Exploring cultural belonging for Somali diaspora through writing and fashion
Interviews

An Interview With: Hannah

Hannah is a 24-year-old civil servant and aspiring actress from London. We met up to talk all things identity.

Born: London
Raised: London
Nationality: British
Countries lived in: UK
Parents born/raised: Somalia
Parents’ nationalities: Mother, British. Father, British & Somali.

When someone asks you “where are you from?”, how do you respond?

I hate that question only because it is really saying “you’re black, you’re not really from here – so where you REALLY from”. When I was in my late teens I usually answered British and when asked again in a different way I’d say “ohhh you mean from from – I’m from London”. Then you see them prodding further but they do not know how to say it. Then it is always: where are your parents from?

Nowadays I just say I’m from the world. I think nationalism and borders are extremely divisive and scary – we’ve seen wars because of them, causing the deaths of millions. But don’t get it twisted I love being a Somali and a Londoner but it’s just not that deep.

I hate that question only because it is really saying “you’re black, you’re not really from here – so where you REALLY from”.

Why do you think nationalism/borders are more harmful than helpful to people, and how has this view shaped your personal sense of identity?

I think the idea of borders focuses on what makes us different and I really do not want to contribute to that. I mean it’s nice having culture and it’s cute when sharing that but we’ve seen it’s harm throughout history. Look at Britain today, so much rhetoric about keeping migrants out but why is that? What is the problem with people moving and wanting to settle somewhere else and why do some people feel threatened? I think this is why I see myself as just part of the world.

I think nationalism and borders are extremely divisive

It’s interesting because it sounds like you’ve rethought your answer to the ‘where are you from’ based on the way you perceived others as viewing you.

Exactly, what people really want to know is where my “look” is from and my look is Somali. No matter how many generations of Somalis live here, we’ll always be asked where we’re from.

This woman on a train once told me I was so well-spoken even after I told her I was born here! …She’s defo the type [that] probs wouldn’t accept a black person as British.

Do you think there’s anything wrong with the question itself?

Not really, we are all naturally curious people who want to know where that look or accent is from. I’ve asked questions myself, but it depends on how you go about prodding. This woman on a train once told me I was so well-spoken even after I told her I was born here! These are the kind of people I have a problem with! She’s defo the type when asking ‘where are you from?’ probs wouldn’t accept a black person as British. I was not ‘British’ to her whereas other people do but are just interested in your background and heritage.

Talking of Britishness, what do you think are the defining features of being British?

Being way too polite, saying sorry about everything. I do it all the time. My Somali side would not say sorry, my mum wouldn’t say sorry. It’s being overly apologetic, other than that I don’t know what, say, Katie from Devon is like.

Characteristics of a Londoner are probably; being open, relaxed in attitude, not taking things to heart. Not taking things too personally – that’s something in common with Somalis, actually we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

I identify as a Londoner more than anything. London is a whole different place compared to rest of the country.

What does being a British national mean to you?

It means I have a passport that can literally get me into other countries. Like, I arrive in Tel-Aviv on Wednesday and I’ll arrive as a Brit. I can get in technically because of that.

Does being British mean anything to you beyond the technicality of a passport?

I identify as a Londoner more than anything. London is a whole different place compared to rest of the country. I was in Exeter for a conference once and I didn’t feel the same there. London for me is my own little bubble of a country and I would even limit London to zone 1-4 anything outside can be a bit mehh.

Why did you feel different in Exeter?

Being stared at, literally feel it through my head – very uncomfortable.

So it’s not necessarily anything someone has said, it’s the way you were being observed?

Yes. Three hundred white faces and me. In these kind of moments I can’t help but feel like the black representative.

We have a certain look… there’s something in our eyes and faces that says ‘you are Somali’ and that’s what I see as being Somali

Let’s talk a bit about Somali identity. How would you define what it is to be Somali?

I have no clue. We have a certain look, I haven’t pinned down exactly what that look is but there’s something in our eyes and faces that says ‘you are Somali’ and that’s what I see as being Somali.

In terms of characteristics, being relatively late to things, being quite loud, like everyone semi-thinks they are better than each other. People want to be semi-successful in order to show other Somalis how well they’re doing.

The look you mentioned is an interesting one because that ties Somaliness to Somali ethnicity. What do you think the implications are of this view on the way Somalis interact with people who don’t necessarily have that “look”, like Somali bantus?

I mean this ‘look’ Somali’s have does not mean someone is less Somali because they might not have it. Language and culture is probably the more defining features of identity. Somali bantus in Somalia I’m sure are considered more Somali than me. I probably started with looks because often that is how people identify me and to be honest that’s probably the only Somali thing I have going for me. If we based Somalinimo on looks that’s just wrong.

While we’re on the subject of Somalinimo. Have you ever been to Somalia?

No.

Do you want to?

Not particularly but I’m open to it. But let’s not get it twisted, I love being Somali, I love our food, our diracs, the baati is best thing ever made.

I’m very connected to Somali culture but from here, from in London.

Have your parents been recently?

Yes. My dad is there at the moment. If my dad asked me to go for a week I would go, but flights are expensive so I’d have to justify being there for only a week. I’m a city girl, I want to be able to do different things if I’m visiting somewhere. The idea of sitting there in solace with my books, though that can be relaxing, is not really for me.

How connected do you feel to Somali culture?

I feel very connected. Wearing traditional clothes, going to weddings, listening to Somali music. I’m very connected to Somali culture but from here, from in London.

How would you describe the Somali community in London?

More connected now than it’s ever been, especially with social media. The other day my sister commented that all my friends are Somali, I never noticed or thought of it like that. I know other people whose friends are almost all Somali. I don’t think we mobilize well on sorting out issues in Somalia.

There is an attitude that anyone from the diaspora can do a better job than someone in Somalia and I totally disagree with that, I hate that so much.

You think we don’t mobilise well on tackling longer-term issues?

Yes, and that connects to long-term development back in Somalia. People from the diaspora will say, because I’ve worked two years in business development I can go back to Somalia and work in the government as head of the treasury.

There is an attitude that anyone from the diaspora can do a better job than someone in Somalia and I totally disagree with that, I hate that so much.

Diaspora people think they’re more qualified than they are. Just because you’ve been a teacher for a year in the UK doesn’t mean you can set up a tuition centre back home and give the best education to those kids. We give diaspora too much credit for doing so little.

Do you feel a part of a Somali community?

No, I don’t really. I mean who feels part of any community nowadays.

I’ve never really seen [my British upbringing and Somali heritage] separately…  both identities complemented each other, like watching Eastenders in the evening with a cup of Somali tea and a baati on, haha!

How would you describe the relationship between your British upbringing and your Somali heritage? How do you think those things relate to one another?

Are you asking how they complement?

I’m asking how you think they relate to one another. One way of answering is how they complement or conflict. But you don’t have to limit your answer to this way of thinking.

I’ve never really seen them separately. I feel like my Mum raised us in way where both identities complemented each other e.g evening watching Eastenders with a cup of Somali tea and a baati on, haha!

I think it’s because my Mum never pushed any sort of distinct culture, which meant being a Somali Londoner was natural. Being able to see both as one thing really worked, e.g. speaking both Somali and English when talking to my Mum.

I want to ask question about your perspective as a Somali woman. Do you think your experience has been any different to Somali men?

No. I know a lot of people who would say otherwise, like, little sisters having to cook breakfast for brothers and do their laundry, basically helping their mum to look after the son. I never went through that and I don’t understand it. My brother is younger than me but I’ve only ever done things for him as an older sister. Growing up, we were never treated differently; we all had to do chores. My parents are divorced and it was pretty much a matriarchal home so maybe it comes from that.