BY BASHIR GOTH
“He lit up a room. If you can imagine the sun, his face was like the sun, that smile, the arm around your shoulder. He was just like a gentle giant, a very lovely man. He was like nobody I ever met.” Shannon Shaw, a ward clerk on psychiatry – Owen Sound, The Sun Times.
While scratching my head on where to start this piece on the memory of Dr. Abdishakur Jowhar and how best to capture his unique character, pure serendipity (and Google News) brought the above quote to my inbox. Eureka; it looked like Dr. Abdishakur’s colleague at Grey Bruce Health Services, Owen Sound, ON., where he worked as a Chief Psychiatrist, had just snapped a live photo of him and hung it on the wall for all to see.
This was it. Immediately the vanishing memories I had of him when I first and last saw him, when he was high school boy in his last year, rushed back to me. It was in the summer of 1971 and Abdishakur was spending part of his school holiday with his sister in our little farming village of Dilla. It was the rainy season; the land was lush green, the ponds full of Xareed (rainwater), the sky was half cloudy, and the knee-high green grass around the ponds shimmered under the beautiful, bright African sun. We walked around the ponds, kicked the grass left and right, cut some of it and crushed it in our hands to feel its fresh smell. We ended up under the big Garbi and Gob trees for which Dilla valley was famous. I can recall many a day when wise community elders held their sessions to resolve issues, pre-school children took their Quran lessons, and my father spent mornings lecturing on Quranic exegesis for his Islamic studies students under the branches of the same trees. I was not if Abdishakur had similar thoughts in mind about the trees. We stood in that idyllic place, sons of great Sheikhs, young, smart and idealistic students, our heads in the sky but still searching the ground for our feet.
Being in his final year of high school, Abdishakur had some idea of where he wanted to go. In the little time we spent together, I knew him as bookish, reflective and likeable. As high school was the highest educational level available in the country at the time, at least in northern regions of Somalia, high school students of Sheikh and Amoud Secondary schools appeared to be scholars, and acted as such. As 7th grade student, I looked at Abdishakur as a scholar and a role model. He had been studying in Benadir Secondary School, Mogadishu, after spending the first three years in Amoud. In retrospect, I clearly see that although our journeys have taken different trajectories, the ideological affinity that we felt with each other on that day and the common family friendships we had have remained intact, only waiting to be rekindled many years later in cyberspace.
As I narrate this story of Dr. Abdishakur, who I reconnected with in 2004 and communicated with until a month before his death, I can imagine him looking at me with his sunny smile and telling me: “Bashirooow …What are you doing man writing about me; come on get a life!.” This was the way he would address me and many of his closer friends; he would address us in a calling manner…Bashiroow, Bahraoow, Ibrahimoow.
I will not talk about him in a chronological way. I will not say that he was born, raised, educated, and then he died. Such statistical memory is for ordinary people; people who didn’t reach out and embrace life, not people like Dr. Abdishakur who are alive both while they physically reside on the earth and after they depart it.
Dr. Abdishakur and I share a lot of bonds, both familial and personal. His father Sheikh Ali Jowhar, who was an Islamic scholar known throughout the Somali speaking region and beyond, was not only a teacher for my father in his early years of student life but a fatherly figure and a mentor. Even after my father had branched out with his own life, and continued his pursuit for knowledge through other scholars, and in such faraway places as Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen and Egypt, and had become a well-known scholar on his own right, he still held special reverence and love for Sheikh Ali. For his part, Sheikh Ali returned the same respect and love. I remember as a young boy, people coming from Borama and bringing gifts to my father from Sheikh Ali, and my father too never missed a chance to send gifts to him.
The bond between our fathers was so strong that I even owe my name to Sheikh Ali. My father told me that he got a message from Sheikh Ali who was spending a few days in a place called Aw Buube, a cemetery of a famous saint, on the day before I was born. He was there with some of his students. As my father had a business in Borama at the time, Sheikh Ali had asked him to send some provisions such as sugar and tea. My father departed the following day not only carrying the provisions with him but also the good news of a new baby boy joining the family. After reflecting on the news, Sheikh Ali told him to name the boy “Hassan-Bashir (bearer of good news).”
When Sheikh Ali died, it was my father’s hands that laid him to rest in the grave. Thereafter the sight of Dr. Abdishakur’s sister, Saada Sheikh Ali Jowhar, who was married to Nur Dheere, the wealthiest businessman in Dilla, used to make my father’s eyes well up in tears. Whenever Saada, also a close friend of my mother Rahma, visited us to say hello, he used to get up and meet her with the same reverence and respect he would show when meeting Sheikh Ali himself.
I vividly remember one day when a land rover car came from Wajaale and stopped in Dilla. My father was seated under the miri-miri tree he used to sit under every morning to chat with the people of the village and enquire about their condition. Three young ladies descended from the car and walked straight to where my father was sitting. I was with him when the ladies greeted him. He asked them who they were and the moment they revealed that they were Sheikh Ali Jowhar’s daughters my father could not help but break into tears. He remained that way until the young ladies left him and he told someone to take care of their needs while in transit.
When the school today known as Sheikh Ali Jowhar was built, several of Borama’s elders came to Dilla with a proposal to my father. As he was the man who came up with the idea of building the school and conducted the first major fund-raising for it, they wanted to name the school after him. He thanked them for the honor but told them to instead name the school after Sheikh Ali Jowhar, who was buried in a graveyard close by.
Dr. Abdishakur in his early ideological breaking turned left and embraced socialist ideology. Being as bookish as he was, he immersed himself in reading the works of all of socialism’s great names. Although I imagine that Dr. Abdishakur first acquainted himself with “progressive literature” in the bookshop of his elder brother, who had the first bookshop in Hargeisa where socialist books were sold, he also got hooked on the leftist ideology while he was at Banadir Secondary School; one of the first schools that had Soviet teachers.
This testimony comes from Abdishakur himself where he narrates a meeting he once had with his friend, Ali Aw Omar, who had the same ideological affiliation. In his article ( Midnight Forever), says:
“We were on the side of the progressive left of the political spectrum. Che Guevara of Cuba, Franz Fanon of Algeria, Amílcar Lopes Cabral of Guinea Bissau and Joe Slovo of South Africa were our heroes. We were the post-independence generation of Africa. We were fed up with tin pot military dictators and military coup d’états that devastated the continent of Africa like pestilence and plague. That was the turbulent seventies for my generation.”
The “turbulent seventies”, as he called it, was the time when Abdishakur’s and my life become ideologically interwoven. It was like history repeating itself again. We were both the sons of the great Islamic scholars, imbibed in Islam, who turned their backs on their fathers’ heritages and fell headlong in love with the ideology of the “the progressive left” that was spearheaded by the revolutionaries Dr. Abdishakur listed and besotted by the stories of African independence leaders like Lumumba, Nkrumah, Sékou Touré, Kenyatta, Nyerere, and Nasser.
Just like Dr. Abdishakur, I too was hooked on the anti-colonial works of Fanon, Walter Rodney, and the numerous works of the socialist ideologues. I remember someone who saw Abdishakur passing through Dilla one day telling my father: “Oh, Sheikh Omer did you hear that one of Sheikh Ali son’s called Abdishakur has become a socialist ideologue and is rejecting our heritage.” My father smiled and said: “I am not worried about him, I know at the end he would come back to his base…if he doesn’t explore all ideas when he is young, he will not do that when he is old.” It was not long after that when my father noticed that I was always reading books that were considered leftist and anti-religious literature. He called me one day and told me: “ Listen son, you can read whatever you want, you can broaden your horizon as far as you can, but always remember to have your faith in your heart…always remember to return to your base. Remember we have no other culture but that of Islam.”
Did we return to our base? Again I turn to Abdishakur to answer this for himself before I answer for myself. In the same article I quoted, he narrates when he met his friend Ali Aw Omar who had since then turned a religious person and had given him a book of Hadith and pointed out one particular hadith:
“Narrated Anas: Allah’s Apostle said, “Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one. People asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?” The Prophet said, “By preventing him from oppressing others.”I could say that Dr. Abdishakur also spoke for me; like him I have met friends with whom I shared the same “progressive left” ideology and who have now returned to their base, just like my father predicted. And I can say after maturity, it is always in the comfort zone of childhood memories that one finds himself secure and safe. I have come to know that Dr. Abdishakur had become a pious man and was quoted to have said that the Fajr (Dawn) prayer was one of his favorite prayers. Only a person who went through a spiritually tortuous journey will definitely understand the pleasure of returning home. It is the same pleasure that prompted Abu Hamel Al Ghazali to write his short but canonical book Al Munqid Min Al Dalal (Deliverance from Error).
I hold on to the book of Hadith. I opened the same passage again that I read with Ali Aw Omar two years before. This time my head hung low in grief, I read the passage again with eyes unseeing flooded with the gravity of the loss.
I knew immediately why Ali selected the particular Hadith for my attention. Lifelong bonds of friendship ensured shared experiences and shared memories. Now that he has gone, in these memories, shared no more, I exist. I must remember to pass them on, to those who will come, for to bear witness is a responsibility.
Ali and I have been together in the social justice movement in Somalia since the early seventies when we both joined forces with other members of our generation to confront the military dictator of our time Mohamed Siyad Barre…
…We came to maturity in that decade and were immediately confronted with a nation in a crisis. We met head on a military dictatorship that was systematically destroying a nation. Ours was a political revolt, student movement, popular campaigns. We were determined to stand up to be counted. But we were crushed by the regime. To be brutally honest we failed miserably in the task we set up for ourselves. Our defeat and the victory of the short sighted selfish right set the stage for Somalia to become the prototypal land of statelessness, starving masses, well fed pirates, warlords and of course their social counterpart marauding ferocious machete wielding tribes.
Many of us ended as refugees in the four corners of the world. Few of the more dedicated, hardy, heroic types remained in the country and refused to go. Ali Aw Omar was one of the latter. He stayed with the people. He shared their lot, their wars, their peace, their hunger, their pain and their prosperity. I envied him then for his bravery. I think he knew of my envy, it was never mentioned. He was just too refined.
I sought refuge in the west and quickly got lost in its decadent capitalistic ways. I conformed to the locally prevalent creed of democracy, equality and free fair elections as the gentlest means of human progress. Ali Aw Omar having stayed home was caught up in the wave of Islamism that has swept over the new generations in Somalia. He also conformed to the locally prevailing political mood of a resurgent Islamic exuberance. He found safety in the Quran and sustenance in Hadith and Sunnah.
Ali and I witnessed the death of the ideology that dominated our childhood days as well as the death of the nation in whose bosom we grew. Like orphans in a ruthless world we had to evolve, adapt and improvise with all haste to survive. Like a football on the playground of fate, we were kicked around, cast, molded and ripened by the force of circumstances and times. At the end of it all here we were Ali, a Sheikh, and a pious man in Somaliland preaching to save my soul for the next world, I a Psychiatrist from Canada trying to understand my old friend in this present world.”
Being a traveler in soul and body, it is just fateful that Dr. Abdishakur had to meet his death on May 13, 2012 while travelling in the same road where he started his journey. Waxay baallisiyo, waxay balad martaba, xeradaw ballana (No matter how far it wanders and no matter whichever country they travel to, they should finally return to their stable), say lines sung by Somali cow herders during watering cattle.
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF FRANTZ FANON
Dr. Abdishakur got a real wakeup call when he went sent to the Soviet Union to study the socialist ideology. But no sooner he landed there; he found how disillusioned he was. And he immediately packed his suitcase and returned to Somalia to the surprise of his colleagues like Dr. Mohamed-Rasheed Sh. Hassan who was with him.
Talking about Dr. Abdishakur’s disillusionment with the ideological and Siyad Barre’s regime, Adan Hasan Iman (Dhegay) told me the following:
“Abdishakour was my classmate from grade one through the 3rd year at Amoud Secondary. He transferred to Benadir secondary school for his his fourth year in the fall of 1971. In high school he felt in love with Marxisms. He was briefly sent to the Soviet Union with Mohamed Rashid, but he soon got the attention of the Siad Barre regime as a dangerous man. That was when he left the country for Egypt.And it was in Egypt where Dr. Abdishakur followed the footsteps of his mentor Franz Fanon and studied psychiatry. But while Fanon had to expose the psychological impact of colonialism on the psyche of the colonized and had to fight colonialism and racism, Dr. Abdishakur had to explore and wage a similar war against the impact of the dark forces of tribalism, ignorance and disease on the psyche of the Somali people. It was not a coincidence that he died while on duty travelling from one clinic to another to treat the mentally disturbed people who are the most wretched people on earth in that part of the world.
He did not go to any of the faculties of the Somali University. He did not work at any of the ministries. He just sneaked out of the country. He feared to be thrown behind bars. He did not fly out of Mogadishu. He boarded a vehicle and my recollection is he went to Djibouti through Ethiopia.
That was around 1973. He was far ahead of us. He became disillusioned with the Siad Barre regime earlier than anybody that I knew. He was highly politically conscious at a young age. One of the motivating factors was his empathy for the poor and his love for hard work.”
Commenting on Dr. Abdishakur’s death, Mahmoud Hassan Saad (Saajin), an old friend of him, told me how Dr. Abdishakur when he came to Borama asked about Saajin’s brother, an intelligent man that Abdishakur knew in his school days but had since then descended into the dark world of depression.
“Dr. Abdishakur Ilaahay baa dadka u soo diray (he was like an angel sent by God to the people. He treated my brother and within no time he became well to the extent that he even married,” Saajin said “Most of our people are suffering from mental problems and apart from being the only psychiatrist available, Dr. Abdishakur was also a unique person in his compassion and optimism which played a great role in the people’s healing.”IN THE WORDS OF HIS FRIENDS
Having talked about what Dr. Abdishakur and I had shared, it would be unfair to reduce his life to his ideological metamorphosis. In fact, one cannot feel the richness of Dr. Abdishakur’s life and the various unique levels of his character without looking into his wisdom, his humor, his optimism, and his hatred for tribalism, ignorance and other forces of darkness, as well as his compassion, kindness, love, and his nostalgia for the cherished memories of his childhood.
To get glimpses of these other facets of his life, I turned to Dr.Abdishakur’s friends and classmates who generously shared with me their recollections. I also turned to some of my correspondences with him (absolutely only those I feel allowed to declassify as my friend is today in another world and cannot tell me, Bashiroow, don’t let that out).
In the following email, one can see Dr. Abdishakur railing against ignorance and the Somali tradition of praising their heroes only after death and not while they are alive. It also reflects Dr. Abdishakur’s promotion of love, peace and justice even in close circles. The email is dated June 11, 2000 and was forwarded to me by Roda Mizan, a friend of mine, who was a member of Awdal Forum to which Dr. Abdishakur had sent the email.
“Awdalities,RECOLLECTIONS FROM HIS FORMER CLASSMATES
…Here in cyperspace, I share the tears, Foox and Salool with our Poet and heroine Mizan…. I gain solace from being with you out here. I gain courage from the little dents that we make together. Yes the books are on their way. Knowledge is the healer. Ignorance is the enemy. Down with the enemy!
And we have a cyber niche where we can console each other. I welcome all my new sisters to the forum. I bid them welcome to this space that stands for peace, love, justice and sanity. I welcome Fatima, Farhiya, Khadra and Khadra as well Halima.
And alas we are people who are known to take their heroes for granted. They toil thanklessly amongst us. Oh yes we do miss them when they depart. We thank them not while they walk amongst us! Something, something corrupt turns us the other way. …
For maintaining sanity when we all go cyber crazy, for preventing us from tearing this shade apart in juvenile rage, for making it possible for us to pool our meager resources, for the endless hours he spends maintaining and nurturing this list… Allow me to thank, deeply thank the manager of Awdal forum. Deeply. Endlessly.
A million thanks brother Ibrahim Absiye. You are our hero and we will say it now. This time we will get it right!...”
Adan Hasan Iman (Dhegay), Abdishakur’s classmate from the start of primary school to the third year of High School, speaks to the positive impact that Abdishakur had on him during his formative years, and about how he has passed down what he learned to his children:
“From first grade to fourth grade, I used to hang with kids who were NOT very serious in school. But starting from fourth grade I hooked up with Abdishakur Sheikh Ali Jowhar, Hussein Dahir Obsiye ( Husein Sheena) and Ali Barkhad Dhore who died in 1972 in Mogadishu. We called ourselves, the Four Lords, because we were on top of the class, sort of different class from the rest. I believe that my association with Abdishakur and the other two changed my life. I fell in love with books. None of my old friends before fourth grade went to college. I tell my two young sons that you will become like whoever you associate yourself with. I remind them to befriend the best and the brightest.
But I lost in touch with him in 1973. I lost the intimacy I had with him before 1973. I talked to him many times in Canada, but I didn’t see him in person for over 40 years until I saw him briefly in LA at 2004 SOPRI convention. I invited him and his wife to lunch. We reminisced the old days. His wife was my eight grade student at 15 May Secondary School in 1976.. It was a good get together.
I can tell you he was a highly intelligent. His IQ was within the top percentile. He was very intelligent, very jovial. He was a good person to have around.”Ibrahim Absiye, another class mate who had known Abdishakur for 45 years, says:
Adan also narrates a good anecdote when he, Abdishakur and two other friends went to Abdishakur’s father, Sheikh Ali to seek his blessing as they prepared for the leaving exams of the primary school (7th grade) before they were promoted to high school:
“We climbed up the hill to the Sheikh's house. The Sheik stayed inside the hill top house all the time except on very rare occsions when he would venture downhill to the town. My recollection is the door in his house was split at the middle. Only the top half would open. We knocked. He opened the top half. After the greetings, we told him about the purpose of our visit.
He said “Boys listen. You need to work hard on your lessons. That is the right key to your success and passing your exam...
Here was the most revered religious leader mentoring us that hard work is the way to achieve your goals in life. That was the kind of Islam we grew up with.
We all worked hard and proved to be among top in the northern region.”
“For me it is just too much to write about the too many recollections – but will try to be brief:In the following anecdote Ibrahim narrates how he and Abdishakur, while campaigning for a candidate in Somalia’s parliamentary elections in 1969 in the hopes of getting a scholarship to the USA, had their vehicle break down at exactly at same place in which Abdishakur died recently:
I have known Shakour for almost half a century – 45 years, or since grade 8. And for that life-long friendship, I have never seen him angry or mad at anyone, no matter what. Yes, we were classmates and shared the same desk in the classroom. He was an exceptional human being – humble, simple, caring, always smiling, people-person, full of aspirations, forward thing, friendly and, what can I say, a real friend of mine!"
“… it is in the Spring of 1969 and both of us joined an SYL campaign trip to Gorayacawl, Magaala-Qalooc, Idhan, Magaala-Cad, Dilla – Quraab gave us 10 Sh each and a promise to be sent on scholarships to the States! We were with elders in a Landrover. We left Dilla heading back home to Borama/Amoud at about 8:00 pm. it is raining cats and dogs. When we were close to Tulli, at exactly the current place of the accident, pure coincidence (!) (?), the Landrover had two flat tires. After a while a truck full of opposition supports from Gabiley (Baha Samaroon) came by.On how their friendship continued and even blossomed in Canada, Ibrahim says:
I remember they were singing.. waa baa baryay bilic san … The truck stopped. Some of them shouted “waar waa kuwii SYLsha ee dhaafa” …the elders urged them to take only the two students who have classes tomorrow at Amoud –Shakour & I. They did and left the elders right there. The truck is full and quite noisy with drums and people with very high emotions –worst campaign fever. It is dark and still raining. Everybody is standing up, clinching to steel bars (dhigo). The truck climbed the hill at Gorayacawl and one of the passengers who has never been to Borama said “ alla, Borama way kaahaysaa, waar ayaa laydhka u sameeyey?” I opened my big mouth and answered him “ dee Adan Isaaq baa u sameeeyey”. All hell broke loose and they picked us up to throw us off the truck. The driver, I think his name Nirig, stopped the truck, came around and after negotiations, told them to ‘just bring them down and we will leave them here”. They did and we had to walk to Borama in Gudcur raining night. Cold and shivering, we arrived Borama around midnight and went to Harowo Hotel for rehabilitation ……
“We had the best time together over the last seven years. Shakour and Dr. Mohamed Beergeel were both working in a remote village in North West British Colombia, Canada. I was in constant negotiations with Dr. Jowhar for almost two years to convince him and his friend, the other psychiatrist, to move to Toronto where I was involved in community organizing/development, and where there is one the largest Somali community concentrations outside the country. They finally moved and in about a year, Shakour married his lovely wife, Amina Abdi Jama. They choose me to be the best man and Shakour called me to say: “ Yaa Sheikh Al-Abahri Wal Barri, you are not only my best man, but both of us have to wear the traditional clothes. So here we were in a Toronto west banquet hall among over 300 people standing out in what seemed to some funny clowns.Dr. Ali Ibrahim Bahar, another classmate of Dr. Abdishakur, thankfully allowed me to reprint the following prophetic email he sent to Dr. Abdishakur on March 25, 2010 in which he was inviting Dr. Abdishakur to attend a Gadabursi Conference that was being held in Minnesota:
Over the past 3-4 years when Dr. Jowhar was practicing psychiatry in the Province of Ontario, he must have treated thousands and thousands of Somali Canadians in Ontario. Of course he was seeing other non-Somali clients as well. But I became known as the Dr’s friend and people will call me for emergency situations to put them in touch with Dr. Jowhar. Also, he must have seen dozens and dozens of patients in my home at weekends – all free of charge, simply because they came through Sheikh Al Bahri.
Bashir, I cannot stop talking about our brother and friend, late Dr. Abdishakour Jowhar, but I should. What about that skype call just the days before the accident – we chatted live for a 30 minutes and his last word to me was ‘ alla maxaan war kuu sidaa, see you next week! But I know he never arrived.”
“Dear Dr. Jowhar,This is more than prophetic. It seems that Dr. Ali Bahar was almost sure that he would not be able to see his friend anymore. What a premonition.
I was assuming you were coming to the Gadabursi conference, or may I say the Gadabursi Manifesti in Minneapolis. My wife informed me last night that you are not coming. What a shock! The author of the Gadabursi Manifesto is boycotting the conference!! I think you should come, man!!
Life is too short and this might be the last time you will see of some of us or have a laugh with some of your older friends—because our age group is dwindling and is approaching extinction just like the Dinosaurs. Also, I heard that great Mr. Bashir Goth is coming and the two of you might have the last opportunity to win a Somaliweyn friend to your side.
Seriously, I wish you are coming. What say you? “
In fact, Dr. Abdishakur’s reply to his friend was not only a consistent, predictable, and emphatic NO, but he also asked his friend not to go to a tribal meeting. He said:
“Ali BaharooDescribing Dr. Abdishakur amid tears, Dr. Bahr said: “Respect was a true trademark of Dr. Jowhar’s character-always keeping you in a special place in his heart and valuing your friendship, even when disagreeing with us; a memory of him to keep and cherish.”
Good to hear from you brother. You are in a dark mood today. Our time may be on a state of countdown. But cheer up…
Seriously I am equally surprised you are coming. I thought making the tribal system stronger will be the last thing on your plate. These tribal gatherings are the poisonous opium of the masses that killed a nation. Ali Don't Go.”
Last but not least, I turned to Dr. Abdishakur’s cousin and friend, Muuse Ali (Joome), who in replying to my enquiry about his memories of Dr. Abdishakur:
“All what I knew of Dr. Abdhishakur is very well said in your wholesome poem. He always had a big heart for everyone and he was the man who was always ready to offer all what he could to others. His big heart was paired up with smile, bright face and a gentle joke. Wherever he went, he always carried a bright light above him and around. That was why Dr Abdishakur’s death touched the hearts of so many people. Dr Abdishakur was a bright shining star in all the networks of his contemporary society. We will never forget him. We will always love him.”Muuse Joome’s words bring us full circle to Shannon Shaw’s remarks with which we started. Isn’t it amazing how a cousin who grew up with Dr. Abdishakur, and a colleague who knew him only during the short period they worked together, came to the same conclusion concerning his contagious personality? I cannot find any better words to conclude that do justice to Dr. Abdishakur’s life than a line by the Egyptian Poet Ahmed Shawqi:
(الناس صنفان – موتي في حياتهم وآخرون بباطن الأرض أحياء)
“People are of two kinds: those who are dead while they are alive and others who are alive in their graves.”
- END -
* This paper is published in a special issue of Dhaxalreeb e-magazine, dedicated to the Person and Works of late Dr. Abdishakur Jowhar (readsea-online.com/e-books)