Eid Al Fitr

In Dire Dawa, the day starts early with the call to prayer rising from uncounted minarets. Usually, it gathers the faithful in the different mosques or calls them to pray in their homes. But today is Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. Morning prayers on this day are supposed to demonstrate the unity of the Muslim community, so everybody is invited to the large open ground on the outskirts of town. In some countries, this open-air mosque is artfully designed and constructed, in Dire Dawa, it is a simple field surrounded by the natural beauty of trees and hills. On this morning, there are speakers set up to broadcast the call to prayer from early dawn till sunrise, when the imam gets on stage to lead the prayer. People arrive by the thousands, both men and women. This feeling of being part of a large community of faith, praying the same words in unison with so many others is one of the highlights of the day.

A Somali Hero


On September 21, 2013, Kenya experienced one of the worst terrorist attacks in the history of the country. Armed men stormed into Westgate, one of Nairobi's nicer shopping malls, killing over 60 people and injuring many more. While many facts about the attack are still unclear, one fact seems beyond doubt: The Somalia-based Islamist terrorist group Al-Shabaab has claimed to be responsible.

The news of this horrific event made the headlines all over the world. And of course, Al-Shabaab was mentioned and explained, over and over again. Once again, Muslims were associated with terrorism. Once again, Somalis were associated with radical Islam and brutal violence.

But something was different this time: From among the various eyewitness reports, the story of a young man emerged, an "ordinary citizen", who had been one of the first responders after the attack started, and who had rescued dozens of people trapped inside the mall. This man, the "hero" of Westgate, is Abdul Haji. He is a Muslim. And he is Somali. 

Ethnic Somalis are among the 10 largest people groups in Kenya, with a population of over 2 million. While many live a traditional lifestyle in the rural areas of northeastern Kenya, there are also many modern, upper-class, and influential Somalis in Kenya. One of them is Mohamed Yusuf Haji, a politician and former Minister of Defense of Kenya. Abdul Haji is his son.

When the terrorist attack started on September 21, Abdul's brother was inside the Westgate mall. Abdul, who is a licensed gun owner, rushed over immediately to rescue his brother. When he arrived at Westgate, he teamed up with some other civilians and some plainclothes police officers to provide cover for Red Cross workers helping injured people. For several hours, Abdul and the others worked their way through the mall, trying to get people out of the building. Among others, they rescued an American mother with her three children, as well as an Indian woman. That scene was captured by an AP photographer and became one of the iconic images of the attack.

So besides the all-too-familiar image of Somali Al-Shabaab terrorists murdering innocent people, there is now another image: That of a young, modern Somali Muslim, fighting heavily armed terrorists with a pistol, rescuing American Christians and Indian Hindus.

It is one of the images the world desperately needs to see. Just like the one of a blood donation center set up at one of the mosques in Eastleigh, Nairobi's Somali neighborhood with many Somalis donating blood for the victims of the Westgate terror attack. Or the image of Somali volunteers coming to the mall together with other Kenyans and foreigners to provide food for victims and police officers. Or the one of the inter-faith prayer meeting held in Nairobi on October 1, 2013, where Muslim, Christian and Hindu leaders came together to condemn the terrorist attack and to pray for peace in Kenya. 

Together, these images might prevent the devastating attack at Westgate from causing further division and hatred. They might instead turn the tragedy into a source of unity for the people of Kenya.


The Nikaah: A Somali Wedding Tradition

When we received the invitation for the “surprise party,” we did not expect a wedding. We knew our friend, Filsa, was engaged, but her fiancé no longer lived in Ethiopia. He had resettled in northern Europe and because of work wouldn’t be able to visit for several more months. The wedding was supposed to happen sometime in fall. But when we arrived at the house in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia’s second largest city, the family were all gathered there, ready to proceed.

This strange circumstance has become sadly typical. In recent decades, wars and famines have scattered hundreds of thousands of Somalis all over the world. Weddings have become more and more problematic. And yet Somalis in Ethiopia and elsewhere are rising to the challenge, and are perhaps uniquely poised to do so....

Read the rest of the article at EthnoTraveler Magazine here.

Article written by Daniel Rossbach

Photos and Video by Joshua Smith

Everyday Islam: Filsan's Story


Filsan is a devout Muslim who was born and raised in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. From her appearance---a modest head covering, hijab, and full dress, this 20 year old Somali girl outwardly exhibits her beliefs in modesty. Her warmth and openness to talk, leaves you feeling that she is more modernized, intelligent and globally aware than you might assume. 

After she studied to be a nurse at the university in Dire Dawa, the government wanted to place her working in a rural village outside of the city. With the help of her family, she was able to bypass the rough conditions. The family stepped in without hesitation to support her. If accepting the job were only about the need for money, they would pay her to not work. 

This is one of the privileges of the Somali community—the way they view family. Though Filsan’s parents do not work, they still receive support monetarily from her brothers who work hard in countries like South Africa, Sweden and Switzerland, staying connected through modern inventions such as Skype. “The money is given freely,” Filsan says, “This is the command of God: If someone is in need, you give.” They give freely without the Western individualistic hurdles that say, “my money is my money.”  

Along with her close knit family, Filsan daily welcomes a teacher into her home to teach her the Qur’an in Arabic. “He never makes eye contact with the women in the room. He greets us with peace from Allah.” She talks about his respect for her by focusing his eyes on the Qur’an, and not her. Along with daily teaching in the home, Filsan, as a woman, has the ability to fulfill her daily Islamic prayers made five times a day, in her home or at the mosque. While she enjoys praying at the mosque, she has the freedom to pray wherever she is. 

“This is the privilege of women, since many of them must take care of their children in the home,” says Filsan proudly. She beams at the way she is honored by the Islamic tradition and culture. 

Filsan elaborates how this carries over into courtship and marriage. “The man asks the father of the woman if he can marry her, and then the father asks the daughter, ‘Do you want to marry him? Do you love him?’” A modern Muslim Somali values love in marriage, “If you do not love him, you do not have to marry him,” she describes. 

She is engaged to a childhood friend who is like family to her brothers and father.  Filsan has known him all her life and now loves him. Though he is living in Sweden currently, as part of the Somali diaspora, he plans to move home to Dire Dawa to marry Filsan before eventually moving back to Sweden to take care of her. 

Marriage is not just about love; it’s about providing for the women in the community. Every time Filsan is asked about her future with her fiancé, she sheepishly smiles and recites, “Insha’ a Allah”, which means, “if the Lord wills.” Her hope of a wedding one day is dependent on God making it happen. The centrality of God in her life deepened when she was hit, unfortunately, with the reality of death a few years ago. 

She lost a close friend who battled with a stomach disease. She passed away at the tender age of 18. This shook Filsan up a bit. “I was very sad, but I learned not to cry and cry about the loss of my friend, because I know it was the will of Allah. Allah brings us to earth and then takes us away.” Death awoke her to see the importance of doing what is right in this life—reading the Hadiths, a book of sayings from the Prophet Muhammad, and the words of God recorded in the Qur’an, and obeying them. 

“I believe the purpose of life is to worship God,” Filsan says confidently. Without much thought she knows the answer to the question all humans ask themselves at one point or another: What is the purpose of life?  

Filsan shares her belief in Allah and how that affects every aspect of who she is—a daughter, fiancée, and friend. She embraces modern life, and holds fast to her culture. Filsan brushes with Colgate, but also uses a Somali stick as a toothbrush. It’s the mixing of the Islamic, old Somali tradition with the new educated Somali customs that Filsan embodies so well, representing a growing subculture of modern Somalis throughout the world.

Written by Melissa Smith. Illustration by Manal Fashi.



Casualty of War

 Yusuf a cheerful young man from Beled Weyne, a town in south-central Somalia

Yusuf a cheerful young man from Beled Weyne, a town in south-central Somalia

Yusuf is a a young man in his early twenties, tall and gaunt, with short, curly hair. He likes to laugh, to play football, and to tell stories. Yusuf is also a Sufi sheikh. That means he has almost priest-like functions in blessing people and praying for them. But above all, Yusuf is a casualty of war.

When I first met Yusuf, he walked up to me and shook my hand, and I had no idea that he was a very sick young man in the middle of an amazing recovery process. He had been in Nairobi for a couple of months at that point, but had spend most of that time in hospital and didn’t speak more than a few words of English. As I was in the middle of learning Somali, he was great language practice for me. Fortunately, Yusuf is amazingly patient and articulate, and when necessary, he will animate his story with a lot of gestures. So over the course of several hours, I learned a part of his story, and we became friends of sorts.

Yusuf is from Beled Weyne, a town in south-central Somalia. There has been quite a bit of fighting going on in Beled Weyne during the past years, and of course everybody has a gun. I never quite understood whether it was intentional or by accident, but Yusuf was shot by one of his friends. The bullet went straight through his abdomen and tore apart his guts. Yusuf almost died.

But there was a hospital in Beled Weyne with some foreign doctors, and they stabilized him enough to take him to Nairobi in neighboring Kenya. That’s where he got major reconstructive surgery. When I met Yusuf, his intestines were working properly again, and he was just training muscles and waiting for everything to recover sufficiently so that he wouldn’t have to go for regular treatment any more.

But despite this ordeal, Yusuf was cheerful. He talked about his old life in Somalia, and about his new friends in Nairobi. And about how he wanted to go back to his people in Beled Weyne once he was completely healed.

In many ways, Yusuf represents the traditional small-town Somalia where Sufism is still alive. A Somalia of the past that I only got occasional glimpses of during my time in Nairobi. But in another way, he also represents the amazing tenacity and ability to adapt and overcome that I’ve seen in many Somalis. He might be a casualty of war, but he’s still laughing.

Written by Daniel Rossbach. Illustration by Manal Fashi.  


A Somali Love Story

As told by Farhia, in her own words:

 Farhia with her son Abshir in front of her house. 

Farhia with her son Abshir in front of her house. 

When I was young, while I was still in school, there was a boy I loved. He was studying at the university, I was at school. We loved each other; we were dating each other. When he finished university, he went to work at the government office. At that point I was in grade 9. When he started to work, he said: ‘I don’t want you any more!’ I was really upset. I asked him why. What happened? ‘I’ve had enough of our relationship’, he said. And that was it. I was so sad. I cried and cried.

After the semester was over, I went to Djibouti. I was angry. I didn’t want to see his face any more. So I went to Djibouti. After two months I came back to start grade 10. I had forgotten his love. I was fine, I was good at school, everything was ok. I didn’t want any men any more, I didn’t want to date anybody.

That’s when Abdifatah came. I was from Aysha, he from Dire Dawa, but he was working in Aysha. He was working in the government office. He saw my picture on a poster and wondered: ‘Is that girl Afar? Or is she Somali?’ Then his friends in Aysha told him: ‘She’s Somali! She lives here!’ When he saw my picture, he fell in love with me. That was before he had even met me.

So they found out where I lived, and they came to visit. When we first met, it was just like: ‘Nice to meet you, my name is Farhia. Your name is Adbifatah. Nice to meet you.’ After that, he left. After they had left again, a friend of mine who worked in his office said: ‘The boy who came to meet you, he loves you!’ But I refused. My friend said: ‘Why don’t you think about your future and give him a chance?’

Three weeks later, he came back. He called me and said: ‘Come over.’ So I went to his house. We were like: ‘What’s up? How are you? Everything ok?’ - ‘Yes, I’m fine.’ - ‘Do you want us hang out together?’ - ‘No, I don’t want to.’ - ‘Don’t you love me?’ - ‘No, I don’t love you.’ - ‘Why? What’s wrong?’ - ‘Nothing.’

He wanted to get to know me, wanted to date me. I said: ‘Abdifatah, I’m done with men!’ Because of the man who had made me angry. Abdifatax said: ‘But I love you! I want to marry you!’ I said: ‘I don’t want to! I don’t want you!’

Time passed by. I finished school after grade 10, then I went to college for two years. After that, I started to teach at a government school. All that time, Adbifatah was still in love with me. For two years of college he had loved me! But I did not respond, because there was no love in my heart. I was just sad, very sad. But there was no love.

I refused him again and again. But time passed by, and he kept on loving me. So finally, I fell in love with him. His love was very strong, he loved me so much. In the end, we were in love with each other, we really loved each other. We were dating each other for one year.

Then he went to my father; they got to know each other; he talked with the family. When he met with my father, I welcomed them in. We slaughtered an animal and had a buffet, with rice, pasta, all sorts of food. After eating, they sat and talked with my father and mother. Finally, they left again. After he had met with my family, I talked with my parents. I said: ‘I will marry him.’ We talked about it, I told both my father and my mother about him, finally, they said ok. Then Abdifatah called them on the phone to ask them, and they told him we can go ahead and get married. A month later, we got married.

When the wedding came, he came from Dire Dawa to Aysha with five cars - three minibuses and two land cruisers. They came to Aysha and we had the wedding. After the ceremony, we slaughtered three animals and cooked 15 kg of rice, and everybody feasted. We had a big party.

After the wedding, he took me with him to Dire Dawa for 10 days, just me and Abdifatah. We stayed at Samrat Hotel - just sleeping, relaxing, spending time together, enjoying life. For 10 days we stayed there. After that, I wend to college in Jigjiga - summer college. 10 months out of the year I was working in the government school as a teacher, 2 months I went to college. He stayed in Dire Dawa. After the two months of college, I went to Aysha for three months to teach the children at school. After three months, I hated teaching. I said: ‘I don’t want to teach any more. I want to be with my husband!’ So I went back to Dire Dawa.

Abdifatah had a house ready. He had bought an entire household, all the stuff was there. When I arrived, I just sat down, and he cooked for me. He made lunch, and gave it to me.

After that, I got pregnant, and I gave birth to my only child. Up till now our love is strong. He calls me: Honey. He loves me very much.

Edited by Daniel and Cara Rossbach. Photography by Manal Fashi and Courtney Huron. 

Just a normal Somali?


When I arrived in Kenya to study and document Somali culture, I had read books about pastoral nomadism and the clan system, about traditional law and oral literature. I had this image in my mind of what a Somali is like: A camel herder, a desert warrior, a wandering sheikh.

So I was quite surprised when I met Abdullahi. He's a young Somali in his mid twenties, with the      stereo-typical tall, gaunt frame and soft, curly hair. I first met him at a party, and he was holding either a camera or a guitar (I can't quite remember which). He doesn't know how to use either, but he dreams of becoming a journalist or a musician, and his dreams are full of optimism and enthusiasm.

He came up to me and we talked for a bit. Then he invited me to come visit him at home and he'd show me around his part of town. So a few days later I stood in the middle of a bustling Somali neighborhood trying to reach Abdullahi on my phone. Sure enough, he showed up within a few minutes and took me to his "house": A small room with one bed, which he shared with three other young men.

Abdullahi is a refugee. He came from Mogadishu several years ago, spent some time in a refugee camp, and then moved on to live in Nairobi. Technically, he's not supposed to leave the camp. And he's not allowed to work. He's supposed to sit around and receive handouts and wait for the day that some western donor country will grant him asylum.

But as I said, Abdullahi is full of optimism and enthusiasm. There is no way he's going to become apathetic enough to live off of handouts. So he managed to get some false paperwork while still in the refugee camp and apply for a job as a translator with the organization that runs the camp. He already spoke decent English, but now he would actually get to meet westerners and work with them, and that really changed his world.

Before becoming a refugee, Abdullahi lived in the old part of Mogadishu. His family is prestigious and religious, and known for remaining peaceful during the war. His father was an important religious figure in Mogadishu, and his mother delved deep into mystical Islam. Abdullahi grew up with a solid Islamic education, and he can still easily quote a verse of the Quran or the Hadith in Arabic, translate the quote into English, and then discuss different interpretations of its meaning.

But Abdullahi was also a modern young boy in a city that is well connected to the outside world. He learned how to use a computer and navigate the internet. He actually learned how to bypass the strict filters set up by Islamic internet providers to access western websites. And he found a place in war-torn Mogadishu that teaches young Somalis ballroom dancing.

When Abdullahi came to Kenya, he was ready to explore the world. So after some time in the refugee camp, he moved to Nairobi, where there are more job opportunities, and a sizable international community. He now has friends from different ethnic communities as well as a number of other countries. He is very active on social media and connects with people all around the world. He wears fashionable clothes and pointed-toe Ethiopian-style shoes, carries his laptop to work in a briefcase, and even has a UK internet phone number that connects to a phone plugged into his computer. All of that in his little one-room apartment, shared with a bunch of other guys.

After Abdullahi showed me his home, he then took me to his uncle's house a couple of blocks down the road. On the way, we constantly stopped to greet his friends or relatives. And I realized: Even though Abdullahi is such a modern and global young man, he is still very much connected with his community. He knows his place within the clan system. He attends family events, and respects the clan elders. He calls his mother in Mogadishu on a regular basis, and helps her out when she is sick. And he takes care of his cousin who just recently made the journey from Somalia to Nairobi.
Abdullahi lives - and thrives - in two worlds.

Written by Daniel Rossbach

Illustration by Manal Fashi