Fragments of a Nation
I set foot on British soil, or tarmac to be precise, on a frozen February day in 1986. Perched atop my sister’s hip at the top of the steps leading down from the Aeroflot plane, I took one sharp breath before a missed step left us both tumbling down to the icy surface. Bruised and offended I decided that this wasn’t the place for me. Months later, ensconced in a Victorian terrace in Tooting, my mind still perceived threats everywhere: in the creepy power lines that criss-crossed the street, in the curious gas-smell that emanated from the cold walls, but most of all in the cat that watched us interminably from the windowsill of the flat across the street.
It was a source of anxiety not just to me but to my nine year-old sister and fourteen year-old brother. We formed an investigative panel and decided that the cat was no humble feline but a spy, just like the secret policemen in Somalia, but spoke English and reported our daily activities back to its owner. I became English by osmosis; a new sense of humour, altered manners, an alternative history filtering through my old skin. The memories of booted men stomping into our bungalow at night and looking for our eldest brother had left us suspicious and untrusting, but England and the house on that street coupled with that cat exacerbated our paranoia. With a three-inch afro and sweatpants under my school skirt to keep out the chill, I marched to the prison-like schoolhouse every morning as sullenly as a convict joining a chain gang. On the green mat at Mrs Moore’s feet I responded to laughter from bullies with a stern look and a finger drawn menacingly across my throat like a blade, a move copied from the Indian films I had enjoyed in Somalia. All I needed were a pair of aviator sunglasses and a gold medallion and I could have been filmstar Amitabh Bachchan. Slowly, slowly I learned to speak and read English, the script falling into place from Sunday mornings spent piecing together subtitles on the televised drama ‘Mahabharata’. It was full of moustachioed Indian rajas on horseback and simpering ranis in distress; a story two thousand years old but familiar and nostalgic to me.
Soon the ‘Mahabharata’ was ousted from my heart by Home and Away, Roald Dahl, Benny Hill, Top of the Pops. Eventually that skin came to appear a cocoon, tight and paper-thin, the passage of time affecting small change after change until I appeared another person altogether; long-legged, bleary-eyed and confused. Do butterflies and moths suffer this perplexity? This ‘how did I get here?’ and ‘who am I?’ crisis? They seem to just beat their wings twice and then take to the air. I felt weighed down, burdened, not so much by what I did have but what I didn’t, a dearth that I couldn’t describe. I sought shelter under my father’s shadow, a former sailor who believes himself a citizen of the world and thinks the term ‘global warming’ is an internationalist greeting. He has visited more than a hundred countries and has an amalgam of accents to show for it. If anyone knew what it meant to belong everywhere and nowhere it was him. He described arriving in 1947, sailing into Port Talbot, Wales on a prison ship that had just delivered Jewish refugees caught trying to enter Palestine illegally to detention centres in Germany, and being inducted into a peripatetic world of sailors, boarding houses, casual acquaintances and long waits at Naval offices for the next ship to come in.
Somalis had started arriving in England in the mid-nineteenth century, most employed as stokers on steamships but others stowing away inside cargo ships. These pioneers had established communities in Hull, Cardiff, South Shields, Liverpool and London’s East End. It was in Hull that my father met Mahmoud Mattan, another northern Somali eking out a living in the flattened post-war economy. Mahmoud had married a Welsh girl and had three sons, putting down roots unlike the other Somalis who intended to return home with suitcases full of cash. The soil was hard though, hostile and acidic, and instead of finding opportunity, Mahmoud was forced to live apart from his family and eventually accused of the murder of a jeweller. He was executed in Cardiff in 1952. It took his widow, Laura, another fifty years to prove his innocence and have his remains removed from the prison cemetery. This story of love and hate got under my skin and I pursued it in libraries, in museums in Cardiff, in day centres for old sailors in Butetown where men who had once drifted from one corner of the world to another seemed welded into plastic armchairs, their legs either wasted or tight and swollen with fluid, their eyes leaky and rimmed with sea-blue rings. Mahmoud’s story was a mere footnote in their long, adventurous lives; his distinguishing features, manners, idiosyncrasies scrubbed from their memories. ‘What is there to say?’ my father exclaimed. ‘He wore a trilby hat and moustache, worked for a time in a slate foundry, enjoyed a flutter on the horses. He was an ordinary man.’ An ordinary man with an extraordinary fate.
Investigating Mahmoud’s life sparked something in me, a sense that my story was just a page within an old epic. Here – a sepia photograph from 1904 of Somalis in white robes living in a ersatz traditional village in a park in Bradford in one of the travelling ‘human zoos’ popular a hundred years ago, These ghostly, restless men left traces so slight that every generation that followed them felt as if they were the first. the same individuals appear in a newspaper article a while later, having thrown off their robes and taken their employers to court for breach of contract. There – Somali Dockers fighting alongside Irish, Jewish and British anti-fascists in the Battle of Cable Street against Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, one Somali boy exultantly telling journalists after the scuffle, ‘we got them good, didn’t we?’ The strangest document I found was the autobiography of a sailor, Ibrahim Isma’il, written in 1928, he dictated his story to his Belgian host in an anarchist’s commune in the Cotswolds and vividly describes the 1919 ‘race riots’ in Cardiff that left most of his countrymen in prison or on remand. He also discusses less dramatic events such as the winter’s night when the sky was as ‘black as ink’ and ‘a cold wind was raging’ when he missed the bus from Stroud and was forced to trudge many miles home in the rain meditating on his state as ‘an outcast, an African . . . who could not ask for shelter.’ Shortly after the autobiography was written Isma’il left Britain and disappeared, never to be heard from again by his anarchist friends. These ghostly, restless men left traces so slight that every generation that followed them felt as if they were the first.
In the Sixties, students and civil servants from the newly created Republic of Somalia joined the sailors, their paths rarely crossing apart from at the Somali embassy in London’s Portland Square, where after renouncing his British citizenship my father collected his new passport and planned a permanent return to his birthplace. New arrivals such as my maternal uncles, educated men who lived affluent lives back home, enjoyed much better conditions than their predecessors, renting flats in West London and working comfortable office jobs. They wore a uniform of sharp suits and thick-rimmed glasses, and met with other African intellectuals in cafes to argue over how the post-colonial world could be remade for the better. My own time in England linked those earlier migrations to the exodus that followed the disintegration of the Somali state. My father retired from the merchant navy and set up a support group for the refugees pouring first into London and then Leicester, Birmingham and Sheffield. The numbers arriving became so great that Somalis stopped hurriedly exchanging details whenever their paths crossed – we had once befriended a Somali Olympic athlete after my father spotted his typically Somali face in a crowded, central London street- and the once inclusive community fragmented into clan divisions. Neither the past, the present or the future seemed easy to talk about, it was at this moment when it became apparent that there would be no return to our former home – that I must have become unmoored, drifting spiritually from one place to another and then back again.
The quiet men who arrived on our doorstep with nothing more than a plastic bag of possessions ate insatiably and slept for days but said nothing about what they had seen. Brutal news broadcasts filled in the blanks: crying infants with crepe-like skin, overflowing feeding centres, General Aideed in a Panama hat and sunglasses, American marines in wetsuits storming Jezira beach. My own time in England linked those earlier migrations to the exodus that followed the disintegration of the Somali state. Trudging to the phone box, I would stand beside my mother as she pummelled one pound coins into the slot and waited to be connected to her mother in an Ethiopian refugee camp, it was loyalty to my grandmother and all the others we had left behind that stopped me feeling truly British. Despite having just fragments of memories of my old life in Somalia and my mother tongue literally being a language I only used with my mother I stubbornly refused to think of myself as anything but a Somali living in Britain. This was and is a common feeling within the diaspora; we have one foot in Somalia and one foot in the country we are living, but while I was forced to navigate through a new culture, Somali children brought up now in places such as Bethnal Green, Shepherd’s Bush and Wembley might only study and socialise with other Somalis and Muslims. The desire that Somali sailors had to discover the world has been replaced by a fearful, insular attitude and a demand for conformity within the community. As Somalia has fragmented and reached an uneasy peace my need to claim solidarity with it has decreased, visits to my hometown of Hargeisa always highlight my foreignness; I cannot bear camel’s milk, I leave gatherings to read a book, I play punk music loudly and don’t know what to do when a Sultan pays a visit but my life in England is not something I will apologise for.
But similarly my roots in Somalia are not something I can forgot.
Twenty-six years after arriving here and I am as close as I will ever be to being British, three generations of my family have lived here and if my life ever plays before my eyes it will be squirrels in parks, grimy underground carriages, brooding bus drivers, iron-gated schools, rotund lollipop ladies and men in tight t-shirts with a pint of beer in their hands that I will see.
Cover Image a detail of Westminster Bridge © Leonard Bentley