Review of The Last Two Jews of Mogadishu: Living Under Al Shabaab’s Fire

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Review of The Last Two Jews of Mogadishu: Living Under Al Shabaab’s Fire
The Last Two Jews of Mogadishu: Living Under Al Shabaab's Fire. Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin Ph.D.. Published by Multi Educator, Incorporated, 2018. $19.99 pp.284

Hope is not a noun regional analysts of the Red-Sea-Rim associate with Somalia. Regardless of their optic — political, security, cultural, economic — most analysts offer,  following the Africanist school of Martin Meredith, grim reasons for the country’s despair, the grimmest being that Somalia is a shattered nation of qhat-addicted teenagers caught in an interminable pathological cycle of clan-on-clan violence. Military analysts, both those working for and against AFRICOM, who seek the societal mechanisms that stabilize or destabilize the region, like Patrick James Christian, Adjunct Research Professor with the United States Special Operations Command’s Joint Special Operations University — “tasked with documenting and analyzing the sociological breakdown and psychological devolvement of tribes/clans in violent conflict” — simplistically write off Somalis as socio-psychiatrically hopeless cases. Paradoxically, their utterly despairing “analysis” is typically concocted in order to sell the Pentagon on a specific defense contractor’s latest snake-oil, overpriced cure-all for Somalia’s otherwise hopelessly incurable social and political maladies.

Even a subtle Somali analyst of Somali origin, like Ayann Hiris Ali, speaks and writes in the most somber of gloomy tones of her birth country, offering us little more than exemplum ex negative, cautionary reminders of what we should by no means tolerate of the various Somali  diasporas that have removed themselves to other countries, like the community in the US state of Minnesota: Clan-on-clan war imported from the Horn of Africa morphing into gang-on-gang street violence in America. Of Somalia itself, Ali is infamous for soul-shredding descriptions like this: “Most unmarried Somali girls who got pregnant committed suicide. I knew of one girl in Mogadishu who poured a can of gasoline over herself in the living room, with everyone there, and burned herself alive. Of course, if she hadn’t done this, her father and brothers would probably have killed her anyway.” That’s one of the main reasons Ali ditched not only her home country but Islam. Abandon all hope ye…

Only geologists and petrologists have reported positively on Somalia recently, but only of what lies under, not of those who walk upon, the country’s Martian-red earth.  While few but a select group of Somali specialists and Somali political groups bother to heed the wonks of regional analysts, China and Exxon most certainly are listening to what the earth scientists stealthily report, quite intently. Intrepid but influential investors are increasingly pressuring international organizations, like the World Bank, to stabilize Somalia. 

Jaded analysts of a region that appears godforsaken above ground and goddamned with rare earths and “black gold” below ground might well dismiss outright Dr. Nancy Kobrin’s un-conventional book about a surviving contemporary Jewish presence in Somalia, precisely because Kobrin offers some good reasons for hope. Dismissal of any part of her scholarship here would be, for this reason and many others, a needlessly self-impoverishing error, for Kobrin, one of our best, most steadfastly honest experts on the pathology of the jihadi mind, provides one of the two or three most usefully intelligent books about Somalia this regional analyst has ever read.

Kobrin’s method is Blakean: She sees a world in a grain of sand, the sand of hundreds of emails she exchanged with a Jew who has managed to survive in Somalia, a remarkably courageous and steadfast man named Rami. She not only adduces those emails for our evaluation and edification but she also builds a context, with an almost Talmudic rigor, in which to evaluate critically the veracity of Rami’s claim that he’s a faithful, practicing Jew. Kobrin  reconstructs, en passant, the many past & present worlds of Jews in the Red-Sea Rim. Hers is a forensic historiography of sheer wonder. She approaches the long history of Jews in East Africa not as if it were a regional cold case’s corpus delecti to be Sherlocked (why are most Jews gone?), but rather as a mystery to be invoked (where are Jews still living in the region and HOW?). Kobrin evokes a reader’s admiration and wonder at the miracle of Jewish survival in some of the most lethal places on the planet for Jews.

She’s mastered the canon of research about early Jewish migration and settlement history in East Africa, a canon too-often overlooked or undervalued by regional analysts, and she masterfully employs this canon to GPS Rami’s Jewish communal origins in Benadir City, explaining how and why and when a Jewish community had been established, and, for about a hundred years, thrived there, likely as merchants.

A mistress of footnotery, Kobrin provides notes that should inspire further studies of crypto identities within Islam-dominant contexts. Her compendious review of this not-at-all-isolated history of Jews in Somalia alone makes the book worth careful study.

Especially innovative is her use of the rosters of the Dutch East India Company to retro-locate now disbanded Jewish settlements and to reconstruct Jewish social networks of the East African past.  Kobrin demonstrates her mastery of the canon of truly usefully intelligent scholarship about pre-Islamic Somalia (such as IM Lewis, Lyn Julius, and Ali Jimale Ahmed), the Islamization of Somalia, and the invention of the modern, failed nation of Somalia. She thereby provides a succinct, remarkably lucid meta-history of ethnic settlement and political upheaval of the broader region, one that should be dogged-eared by every responsible Somali analyst in all of our Other Government Agencies.

That Kobrin has managed to dig this specific story of Jewish survival out of the rubble of Somalia is, in-and-of-itself, a cause for a kind of hope. This reviewer retired from Somali analysis about a year hence and resolved never to touch another book about Somalia or East Africa. Because far too many analysts writing about Somalia have gained but limited or no firsthand experience of the squalid streets of Mogadishu, the Bantus of Hiraan, the Sufi bases of Dhusamareb, or Al Shabaab training camps in Kismayo, “Somalia” tends to inspire wild fictions and lurid fantasies dangerously alienated from lethal on-the-ground, ever-shifting facts. Kobrin does not belong to the bunch deluded by the various fictions Somalia’s many would-be re- inventors. (Here, one might recall that Somalia is where Riva Levinson began both her Africanist and her lobbyist career with BMS&K—Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly.) Kobrin is hyper aware of and lives strictly within her own epistemological and methodological limitations. Her scholarly humility and the skill and ingeniousness of her research and especially the power of her arguments are what persuaded me to break my own resolve and to confront my own “Somalia” despair in Rami’s uncommonly informative emails.

The hope that Kobrin’s book offers emerges from Jewish survival amidst the most lethal anti-Semitism: If two Jews can survive as Jews, even as crypto Jews, in Somalia, then Jews can survive anywhere. As she notes,

The emails presented in this book are a gateway into the terrifying world in which Rami and his mother lived and persevered against seemingly impossible odds. It is often difficult for the lay public to understand the toll that chronic stress and trauma take upon an individual’s psyche. To live in such a toxic environment under the constant threat of death just because you are a Jew may seem irrelevant to non-Jews and especially those who profess Islamic anti-Semitism.

Kobrin’s cognitive anthropology here seeks to empower us with a meta-awareness not only of the particular, if not peculiar, Jewish survival strategy of going “crypto” in extremely hostile environments to survive as a Jews but also with a deepened understanding of the many mal-adaptive, toxic Somali “cover stories” and political fantasies of Somalis themselves that compulsively return generation after generation to the shatterland of clan warfare.

Rami’s “cryptic” story is archetyped, perhaps, by whatever archetypes Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man or even Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Rami’s biography, as revealed in his emails, certainly does subvert and sully the Islamic-purity master-narrative of Somalia’s many wanna-be Syeds, as Kobrin Notes:

To date little is known about the Somali Jewish community. It is as if it were a Somali “Brigadoon” – not idyllic by any means, but some kind of mythical place that came and went while leaving only a few traces here and there. Some may say, as one scholar said in passing, that the Somali Jewish community contributed essentially nothing to Jewish culture. The comment struck a nerve and made me even more curious to find out more about the Jews of Somalia because Rami and his mother Ashira are real people with real hearts and souls who fought vigorously to preserve their Judaism under extreme duress. To this psychoanalyst’s ear, it was a remark that oozed unconscious terror and fear about how we lost yet another Jewish community, an unarticulated “there go I with the grace of G-d.” Such callousness is almost always a defense against early terrors as well as an expression of helplessness. Tragically the only way to preserve the group identity is to leave the Jews out and not acknowledge their existence! On the contrary Rami and his mother Ashira teach us many lessons, as I hope these emails demonstrate to the reader. My goal is to revive their history as a part of a broader history of minorities in Somalia which cancels out Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys’ strict belief and fantasy of the purity of Islam’s Somalia with which this chapter began.

Rami and Ashira’s survival lessons push us to move beyond fear and despair in Somalia, because they demonstrate how being a Jew, being Jewish, is an active choice, even in Somalia. Not all Jews choose, however, to be Jewish, in Somalia or elsewhere. And Kobrin does not shy away from reminding us that Jews do choose, sometimes, not to be Jewish:

Tragically, in a 180-degree opposition to Rami’s struggle to maintain his Jewish identity under duress, there was a Jew who converted to Islam, radicalized, and became a foreign fighter in Somalia: Jehad Serwan Mostafa/Emir Anwar. While East Africa has known the likes of Isaac Eduard Schnitzer, known as Emin Bey, and Rudolf Slatin, both were Jews who came from families who had converted to Christianity. While both then converted to Islam, Emir Anwar was someone far more nefarious, Stig Jarle Hansen, the author of Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, writes: “Last but not least, a foreign fighter with a Jewish background was recruited. Ahmed, or ‘Emir Anwar’ or ‘Awar’ [aka Jehad Serwan Mostafa], an American, was a former resident of San Diego, California and had attended college there. He was a security guard licensed by the State Bureau of Security and Investigative Services, and had been the owner of an auto business.”

Another great strength of Kobrin’s cognitive anthropology, like that of Philip Carl Salzman, is straight-faced honesty about her “ideological” commitments. Kobrin is pro-Jewish, which she reveals candidly while summing up the lesson of Emir Anwar: “Emir Anwar/Jehad Serwan Mostafa demonstrates that there is such a thing as a reverse superego ‒ that is, what is good is bad and what is bad is good, the hallmark of the jihadis’ insane world.” Those Islam apologists who do not find the jihadi’s world “insane” will also find little of value in this book, which this reviewer counts as one of its strengths, precisely because it undermines Al Shabab’s recruiters.

Rami’s survival story and Kobrin’s contextualization of it go a long way to befuddling current jihad information operations and propaganda campaigns, in Somalia and among the Somali diasporas. And Kobrin boldly sends her scholarship directly into the fray of 4th generation warfare (the battle for the moral soul of Somalis) when she declares her primary reason for sharing Rami’s story with us:

It has been said by some Somalis that they do not know Jews. Perhaps one of the biggest opportunities to counter anti-Semitism among the Muslim communities is the potential for Somali Muslim diaspora communities to begin to know Jews. This could dissolve their learned hatred of the Jew explicitly stated in the Quran and the stereotyping that really reveals their own feelings of inferiority and lack of self-worth. Maybe they will be able to answer the question that the London Somali physicist pondered: “How do the Jews manage to survive and thrive adapting in the diaspora and in Israel?

Kobrin does not fail to remind us of yet another reason for hope: The State of Israel.

Perhaps this will change with the significant diaspora experience of Somalis coming into contact with Jewish communities throughout the world, as well as more formal opportunities at the governmental level, such as Somalia President Hassan Sheik Mohamud’s 2016 meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. Even though Israel was the first to recognize the independence of Somalia in 1960, “Somalia does not recognise Israel, and generally sides with the Arab cause in the Near East controversy.” However, as recently as 2017 two African Muslim nations ‒ Guinea and Senegal‒ will no longer vote in lockstep with the Arab world and have begun to engage with Israel. Perhaps Somalia will follow suit.

Here, Kobrin might seem to have traveled one hope too far. Yet, she clearly knows what’s at stake in Somalia, better than most regional specialists, and she wants us to know that Israel could be a valuable strategic partner for the stabilization of many African nations, especially Somalia. She also hints, ever so subtly, that Israel needs to get more proactive about locating and supporting Jewish communities, wherever they are still to be found, in Africa. Where the continental missions of AFRICOM and the EU appear to be foundering, Israel might very well be able to locate authentic moral authorities among otherwise invisible Jewish communities nested within dominant and dominating Islamic regions. The value of those communities to regional stability operations is inestimable.

Rami’s first lesson in crypto Judaism: Keep a fastidious record of your origins and lineage. Second lesson: Find other Jews, support, and get support from them. Third lesson: Travel only within your trust network. Sensitive reading of Rami’s emails also reveals his own careful, daily attention to ritual observances as well as his painful longing to visit Israel and be among fellow Jews. Attend to this seemingly unremarkable email, which typifies Rami’s mindstyle:

“Hello Ayaan.

Yes I sure that Hebrew will not be so hard for me.

Sometimes I try to watch Israelis channel on the stitel. But with low voice of course, I do get some words of it but its very hard. I have hard for the marrons and the anusim [Hebr. the Jewish forced converts to Catholicism]. I will read about them later in the week. I think it is good that you can imange your Hebrew in the street. Then on academic level it will come automatic. That is with new languages.’ Today the main market bakaraha closed again after some fighting, and 4 people died. And that makes the price of the oil and gas to raise in the sky. It always happened when the biggest market in Somalia is attacked.

Other sellers take advantage of the situation, and raise their stuff in the air And the prime minister is back. . .after touring the Somali dispora.201 In overseas.

Interesting to see him back. Now we just waiting for something to happen.”

Because Kobrin does not over edit her email exchanges with Rami (that is, she leaves in “silly” emails that reveal the details of everyday life, both her’s and Rami’s), we are permitted to see how both Rami’s and Kobrin’s own “cognitive organization of the material phenomenon” of their respective and very different worlds not only reflect but embody and preserve a distinctly Jewish identity and a Jewish way of being in those worlds. We learn as much about Kobrin’s way of being Jewish as we do about Rami’s.

Kobrin intriguingly compares Rami’s emails containing details of the Somali quotidian to Fernand Braudel’s The Structures of Everyday Life. For those with ears to see and eyes to hear, the analyst’s comparison over to Braudel reveals yet another reason for hope in Somalia: The hope of meta-awareness, the belief that historical analysis of a people and region traumatized by generations of bloody conflict can reveal both the cognitive and the material structures, which typically lie beyond the grasp and comprehension of individuals, that fatally hold them in the grip of pathological cycles of violence, and, thereby, nudge them toward healthier mental and material structures. Kobrin’s faith in the liberating power of historical analysis is sanctioned by the hope that we can transcend cognitive discombobulation and achieve healthy cognitive organization. As we expect from one of our leading experts on the mind of the jihadi, Kobrin deftly informs history with cognitive social-psychology and vice versa.

In this regard, Rami’s crypto Judaism can be usefully set alongside and compared and contrasted to the pre-Islamic paganism of what later became the “Fatima cults” of the Bantus in the Riverine areas of Somalia. And my only criticism of Kobrin’s book is that I want to observe her own remarkably well-organized mind discuss the Bantu-speaking peoples of the Jubba River, especially their all-female pre-Islamic pregnancy rituals, where the expectant mother is cleansed with oils, incense, dancing, and chanting, midway through her pregnancy. What and where are other manifestations of “cryptic hope” in Somalia?  There are other groups in Somalia and its border regions living crypto identities that undermine the Islamic purity master-narrative of Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and his Somali wanna-be Syeds. This reviewer would be especially delighted to hear Kobrin discuss the Qaadiriya communities in Somalia. Does Sufism in East Africa represent a wholly different kind of un-Islamic or impure Islam, an Islam that tolerates so-called haram social identities, like Jews and shamanic Bantus?  My criticism is, of course, unwarranted, because her book is not about all types of crypto identity in Somalia, even though, as noted above, her footnotes do provide many paths down which regional analysts should be pointing their ponies to recover crypto Jewish communities, past and present, in other African countries. Her scholarship is of great heuristic value, especially to  regional analysts.

As Kobrin herself admonishes:

“Acknowledgment of the existence of the Jews should be part of the effort to enhance Somalia’s pluralism. A future healthy Somalia may very well be dependent upon its ability to recuperate and embrace its diversity.”

I agree with Kobrin about Somalia needing to embrace its diversity and enhance its pluralism insofar as diversity of social identity and pluralism of religious identity both may be a way out of incessant clan-on-clan conflict. As odd as it may sound, there is at least one uncommonly courageous group of Sufi-affiliated Somalis currently struggling to restore the Catholic Cathedral in Mogadishu. They are not trying to recover an Italian colonial past. They want the restored Church to stand as a symbol of pluralism, diversity, and tolerance in a country that is usually associated with the concrete, sanguinary obverses of those abstract nouns. One wonders if that group of Sufis would be willing to join forces with and support crypto Jews in the region?

In sum, Kobrin’s hybrid methodology and syncretistic analysis (part cognitive anthropology, part forensic history, part epistolary memoir, — all excellent) are required reading for anyone working on tribal engagement, village stability operations, foreign military training, security-sector governance reform, development planning, banking and financial restructuring, counter terrorism — not only in Somalia, but anywhere in East Africa. It also belongs, dog-eared, on the shelves of scholars who study the history and survival strategies of crypto Judaism in Reconquista Spain, Nazi Germany, or anywhere else where Jews have to go underground to survive, like 21st century Europe.

Finally, what we really want from Kobrin is another book about East Africa, in which she makes us see, as clearly as she has made us see the persistence and perseverance and presence of two remarkable Jews in Somalia, the primary psychological, social, economic, and security realities of the broader region. Kobrin’s own cognitive excellence fully justifies that hope.

Review of The Last Two Jews of Mogadishu: Living Under Al Shabaab’s Fire

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