Exploring cultural belonging for Somali diaspora through writing and fashion
Interviews

Talking Identity With: Samira

Samira is a London-based 29-year-old who works for the BBC. We discussed her thoughts on this issue's topic of identity and belonging.

Born: Mogadishu
Raised: London
Nationality: British
Countries lived in: Somalia and Britain
Parents born/raised: Somalia
Parents’ nationalities: British

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

My first response is always Somalia. I know I don’t know much about the country itself because I grew up here in London, but I feel like I have to put Somalia before anywhere else.

Why is that?

I feel like I’m just really proud. I feel like I have to say it. I don’t know, it’s weird, I guess. I feel wrong if I don’t say Somali first, like people would think I’m not proud of where I’m from. When I was in America people would ask where I’m from and I would still answer Somalia, even though I knew they meant where is my accent from.

my first response is always Somalis…I feel like I have to put it before anywhere else

Have you always responded that way or has your response changed over time?

I’ve always responded that way. In school, some people did not even know anything about Somalia so I felt like I had to teach them. There were only two Somalis in my entire school.

How would you define what it is to be Somali?

That’s a hard question. We’re very big on culture. That includes language, food, what we eat, the clothes we wear. I think our personalities too, in a way. Very outspoken.  Our deen (religion) as well. The majority of Somalis are Muslim. There aren’t many countries you can look at and say everyone is Muslim. Somalia is one them.

Would you say non-Muslim Somalis are any less Somali?

They’re no less Somali but they wouldn’t really… fit in. I don’t know. So much of Somalinimo is connected to being Muslim.

It sounds like culture and religion are key factors for you. In terms of culture, what do you think this means for future diaspora generations who are further removed from Somalia?

For me, I want that culture embedded in them but I think, with time, our culture won’t be as strong. It’s unfortunate but I believe that’ll happen. I don’t want our language to die out, the idea of that upsets me so badly because it’s our own language.

Would you say not knowing the language is a big barrier to Somaliness?

It does act as a kind of barrier. For example, it’s a communication barrier with the older generation. I see it already with my nieces and nephews and it concerns me. I think it’s up to our generation to make up the difference.

Are there any aspects of Somali culture you think we should let go?

Qabiil for sure. People won’t be so, not ‘obsessed’ but, they won’t know or care as much about tribes. That actually makes me happy because that is one thing that has ruined us. It’s done a lot of damage to our country.

…people will find a flaw in your Somalinimo. There’s always something

Where do you think people of mixed Somali heritage fit in to all this?

I think they’re welcomed but it’s hard for them to fit in with Somalis because they’re very big on culture and it always comes back to qabiil in the end – people will find a flaw in your Somalinimo. There’s always something.

I know a mixed Somali girl. She speaks nothing but Somali, her Somali is spectacular! But when she’s around Somalis they find something to say to make her feel different. Like reminding her she doesn’t have a qabiil or whatever.

Are you saying young British Somalis, in our generation, say this to her? 

Yes.

I would have expected that of our parents’ generation but not our own. Do you think there is a difference between the generations in this sense?

I used to think so but nowadays I’m not so sure. Some of what our parents were taught has been embedded into us.

How would you describe Somali “community”?

T-i-g-h-t. K-n-i-t. Everyone knows everyone and sometimes we come across as judgmental. That’s why we sometimes hide from each other. Our community is quite small so your name will be dragged all over the place!

I AM the community!

Do you feel part of the Somali community?

150% I AM the community!

What’s your experience of that community?

What do you mean?

Might be helpful to think of it as positive and challenging experiences

The challenging bit is the judgmental attitude and people being all in each other’s business.

Why do you think that is?

They’re very protective of Somali girls. You can’t have your own life because people will see it as you leaving your Somalinimo behind. Say, you become an actress, people will think that you’re leaving your Somaliness and deen (religion) behind. They don’t want you to be out in the world because they think we are very vulnerable.

Do you think Somali girls are vulnerable?

Definitely not. I think Somali women are very strong.

there’s a lot of sexism within the Somali community, whether we like to admit or not

Do you think the same fear of being out in the world is applied to men? 

Not at all. The men are not given such a hard time. I don’t think it’s only a “Somali thing” but there is a lot of sexism within the Somali community, whether we like to admit it or not.

If a man did the same they wouldn’t have the same fear. In the Somali culture the man is viewed as stronger and it is (apparently) harder for him to lose his Somalinimo. That’s just the way it is. It’s always going to be like that.

Where do you think these attitudes come from?

Comes from a misunderstanding of Islam.

What do you think they’re misunderstanding?

That women should have no lives, that women should be at home on house duties while the man is out there doing what he wants. If my brother got a girl randomly pregnant, my family wouldn’t be happy about it, but everyone would be there for him afterward. If I did the same, I’d be cut off completely.

Have you ever been to Somalia?

Yes, one time, between July and September 2009. I stayed in Boohoodle, Burco and Hargeisa and went back and forth between them.

Tell me about that experience

It’s very different. When I went there, I just felt like I was at home. Seeing all your people everywhere. I got sick a lot but it was the best time ever. I saw family members I’ve never seen; my grandma, uncles, aunties, first cousin and even my half-sister!

What was your experience of interacting with Somalis there?

The people there are very different. They know if you grew up somewhere else. They’ll treat you differently but you’ve got to try your best to fit it.

I’m Somali by blood… I’m just British on paper.

You grew in Britain, what does the British part of your identity meant to you?

It just means I grew up here. I am British, it’s just that I’m Somali before anything. But I love the UK please don’t take my passport away, haha!

What does holding that nationality mean to you, if anything?

It means a lot to me, the British passport is recognised everywhere. I feel grateful to have it. When we left Somalia our country was at war, I was born in the war actually. I am grateful that we were welcomed here.

What about beyond the passport?

I don’t know. I’ve never really thought of that, what does it mean to me? I’m Somali by blood. I’m not British by blood, I’m just British on paper.

What do you mean by just British ‘on paper’? Do you view yourself as any less British for example than someone who is both British by ‘blood’ and ‘paper’?

Yes, I do. I’m not English. Did you know UK Somalis are different to Somalis anywhere else in the world? In the U.S., diaspora Somalis see themselves as American. If you ask them where they’re from, they’ll say their state/city in the US. The ones I’ve met never claim to be Somali. If you try to speak to them in Somali, they say they don’t know Somali. Then you come here and people go back home all the time, claim they are Somali, speak the Somali language.

Do you think there’s anything wrong with their approach?

I think you should know your roots and visit your country, if you can. Some of the American Somalis I’ve met seem so eager to get away from their roots.

What do you think is the ideal balance between knowing your roots and claiming where you currently live?

Just know where you’re from. It’s ok for you to feel American or British or whatever. No one is taking that away from you. It’s also good to just acknowledge your roots. A lot of people don’t have the advantage of knowing this.

How would you describe the relationship between your British citizenship and your Somali heritage?

What a question! Let me think… they’re completely different worlds.

In what way?

Personality wise, Somalis are very, what’s the word, ‘in your face’ kind of people. They’re very bold and will say what’s on their mind. British people are more reserved. So you have to have a good balance. I have a bit of both, I’m honest but not rude.

What else? Female expression and movement is different. In the UK, women have equal rights. In Somalia they don’t. Here if you want to wear a jilbaab you can do it, and if you don’t, you don’t have to. The dress code back home is a must so it doesn’t really say how religious you are or whether you actually pray five times a day.

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