Reputedly the best breed in the world, Somalia prides to have been the initial place where the one-humped camel was first domesticated 4,000 years go.

Besides, the Horn of African nation, according to global statistical estimates, is thought to have the largest concentration of the even-toed ungulate. Even though I was not an Ornithologist by training, the sight of the beautiful peafowl dancing rigorously left me guessing its region of origin. Even with the bewildering coruscating coloration, I was unable to differentiate whether the one that caught my sight was of the Pavo cristatus, Pavo muticus or Afropavo congensis species. Here was a Habitat where one got transported to another era in the distant past in Somalia when humans and nature were all one.

It was a project years in the making for him, which meant he dealt with multiple actors in the ever-changing political theatre of Mogadishu. Though not an architect or horticulturist or agronomist, Jesow personally designed the resort—the Hotel, the villas, the beautiful gardens. He imported seeds from Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and the Mediterranean to test and see if they would fit in with his plans for immaculate gardens. He was a jack of all trades.

And to top it all, there was a children’s playground almost on equal footing with Western ones!

I probed him of his vision for the improbable resort in conflict-ridden Somalia. Whom would he consider his prospective clients for his grand vision?  How did he survive and apparently succeed in the tumultuous and ever-changing political wars of Somalia, where every few years there were new political figures and systems?  His answers probably didn’t sink in much for me at the time but years later and in retrospect, they do make sense. He said he worked with every single group of men from the early 90s until then. He reasoned: ultimately the good will triumph over the bad; that we shall not wait for the perfect moment to build for the future because there is no such moment; we shall not stop improving our lot however small; we shall not stop talking to any group with temporary power for the grander vision of peace and prosperity will at the end prevail.

On prospective clients, his answers were even more illuminating of his mindset: hosting seminars, conferences, group and family vacations from both locals and Somali Diaspora. He wanted a hosting venue better than the Arusha Conference Center.

Jesow was a gracious, welcoming host, expansive, respectful, gregarious and joyful to be around. Somalia needs more people like Jesow, determined, creative builders who are willing to invest in their home soil rather than in faraway places like Nairobi, Mombasa, Dubai and so forth.

Abdisamad Nur-Bidar

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