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Rough Translation: How ‘Anna Karenina’ Saved A Somali Inmate’s Life

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In 1980, a Somali government prisoner was sentenced to life in solitary confinement. He contemplated suicide until the prisoner in the next cell tapped out the words of a book in modified Morse code.

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CANADA: Edmonton author aims to boost diversity in children’s book publishing

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EDMONTON—Two years ago Rahma Mohamed’s then four-year-old daughter saw an Elsa costume, complete with blond braids, and pleaded with her mother to buy it so she would look “beautiful.”

That’s when Mohamed decided her kids needed more cultural inspiration than the blond princess from Frozen.

After a year of work, the first-time author published Muhima’s Quest, a children’s book that tells the story of a young African-America Muslim girl who wakes up on her 10th birthday and goes on a journey.

Now, Mohamed’s at work on her second book, which is due out at the end of the month. She’s on a journey of her own, she said, to boost diversity in children’s publishing.

“I wanted to create a character who had African descent and is a Muslim in a children’s book because I just found out that there were none that were available in the mainstream,” she said.

Her books show kids it’s OK to be different, she said. Take her first book: some Muslims don’t celebrate birthdays, she explains, and the little girl in the book struggles with her faith and questions why she doesn’t celebrate like her classmates do.

“The overall message is that we do things differently, but that part is what makes us beautiful,” Mohamed said.

She said she felt it necessary for her kids to see themselves represented in the books they read in order to “enhance their self-confidence, as well as bolster their sense of pride.”

Mohamed, who writes under the pen name Rahma Rodaah, self-published her first book and since last summer, has sold 200 copies locally.

“It does take a lot of resources and you have to self-finance, but I believe in the end it’s worth it,” she said.

She hopes to go bigger with her second book, which focuses on the universal concept of sibling rivalry, and features a young girl who plans on selling her little brother because she believes he is getting all the attention.

“My overall goal is to portray Muslim Africans who are basically a normal family.”

Mohamed says her previous book was well-received by parents at readings she had done at public libraries and schools.

“Most of them who are Muslims really loved that the kids could identify with the characters,” she said.

The books also acted as a conversation starter for non-Muslim families, she said.

She said, for her, the most exciting part of the journey is knowing that she is making a difference in shaping the minds of young Black Muslims.

“We are underrepresented, misunderstood and mostly mischaracterized. It is time we paint a different picture.”

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Two Sisters by Âsne Seierstad review: one father’s hunt for his daughters lured into IS

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Two Sisters is a grimly informative study of how not only societies but families too can be riven and sundered by unquestionable, fanatical belief, says David Sexton

Asne Seierstad made her name with a series of closely reported books set in conflict zones, including her 2002 bestseller, The Bookseller of Kabul, followed by One Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal, and Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya. Then, in 2015, she turned to events in her own country with One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway.

Her latest bestseller, Two Sisters, is the story of two Somali teenagers, Ayan, 19, and Leila, 16, who, in October 2013, having become radicalised in Oslo, secretly left the family home and made their way to Syria. Their father, Sadiq Juma, followed them three days later, first to Turkey and then into Syria, to try to bring them home. With the help of local fixers he made contact with them but they told him they had not been kidnapped, they had planned it for a year and had done it “100 per cent for Allah’s sake”. They were with Daesh — and Ayan was already married to a Norwegian Eritrean jihadist.

After appealing to a local Islamic court, Sadiq was allowed to meet Ayan again for just four minutes, and then, lured by the promise of another meeting with his daughters, kidnapped by IS, accused of being a spy and beaten and tortured for 13 days in a prison adapted from a sewage plant. Only after he had convinced a sharia prosecutor that he was simply a father looking for his daughters did he somehow manage to escape.

Sadiq returned to his broken family in Oslo, still trying from there to rescue the girls, who did not want to be rescued. Meanwhile, IS set about the creation of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, making Raqqa the capital, taking Tikrit and Mosul, and proclaiming the caliphate in June 2014, soon following up with the release of the horrific beheading videos of Western hostages, starting with James Foley.

Both Ayan and Leila, now herself married to a British Somali jihadist, remained in Raqqa, both having baby daughters. Seierstad’s book, published in Norwegian in 2016, leaves them there. Although the city fell last autumn, they are believed still to be in Syria somewhere.

Seierstad announces her story as a “documentary account”, based always on testimony, whether in the form of extensive interviews with the girls’ family and friends, written records or retrieved texts and emails. She has shaped this enormous amount of material into a quasi-novelistic form, taking the liberty of reconstructing not just conversations but thoughts.

Beginning with the night the sisters ran off and Sadiq’s initial pursuit of them, it then loops back to look at the girls’ upbringing in Norway before returning to take on the story of Sadiq’s misadventures in Syria, all this part evidently based mainly on Sadiq’s own account. Thereafter the book lacks propulsion, since the basic situation alters little, and Seierstad has to rely heavily on the intermittent text and email exchanges the sisters had with their family, including their sceptical brother Ismael, back in Oslo.

Seierstad claims impartiality. “I offer no explanation, neither of what attracted them to Islamic radicalism nor what propelled them out of Norway. I relate my findings. It is up to each reader to draw his or her own conclusions.”

Nevertheless, a short final section, boldly taking “hell is other people” as its epigraph, offers a summary of what the girls sought, and closes with an appalled guess at what the lives of their baby girls will be in the aftermath of the caliphate. “They will discover that hell is here. Hell is us. If they survive.”

Despite attempts to contact them, the sisters did not participate in the book. “Is it ethically defensible to focus on the lives of two girls when they have not granted their consent?” Seierstad asks. “My answer is yes. The entire world is trying to understand the reasons for radicalisation among Muslim youth.”

Her book gives as detailed an explanation as we’ve yet had. It makes it all too clear how helpless to argue against extreme Islamism other believers can be — since the extremists’ appeal is always to the Koran and to Allah, appeals which other believers cannot simply refuse or deny. The sisters’ parents were initially delighted by their strict observance. “It was gratifying that they did not melt too much into Norwegian ways.” Even after they have disappeared into Syria, their mother believes “they just needed to be led back into the path of true Islam”.

Their brother Ismael, meanwhile, lost his faith entirely. He told his fanatical sisters: “I believe in Allah about as much as I believe in the spaghetti monster.” His older sister, Ayan, who believed the caliphate would soon take over the entire world, broke off contact with him first; his younger sister, Leila, followed, after he had told her IS would be defeated.

Two Sisters is a grimly informative study of how not only societies but families too can be riven and sundered by unquestionable, fanatical belief.

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Local children’s book honored for its focus on Somali culture

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REAL CHANGE — Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan declared Feb. 9 “Baro Af-Soomaali Day” during a celebration at the New Holly Gathering Hall honoring the families who created a children’s book for the Somali community. The celebration was the culmination of two years’ work by local Somali families, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) and the Seattle Public Library (SPL).

Over the past few years, organizations working with the Somali community became aware that many families in the community were worried about the loss of the language and culture, and that parents were concerned about their children not being given educational materials that reflected the Somali culture.

The book was a joint effort, involving the Somali Family Safety Taskforce, SPL, SPS and the Seattle Housing Authority. The project also received support from the Seattle Public Library Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a Race to the Top Deep Dive 3 grant from the Puget Sound Educational Service District and the Community Center for Education Results.

Over a four-week period, local Somali artist and poet Mohammed Shidane worked with four families to create “Baro Af-Soomaali.” The families were given a group of Somali letters and asked to select some items from their homes that illustrated the letter. The families decided as a group the layout, the illustrative photographs and the title.

The project allowed the families to explore their culture and language together. The parents and grandparents told stories about their home country of Somalia to their children and grandchildren, and, through the process, the children reported that they were proud to speak Somali.

The families and all the people involved in the creation of the book hope people enjoy reading it as much as they enjoyed making it.

In presenting the proclamation, the mayor cited the many contributions of the Somali community to the city of Seattle. “Somali-American families contribute to all sectors of our society, and we believe in ensuring that our public institution, our schools, our libraries and our community centers are responsive to and reflect the many diverse cultures that make up our city,” she said.

Applewood Books is publishing the book, and Ingram Distribution is helping get the book to libraries and schools across the United States and around the world. The book is currently available on Amazon.com. Royalties go to the Seattle Public Library Foundation and Somali Family Safety Taskforce to fund similar projects in the future.

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