Cultural Treasure in Exile

(Sydsvenskan, 3 March, 2012)

As far as he can remember, he came here as No. 72, the seventy-second Somali to arrive in Sweden.

This was in 1981 and it was the middle of winter, with snow in the streets, of course, and down in Somalia there was fighting going on with the Ethiopians. A country, where not so long ago girls and boys had gone to school together and had danced to the music of Sam Cooke and Fats Domino, would eventually implode with its entire society bursting at the seams: clan fights, warlords, Islamic extremists, pirates, foreign troops, hunger, mayhem.

When Ban Ki-moon and Hillary Clinton and politicians from Africa and the EU met in London in late February to discuss the future of Somalia, there was talk about the world’s most failed state. An organization, that measures these things, could show that corruption there is worse than in any other place.

Today more than 40,000 Somalis live in Sweden and Mohammed Sh. Hassan was one of the first to come. At the time, he could hardly imagine what the future might hold, but it was he who was to become the Somali publisher.

– I touched down in Stockholm in January and began taking Swedish courses in a place at Sveavägen. This was right between the main library and the Cultural Center, which was where I would go to read American and Arabic newspapers and magazines. I have great respect for the librarians who worked there, they became my links to Swedish society.

Working as a home-language teacher, Mohammed Sh. Hassan ten years later found himself in the midst of the first wave of Somali immigration. His old home country collapsed in 1991 and with the vacuum came silence, too; it can be frighteningly easy to get rid of culture, stories, history, and memory.

– New students arrived, illiterates, who had lived in refugee camps for many years and never been to school. We had to start from scratch. Because there were no books available in Somali, I traveled to London and copied my teaching material. We then got the idea to contact the Swedish central school authority and tell them about our growing needs. They subsidized the first four or five titles. That was when I realized that somebody also had to start a publishing company.

In Mogadishu, Hassan had held a library card at the American Library.

– I was a keen student, reading all the time. Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens. At home we spoke English and Somali. My father was a teacher and my grandfather wrote nine books about Islam. Each copy was hand-written in Arabic. There were no printers.

It is now 2012 and the modern Somali written language celebrates its 40th year. However, in Somalia you cannot write, the cultural institutions have been destroyed, violence is mightier than the pen, those skilled with words live in the diaspora, mainly in Europe and North America.
And Sweden has become the hub for Somali literature.

And so he stands waiting at the Jakobsberg commuter train station and then leads the way to one of these fenced-in warehouses, where people on the move store their furniture while waiting for keys to the new apartment. Mohammed Sh. Hassan jangles with the lock and pushes the white metal jalousie open.

This is it: the Scansom Publishers book deposit, not particularly grand, but with almost 350 titles in Somali or both Somali and English; children’s books, poetry, song lyrics, a few novels and biographies, a cookbook for children and a volume about basketball with a girl’s team on the cover. A couple of Swedish writer Gunilla Bergström’s popular Alfons Åberg books for children have been translated into Somali.

He must point this out several times in order for it to sink in:

– Two thirds of the world’s printed literature in the Somali language originates from Sweden.

The Swedish Arts Council helped the publisher get started. Hassan had by then graduated from the University of Stockholm with an economist diploma, but in 1992 he chose to throw himself into the least profitable career possible. He wanted to encourage an interest in reading in a group without a literary tradition.

– A consciousness project, he claims, seemingly satisfied with the sound of those words.

Since then, he has arranged a large number of Somali book fairs, from Djibouti in the east to Seattle in the west. i väster. The very first one was held in Rinkeby outside Stockholm, the most recent one in early February in Seved in Malmö. Libraries are his most important customers.

– This doesn’t bring in a lot of cash, but I have done my best and I have been happy along the way. One has to feel happinees, too.

And it tends to present itself whenever he finds a hidden life story or a scratched music cassette.

– My dream is to create a museum or a library, perhaps in Malmö or in Denmark. We want to collect everything that nobody knew was there, for the next generation. This is in line with the storytelling project that the Hidde Iyo Dhaqan cultural association in Malmö is engaged in. The books produced in Sweden are export material and when you venture into something like this people will come here to do research.

The cultural life has been totally wiped out in Mogadishu, says Hassan, making it a necessity to document the experiences of people living in exile:
– Every individual that passes away is like a burning library.

Suddenly one day Mohammed Sh. Hassan and his family moved to Toronto. How did that come about?

– The Somalis are nomads, you know. I wanted to research the flow of refugees coming into North America. Canada receives 300,000 immigrants every year, so I applied and was accepted. I have collected more than 600 cassettes, a thousand songs that we used to listen to when I was a child have been documented. I also write my own books based on old folk tales. In Toronto, people always ask how Sweden has managed to produce all these books. Somali Americans and Canadians have not achieved a fraction of that.

Being one of the main aid donors in Somalia, Sweden should also be able to provide another kind of cultural support, he thinks.

– It’s all about the future. You can build libraries and theaters, give aid in the shape of books. How can you defeat the extremists? With school libraries in the villages you will have an alternative to sharp-shooting and khat-chewing. A great deal of effort has been put into bringing food to the people, but the brain needs stimulus as well.

Is there anything that could be considered as typical of Somali literature and culture?

– Camels! The romance with camels is important. Owning a hundred camels is the equivalent of having loads of stocks in major corporations.

But in the diaspora, he says, people also write about cultural clashes and divorces:

– Should we go or should we stay? Do we want our children to become exactly as we are? There remains a lot to be discussed and now we have Somalis who speak every language imaginable. We are everywhere. We live in an increasing number of mixed marriages.

Mohammed Sh. Hassan collects some of his fables with drawings by a Kenyan illustrator and places them on top of his Alfons Åberg books.

– I am 54 years old and have lived longer in Sweden and Canada than in Somalia, he reflects. My parents are gone. I don’t know a lot of people down there. I have traveled there on three occasions and felt like a stranger. It’s easy to adjust to a new country, but terribly difficult to return to the old one.