A conversation on books, borders, and belonging

What does it mean to simultaneously think through and beyond the nation-state? How does one cultivate a cosmopolitan sensibility while still recognizing the importance of place? Through what means can one draw out universal human experiences while living in places far from home? These are some of the questions that frame this discussion we recently had. Crossing borders (though for very different reasons and with varying degrees of difficulty) has informed both our the political and aesthetic choices.

This transnational conversation took place over several weeks, mainly over What’sApp. During that time, we discussed our respective works, the politics of language, our differing experiences as ex-pats/immigrants (one of us is Somali-American; the other Israeli, but raised in the U.S. One is based in Nairobi, Kenya; the other in London ), and the importance (and difficulties) of writing. Below are some extracts from this conversation.

Abdul: In your recently published book, We Do Not Have Borders, you examine how Somalis in Kenya have imagined borderlessness and how Somali and northern Kenyan political thinkers sought to rework and rethink colonial and national boundaries. In what ways does your work challenge typical scholarly approaches to the study of borders and ethnic conflict in Africa? And how would you say your book informs our present moment?

Keren: So, one of the main questions my book asks is: What does it mean to be indigenous? And why Somalis, who have lived within the boundaries of Kenya for generations (in many cases, since long before Kenya was a country), are often perceived to be foreign to the country? Why is Somali language and culture often perceived to be alien to Kenya? 

And, in answering these questions, I challenge a very common trope that one often hears in Somali Studies. And that is the trope of the arbitrary border. It’s very common for scholars to say, well, the reason Somalis face so many problems in countries like Kenya is because they have been divided arbitrarily by colonial boundaries, which put them into all these different territories. And I certainly agree that colonialism imposed boundaries on Africans very haphazardly and without their consent. But I still don’t subscribe to the idea of the “arbitrary” or “artificial” boundary. In part, because I think it’s an idea that rests on a very idealized notion of the western nation-state, which is the model by which African countries are often compared. So, for example, I don’t think the Kenya/Somali border is particularly more or less “arbitrary” than the US/Mexico border. And the other problem with the idea of the arbitrary border is that it assumes as its corollary the notion of the “natural” border. And this rests on an assumption that people are meant to live on ethnically homogenous, neatly delimited territories. And that’s an assumption I really call into question in the book.

So, what I show instead is that Somalis and Somali-identifying people have historically organized themselves in a variety of different ways, and in ways that weren’t necessarily predicated on territorial borders, and in ways that haven’t always conformed to the demographic or secular logics of the state. For example, by the nineteenth century, Somalis were part of larger kinship communities by which they traced their descent to diverse people in Northeast Africa and Arabia. They identified as members of a wider cosmopolitan Muslim Indian Ocean world. And they were also part of very mobile nomadic communities. And these older forms of organization remained relevant throughout the colonial and postcolonial periods, and continue to inform how people live.

Partly, the book is a response to Mahmood Mamdani, who argues that the colonial state politicized the distinction between native and non-native, making indigeneity central to African politics. This is a very persuasive argument, but it can easily be overstated. Over the last few decades, and especially since the outbreak of the civil war in southern Somalia, people in the region have been crossing borders more than ever. This leads to the question: how successful have the state’s efforts really been?

In terms of how the book speaks to the present moment: Well, I would say that we are living through a time of heightened mobility. There are increasing numbers of refugees and migrants in the world and that’s probably only going to continue, especially with climate change. And at the same time, we’re seeing a lot of politicians, particularly in western nations in Europe and the United States, attempt to close borders. So, it’s really critical at this moment that we look at the strategies of those who both willingly and unwillingly cross political boundaries. As the history of Somali community of Kenya shows us quite clearly, the line between who is native and who is foreign is often very ambiguous, if not indeterminable. And quite often, this distinction is the product of contentious political struggles. So politicians who seek to curb immigration are frequently attempting to suppress networks that long predate the nation-state. Until we recognize just how tenuous the very idea of indigeneity so often is, we will not be able to properly address the resurgence of nativism worldwide.

Since we’re discussing border crossing, I’d like to ask you about your own experiences. You have lived in multiple countries (Somalia, Kenya, the United States, Kazakhstan), but your travels have not been of the elite, “Afropolitan” variety. How do you experience borders?

Abdul: So, whereas an academic would analyze the experience from a distance, as a detached observer, an artist only practices detachment for aesthetic reasons, because say a story is better told from a detached point-of-view. But one cannot always afford to be detached. You have to absorb it all when you experience events.

Borders are an inconvenience for me. In fact, they occupy a lot of my anxieties as we speak. Being an American, I’ve been able to travel a lot easier in recent years. And I’ve been able to learn languages, say Kazakh for example, which is a big part of my work in progress. In the novel I’m currently working on, there is a character who has an issue with his own language. A Kazakh poet. And the novel is also based in three countries. So that was made possible by my travels, obviously, and the crossing of borders. 

This was also the case with the story that pretty much gave birth to the novel: The Lifebloom Gift. It was inspired by several events, including my experience in airports in the United States, dealing with border officials. For some reason, I’m always randomly picked for inspections at airports. It starts with the TSA. That means I cannot check in like other people, through the main kiosk, the automatic kiosk. I have to give my passport to a flight official so that they can call TSA and double-check my name, counter-check with other names, and then get approval. Only then can I get checked in. And then once I’m past security, right before boarding, there is always a chance of a border official approaching me again and checking my documents right before I get on the flight. And on the return, that’s an even longer ordeal usually. So that has been a very uncomfortable experience, I’ve got to say.

The body searches that happen to me inside airports and outside airports (mainly because of my color, etc.) have plenty to do with the opening scene of The Lifebloom Gift. In writing, I often detach myself from the pain of experiences and give them a lighter, humorous edge. That was purely an aesthetic choice.

Keren: And how have your travels affected your own ideas of Somaliness?

Abdul: I would also say that, through my travels, I’ve only grown more and more detached from the idea of a state and more invested in the people. So, as we speak, I am more invested in the well-being of the Somali people, wherever they are, as opposed to the state. I do care about the state, but my priority is the people. 

Keren: So this is actually something that comes up in my book. I write a lot about how the idea of Greater Somalia changes, particularly after the defeat of the separatist effort in northern Kenya and after the start of the Somali civil war. The idea of Greater Somalia remains intact, but it becomes less associated for a lot of people with the idea of a territorial state, and it becomes more associated with a much more deterritorialized idea of belonging, of being a member (as you said) of a people. So, I was wondering if you could elaborate upon that point.

Abdul: Well, for one, our people have always preceded the state. We have moved around with our camels way before there were borders between Kenya and Somalia, way before the Brits came. So, in that sense, I care about that organic essence that is the Somali people, that’s defined by movement. And the state, or the states formed and the borders drawn to divide the people, really did nothing to change that definition. It simply inconvenienced our movements. We’ve always just seen ourselves as a people. And everything else was just a recent construct, including a flag or a state for that matter. So I prioritize what existed before to what came afterwards.

But to return to your previous question: I want to add that my travels, say going to Kazakstan, having a child there, have only made me appreciate my Somaliness more. My Somali speech wasn’t fluent when I was in Kazakhstan, and I’m near fluent now. In Kazakhstan, I had to learn a language that was somewhat obscure, unknown to most citizens of Kazakhstan, even though Kazakh is the national language. Due to the influence of the Soviet Union, even ethnic Kazakhs, a good number, cannot speak the Kazakh language. And I still chose to learn Kazakh and to ignore that more powerful language, which was Russian. That meant I had to shut it out completely, because Russian was being spoken everywhere around me. And I had to ignore it and just focus on this language that belongs to a nomadic, Turkic people with a lifestyle not that different from that of Somalis. And it wasn’t something that I could easily access through English. There weren’t many good materials from which an English speaker could learn Kazakh. And there are very few Kazakhs who are fluent both in English and in Kazakh who could teach you. So you have to open your instincts and learn by intuition, as a child would.

So learning this language and learning about the history of Kazakh people and how they think about themselves made me appreciate my Somaliness more. And on leaving Kazakhstan, I valued my Somali more. In the airport in Turkey, for example, on my way out of Kazakhstan, I transited through Istanbul and ran into a Somali guy who spoke to me in Somali. After every other word, the Kazakh language would come in and, at that point, I was nearly confusing the Somali language with Kazakh. And then I came here [Nairobi] and after a few weeks of not speaking Kazakh, my Somali became clearer and clearer. And over time, I valued Somali more and valued Somali people more and cared way more than I did before.

I don’t know if you had a similar experience learning Somali and Swahili?

Keren: Well, I am not nearly as linguistically talented as you are and really struggled to gain at least some limited command of Somali during my fieldwork. Swahili I found much easier to learn. But what I would say is that the experience of learning these languages (and also being in such a linguistically diverse space as Kenya) was really eye-opening. In Kenya (as you well know), it’s not uncommon for people to speak at least three different languages. I remember one man I interviewed (an elder Somali man from central Kenya), who spoke Kikuyu, Somali, Swahili, English, Swedish, some Arabic, some Borana, and I’m sure he knew a few words in probably a half-dozen other Kenyan languages. He might have even spoken more languages than you do. Many of the people I interviewed would also tell me stories of being harassed by the Kenyan police (who took them for refugees) and responding in fluent Kikuyu, Luo, or Swahili. The police were usually taken aback.

I think in many ways this linguistic complexity reflects the lack of a concerted state project aimed at language standardization. But it’s also reflective of an aspect of Kenya that I really love, and that is the country’s ability to accommodate diversity. Of course, Kenya (like many other countries) has problems of xenophobia and nativism. (We see this especially in the treatment of the Somali population. We also see this during elections). But, at the same time, Kenya also has a long history of accommodating ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity, sometimes more successfully than many European countries. And I think Kenya’s linguistic diversity often mirrors a broader attitude about living with people from different backgrounds and ways of life. And I like that with the possible exception of Swahili or English, there is not a single dominant language. Even as an outsider, I learned a lot from just watching how Kenyans gain a degree of fluency in other languages and learn to communicate not in spite of, but because of this range of languages and dialects. I think this can even provide a better model of diversity than say, Euro-American ideals of multiculturalism.

Abdul: I’d like to ask you about your experience as an Israeli-American Jew. Not unlike the Somali population, Jews have been dispersed across political boundaries and have struggled with the experience of statelessness. Did your personal background draw you to this topic? Do you think it’s useful to draw parallels between the Jewish and Somali experience?

Keren: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I was drawn to this topic and I very much think that my own personal background sparked my interest in the subject matter. A lot of my book is about the relationship between border crossing, the rise of reactionary nativism, and fear of the internal stranger. And, in that sense, I think there are a lot of quite obvious parallels between the history of the Somali population in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and that of European Jews in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both groups have struggled to lead lives that cut across political and territorial boundaries.

Much as I’m interested in looking at how Somalis have historically organized themselves prior to the advent of the state, I’m similarly quite influenced by more radical Jewish traditions that seek to examine the long history of Jewish diaspora and what Jewishess meant before it became so wedded to the idea of an ethno-nationalist project. Jews have historically lived dispersed across multiple different geographic zones, speaking Ladino and speaking Yiddish and speaking Arabic, yet retaining a sense of being Jewish. I’m interested in this history not out of some romantic desire to return to some kind of supposedly idyllic past. Or because I believe in the rejection of the state. For better or worse, the nation-state will likely remain the dominant political form for the foreseeable future. But I think it’s really important to recognize that these older traditions of belonging are still very much alive and well. And they can inform and even potentially make the nation-state more inclusive. If we acknowledge that national citizenship is always layered on top of other ways of imagining community, it’s easier to accept a state where borders are more porous and less heavily securitized. So, perhaps at the risk of a certain romanticism, I find it very important to look at these communities that offer us alternative histories of transnationalism.

And I would also say that beyond the Jewish community, there are a number of parallels that one can draw between the Somali population in Kenya and several other groups that have both crossed and been crossed by boundaries. That might include the Kurds, the Roma of Eastern Europe, the Hispanic communities that cut across the US/Mexico border, or the Palestinian diaspora. Even though my book is focused on a fairly localized case-study, I think it highlights issues of global significance. A number of communities have found themselves in very similar predicaments, so there is much that we can learn from this history.

And speaking of universal and trans-historical experiences, I’d like to end this conversation by talking a bit more about your work. In many ways, your stories challenge assumptions about what African writers can and should write about. Your fiction is very geographically diffuse. Your stories were both written and take place in multiple different locations: St. Louis, Nairobi, Kazakhstan. Your work seems very much informed by your travels, but it’s also not typical of most African diasporic literature (such as Teju Cole’s Open City or Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah). In addition, your fiction is quite creative and often unnerving (I’ve described your stories as getting under one’s skin). For all these reasons, I find it’s quite difficult to pigeon-hole you. Can you speak a bit about this? How does your work differ from other examples of so-called “African immigrant” literature?

Abdul: Thank you so much for mentioning these wonderful writers in a question that involves me. Having to analyze my own work feels awkward, sort of like a horse being forced to gallop backwards, following his hoof prints to a starting point. My work is conceived out of a maze that I can’t even begin to trace right now.

I wouldn’t say my work is immigrant literature. With the literature by immigrants that I’ve read, there’s often a certain comparison being made between Europe or the United States, where a narrator or a main character lives, and whichever “Third World” country they come from. In my fictional work set in the U.S., there’s no mention of country of origin; there are no comparisons. It’s just the human experience that I intend to make as raw and unfiltered as possible. I believe good literature speaks to the human experience in a way that’s really honest. I do not know how successfully I’ve done that, but that is my guiding principle, or rather my aesthetic politics if there is such a thing. Places come about by accident. My main concern is the feelings, the character. Stories are conceived out of the minutest of details, like something someone next to me said or a way someone snores or the look in someone’s eyes.

So, while my travels do very much shape my writing, I do not tell typical immigrant stories. For example, in the novel I’m working on [The Secret Life of Vowels], in one of the scenes, the narrator interviews the spirit of a dead Kazakh poet in a lucid dream. And in that interview, he gets too excited and asks a blasphemous question. The question doesn’t get answered in the way he hoped. The spirt, the ghost, gets agitated and the narrator receives static noise in place of an answer. And the noise gets louder every time he throws the question back at the ghost. And eventually he sees the question solidify right in front of his eyes; it crystalizes in the air and gets thrown back in his face, violently. So he is startled from his lucid dream, only to find himself lying down next to a religious extremist in the Gedo region of Somalia, where he was dreaming from. So this is one of the scenes where two different regions of the world merge.

I am not sure if I did pay a price for this kind of an approach. I think I have. When I was starting out, the closest I got to getting published in literary magazines in the United States (through the slush pile) was a story that I had no respect for. The story one stereotypically expects from a Somali writer. Stories I have any respect for, or like, or take pride in having written, have taken me much longer to get published.

Abdul Adan and Keren Weitzberg

Abdul is a Somali-American writer and Keren Weitzberg is an Israeli-American historian of Kenya.

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