journey of Maryam Mursal, The
SHE FLED MOGADISHU, SOMALIA, WITH SIX CHILDREN IN 1991 AT THE HEIGHT OF HER COUNTRY’S BLOODY CIVIL WAR. BRIBING AND BUYING HER WAY THROUGH KENYA AND INTO ETHIOPIA, SHE EVENTUALLY JOURNEYED TO DENMARK HER PLIGHT IS EVERY AFRICAN WOMAN’S STORY CAUGHT UP IN THE THROES OF CIVIL WAR AND POLITICAL UPHEAVAL.
As if the odds against international stardom as a pop star are not overwhelming enough, add being the first female singer in an Islamic country to the mix. Then consider being exiled by civil war and surviving 7 months in the desert with six children.
Suddenly, it becomes a virtual impossibility. Yet that is precisely what Maryam Mursal did. At 16, Mursal became Somalia’s first female professional singer and went on to achieve international acclaim, touring Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East. Her most dramatic achievement has less to do with her prodigious musical talent than with her devotion to her family and her will to survive. Because of both, Mursal is poised to become the first female Somali star in America as well.
Few stories are more dramatic than Mursal’s own personal journey to safety. In 1991, separated from her husband by fighting, she gathered six children (five of her own and an orphan she could not bear to leave behind), then walked, hitchhiked, rode donkeys, and bribed her way across the Horn of Africa, finally, landing in Denmark, where she began the second half of what had already been a remarkable life.
It is early evening in Aarhus, Denmark, and the 48-year-old Mursal is relaxing between gigs. The night before had been a long one; the singer performed before a raucous, crowd of 1500 in a newly opened Danish nightclub, standing-roomonly. Compared to her African sojourn, the back-to-back late-night performances are a cakewalk.
Speaking through her manager and translator Soren Kjoer Jensen, Mursal recounts the hardship of her travels, a story she had told repeatedly. Still, she tells it as if it were the first time.
The sound of gunfire was constant, and artillery blasts rattled the buildings in the capital city of Mogadishu. Opposition leaders had overthrown the 21-year dictatorial regime of Muhammed Said Barre and installed nothing in its place. Foreign embassy staffs took cover inside their locked compounds. Crowded hospitals were without food and water.
When Mursal peered through the window of her large, rambling house, she saw dogs, cats, and chickens eating from the dead bodies that littered the streets. “There had been 11 days of fighting, and my son, Kafi, who is mentally handicapped was so terrified he could not talk for fear of gunfire. I just wanted to save my children myself so that I could take care of them,” recalls the Somali vocalist.
Carrying clothes, food, and a few momentos in a sack, Mursal left Mogadishu at the break of dawn. “I had no idea where to go. I saw with my own eyes dogs eating human beings, animals eating dead bodies in the street. I knew it was time to go.”
They traveled by foot for 25 miles outside Mogadishu, then caught a crowded bus into Kenya. There they made a camp outside a prison, while Mursal tried to bribe a district official for a Kenyan visa. Her money and jewelry were accepted, but she never received the promised visa. Meanwhile, rape of the young women had become routine; and Mursal, fearing for the safety of her two daughters, crossed the border back into Somalia to protect them. After paying 600 shillings for a donkey, she left again, this time for Ethiopia.
“The children took turns riding the donkey and we walked into Ethiopia. For a month, we slept outside on mattresses, moving around during the day to avoid the brutal sun.” Mursal was finally taken to a Red Cross refugee camp, along with hundreds of other Somalis. Food was rationed, and families were crowded into tiny spaces, separated from one another only by markers.
“One night they asked me to perform. We made a campfire in the woods, and two men used tree logs as drums while I sang and danced for the entire camp. It was a fantastic night under the stars. There, I relived my history, remembering what I was all about.
But the relative peace and happiness of Ethiopia was short-lived. “Fighting soon broke out, and my children were running to me, clinging to me, saying, `Mommy, it’s just like in Somalia’; so I had to flee again.” From Ethiopia, Mursal made her way to the small, neighboring country of Djibouti, where she encountered a group of poor Somali women also living in exile. Already familiar with Mursal and her music, they were eager to help and raised enough money for airplane tickets to Denmark, where she was given asylum.
Although away from East Africa’s civil wars, Mursal was still not free in Denmark. She and her family were installed in yet another refugee camp. “When I arrived, the police wanted to check my identity, but I told them any Somali could tell them who I was. When they saw the reaction of the Somali people -shouting with joy and running to methey said, `OK, we definitely believe you now!”‘
It was at a welcome party for the new Somali arrivals that Mursal’s luck and life would change. Danish photographer Soren Jensen had been invited to put on a slide show depicting Somalia before the war. Jensen had become familiar with Mursal’s music while working in Somalia in 1986.
“When I heard her performing for the refugees, I knew immediately it was the same extraordinary voice,” says Jensen. “I introduced myself to Maryam after the concert and offered to make a video for other expatriate Somalis around the world.” Mursal’s video-taped plea to the Somali people to stop fighting, unite, and rebuild the country did not bring peace but did bring her to the attention of Pete Gabriel’s Realworld record label, where she subsequently signed a two-record deal.
Despite her fame in Somalia, Mursal had lived a difficult life long before fleeing Somalia. Born into a family of three girls, Mursal’s mother was one of her father’s many wives. From the beginning, she and her sisters faced systematic gender bias. “My mother was worried that there were no sons to do the work; and so even as a little girl, I learned to work like a boy to take care of the family.
Entering ,typically all-male arenas became routine for her, particularly when she began her professional singing career. “Thirty years ago in Somalia, they believed for a woman to be singing she had to be of bad morals,” says Mursal. “Several times my mother tried to keep me from going out, but she caved in to my very strong will.”
Mursal is often compared to South African singer Miriam Makeba, not merely because they are both African singers but because their music is frequently the voice of protest. “We as artists are responsible,” she says. “If something wrong is taking place in our society, it is very important for us to speak up. Like Makeba, I speak for my people. I am here not only for myself and the music but also for my people.”
Like Makeba, Mursal risked her own safety to make a political statement. In 1986, she released “Ullmada” (“The Professors”), which, on its face, was about the love of two people and the need to rid the country of certain problems. In truth, “Ullmada” was a double entendre, critical of president Mohammed Said Barre for murdering the Somali people. She was an outspoken Muslim woman in a severe Somali society, and the people loved her for it.
While she knew making “Ullmada” was very risky, Mursal never anticipated the severity of the reprisals. She was dragged before the secret police and interrogated. She narrowly escaped jail. Her music was banned, and the government spread rumors that she made a sex film. To feed her family, Mursal worked 18 to 20 hours a day as Somalia’s first woman taxi driver.
Eventually, Barre caved to political pressure and lifted the ban on her music, even giving her a house as compensation. However, instead of the obsequious appreciation he expected, Barre met a proud and defiant Mursal. “When I went to meet the president at the palace, I told him, `when you give me this house, also tell the entire world I did not do any sex films and give me back my career.”‘
Mursal’s life and art have been intricately woven into music as profoundly moving and unique as her life story. “The Journey,” her debut release of contemporary music, charts her physical and spiritual trek to peace. Mostly written by Somali artists and adapted by Mursal, “The Journey” is a hybrid of African and Arabic music tinged with western influences. Critics have called “The Journey” “exhilarating, passionate and triumphant” and “as good as [world music] gets.”
Mursal talks excitedly about her upcoming trip to the United States as part of the Africa Fete Tour and the opportunity to see the country of her musical mentors such as Etta James and Ray Charles. “Actually, I should have been to America when I was 17,” Mursal explains. “I was in the National Theater, and the government wanted to send me on a sponsored tour to America. But then we had an artist revolution and everything was shut down.”
Mursal’s professional transition to a life abroad had been decidedly easier that her personal one. Despite its continuing problems, she longs for her native Somalia. “There is a lot of social activity in Denmark but not like in Mogadishu,” she says. “If neighbors and friends would see that I had a light on, regardless of the hour, they would just come knock at the door and sit and talk into the night. When I’m here at night alone, nobody comes and visits me.”
Mursal listens expectantly for some news from Somalia, none of which is good. There is still no government in Mogadishu or in Somalia, and it is dangerous to return. Friends have told her that her house was bombed, and only the walls still stand. Yet she has not given up hope. It might take 5 years or even 10 years, but one day things will change. “The first good thing I hear, the first suggestion that it is changing, I will go back and quickly. All the young people love to be in Europe because it’s a good life and they are free here. But I’m an old woman, and I want to see my country again. I want to go home.”
Melba Newsome is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles, CA.
Copyright Crisis Publishing Company, Incorporated Jul 1998
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