Tastes Like Hope

Tastes Like Hope

Anjero, a Somali staple.

With the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, al-Shabab is headlining world news, which is entirely if not a lot of the point, I suppose. But...individual stories, however small, that begin to act as a prominent foil, that serve to counter the persistent, negative narrative-making by, in this case, Muslim extremists inclined toward global jihad, also desperately need our rapt attention.

In this vein, I'd highly recommend a recent "Letter from Somalia" in The New Yorker (Xan Rice, in the September 30, 2013 edition), featuring a Somali-born chef and London restauranteur named Ahmed Jama. Having left his beloved Mogadishu as a teenager, in 1984, he returned to the city in his early 40s, in 2008, to open a restaurant, which soon became several restaurants and a beach hotel.

Because many of Jama's patrons—"government officials, journalists, people with liberal attitudes"—are on al-Shabab's list of enemies, his restaurants have experienced multiple terrorist attacks since 2012. He himself has scraped human remains off the restaurant walls. Choosing to not fix a saucer-shaped crater in the floor of one of his restaurants, the result of a terrorist's grenade, he says:

"Whenever I come in here and look down, I feel the pain. This is my memorial."
 Ahmed Jama. 

Ahmed Jama. 

The article really is an effective window into an aspect of life and living in the threshold moment that is Mogadishu, notwithstanding the official withdrawal of al-Shabab from the capital in 2011. Jama's wife and children still live in London, and, for me, this aching glimpse captures Jama's internal conflict and personal sacrifice:

"To be honest, I thought a few times about leaving [Mogadishu]," Jama said. "My younger son said to me, 'Dad, why are you staying in Somalia? This is your home.' And I said, 'Yes, it is, but Dad is an African man. That's where I come from.'"
"Someone has to stand up [to the militants] and say, 'We are here.'"

Within the article, there is a sobering, unsuspecting irony. Jama says, "We say in Somalia there are three people you have to watch carefully—the man who shaves you, your doctor, and the man who cooks for you." Of course, he could amend the proverb to include a fourth person: the man who would blow you up.

Gritty, determined inspiration emanates from the chef: "Someone has to start somewhere in history to change a nation. I wanted to show what could be done, to make people forget about hunger and bloodshed, to learn to live with each other. I wanted to become a man of hope." Occasionally, there is a bit of levity. Jama describes his reason for not carrying a gun or having a bodyguard in his car: "My time will come, and when it does I will die. To be honest, I just try to look dumb and carry on." One can imagine the T-shirt.

Jama plots good food and schemes cultural renewal in the city he loves. Meanwhile, others around him plot chaos and scheme destruction under the banner of God's perceived reign on earth. The contrast is striking.

We should wish Jama well, praying for his well-being, as he attempts to flip the script in Somalia.


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