Reaching out

The only Jewish blogger in Mogadishu longs for a community.

By GREGORY LEVEY
July 5, 2007 13:08
Reaching out

somalia people 88. (photo credit: )

 
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On some days he has Internet access, but no water. On others, the fighting surrounding him in Mogadishu entirely cuts him off from the outside world. But even as bombs explode outside his window and Islamic militiamen battle Ethiopian forces nearby, he calmly updates his blog, reaching out to the world to describe what has befallen his hometown. He does so with a wisdom and thoughtfulness that seem to belie the fact that he is only 19, and with a sharp awareness of one other detail that makes his situation particularly dangerous: Avraham is Jewish. Mogadishu may seem like an unlikely place to find a Jewish teenager, and Avraham may actually be the only one. He is certainly the only one who has a blog (http://avrahamshanshi.blogspot.com), which he started in March and which provides a window on his very improbable, and very dangerous, life. Mogadishu has been racked by violence for decades, some of the worst of it in the past few months, and members of his family - including his father - have been lost in the bloodshed. In the midst of this, Avraham struggles to have a normal life, hoping to start studies at university soon and longing to have other Jews around with whom to celebrate Jewish holidays. Meanwhile, he asks his readers if the anti-Israel propaganda with which his world is saturated is really true, and only occasionally thinks about leaving Somalia, the only home he has ever known. In 1993, when Avraham was six years old, Mogadishu was the site of the infamous "Blackhawk Down" incident, when Somali forces trained by al-Qaida brought down two US helicopters and killed 18 Americans. Since the 1991 collapse of the Somali government, in fact, Mogadishu has experienced round after round of violence. Over the past year, it has been the site of devastating warfare between US-backed Ethiopian forces and Somali militias allegedly tied to al-Qaida, and between Somali warlords and Islamic hard-liners. Somalia is almost entirely Muslim, and Avraham could not feel more alone. "The hardest thing in my life is being Yehud, or Jewish, in a city where 99 percent of the people are Muslim," he writes in his blog. "Living as a Yehudi or Jewish person is not easy. I am surrounded by Muslim people all the time. Some are nice and some are full of hate. The people who are full of hate are ignorant people who are brainwashed in the Islamic school in Mogadishu." Unlike neighboring Ethiopia, there is essentially no Jewish community in Somalia. The closest thing seems to be a tribe called the Yibir, who are believed to be descendants of Jews, but even they are now wholly Muslim and have been for at least 800 years - though they are still discriminated against as if they were Jewish. Avraham writes that when his family came to Mogadishu from Yemen in 1901, there was no synagogue, but there was a Jewish cemetery. His grandparents and other family members are buried there, but he writes that the cemetery is now destroyed and houses have been built on it. "You can't do a thing or say something," he posted on his blog. "Just watch it and cry inside of your heart and soul." Somehow, against all odds, Avraham has embraced his Jewish heritage, even though it causes him both pain and danger. He wishes his readers "Shabbat shalom" and talks about his celebration of Jewish holidays, but occasionally laments the fact that he has no other Jews with whom to celebrate these occasions besides his mother. Meanwhile, he tries to stay home entirely on Friday, because otherwise he is questioned about why he is not attending services at a mosque. He is also struggling to learn what he can about Jewish history. Recently, he says, he has begun reading as much as possible on the Internet about the Holocaust, and tells his readers that "not many people here in Mogadishu" know about it. Perhaps because of the vulnerability of his own situation, it seems to resonate with him. "It is always the minorities who have it worse than others," he writes, and explains that his mother is forced to pay a warlord each month so that he will not "send his militia" to "kidnap or kill" her and her son. "It is a strange world," Avraham writes. "You pay to be alive. Sometimes I ask myself, what kind of world do I live in? But everything has its reasons, I believe. I am here for a reason, and I just have to find out what that reason is." At the same time, Avraham is unsure if Israel offers any answers to his plight. Although he doesn't entirely believe the anti-Israel propaganda that suffuses his society, he doesn't seem to fully identify with the Jewish state, either - even if his neighbors equate him with it. He writes that he has sometimes considered aliya, but doesn't "think about it so much." Instead, it is Yemen, of all places, that he considers moving to. That is where his family came from more than a century ago, he reasons, and although he has never been there himself, Avraham holds a positive impression of it because of the stories he has heard. "When Israel went to war with Lebanon last summer," he writes, "I went to a friend's house, and we were sitting in the living room, and then the TV showed dead people who died in Lebanon, and the whole family started to yell, 'I hate Israel, I hate Yehud, see what your people are doing, you are dirty.' Of course, I want to yell at them and tell them that I am not Israel, or I am not Israeli, but I kept my mouth shut and then I went home and it was over. That is normal for me." Avraham often uses his blog to speak out about the rampant hatred around him. He explains that Somalis learn from a young age that "Israel is evil, and they kill Palestinian people," and that it is "the only thing Israel does 24 hours a day." "Believe me," he writes. "I went to a school that is run by a Saudi organization, and what they teach there is a nightmare … I didn't go a day without hearing how bad Israel is and how they kill innocent Palestinians, and how bad the rest of the world is, how all those who don't believe in Islam will burn in hell, and Yehudi will hide behind trees. It was terrible. Don't be surprised when you see people in Arab nations when they burn flags or hate Jews, because they teach it in schools." He adds that when he was a child and would get into an argument with one of the other children, they would always say, "What do you expect, you are Yehud." "They did shut me up," he writes, "but I did not it let have an impact on me. It never stayed on me. That is how I survive." Now that he has grown up and is blogging about his life, however, there are those still trying to shut him up. He has received threatening e-mails for writing negatively about Somalia, and when contacted for this article, was very reluctant to provide much information because of fear for his security. He has, however, already been discovered by some seemingly unsavory elements in Mogadishu. On a Somali message board, angry Somali Muslims have been threateningly discussing how he has stepped out of bounds, and how he has no right to publish what they deem insulting things about their - and his - country. Nevertheless, Avraham courageously continues trying to educate the world about Somalia and about his own strange, dangerous life - even if he is often afraid. "I want to write so much and tell so much, but after I received an e-mail, I am afraid. I don't want to put my life in danger and my mother's life too. Maybe it is hard to understand, but living in a country where life has no meaning, then it is only you who know the meaning of your life," he writes. "And the last thing I want right now is to be the only Yehud in the city."

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