Letter From Somaliland
We stopped in the middle of a street. Nur leaned out his window to speak to a narrow-eyed man in his 30s who was wearing a white skullcap, a white robe and a red-checked shawl. As Nur spoke, the man's eyes shifted over and fixed mine with a look of almost venomous suspicion. Somehow Nur persuaded the man, a sheik named Sharif Abokor, to meet with us the next day.
The window of my small hotel room looked directly across the street on a mosque, and the amplified muezzin seemed to thunder all night long. A meal of boiled camel deep-fried in ghee wasn't sitting well, and in my weakened state I hallucinated slightly--at 4 am it sounded like the voice of Allah in my ear, exhorting me to pray before it was too late. I thought about chaos and death, and it was suddenly a little easier to imagine myself a Somali. Nur had told me: "Allah will ask you, 'What did you do for the time I gave you?' I'll say I prayed, I fasted, I gave to the poor. So one goes to the hell and one goes to the heaven. I want to be one of those who goes to the heaven."
In the morning Nur and the sheik were waiting in Nur's small office, behind a stockroom crammed with plumbing fixtures and boxes of floor tiles. The sheik wasted no time getting to the point. "We are real Muslims, but we are not terrorists," he said. "We did not know the meaning of Al Qaeda until we heard it on the BBC. They are far away from us. We live in East Africa." I asked about al-Itihaad's presence in Burao in the early 1990s. Nur, who had been running his newspaper at the time, said the lesson of the extremists' failure was that "the people of Somalia don't really believe Islam, they believe in tribalism. There is something deeper than Islam that the people believe. Even some sheiks, the fanatics, if there is a fight they will go to the tribe."
"The wars were a power struggle," Sharif said. "They were outside Islam--they were wrong. Allah promised us if we don't fight we will get peace and prosperity. We have peace. We are waiting for the rest--here, or in paradise." The sheik, who said that he was unemployed, readily accepted the name fundamentalist. But he sketched a picture of Islam that was almost as tolerant as Unitarianism. Beards and veils were not the point, he said; compulsion was alien to Islam, and Western knowledge was welcome; the point was to obey God.
When I had finished asking my questions, the sheik began to interview me. What did I think about the United States putting Somalia on its list of terrorist countries? Was killing civilians in Afghanistan democratic? Had I ever written anything against US foreign policy? Did I have any information on whether the United States was coming here or not? I knew what was coming next. "What religion do you follow?" When I said that I was a nonbeliever, the sheik was momentarily speechless. "Why don't you have faith in Allah? Who created humanity? Who created this pen?" He stared at me the way he had when he first saw me with Nur. "Even the Christians are better than you." Nur seemed slightly embarrassed by this judgment. Before I left, he took from his desk a paperback, written by a Pakistani, called Islamic Faith and Practice, and urged me to read it. Then he asked if I could put him in touch with an American hardware exporter.
On the way back to Hargeisa, my two traveling companions asked how the encounter had gone. I said that I had liked Nur very much, and that the sheik had perhaps not been entirely candid. They asked the sheik's name. When I told them, they exchanged a smile. The sheik, it turned out, wasn't unemployed; he's an agent for a money-transfer operation, a fact he might have concealed to avoid confusion with al-Barakaat. But there was more. "In 1992 he was one of the most active in al-Itihaad, mobilizing, recruiting. He was number four or five in the Burao organization. And Nur gave them support, financial and moral. The newspaper was a cover. You were talking to their nucleus."
Perhaps Somalis like Nur and the Amoud students have a radical, long-term strategy to Islamize their country--or perhaps not. For now they're Somaliland's best chance to create something other than endless war out of the ruins, and as we descended the escarpment toward the Indian Ocean I found myself wishing Nur's hardware business success.