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Tuesday, 5 August 2003

Soul mates: the price of being gay in Somalia

Flag of SomaliaImage via Wikipedia
Source: Behind the mask

By Afdhere Jama

As a young gay boy, Ali Abdulle read a lot. He mostly read novels, he says. The concept of soul mates always seemed to be a present thought in the genre he was interested in, romance. Abdulle, however, really didn't believe in it.

At the age of ten, his family had to move. The decision was hard for the family, who lived in the neighbourhood they were moving from for almost twenty years. "I remember mother cried," says Abdulle. "It was very hard leaving all of our friends and neighbours."

The new neighborhood was what it was expected to be; new. The family had to start from scratch. This is where Ismail Sakariye, then eleven-year-old, comes into the story. Abdulle's family moved next to Sakariye's. The two kids naturally went to the same school. They became friends.

"We became friends rather quickly," remembers Sakariye. "I never made friends that fast. We just had more in common than either of us anticipated." The boys found out they liked and disliked just about the same things. But what really brought them together, remembers Abdulle, was their common dislike for sports.

A year after meeting, the boys had "accidental" sex one night. "We were just playing and it just happened," says Sakariye. Well, it happened and happened and happened. For another three years, the boys had sex on a regular basis. In Somalia, where the couple is from, it is not uncommon for boys to have sex with each other. What is uncommon, however, that these boys' sexual "experiments" had gone beyond the age usually expected to stop.

At the age of 16 and 17, the boys were still having sex. "After a certain time, I couldn't imagine living without him." Abdulle says. So, love came and knocked on their doors.

To fall in love with a man when you are expected to marry a woman is a big problem, most of all with you. At the age of eighteen, Sakariye's family had proposed that he marry a third-cousin of his. The boy was overwhelmed and told the family he was gay.

All hell broke loose, as his family were religious Sunni Muslims and believed homosexual acts are something that certainly promised you a lifetime of hell in the world to come. "Oh, they were way so angry. My father was in a full rage and was running around with a knife," says Sakariye. "It was far more than I thought it would be. It was crazy. I can't even begin to tell you how they all seemed like they were about to explode."

Though Sakariye did not out his lover, the couple were forced to deal with the situation. "I was extremely in love with him," Abdulle says. "There was no way I was going to watch them kill him. We had to do something." They did something, alright.

They ran away together to another city. "Ali just came to my bedroom late one night and he had a bag with him," remembers Sakariye, laughing through it all. "I remember I looked at him and said 'where are you going?' and he said 'we are going to Shalaamboot.'" Shalaamboot, about 70 miles south of Mogadishu, was an accepting city, the couple was told. It was their only hope of ever being together.

Their fancied city became an ugly dwelling when the couple learned that it was worse to be there than it would have been in Mogadishu. "After we arrived in the city, we found this lady that we were looking for. She put us in her home and was very nice," remembers Abdulle, who was related to the woman. "And then she casually went into town. When she returned, she returned with a bunch of men dressed in women's clothing."

- Drag Queens? Uhm, not exactly. In parts of Somalia, gay men are expected to either remain in the closet or wear women's attire. "Of course, the choice was clear." Sakariye says. "We told them we would just be in the closet then."

A whole new world was possible for the couple. They were in a city where they had the choice to be in the closet. "We really didn't care to not be out as long as we were together," says Abdulle. "We couldn't have asked for a better situation. In Somalia. Together. Safe. All things we never thought were possible after Ismail came out."

The couple, however, was shocked when they learned the locals were not happy with their decision. The locals - who were not all queer - decided to boycott the couple. It started with their good hostess kicking them out. Then they couldn't even find a place to rent or a job. They had to live with a supportive woman, secretly.

Weeks of agony and fear followed that. The couple was running out of money, as money got tight when the groceries would not even sell them anything and the couple were forced to eat at restaurants. "We only had money we could survive on a week or two," says Sakariye. "We were getting scared we would not even have enough to return to Hamar [Mogadishu.]" Suddenly, the "accepting" city has become the guys' worst nightmare.

It was time to reconsider things. "I proposed we just go to another city," remembers Abdulle, who was against the idea of even considering having to go drag. "I was up for anything but becoming a drag Queen. I told Ismail that I would rather die."

Love conquers all, a concept so ever-present in the books Abdulle read, was suddenly becoming less and less true. "They were killing our thoughts, our souls," says Sakariye. "I thought we should reconsider their offer. It was the only choice." The city elders have made an offer to the couple. The offer, to live in the city and be supported as long as they made changes to their attire, seemed outrageous to Abdulle.

"Ismail helped me see that we could beat them in their own game," says Abdulle, who after a while decided to go with Sakariye's plan of agreeing to the attire while the couple would not do it in the privacy of their home. "Then we went to them and told we wanted to take up on their offer." Strangely enough, the ban was lifted and the couple was provided with a job and a place to rent.

The couple got smart. They worked half of the day together and they stayed in half of the day together. While they stayed in, they dressed as men. "You have no idea how much wearing a jeans means to you in that situation," says Abdulle, laughing. "I would start undressing when my eye could see the first glimpse of the house. You simply can't wait."

What is with all this fuzz about clothing? Many Somalis believe gay men are imitating women, say the couple. "It is their way of making us pay for being gays," says Sakariye. "You make up all these beliefs to punish people who you disagree with. It was like 'damn you for being a queer.'"

When the civil war broke out in 1991, the couple ditched the drag and emigrated to neighboring Kenya. "I think we are the only ones who are grateful for the civil war," says Sakariye, who admits he is joking. "I was just so happy to leave there. We lived in a bad situation back there."

Once in Kenya, they applied for asylum as refugees. Three years after their application, they arrived in America. "We didn't know you could apply asylum for being gay back then," says Abdulle, laughing. "If we knew that, we would have come earlier than that, even when Somalia was still okay. But we are here now and that is all that matters."

Now, far away from all that in a land where they are told 'be all you can be,' Abdulle wholeheartedly believes Sakariye is his soul mate. He realises that life can bring you good out of what seem like unthinkable situations. "That first move was hard on me, but it brought me love," says Abdulle. "That civil war put us through the hell of having to be refugees, but it brought us freedom." The universe does work in mysterious ways. Well, at least for this couple.

Afdhere Jama is a queer Muslim writer. He is the Editor of Huriyah magazine(http://www.huriyahmag.com ). Reach him via Afdhere@hotmail.com
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