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Knowing Now

By Jheri St. James


somalia british frigate
Somalia soldiers board a British frigate

"The Somali-Soviet Union friendship and later partnership with the United States enabled Somalia to build the largest army on the continent." (Wikipedia)

"I have heard men tell of many battles . . . and they always spoke of heroism, of the courage of men, of the power of their comradeship, of the fierce anger of battle, and of the brotherhood of survival. I have heard ballads about great battles, and poems about the beauty of a charge and the grace of the leader.

"But I did not know that war was nothing more than butchery, as savage and unskilled as sticking a pig in the throat and leaving it to bleed to make the meat tender. I did not know that the style and nobility of the jousting arena had nothing to do with this thrust and stab. Just like killing a screaming piglet for bacon after chasing it round the sty.

"And I did not know that war thrilled men so; they come home like laughing schoolboys filled with excitement after a prank; but they have blood on their hands and a smear of something on their cloaks and the smell of smoke in their hair and a terrible ugly excitement in their faces . . .

soldier"I understand now why they break into convents, force women against their will, defy sanctuary to finish the killing chase. They arouse in themselves a wild vicious hunger more like animals than men. I did not know that war was like this. I feel I have been a fool not to know, since I was raised in a kingdom at war and am the daughter of a man captured in battle, the widow of a knight, the wife of a merciless soldier. But I know now." (Philippa Gregory, The White Queen, 2009)

* * *

If there is one nation on earth that “knows now,” it is the Somali Republic, “located in the Horn of Africa. Since the outbreak of the Somali Civil War in 1991 there has been no central government control over most of the country’s territory. Prior to that time, Somalia was known as the “White Pearl of the Indian Ocean.” Today, the internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government controls only a small part of the country. Somalia has been characterized as a failed state and is one of the poorest and most violent states in the world.” (Wikipedia)

This was not always so. In antiquity, Somalia was an important center for commerce with the rest of the world and is considered by some to be the most probable location of the fabled ancient Land of Punt, along with Djibouti, Eritrea and the Red Sea coast of Sudan., sometimes referred to as the “land of the god.” Punt was a rich source of gold, aromatic resins, African blackwood, ebony, ivory, slaves and wild animals for the Ancient Egyptians (25th century BC). It was the ancient Somalians who domesticated camels. There are reliefs in Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri depicting her expeditions to Punt:

rock art
Ancient rock art

“Said by Amen, the Lord of the Thrones of the Two Lands: ‘Come, come in peace my daughter, the graceful, who art in my heart, King Maatkare . . . I will give thee Punt, the whole of it . . . I will lead your soldiers by land and by water, on mysterious shores, which join the harbours of incense . . . They will take incense as much as they like. They will load their ships to the satisfaction of their hearts with trees of green incense, and all the good things of the land.”

Ancient pyramids, ruined cities and stone walls are evidence of an ancient sophisticated civilization that once thrived in the Somali peninsula, a civilization with an ancient writing system, a lucrative trading relationship with Ancient Egypt, Mycenaean Greece, Phoenicia, Parthian Persia, Saba, Nabataea, India and the Roman Empire, and the first domesticated camels.

The Silk Trade Route

During the Middle Ages, several powerful Somali empires dominated the regional trade, but in the 19th century, the British and Italians gained control of parts of the coast. In 1960, the independent Somali Republic was born under a civilian government, followed by the 1985 Somali-Soviet Union-U.S. partnership called Bright Star, which enabled Somalia to build the largest army on the continent, but then in 1991 Somali Civil War broke out and the status is as described above. Somalis have for centuries practiced a form of customary law, which they call Xeer, a polycentric legal system where there is no monopolistic institution or agent that determines what the law should be or how it should be interpreted. Xeer’s precepts are as follows:globe

1) Payment of blood money for libel, theft, physical harm, rape and death, as well as supplying assistance to relatives;
2) Assuring good inter-clan relations by treating women justly, negotiating with peace emissaries in good faith and sparing the lives of socially protected groups (children, women, the pious, poets, messengers, sheikhs, and guests)
3) Family obligations such as the payment of dowry and sanctions for eloping.
4) Rules pertaining to the management of resources such as the use of pasture land, water and other natural resources.
5) Financial support to married female relatives and newlyweds.
6) Donating livestock and other assets to the poor.

Situated in the eastern-most part of Africa, Somalia is bordered by Djibouti to the northwest, Kenya to the southwest, the Gulf of Aden with Yemen to the north, the Indian Ocean to the east, and Ethiopia to the west. It has the longest coastline on the continent, and its terrain consists mainly of plateaus, plains and highlands. Hot conditions prevail year-round, along with periodic monsoon winds and irregular rainfall.

Somalia now offers some of the most technologically advanced and competitively priced telecommunications and internet services in the world. After the start of the civil war, various new telecommunications companies began to spring up and compete to provide missing infrastructure, funded by Somali entrepreneurs and backed by China, Korea and Europe, offering affordable mobile phone and internet services not available in many other parts of the continent.

somaliaMost Somalis are Muslims, so all food is served halal—no pork dishes, no alcohol, nothing that dies on its own is eaten, and no blood is incorporated. Varieties of rice usually serve as the main dish, with the addition of spices like cumin, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and sage. After meals, homes are traditionally perfumed using frankincense or incense.

Somalia has a rich musical heritage centered on traditional Somali folklore. Nurudin Farah is probably the most celebrated writer, and Faarax M.U. Cawl is another prominent Soli writer, his best known novel being “Ignorance is the Enemy of Love.”

* * *

Our collector for Somalia was the elusive John N., the director of a local NGO. He is an American who had been living in the horn of Africa for 28 years on humanitarian relief missions, working with the local populace to educate and provide basic assistance with food and clothing. The reason he is called the “elusive” John N. is because he sent no documentation for his collection and it was only through the kind participation of Mr. Niles Cole of the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti that we learned about Mr. N.’s background and collection site, Hargesa.

* * *

cal meadow mts
Cal Madow Mts--Shimbiris, highest peak
The Jubba River

* * *

Model and business executive Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid was born on July 25, 1955, in Mogadishu, Somalia. Iman is sometimes described as her native land's most famous export. One of the most sought-after fashion models of the 1970s and 1980s, Iman became a successful business executive in the 1990s with her own line of cosmetics.

model imanIman's mother gave her daughter a man's name when she arrived into the world with the hope that this would better prepare her for the challenges she would face as a female in Muslim East Africa. Her father was a diplomat in Tanzania. The parents sent her to a private Catholic school for girls, more progressive than the standard Islamic education in the 1960s. Iman thrived. "I was a very nerdy child," she told husband David Bowie when he interviewed her for Interview in 1994. At 18 she was a student of political science at the University of Nairobi, working as a translator to help pay her tuition costs. when she was discovered as a potential high-fashion model.

She began a career on haute-couture runways, in the pages of fashion magazines Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, was an instant favorite with designers and editors alike, one of first models in her day to be successful in both print and on the runway. Yves Saint Laurent devoted a collection to her, "The African Queen," and one of the most famous images of her career was a shot of her striding down a Paris runway with a leashed leopard at her side. She led a jet-set life and often squandered her earnings. "You earn an extraordinary amount of money almost for nothing at a very young age," she said.

In 1989, Iman quit modeling, moved to Los Angeles, where friends introduced her to the English rock legend David Bowie in 1990. They were wed in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 24, 1992, Initially, their relationship seemed improbable to many, but this has proved one of the more enduring rock/fashion couplings of the modern age.

In 1992, she convinced the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to let her take a documentary film crew to Somalia, which had been ravaged by war, drought, and famine, hoping her status as Somalia's most famous expatriate could raise awareness of Somalia’s tragedies and bring in more international aid. She set out determined to "let the Somali people speak for themselves. People get numbed when they see picture after picture, year in and year out, of people starving. I wanted to show that they are not a nation of beggars — that culture, religion, music and hope are still there." Iman and the BBC crew arrived to film Somalia Diary just weeks after her honeymoon, her first visit in 20 years, and she barely recognized places where she and her family had vacationed when she was a child. Instead of thriving market towns, she found emaciated people clothed in rags, and adolescents toting automatic weapons. The making of Somalia Diary proved a dangerous and difficult time, but Iman was able to visit family and her former childhood home in Mogadishu, in which three refugee families were by then living. On one day of filming, she and the crew followed the bus that went through the town collecting the day's fatalities. "That was the worst part. I stopped because I couldn't go through the whole thing. The count was 70 dead that day, and most of the bodies I saw in the sacks were children under 10."

In 1994, Iman launched her own line of cosmetics, The Iman Collection, aimed at all women of color — Hispanic, Asian, Native American, as well as black—sold at J. C. Penney stores across the United States. The Iman Collection sold $12 million the first year, and $30 million the next. After her experience with Somali relief efforts, Iman continued to serve as an activist on several fronts. She became a successful fund-raiser for the Children's Defense Fund, and in 1999 donated a portion of her profits to Break the Cycle, an organization committed to ending domestic violence. (Excerpts taken from 2011 A&E Television Networks)


I did not know that war was like this. I feel I have been a fool not to know, since I was raised in a kingdom at war and am the daughter of a man captured in battle, the widow of a knight, the wife of a merciless soldier. But I know now.” (Philippa Gregory, The White Queen, 2009)

Iman learned to ‘know now’ through her life journey and again when traveling back to Somalia. She continues her work to help her homeland. We here at Common Ground 191 ‘know now’ so much more than when we began this important project. We know now that no country on this earth is exempt from warfare. We know now that heroism, the courage of men, the power of their comradeship, the fierce anger of battle, and the brotherhood of survival are all the results of human desperation for equality and survival. Today’s headlines are replete with stories of desperation in Somalia—piracy, bloodshed, death and poverty. Are the old Xeer precepts still being followed? Let us remember that:

Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who can leave behind everything they have ever believed in can hope to escape. William S. Burroughs

Every age yearns for a more beautiful world. The deeper the desperation and the depression about the confusing present, the more intense that yearning. Johan Huizinga

somali childsomalia animal

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