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5 Somali Artists And Writers On How Surveillance Culture Shapes Their Work

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“Representation is a form of surveillance.” These words—said by Martine Syms to Doreen St. Felix in a profile in The New Yorker—have stuck with me for some time because of how apt they are—especially for Somali women, who create on the fringes of both Muslim and black cultural production. And all this creation happens while the world is watching as we grapple with how to create—and even just exist—in spite of all of the forces around us suppressing or trying to outright ban us from the public spaces.

More and more people are slowly becoming cybersecurity-literate, but while some people rush to cover their webcams with tape, others can’t escape their more intimate, long-standing relationships with surveillance. As black Afrofuturists have contended with before me, black people have always been ahead of their time, and thus are no strangers to navigating and subverting the kind of mass surveillance used to police and control parts of the populace; black people have been surveilled long before the invention of any GPS device. And so, knowing this, knowing we are being watched, how do we document our current realities without filtering ourselves? How can we create without feeling like we need to censor our thoughts and feelings about the way the world is engaging with our many identities?

I spoke with five Somali artists about this very issue. All of the women I spoke with flirt with someone else’s gaze, whether that be the gaze of their own communities, the male gaze, or the white gaze; these are gazes that fetishize, and they respond to them in their own ways. If these women are not archiving, documenting, and facilitating discourse, they are curating magazines and online publications. These Somali women are proactive in their own representation and hail from different backgrounds and are interested in different types of artistic expression, but underlying their creations is the daunting reality of both external and internal surveillance.

Read about what creating under surveillance culture means to them.

Naima Nur: Sun Song

Naima Nur is an archivist and the founder of The Sun Song, an online destination featuring poetry, fiction, and essays, which she describes as a cultural hub dedicated to inclusivity.

When you think of “surveillance,” what comes to mind? How much does surveillance culture impact the work you do? Both within the Somali community and outside the community?

When I think of surveillance, I think of social control. Everything we do is under a microscope, but, on some level, we participate in our own surveillance by constantly updating the world on our whereabouts via social media. As a Somali, there is an added level of surveillance just within our community because we are so tight-knit. I find myself self-censoring myself online and avoiding certain scenes to avoid the gaze of the Somali community. It can be quite limiting.

How has your social media usage changed when you started creating work for public consumption? What parts of your life are important for you to keep to yourself?

When I first started using social media, I was quite young and carefree. I would talk about myself and what I was doing quite a bit. As I started creating work for the public, I completely stopped sharing personal details about my life. I rarely post pictures of myself or my family. The larger my platform has grown, the more private I have become. It is important to keep my personal life private to avoid the cyberbullying and abuse that comes with a public life.

Do you think surveillance culture plays a role in assimilation? Do you think visibility, or the need for, forces us to want to assimilate? How true is that for you and your work?

I think for sure it plays a huge part. The internet, in particular, is like the Wild West right now, because there are no set social mores or ethics. People self-censor themselves in order to protect their image and sometimes that self-censoring leads them to assimilate. I couldn’t assimilate even if I wanted to and the point of the work I do is to push the discourse forward and provide space for marginalized voices.

Rooney Elmi: Svllywood

Rooney Elmi is a filmmaker, writer, and founder of Svllywood, “a digital and print leftist film editorial geared toward curating a radical cinephilia.”

When you think of “surveillance,” what comes to mind? How much does surveillance culture impact the work you do?

It’s a bit difficult to contextualize how I understand and navigate surveillance without divorcing myself from growing up in a post-9/11 landscape, but that’s enough to fill up a dissertation. In terms of creative endeavors, I’ve noticed that cinema tends to side-step the common anxieties of living under surveillance and reduces it to a spectacle of voyeuristic observation, which eventually helped inform the documentary I’m currently filming, Seen. [It is] a year-long video diary of my personal recordings of surveillance cameras in a variety of different locations. Even in my political organizing, it’s distressing to witness how the surveillance state has caused minor bouts of hysteria among activists, but there’s a history of the U.S government utilizing these pervasive technologies to destroy progressive movements. Growing up as a Muslim in America, especially as a Somali and being included in this travel ban monstrosity, [this] means that you’re always aware of your phantom presence on the surveillance [radar] and how that can and will be weaponized against you and your community.

How has your social media usage changed when you started creating work for public consumption? Do you feel the need to be respectable or “professional”? What parts of your life are important for you to keep to yourself?

Being hyper-aware of my digital footprint while being logged on is enough for me to disconnect from every app on my phone. Sometimes I fantasize about that scene in The Dark Knight Rises where Catwoman is offered a file to delete her entire identity from the online sphere and live the rest of her existence off the grid. I think that’ll be a luxury trading item in the Deep Web in the years to come, but, in the meantime, the need to engage with like-minded individuals tends to temporarily quell those anxieties. I recently had some run-ins with some industry people who’ve commented on my social media presence, and it’s made me do a double take. It’s challenging to balance the understanding of having a professional online presence while trying to portray an authentic version of yourself on the world wide web. But to be completely honest, I’m interested in critiquing structures of power and how it manifests in our collective definition of “professionalism,” which is rooted in elitism, and that’s something I’d like to see dismantled in my area of work.

Do you think surveillance culture plays a role in assimilation? Do you think visibility, or the need for, forces us to want to assimilate? How true is that for you and your work?

I think they inform each other and that isn’t discussed enough. It’s fascinating to see how surveillance, or at least hyper-visibility, on the online realm has translated into people voluntarily weaponizing their identities and trauma for public consumption. I think a lot of folks growing up online, myself included, have fallen for that, but it’s best to not engage.

Ifrah Ahmed: Araweelo Abroad

Ifrah Ahmed works in the legal field. She’s one of the co-founders of Araweelo Abroad, a publication for Somali women.

When you think of “surveillance,” what comes to mind? How much does surveillance culture impact the work you do? Both within the Somali community and outside the community?

I think of state-sanctioned spying and monitoring of the various communities that I am a part of. Within the context of the U.S., black people have been under surveillance in some form since we’ve arrived. We often think about surveillance as a modern thing due to the rise of technology, but the surveillance of black people goes as far back as chattel slavery. Whether it was overseers, slave catchers, or slave masters monitoring and brutally enforcing the systemic subjugation of black people or Jim Crow or even the recent targeting of the Black Lives Matter movement, black people have always been under surveillance. The state has relied on surveillance as a tool to oppress and upkeep white supremacy. That’s also just in the United States.

There’s also the surveillance of black and brown people worldwide. I just think about things like colonialism and even America’s foreign policy of interfering with and destabilizing many countries around the world. Surveillance has always been an important tool in furthering the agendas of oppressive states. Muslims have also been targeted by the state. In addition to the international war on terror, you have the domestic surveillance of Muslims throughout the United States. No-fly lists, extreme vetting of refugees, travel bans—these all have roots in surveillance. Somalis belong to three communities that have been and are under surveillance in some form or another—we are black, we are largely Muslim, and many of us are refugees or the children of refugees. The fear of surveillance is a real thing in many Somali-American communities. Minnesotan Somalis especially have seen the devastating results of what happens to our communities when surveillance culture and the state’s domestic war on terror converge.

In terms of the impact of surveillance on my work, both in the Somali community and outside of it, surveillance is something that we’re always conscious of at Araweelo Abroad. Somalis not only deal with state surveillance of our communities but Somali women often also navigate surveillance on an interpersonal level within our own communities. Surveillance in our community is often gendered and can be a form of enforcing patriarchal cultural norms. We created Araweelo Abroad for many reasons, but one reason was that [co-founder Sagal Abdulle] and I recognized the intimacy of the relationships we had with other Somali women In many cases, due to the anxiety of interpersonal surveillance in our community, many of us had our public selves, but we created private spaces and friendships where we could be our true selves with our fellow Somali women… It was meant to be a digital homecoming of sorts. A community for Somali women and a space for us to exist on our own terms.

How has your social media usage changed when you started creating work for public consumption? Do you feel the need to be respectable or “professional”? What parts of your life are important for you to keep to yourself?

I don’t feel the need to be anything. I don’t subscribe to respectability politics, so I suppose that helps. I think in terms of my current social media usage though, I do feel a need to be more private. I think there’s a certain freedom in that, especially when there’s so much being constantly shared. Too much social media gives me a sort of existential dread anyways. When I was younger, being private or needing to curate a respectable public self was due to the anxiety I felt around being under surveillance. Now, I am choosing privacy on my own terms. I’m also trying to remain present and just exist.

ML Hassan

ML Hassan is a visual artist and a writer who, in the wake of Trump’s election, made a guide for women in hijab.

When you think of “surveillance,” what comes to mind? How much does surveillance culture impact the work you do? Both within the Somali community and outside the community?

I immediately think of government and capitalism. Businesses want to know what everyone is doing in order to sell to us, and governments want to watch marginalized communities in order to stifle any potential status quo change. I choose to work with subject matter that directly affects me as a person and relates to people identifying in the same way. Because markers of my identity are hyper-visible—dark skin, Muslim, etc., and these are highly-surveilled groups of the population—I am always aware that this is not something that can fly under the radar.

Being Somali automatically adds like three extra layers [of surveillance] that all have their own expectations. Even though I am a card-carrying immigrant Black Muslim hijabi woman, it can feel like I have to answer for each identity, [including within the Somali community]. I honestly may try to keep laying low just in case a cousin finds one of my videos and sends it to my mom. That’s probably [going to be] the end of this project to be quite honest. However, strong Somali youth communities grow on the internet. There are invaluable resources, and they will hopefully keep growing despite the culture of surveillance.

Outside of the community, there is a lens pointed straight at me and people in my same situation. It can be dysphoric. Whether it’s the need of an organization looking to align itself with one of my identities or “the agent watching me through my webcam,” my visible markers of identity are going to take precedence over anything else in my life.
Do you think surveillance culture plays a role in assimilation? Do you think visibility, or the need for, forces us to want to assimilate? How true is that for you and your work?

Absolutely. It has become a meme in the last two or so months, but the idea that there are systems watching from above has been ingrained within Muslim, black, and immigrant communities for decades. It shapes our beliefs and actions. There are eyes everywhere you turn, and they aren’t letting up, especially now, so it can be [an act of] self-preservation to keep out of the light. Also, fuck Siri and Alexa forever.

I can’t say that I have taken a huge step in any direction. I do create and want to continue creating in this sensitive time about issues affecting marginalized communities. [I want to] put myself out there in that manner. At the same time, I don’t have thriving social media accounts online, and I am not personally compelled to do so.

Halima S. Gothlime

Halima S. Gothlime is civil engineer and artist. She co-founded Byte Zine, an annual digital zine curated by Gothlime and graphic designer and illustrator Eman Aleghfeli.

When you think of “surveillance,” what comes to mind? How much does surveillance culture impact the work you do? Both within the Somali community and outside the community?

Like most people, I would say “Big Brother” is more complex than that. For me, surveillance seems like an organism trying to regulate how and where things are placed. Surveillance is a form of regulation. Surveillance is daunting and stressful. It forces me to imagine a world without that “gaze”—all gazes, whether it be the regulatory grandma in the corner or the “man.” As for my work, I try to imagine [my own] little world, using the same tools that are used to control us.

How has your social media usage changed when you started creating work for public consumption? Do you feel the need to be respectable or “professional”? What parts of your life are important for you to keep to yourself?

In general, it does keep me awake at night. How can I be authentically me? Am I a censored version of me because of surveillance? How do I navigate it? I try to be vague about everything. As for my work, surveillance makes me more cryptic.

Do you think surveillance culture plays a role in assimilation? Do you think visibility, or the need for, forces us to want to assimilate? How true is that for you and your work?

Yes, I do think it has a huge role. For example, in a lot of science-fiction novels or WE by Yevgeny Zamyatin, anybody who tries to go up against the status quo sticks out. The systems work all of us to wear the same uniform, and if you do not comply, you are obviously different. So assimilation, in my opinion, is about wearing a uniform with a number tag—not even a name tag. With surveillance, the man wants you to wear a uniform, and if you do not wear that uniform, you are going to be in trouble. Surveillance and assimilation are linked.

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Somali-British poet Momtaza Mehri named young people’s laureate for London

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THE GUARDIAN — The 24-year-old Somali-British poet Momtaza Mehri, who has been chosen as the new young people’s laureate for London, is hoping to spend her year in the role convincing young people “to see poetry as part of their every day, rather than in some dusty tome, or academic niche interest”.

Mehri, who has a background in biochemical science and wrote the poetry chapbook sugah. lump. prayer, has been shortlisted for this year’s Brunel African poetry prize and won last year’s Out-Spoken Page poetry prize. As laureate, Mehri hopes to encourage young people to voice their concerns and experiences through poetry.

The poet, from Kilburn in north-west London, was selected for the role by a panel of arts organisations and poets, and is, according to Spread the Word’s chair of trustees Rishi Dastidar, “an inspired choice” and a “poet to watch”.

“For young people to have an artist who is an ambassador for them, who brings their concerns, struggles and joys to those in authority, and the wider world, is vital,” Dastidar said. “Her poetry is precise and powerful, and rich with images that are haunting. She is not afraid to tackle the biggest of subjects, which, combined with her talent, is going to give the role a renewed sense of purpose and visibility.”
Mehri said she was exposed to oral forms of poetry by her family when growing up, but only began writing for publication around four years ago. “Over time I honed, or found, my voice, and that allowed me to feel comfortable, finding the poetic voice I felt was most suited to me. Obviously at the beginning you’re very much inspired by your influences,” she said. “I think the poetry I write is interested in questions or ideas around disruption or movement, whether it’s movement of people or places, movement between different ideas, between how things change over different generations, and in themes of migration and urban spaces.”

During her time in the role, Mehri will be looking to amplify the voices of Londoners aged between 13 and 25, “to let them lead conversations, to be as inspired by them as hopefully they can be inspired by me”. She will work with writer-development agency Spread the Word on youth-focused residencies across London, head a tour to six outer London boroughs, and co-host a special project for young London poets called The Young People’s Poetry Lab.

According to research from the National Literacy Trust, 84% of teachers who participated in a poetry programme for disadvantaged children in London schools over a five-year period said their writing skills had improved.

Outgoing young people’s laureate for London, Caleb Femi, said that “poetry has the potential to play a vital part in self-expression and artistic enjoyment in the lives of young people”.

“We need a dedicated person who can assist in integrating the joys of poetry into the everydayness of young Londoners,” he added. “We are extremely lucky to have a talented and dedicated poet such as Momtaza Mehri appointed as the new young people’s laureate for London. Her tenure is sure to be an extraordinary one.”

Mehri said that she wanted to: “Reach everybody, to allow people to see poetry as part of everyday living in London, and all the different poetry traditions that people bring to London.”

“I am very much aware of the fact that I came out of a very different poetic tradition, and what that’s brought to my writing of the English language. So I want to be aware of the fact that people are carrying different poetic influences, whether they consider themselves poets or not,” she said.

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‘I grew up in a refugee camp, now I’m on the cover of Vogue’

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BELFAST TELEGRAPH — Halima Aden is used to firsts. She was St Cloud, Minnesota’s first Muslim homecoming queen, and St Cloud State University’s first hijab-wearing student senator. She was the first hijab-wearing contestant to compete in Miss Minnesota USA — she wore a burkini in the swimsuit round — and the first to be signed to a major agency, IMG, the industry colossus that also represents Miranda Kerr, Karlie Kloss and Cara Delevingne.

And last week the 20-year-old became the first hijab-wearing model to appear on the cover of British Vogue. “It’s taken 102 years for there to be a hijabi model on the cover,” Aden says. “People are very proud of this moment.” Indeed, by the time the issue appeared on news stands last Friday, the cover had already gone viral.

Alongside Aden, a Somali model born in a Kenyan refugee camp, appeared other faces rarely seen on the cover of a mainstream, European fashion magazine — the mainstream European fashion magazine — including South Sudanese Adut Akech, Indian Radhika Nair, Korean Yoon Young Bae and mixed-race, plus-size Paloma Elsesser. “I think the cover really was true diversity,” Aden says. “Not a matter of ticking boxes but really people from different religions, different ethnic backgrounds, all thriving in an industry that has brought us together.”

Officially she works in this industry: she has walked Milan Fashion Week catwalks for MaxMara and Alberta Ferretti, and for Yeezy, Kanye West’s fashion line, in New York. She has appeared on the front cover of Vogue Arabia.

Unofficially she is also a full-time ambassador for her faith, and for the hijab. This is inevitable, as Aden observes, matter-of-factly. “I’m the first high-fashion hijab-wearing model. Automatically, I know there are a lot of girls looking at me. I need to be a good role model, a good representative of my faith, a good ambassador to my community.”

Being this in the hyper-visual, exposed and exposing world of fashion does, though, invite scrutiny — from within and outside her community.

Aden admits she recently cleansed her Instagram (where she has 577k followers). “I really wanted to explore a new look,” she explains.

“But I noticed that my younger followers were messaging me and saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t stuff I can wear. You’re the only person in fashion that I can look to, and you’re wearing stuff I can’t wear’. When I noticed that, I was like: ‘OK, it’s true’. I was still covered head to toe but I was trying out shorter dresses with knee-high boots. Those pictures got 60,000 likes but I wanted to stay true to my original followers. There are a million other models who can rock the same outfit but there’s not anyone besides me who can say, ‘I’m going to wear modest fashion’. I owe it to these little girls.”

Aden was born in Kakuma camp, in Kenya, in 1997. “I grew up in a refugee camp — there weren’t really many highlights,” she deadpans.

“I remember having malaria what felt like every other week. I remember scorpion bites and my mum having to apply Colgate toothpaste. It had a cooling effect.” She shrugs off any sense of victimhood. “I remember a lot of good things. When you don’t know ‘the other’, you tend to appreciate life.”

When she was seven her family went in pursuit of this ‘other’ life: Aden, her mother and younger brother were granted refuge in St Louis, Minnesota. “It was such a big deal,” she says. “A lot of Africans have the misconception that in America money grows on trees. But the neighbourhood we were in was very impoverished. You heard gunshots at night. The school I went to didn’t have an English language learners’ programme so I just went to school and listened and went home.”

After six months her mother moved the family to St Cloud on a word of mouth tip. There, teachers “would always help me, after school, during my lunch hour”. Her English is natural, her accent American.

“My mum made this quick call,” says Aden. “’I raised these kids, I went through hell and back for them, and I don’t want to risk them ending up in gangs, or in prison, or not getting a proper education’. It was really brave. African mums — I’m telling you,” she laughs.

Being crowned her school’s homecoming queen was “a big deal”.

“I’d never seen kids who are Muslim up for that, so I didn’t even think it was a possibility.”

And indeed, symbolically, it resonates: a prom is the gala event for the all-American teen experience, and she is a young Somali-American wearing a hijab.

She’s diplomatic about racial politics in contemporary, supercharged America. “Because Muslims are such a small number — one per cent in America — a lot of Americans never get to interact personally with a Muslim person.

“If you see horrible stories day in and day out on TV, you’re going to have this deep psychological fear of Muslims. It’s not right but that’s the hardest thing to show people — we’re not all the same. But fear is also human nature.”

She entered Miss Minnesota USA partly because there were scholarships up for grabs, but: “I also wanted to show other women in my home state that I didn’t conform in order to fit in. I wore a bathing suit — but it was a burkini.”

What happened next is one of those star-crossed fashion coincidences: Carine Roitfeld, former French Vogue editor, saw the pictures of her at Miss Minnesota USA and asked her to appear on the cover of CR Fashion Book, her new project and an influential countercultural industry tome. Roitfeld’s endorsement led to the IMG contract, which led to everything else.

Still, Aden was “shocked” to get the call from British Vogue editor Edward Enninful. “I met him at the British Fashion Awards in December. He was like: ‘I know we’re going to work together’. But I never imagined it being a cover story.”

For her portrait inside the magazine, Halima’s aesthetic is arch fashion: she slouches and pouts, staring down the camera in a mohair cape and woollen trousers — both Dior — and Altuzarra cowboy boots. She says it is “one of the biggest blessings that has come in my career” — though her favourite moment of the two-day shoot was off-set, shooting the breeze with fellow cover star Adut Akech.

It transpired the pair had been born in the same refugee camp. “We had a moment like The Parent Trap: ‘How old are you? What do your parents look like?’ And it was our first time meeting. Just imagine — these two girls from this camp, reunited for the first time on the cover of British Vogue. I can’t make that up.”

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