Background Story (Prelude)
A while back, I penned a poignant little story on paper. It related a true event which I had witnessed in a North London eatery. Two Somali brothers, one many years older than the other, had made a pact to stand up for one of their own. Though a mere spectator, I knew with certainty that I had to immortalise the whole scene in writing. Truthfully, it was everything but a romanticised paragon of the Somali spirit of collectivism. Which is why I decided to share the piece with family, friends and my network on social media. Not long thereafter, someone reached out to me in response.
‘You have to read “Warriors” by Gerald Hanley’ the young lady exclaimed, convincingly justifying her recommendation. The author deeply reflected, she said, on the nomadic ways of our ancestors. So, I thought to myself: ‘If a widely read, highly educated Somali woman saw all that, it must be great and insightful’. She seemed fully sold on this unassuming diary of a former soldier of the British Empire. Thus I wondered and asked myself: ‘why is it so popular with Somalis across diverse socioeconomic backgrounds?’ ‘And why had I seen it being recommended so many times?’, where each time someone extolled its virtues with hymns of praise. They were, after all, Somalis just like me, from every part of the world. And I therefore would, I concluded, see what they saw if I read it. Perhaps that explains my great expectations.
Interestingly, most of his admirers also exhibited similar behavioural patterns. One would repeatedly come across people sharing snippets alongside vintage images of ancient Somalis, dressed in traditional attire. Often pictured or painted while armed with spears, they still remain revered as riders on horseback: indicating cliche persistence about the nomads who allegedly knew nothing but savagery. But was that really so? I purchased the book precisely because I wanted answers, even though the title admittedly appeared telling enough so as to warrant no further searching. Never judge a book by its cover was my motto nevertheless.
Turning now to its contents, rest assured that I’ll provide the reader with rationale as to why I’ve written a lengthy prelude. But before I do, let me first emphasise that any contemporary interpretation should be anchored in its historical context. Equally important to note is that we need to go beyond trying to figure out what that past was for Gerald, because we’re interested in knowing how his diaries will help us appreciate our ancestors. Of course, you might want to know why.
Well, come to think of it, if we celebrate a man for recording parts of our heritage, should we not ask ourselves whether our heritage would have concurred or disagreed? History is only written by the winner definitively inasmuch as the inheritors accept it without critical reflection. Besides, that’s exactly what his book is supposedly about, an honest attempt at chronicling life with the Somalis from an outsider’s perspective. Yet how much of that attempt reflected in earnest authenticity the native, Somali reality? Finding a convincing answer to this question is everything but easy as the following paragraphs will demonstrate.
It all began with the advent of the Second World War. The adventurous 23-year-old Gerald Hanley joined Britain’s campaign against fascist Italy in East Africa, where the latter brutally seized Ethiopia to form a dominion with the Eritrean and Somali lands already under their control. Those were some highly turbulent years, truth be told, in which the entire globe found itself at a pivotal crossroad. And after working on a Kenyan farm for about four years — presumably learning Swahili during that time — Gerald enlisted in the King’s African Rifles at the outbreak of war. That is, at least, the official tale around how he found his way into the lands of the Somalis.
The book begins with several beautifully written passages meditating on the purpose of life, wherein he also describes the lands of the Somalis. In a way, however, I perceived his account of pondering in the desert a little exaggerated. It was almost as if he forcefully wanted us to buy his self-image of an enlightened European. Caught up between admiration for the writer’s skill and a disgust for his descriptions, it took me a long while until I found myself able to reconcile the two. Perhaps he did it with the intent of creating literary effect, or maybe he just genuinely hated the lands of the Somalis.
Throughout the book, Gerald describes the arid plains of the Somali Peninsula as God-fearing, Christian monks used to describe hell-fire in the 1200s. ‘The shack’ this and ‘the desert’ that were recurring synonyms he used for the entire region. There was no mention of the mesmerising river valleys of the Juba and the Shabelle, no mention of the blossoming of the desert after rain, no mention of the sense of freedom that Somalis felt in its vastness. Only the harsh desert, the intolerable shack. It turned out that none of the themes of nomadic bliss that father used to relay to me when I was a kid appeared in the book. This lack of fair and balanced account gave me a bitter aftertaste as someone who hails from a nomadic family. I am, after all, but a historical product of those whose voice found no echo therein.
As for his portrayal of nature and landscape, the reader is left in no doubt that he viewed Somalia as being a hell on earth. Although to be fair, Gerald did mention one place in purely positive terms. In one particular passage, he mentions natural springs, refreshing wells and fun at a pristine, Indian Ocean beach during a trip to Eyl. There was an authenticity about it that made one eager to visit it. Eyl, by the way, is a historic seaside resort located in the contemporary Puntland State of Somalia. It isn’t that far away from Cape Guardafui which Gerald apparently also visited.
In terms of the general character of the people, Gerald had a more varied impression of them than of their natural environment. Nevertheless, the book’s earlier part is dominated by the usual tropes of white saviour complex. It appears at first that the entire country is populated by mere savages who love war and killing like others enjoy playing instruments or sports. Throughout his book, he describes Somalis’ habitual propensity towards violence as their inherent nature. Furthermore, whether intentional or not, Gerald subtly imagines and portrays himself to the reader as Britain’s peacekeeper in the Somali deserts, neutralising armed warrior clans and roaming killer bands. Talk about delusions of grandeur. The benevolent administrator displays great patience in teaching them the ways of civilized nations, even though he knows deep down that he cannot alter their nature.
Somehow, he unyieldingly maintains this illusion. This idiotic and ridiculous belief that he was a saviour for the poor women, the children, and the youth who were trapped in perpetual feuds instigated by evil elders. The whole Somali Peninsula seemed to be in dire need of rescuing by a morally superior and more intelligent white man. In addition to that fallacy, customary Somali law, also known as Xeer Somali, was virtually ignored, as was the factuality that Somalis practised indigenous conflict resolution. The worst of all mistakes, however, was the lack of mention of the tree of counsel, which Somalis revered in those days as they do today — where marriages and peace treaties were concluded. Many Somali names, in fact, have the word ‘shir’ in them (meaning meeting of counsel in Somali: e.g., Shire, Shirwac, Shirdoon, ect.) exemplifying its cultural significance. This is so because the tree of counsel (Geedka Hoostiis) always represented a symbol of Somali culture just as their aspiration to achieve nationhood (Hashii Maandeeq).
When I think back to the moment in which I held ‘On Warriors’ for the first time, I experienced a surreal rush of excitement. I fantasised about and naively imagined wondrous narrations. Stupid me really thought I was going to read authentic stories of my great-grandfather and great-grandmothers’ generation: the resilient men and women who lived through the 1930s and 1940s. They were the generation of the anti-colonial struggle. So, at the back of my mind, I imagined, Gerald would talk about multifaceted nomads who trekked and rode through vast plains; who read the stars to decide upon their next dwelling place; who chanted wise and ancient lines of melodic poetry; who exchanged their news at watering places; and who hummed away happily while outlasting unimaginable challenges during their anti-colonial struggle.
Maybe I was duped by my preconceived notions, those mental images drawn from the romanticised tales of my father which I absorbed as a kid. But even if I hypothetically erase these expectations, the book fails miserably in re-appreciating Somali culture. Page 152 narrates the only mention of Somali culture and does so pathetically. There, Gerald brushes off Somali oral tradition as “wonderful idiotic proverbs”. He even mocks it later on by claiming he de-escalated a situation by making up a silly saying. To make matters worse, his alleged proverb about elephants didn’t even make sense. But the sentimental and emotional native, as Gerald’s Orientalist viewpoint demonstrated, didn’t need any wisdom to be convinced. He only needed to face a stern face and steadfastness. For he, the native, was a mere beast with no reason that you just needed to stare down to convince.
Yet I am certain that Gerald himself considered his diary a great success. Having read the book of another Orientalist as a youth (that of Richard Francis Burton), all he seemed interested in was an exotic poison. Called Wabaaio by the Somalis, it was a deadly potion used by the Madhibaan, a hunter-gatherer minority, on arrows. It so aroused Richard Burton in his “First Footsteps in East Africa”, that it also had a contagious effect on Gerald Hanley. Whether it is true or not, he claims to have been present during a Madhibaan poison mixing ceremony after exerting a great deal of effort for years, a feat which Richard himself was unable to accomplish. Another cultural experience that stirred up Gerald’s mind was a dance ritual by the Malablai tribe of the riverine south, again revealing the influence of Orientalist English writings on his perception. Their interests and fancies rarely ever extended beyond the occult and exotic.
Be that as it may, for if I’m perfectly honest, I still enjoyed reading Gerald’s book even though I was torn apart between admiration and discontentment. ‘On Warriors’ presented a well-written and fascinating tale of an outsider experiencing life among the Somalis. He may have misrepresented them, intentionally or otherwise, may have misunderstood them, intentionally or otherwise, but at least he did what he did with literary verve. Stylistically speaking, the reader is drawn into the world of two Gerald Hanleys: one who presented himself as a young 20-year-old seeing Somali lands with fresh eyes. And another, who appeared as the wise elder returning to an independent Somalia in the 1960s. Regardless, I think he was nothing but an Orientalist Robinson Crusoe who lived out his fantasies which he got inspired with reading the books he read as a youngster.
Because his remarks about Ireland’s encounters with British imperialism, alongside the insightful analysis of the concept of race memory, illustrated to me that he was, indeed, capable of deep reflection. Why, then, I wondered, did he miss the opportunity to go beyond Orientalist platitudes? Of course, there are some astute observations in his book that Somalis can reflect upon, and some which they can even laugh about.
In light of the prelude, and the review as a whole, every Somali reader should know about the following summary points.
(1) Praise is often a deceptive veneer that hides ulterior motives. The hymns of flattery which Gerald sang about Somali fearlessness, intelligence and thirst for knowledge, which many of us felt good about, weren’t actually declarations of allyship. For just as Richard Lionheart and Salahuddin Al-Ayyubi used to flatter each other during ceasefire, only to head back to kill each other on the battlefield, can you, too, encounter an admiring adversary. We must learn as a nation that not everyone who praises us is a friend. Because a true friend hears you out without judgement and will first seek to understand you before passing necessary judgement. Never would your friend merely believe what others say about you like Gerald believed the Orientalists.
(2) No outsider has as much right to condemn or honour our heritage as we do. As a diaspora Somali, I understand in its full breadth how our culture — both its good elements and bad elements — is slowly but surely dissipating in a changing world shaped by modernity and globalisation. Traits like our culture of collectivism, which enabled the Somali Peninsula to survive state collapse, are part of an ancient bundle of traits that only we can fully appreciate, celebrate and preserve. We should never accept a brief visitor or outside observer as an intermediary in acknowledging who we are and where we have come from. Reinventing and patching up our broken nationhood are momentous tasks which weigh on our shoulders, and ours only.
(3) Yet if there’s one thing I learned from Gerald, it is that by learning who we are not, we actually come closer to learning who we truly are. Accusations and judgements that the outside world throws at us forces us to reflect and introspect, empowering us to dig out who we really are. We are so much more than the stereotypes that are constantly thrown at us like pebbles.