A conversation with Somali author Hassan M. Abukar

Hassan M. Abukar in California with sons Baby Kareem and Mohamed in 1991. [Courtesy of Mogadishu Memoir]

Hassan M. Abukar in California with sons Baby Kareem and Mohamed in 1991. [Courtesy of Mogadishu Memoir]

Editor’s Note: Hassan M. Abukar, a contributing writer to Sahan Journal, has been chronicling the lives of Somalis, whether they are in Somalia and in the diaspora. A gifted writer, Hassan has also extensively written about Somalia’s politics and security.

Hassan’s new book, Mogadishu Memoir, is an “evocative, intimate account of a country struggling how to balance tradition and modernization, as seen through the eyes of a young man coming of age. With insight and humor, the author shares his story of abandonment, love, and family through Somalia’s greatest period of social and political upheaval.”

SAHAN interviewed Hassan about his memoir, the difficulties he faced when he was writing the book and any advice he has for young Somali writers.

SAHAN: How did you start writing the memoir?

Hassan: I started writing many years ago when I was 33 and in the midst of marital problems. I kept asking myself why my marriage was in turmoil. Did it have something to do with my childhood and upbringing? Psychologists say that the first seven years of a child’s life constitute the formative years that shape him or her. I wanted to know more about those years, my parents’ brief but dysfunctional marriage, and how I had survived in Mogadishu. Those self-examining times were rewarding and I can confidently say that they helped me know myself better and, interestingly, as a bonus, added 10 more years to my then-rocky marriage.

SAHAN: What prompted you to write, especially given that Somalia is traditionally an oral society?

Hassan: Starting in my teen years, I have been an avid reader. My interest in reading coincided with the time when I gained a new language: Arabic. I read voraciously both in English and Arabic. As a child, I always wanted to see my first language, Somali, in print. It was not officially a written language until 1972 when I was 12, and so there was not much literature written in it. However, one thing that helped me a lot to become a writer was growing up in the oral tradition of my people. In essence, I am a storyteller but in the written tradition.mogadishu-memoir

SAHAN: All writers have a method for their writing. How do you organize yourself to write? Do you have specific times, places and rituals? Any pet peeves?

Hassan: I do not have specific times, places, rituals and any pet peeves. I also do not sit around every day looking at the keyboard hoping something will come to me to type. I am more or less guided by inspiration. If I like a story, I become consumed with it and become restless to write. I do a lot of research, make an outline, and then will not stop writing until I finish the piece. That is the easy part. I spend a great deal of time working on numerous drafts. Even after I submit my article for publication, I still may not be satisfied with the final draft. I always think that I could have done a better job.

SAHAN: What was the motivation for Mogadishu Memoir? Why a memoir and not a political book, for instance?

Hassan: The motivation was threefold. First, it was an attempt on my part to delve into my childhood and make sense of my adult woes. Second, I had issues to reconcile regarding my father, who had abandoned me as a child. They say every man has a daddy issue. I have written a lot of articles in my life, but Chapter 1 in my book, “Close, yet far away,” was the best piece I have ever written. It was emotionally excruciating to write but also very liberating. Third, I wanted to leave a legacy for my children, nephews and nieces, and all the young Somalis who grew up after the 1991 civil war. I wanted them to know before their time that there was another Somalia that had existed which was peaceful, tolerant, and intriguing. I hope this book will inspire some of the young people to strive to make our native country a better place to live and a place to cherish. I would have written a political book about Somalia, but I opted for memoir to make the story of Somalia more personal.

SAHAN: Can you give us the gist of the book? Why is it important for a Somali audience or any other audience?

Hassan: My first 18 years growing up in Mogadishu coincided with major political and social upheavals: the birth of Somalia as an independent nation, the semi-democratic civilian government, the military coup that led to the emergence of Siad Barre’s socialist regime, the 1977-78 war with Ethiopia, the rise of the Islamic movement as a political force, and the country’s struggle to balance tradition and modernization. The book is a portrayal of these changes as seen by a young man, myself, coming of age. The memoir is written for the Somalis to know about their past and for foreigners to see that the Somali people are capable — if they really desire —of living together peacefully without any outside intervention.

SAHAN: Were there any particular difficulties in writing the memoir? How did your handle the issues, for instance, of privacy and perhaps revealing too much about people, some of them still alive?

Hassan: Writing a memoir is always challenging, especially when it is about a Somali family. We Somalis are by nature secretive. We frown upon talking about marriages, relations, and ourselves. I have no problem talking about my failings and vulnerabilities. However, I happen to be related, by marriage, to Abdirahman Jama Barre, former foreign minister of Somalia and the brother of Siad Barre. I have written about Jama Barre and Siad Barre before, and it was always contentious in my family. Simply put, I made some members of the family irate.  Although I always disclose my relations to Jama Barre in my political writings about him, I make sure to separate between Jama Barre, the politician and the public figure, and Jama Barre, the relative.  There is this unsubstantiated apprehension among some members of my family that I am going to tarnish the reputation of Jama Barre. Unfortunately, my writings about Somalia have generally alienated some members of my family to the extent that I did not even get permission to publish any pictures.

SAHAN: Any advice for young Somalis who want to write their memoirs?

Hassan: I strongly believe that every one of us has a story to tell. It does not matter if you are a leader or a celebrity. I am neither famous nor have I ever held a government position. I wrote my memoir because I believe I have a story to tell. I encourage young people to write their own stories to share with humankind. But I tell them that writing is not easy and it requires commitment, discipline, and motivation. I urge young writers to read a lot. The more you read, the better you write. I tell them to keep writing and keep making mistakes. It is OK to fumble and make mistakes. Even the best writers have someone who edits their books. I tell them to aim at simplicity and clarity.

SAHAN: What are some of your favorite books about Somalia you have read recently?

Hassan: I just finished reading, A Man of Good Hope, by Jonny Steinberg. A young man leaves Somalia during the civil war and travels through several countries in search of peace and good life. It is an interesting true story of human resilience and courage.

SAHAN: Any particular feedback from people who might have already read the book?

Hassan: So far, I have received positive feedback from readers. I have noticed that Somalis are getting tired of the constant talk of politics and are thirsty to read human stories. Some are basically nostalgic for old times when the country was a paragon of peace and stability.

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