May 19, 2013
Posted on Sep 27, 2011
By Susan Zakin
At the same time, I understand why the U.S. was alarmed by the Islamic Courts, which offered refuge to terrorists. The invasion by Ethiopia, Somalia’s historical rival, gave U.S. bombers cover to go after Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the al-Qaida operative called the “mastermind” behind the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 and an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, on the Kenyan coast, in 2002. The U.S. bombers fumbled, according to news reports, succeeding in killing approximately 70 sheep and pissing off a few nomads. But Fazul was killed in June, chalking up another hit for the Obama administration’s surprisingly steroidal counterterrorism effort. (If only the president could be so macho when he deals with Republicans.)
After I met my husband at a writers conference on Lamu, I realized that the notorious Fazul had not only spent time on the archipelago, but had married a local girl, a 15-year-old student at a madrassa where he taught under a pseudonym. I went back to the island, partly to see if my nascent romance was anything more than a holiday fling, and partly because I thought I should try to cover the story. I was tired of editors telling me that I was a good writer but the environment didn’t sell. So I tried to convince myself that I could write a story about Fazul, even though I considered both radical Islamists and George W. Bush delusional, testosterone-crazed morons who should be paying attention to their respective economies instead of engaging in pointless wars. I was more interested in Fazul’s wife, who had been picked up by Kenyan police, than Fazul himself.
I did a week or two of cursory reporting before heading up to the Laikipia Plateau to research an environmental story. I discovered that the woman detained by Kenyan authorities was actually Fazul’s first wife, not the local girl he had married, who had since divorced him. I also discovered that the Muslim women in Kenya were not necessarily eager to be liberated, or talk to the American media, even if one played the sisterhood card. Their sisters wore veils.
In the end, what I got was a personal rejection letter from David Remnick at The New Yorker. And I got married. Not such a bad deal.
Our experience on 9/11 indicated that while the American people are oblivious to the role our policies may have played in the famine and destabilization of Somalia, our security forces aren’t. There are now an estimated 1 million Somali refugees in Kenya, many applying for—and getting—humanitarian visas that allow them to enter the U.S. Are there Somali refugees in the U.S. who have a grudge against their adopted country? No doubt. The U.N. now estimates that 750,000 people may die as a result of the famine. Twenty-nine thousand children under the age of 5 have already died. This is a high price to pay for fighting al-Qaida, and Americans are not the ones paying it.
The two faces of America, one the benign visage of the Statue of Liberty, the other the aggrandizing militaristic empire, are hard to reconcile even if you grew up with them. Seeing my husband grapple with the enormous diversity of this country, the ethnicities, the politics, the class divisions and cultures, I can’t imagine that Somalis are any less baffled, not to mention frustrated. And humiliated.
As the agent’s questions wear on, my husband lapses into silence, letting me answer for him. I can see that the immigration guy is just doing his job, but the situation is terrifying and even I can hear my braying, nervous laugh.
Satisfied with our answers, the agent tells us that he’ll note that our marriage is “real,” which will help us later. (Later?) There’s just one thing: He is supposed to have a cop look through my husband’s suitcase, but it’s already been loaded onto the plane. He asks the airline people to hold the flight, promising them it will be only five minutes.
We follow the agent back to the jetway. Halfway down the corridor, he stops.
“Wait a minute,” he says. “You should wait here so … ”
“To save us embarrassment,” I say.
“You got it.” He smiles reassuringly. A minute or so later, he is back.
“They can’t find it,” he says. “But I’m afraid if they take it off now, it won’t make it back on the plane with you. Just go ahead and get on the plane.”
I look at him in amazement. Worried that the airline will lose our luggage, he is not going to bother to check it. We thank him and scurry onto the plane.
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