Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Boyah J. Farah: Escaping Somalia’s Harrowing Genocide Only to Face American Racism

On this week’s Scheer Intelligence, Boyah Farah, a young refugee from Somalia’s hellish civil war describes his family’s narrow escape from death and their arrival in the placid suburbs of Boston. But life was more a nightmare than the dream he had imagined.

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Boyah J. Farah seemed most struck by the beautiful green lawns that greeted him, his mother and six young siblings who arrived in Boston’s suburbs after escaping Somalia’s brutal civil war. He tells Scheer Intelligence host Robert Scheer and this week’s guest co-host Narda Zacchino how  his family had run from killers with AK-47s, faced starvation, and lived for too long in squalid refugee camps of 10,000 tents and where people were dying in huge numbers from malaria, which Boyah contracted, and Dengue fever. One of his “jobs” there was burying those who died, including friends. An international humanitarian group found them a home in the Boston area, where Farah attended high school and college. Such a life should provide an upbeat memoir of enlightened human liberation. But instead, as described in his just-published book, “America Made me a Black Man: A Memoir,” Farah discovered in the country of his dreams an alternative version of oppression: being Black in America. 

With war, Farah says, “you can actually point a finger and say, ‘Hey, that is where the war was at.’ But in racism…you do not know where the enemy is. I am a nomad, which means I value freedom and I value equality…the idea of America where everyone is equal, that is what I held dear. But the reality is, America really shows me that I am less of a human being and that itself is a very debilitating, excruciating pain. And I say that racism is not just the cousin of death, but it’s the cousin of excruciating and slow death, which is much…worse than an actual war: the death of an actual war is immediate, you die right away.”

Farah talks about his experiences being confronted by police officers who said he robbed a bank, was selling drugs, did not stop for a pedestrian or broke other traffic laws, the kind of shocking accusations that have sent innocent Black men to prison. Yet, despite the ugliness of racism and those who propagate it in America, Farah said he has love for America and its people and its beauty. That is what he expected to find when he arrived here.

Farah notes, however: “What really works me up is this new little experience of racism. What racism really does for the body: it enters your heart, it enters your liver, it occupies your whole emotion and therefore you cannot run away from it.”

Credits

Host:

Robert Scheer

Producer:

Joshua Scheer

Transcript

Robert Scheer:

Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guest. In this case, Boyah J. Farah, a writer who you are going to hear a lot about because he’s got a blockbuster memoir that’s just come out called “America Made Me a Black Man.” Now, he was Black when he was in Africa, in Somalia; he went through the most horrible of experiences and was one of those refugees we hear a lot about in disaster porn and everything else, but came here, got a very good education, became a successful writer.

And I want to say that this book succeeds powerfully on two levels. First of all, it’s the level of social criticism, “America Made Me a Black Man.” And by the way, that’s not a compliment to America because, after all of his sufferings in Africa, he was exposed to the reality of being a Black man in America.

But the reason I wanted to ask my wife [to join me] is first of all, she’s worked with the International Women’s Media Foundation, has been to Africa, has worked with a number of African journalists and so forth. And when I was reading the book, she downloaded her own copy of it and finished the book before I did. And that’s because we both found it a page turner. And Narda is also somebody who came to journalism from her love of literature. And I am no expert on literary works, and she is. So I asked her to join me in this discussion because this book succeeds on a number of levels, but particularly as a brilliantly written memoir by a really great writer and also as an insightful social commentary on the situation in America. Narda, do you want to say hello to our speaker here?

Narda Zacchino:

Hi, Boyah. It’s very nice to be able to speak with you and tell you how wonderful I thought your book was. I do love literature and I do love language. And the thing that stood out for me, aside from your amazing experiences, not just in Somalia but in the United States and the way you write this whole book, it’s just so beautifully written…You talked about the Somali language and how unique it is in its use of, as you put it, figurative language and poetic devices, and that’s how you write. For people who like reading for the enjoyment of the words and how phrases are made and just the actual physical writing of it, it’s really a standout.

And the other thing that really struck me about it was your mother. Your mother–as a mother and a grandmother–I really related to her. I’d like you to talk a little bit about her and the idea that your mother would bring — what, seven children, she was a widow — to a foreign country, doesn’t know the language, neither do the children. and they all go to college and graduate, as far as I know. That in itself is an amazing thing for anybody to do. But for someone coming from a war zone and having that happen. Could you just tell that story about how she used language to free all of you from the threat of being killed when those guys came into your hiding place with AK-47s? I think that’s an amazing story.

Boyah J. Farah:

Wow. Thank you so much. First, let me say, despite being on the run almost all my life, I’m still an optimist because of you. The way… it’s beautiful what you just said and I thank you for it. I feel that my mother had been schooled by life, life on the run, the survival school. So my mom, ever since my father died in 1989, my mother has been on the run and she has been on the run during the war and she used language to protect us as children more than one time and she protected us using the same skills during the refugee days. She used the same language as well during our days in the United States of America. So she’s been a mother who’s schooled by life, the tragedies of life.

Robert Scheer :

So take us through your book’s description of the refugee crisis. I had interviewed you once before, I think about five years ago about refugees and their condition and some of your other writing. But in this book, you really present it as an incredible education in the significance of life and includes burying people in the refugee camp. It includes mayhem and death and everything, but also the survival, the will to live. And it presents a view of life in what some people would consider more primitive circumstances as sustaining life, as inherently robust and incredible. So take us from the beginning, really.

Boyah J. Farah:

From the beginning, I am the first son in my family and that means the first son is the protector of the family, the carrier of the blood of the family. And when I was a little boy, my father prepared me. He always wanted to prepare me for hardship because in his absence I’ll be the one to defend the family. Well, when I was about seven years old, he had sent me to live in the valley with my ayeyo, my grandmother. And there, probably the most beautiful, the most joyful, the most happiest time of my life, I stayed in the valley running behind goats and learning the way of the land and also gaining the same confidence with which I write the book from — that freedom that I talk about, that confidence, all these things that’s now in me, I learned that in a valley with my grandmother.

And then after that, my father… We went back to Mogadishu…I was born in Mogadishu and my father died and then war came like a drifting wind, it just came. My mother had to grab our hands and just walk, and we walked and walked and walked and we wanted to walk anywhere safe. And the only thing we carried at the time is… I remember my mother was carrying a transistor radio beside all the basic things like sugar and rice and all these things. But transistor radio was the most important life savor that we’d carry because every day or so, whenever half a day we walk, she’ll sit down, turn the radio on and listen to BBC so she’ll know exactly where the militias were so we can go opposite because she was afraid that my sister would be raped and that’s actually worse than death in the Somali culture.

So we went through all these things and went through the war and finally we got to a refugee camp and destiny took us from there to Bedford, America with the green grass and the life of America, with completely different challenges.

Robert Scheer:

Just to be clear, and the book captures it incredibly — first of all, what might be thought of as the innocence of nomadic existence, which is beautiful in its own right, the simplicity of it being out and mobile and relating to the earth and to livestock and so forth. Then horribly, rudely, violently disrupted by tribal warfare, by coups, by state violence, which the world got to witness, at least through news reports. And then several years in abysmal conditions in a refugee camp where many people of every age died, and one of your jobs was to dig shallow graves for these former friends of yours, late friends.

 Boyah J. Farah:

Yes. Basically in the refugee camp, we had no jobs. In the morning you sit in front of 10,000 white tents and you eat, you wait for the sun to rise and then you wait for the sun to fall behind that horizon. And our jobs was basically, people were dying much more than the war because now we were dying with Dengue and fever and malaria was the most thing that killed people. And so our job as young boys was to bury the dead.

And I even remembered days before we went on the plane to come here, I had malaria myself and I remember staying in a tent that serves as a hospital in the camp. They brought a dead body that they didn’t know which home it belonged to. And that dead body stayed next to me for days, it really smelled horribly. And that is something that I always remember, the smell of it, that I carried to the U.S. So it’s a really, really horrific experience.

Narda Zacchino:

Are you sorry that you were chosen to go to the United States instead of another country that you could have gone to?

Boyah J. Farah:

Yes. That’s why even my mother right now, when I told her I’m writing to America, it’s most metaphorical, it’s like a love letter to America because I’ve seen a lot of things here myself, too. My mother said, “Don’t ever say anything bad about the United States of America because this is the country that allowed us to… it opened its doors to us, therefore it doesn’t matter what happens to you, you must say love, love, love, love, and love.” Remember my mother did not really assimilate into this country. And you don’t really know America until you assimilate into the culture and get a job as an immigrant. I wasn’t really American until that happened. So America was actually heaven, the gate of heaven opening up and you are running into it and it felt like that.

Narda Zacchino:

But some of your experiences were so awful. Just reading them as an American, it made me cringe. And yet I know of other examples of Black people, especially males, who were caught in the situations you were in, where you were pulled over for no reason at all, and really were frightened for your life the way these cops talk to you. The difference between you and some of these people that you write about, these Black men who’ve been killed by cops for no reason except racism. You were very lucky and-

 Boyah J. Farah:

Yeah.

Robert Scheer :

Let me just say, I think we’re losing the thread here. You make a very bold assertion in this book, that you came from a life of incredible tragedy, difficult to imagine. A more oppressive, frightening situation —the civil wars and the refugee camp and the violence and the AK-47s and everything else — and yet your disillusionment with life, and you basically were in the enlightened Boston area, New England, the cradle of American democracy, and you did describe the… Well, tell us about becoming a Black man. I mean, that is the big powerful message of this book is, it’s your education here as a Black man and this suffering and the challenges faced by Black people in America.

 Boyah J. Farah:

Indeed. Like I said, I wasn’t really an American until I actually became an American, until America started to show me how it treats the Black bodies in America. And I wasn’t really an American until I learned to drive, until I got a job. But during the war, if we go back to the war, during the war, war was immediate. I describe what Omar and I experience where we get to see people dying and all these things, and Omar is still alive, we talk about it. It doesn’t work us up, those experiences don’t really work me up. What really works me up is this new little experience of racism. What racism really does for the body, it enters your heart, it enters your liver, it occupies your whole emotion and therefore you cannot run away from it.

And war, you can actually point a finger and say, “Hey, that is where the war was at.” But in racism, you cannot, it’s systematic, you do not know where the enemy is. I am a nomad, which means I value freedom and I value equality. No one is above me, it’s how I came to this country — the idea of America where everyone is equal, that is what I held dear. But the reality is, America really shows me that I am less of a human being and that itself is a very debilitating, excruciating pain. And I say that racism is not just the cousin of death, but it’s the cousin of excruciating and slow death, which is much more worse than an actual war, the death of an actual war is immediate, you die right away.

Robert Scheer :

But that’s the challenge of this book…to say, I’m a white American here, I’ve been critical of this society. I participated obviously in the civil rights sectors, but until I read your book, and I couldn’t stop reading it, frankly because it left me thinking, you’re an old guy in America, but you’re an old white guy. And here’s this guy who comes from what you think is the most frightening way you could possibly live in the middle of civil war in Somalia, and he’s at first thrilled with the green lawns of New England. He’s absolutely thrilled with the promise of America. He is beside himself with gratitude for being here. And then he ends up experiencing a life all too typical, and I guess more typical than I thought, of the average Black person, particularly male, in America, where you and your siblings are falsely accused of crimes, the police are brutalizing and dishonest to extremes.

And I don’t have the actual quotes from the book, but you end up saying that this was a life that you found in some profound way more intolerable than the life you had experienced in Somalia in the middle of some of the worst violence the world has seen.

Boyah J. Farah:

Indeed, yes, because I have experience of both. Like I said, one is immediate and I’ve seen it. Basically, someone will get shot and die and you bury the person and you pray on it and a couple days later, you will not lose sleep. But the United States of America, racism follows you around like a predator and it actually enters… Everywhere you go, you lose your taste buds, you lose the way you look at human beings. I’m an optimist and the reason why I’m optimistic is because when I got to Bedford, people that I did not know, that did not relate to me, cared for me, therefore I wanted to care for them. But then the longer I became an American, the more I see that what Black people are complaining about is actually true. That their pain is my pain. I am becoming a Black man in America. And it’s a very hard, very harsh, really life when you really think about it.

Robert Scheer :

Well, bring up some of those incidents and when you were living this life, we did have the Black Lives Matter movement. We did have publicized cases of police racism and violence against Black people. So talk about that journey that you went on and when you were at the same time being successful, getting your college degree, mastering English in the most literary beautiful sense of a great writer. And yet there you were in your car, pulled over and experienced what?— Those poster cases that we’ve heard so much about, it was suddenly happening to you.

 Boyah J. Farah:

Yeah. Yes, it was. The first incident that I remember vividly. I was actually inside a theater, which is no longer there, that’s the hangout for me when I was a teenager. And two police officers came to me, pulled me out and they basically tried to tell me that I’m a drug dealer. And when I tell them that I’ve never done drugs in my life, it’s not me. They just didn’t really care.

And I remember I always had this freedom in me that America, you can challenge anything, you could be whatever you want. I remember calling the cops on the cops and the cops showed up and the first thing he said was, “You’re a wise guy, you’re lucky you’re not dead.” And because there were other people around, they really couldn’t do anything about me. But that was when I was a teenager, when I didn’t really… America was introducing me that, “Hey, know your place,” kind of a statement of showing me to know my place. So I get to learn and after a few more than one incident, I had to know my place and apologize a lot.

Narda Zacchino:

Yes. And as a reader, one of the things that struck me, it’s quite unsettling to live a normal life. I get in my car and I drive and I try to keep the speed limit and not break any traffic laws, et cetera. And I know I’m not going to get stopped by a cop or a highway patrolman or anybody like that. You describe these like living an ordinary everyday life like we all do, and racism is just lurking right around the corner to come and attack you or destroy your day, or worse, throw you in prison. I’ve known people that that’s happened to who were totally innocent.

And to live that way, where you’re always on guard is so unsettling to somebody that that doesn’t happen to. I mean, when you were talking about different things that happen and as a reader you’re just waiting there to, “Oh my God, what happens now? Does he get out of it?” And I thought you escaped several incidents where if you hadn’t been so polite or if you let your temper get away from you, which should have — and with white people it probably would have — you would’ve been thrown in jail. And what they tried to do to your brother, that story was…

Your book is so… What I liked about it though was, it wasn’t all this, I don’t want to make it sound like every other page there’s something horrible that happens and just the book is a real downer because there are such so many beautiful sections in it, too. Like the man in the Starbucks who helped you when you asked him, I couldn’t believe.

Robert Scheer :

A white man, an old white guy.

Narda Zacchino:

An old white guy and you ask him to get out of your favorite seat please so that you could write. It was so accommodating and people like that and the Black woman cop who came to help with your brother and she was Black, but just people who did nice things for you, too.

 Boyah J. Farah:

Well, human beings are wonderful. I mean, America has both. To be in America was for me to reach for the star, and to be an American was like running naked in the rain, it is that beautiful experience. And because I learned to appreciate human beings and not to look at one human being over that… Not to say “all white people are bad.” I can differentiate because of the experience I’ve had in the war where two brothers, “one is good, the other one might be evil.” I’ve had those experiences in my life. So I know that even though the racism here is systematic, it’s not an individual thing, it’s systematic, that’s inherited therefore it passed on from one generation to the next.

But in terms of the survival and my way of dealing with the cops or with America in terms of surviving in this country, I inherited that from my mother. My mother had ways to… she taught us ways to survive, smiling, saying sorry. I think almost every immigrant also has those kind of things because whenever you want to make sure someone is nice to you, you got to smile, open your mouth and perhaps that person will smile also. And that right there you’ll take it in as a gesture of welcome. And so there’s something that we inherited over the years, me and my mother, running throughout the war and refugee camps in the US. So it’s something that survival, we went to a school of survival.

Narda Zacchino:

Did you-

Robert Scheer :

No, I just want to ask one thing, because first of all, in your book, you celebrate language, you celebrate writing. Not everybody in the world thinks English is such a beautiful, wonderful language. But you treat it with great respect. You also drank deeply from American music, particularly what you were listening to on CDs and your relation to it. And writers, your book begins with James Baldwin and what does it really mean, this title? I know you’ve thought a long time and you discussed it in a book. What does it mean to have a book that says, “America Made Me a Black Man?” What is that title really conveying?

Boyah J. Farah:

It goes back to writing. And as a writer, I’ve always thought about, “show, don’t tell, show, don’t tell.” I came into this country with enormous life, a love for the green grass, for the highways, for everything about America, it’s gorgeous. But for America to show me that I am a Black man living in that soil, America made me a Black man. And what I mean by it, the experience, that excruciating experience that Black men and Black people go through is something that I did not come to this country with. I came to this country with beauty and none of these things existed. I wish I could write a book about love, love, love. Instead, I had to write this book that says, “America Made Me a Black Man.” And we know what has been happening to Black people. And it is just tragic that I get to experience this and it’s something that I don’t wish for nobody, it’s horrible.

Narda Zacchino:

You were in the United States, what? Over three decades.

Boyah J. Farah:

Yes.

Narda Zacchino:

And you made the point to somebody about most of your life you lived in the United States. And I just wonder, Bob and I both came through eras of protest. We’re both old folks and we’ve been through the civil rights movements and all the movements about women’s rights, and everything. You came here with more of an idealistic outlook on America and it got tarnished with your life here, what happened to you along the way. And I just wonder what you feel now in your gut about America when you see what’s happening now and what progress was made and what progress has regressed and how you see it? Because you look at it more closely than others.

Boyah J. Farah:

Yes. First, let me acknowledge the work that you’ve done in this struggle to make this country a better place. I feel as if America is still to me a beautiful country, there’s no doubt about it. And metaphorically, I wrote this love letter to America so America can look at itself in the mirror. I wrote this book for young people so they can read it and fix what’s broken. I am American when I’m in Africa because I miss all the experience here. When I am here I am African because I want to go back to Africa. So the same way I cannot deny Somalia and Africa, I cannot deny the United States of America. All my young experiences happen in the United States. I absolutely adore this country, but I really want America to look at itself in the mirror, we’re rich enough to fix what’s broken, we’re rich enough to take care of everyone, including the oppressed Black children of this country.

And I just want America to look itself in the mirror and come out of that drunkenness and say, “Hey, this is what happened and let’s fix it so we can make this place a better place. We can celebrate it.” So I’m an optimistic human being, I’ve seen death. I have to be optimistic, I blame everything on destiny. I was destined to write this for you and for America so we can have this discussion and perhaps make this country a better place for all. And I love Bob Dylan. I know Bob Dylan from that generation of… Actually, I was listening to Bob Dylan while writing this book, because somehow his spirit is somewhere in the book, that poetic spirit of songs, sorry.

Narda Zacchino:

Yeah. I was going to say he was really a poet more than anything, I think.

Boyah J. Farah:

Yes. Yes indeed.

Robert Scheer :

I want to get across to people what this book does that few other books have been able to do. But at the heart, it gets to, what is an African American? What is the relationship of Black people? And in your book there’s a continual reference to why America has not been able to accommodate, to nourish 13% of its population. What is it about white America primarily that this racism persists in this way? I think you were shocked to discover that. I don’t think from what you’ve written that you expected to find America to be defined by racism.

Boyah J. Farah:

I have not, because what I know about America and when I was in that little tent thinking about death, I used to look at the sky because there was nothing between me and the sky, and look at the stars. And America was that star looking down on me, really. I mean, America was like heaven, I got to get into heaven before I die, that kind of experience. But what I was shocked, I was beyond shocked to find out that 13% of society in a country is rich enough to take care of everyone, is struggling beyond belief, the pain that I felt, I do not wish on anybody.

So I think it’s time for us to listen to that 13%, the pain from that 13% and acknowledge it. At least acknowledge it on a national level and say “this is true.” Because I really wanted to write a book about love for America. I mean, that’s how much I still have little guilty conscious of, why did I write? You know what I mean? Because the love that I have for America is so big. For me to discover this, I have to stay true to repent and make sure that Black people in this country are heard so we can fix what’s broken. It’s really a painful position to be a Black soul in this country.

Robert Scheer:

What was your feeling about Obama? In the book you describe being in America was… And the first Black president, but also a father from Africa, and then you were there for Trump as well. America’s a confounding place, and you were looking at these two presidents. What did you make of it?

Boyah J. Farah:

When Obama was running, that’s when I actually… I was incredibly optimistic, I started wearing a red tie and suit. I started campaigning for him. I really thought that racism is over, we’re going to have a handsome Black president and things are going to go in the right direction. But in fact, the opposite happened. And we know it came out afterwards, so I’m not sure if America was ready for him, really. Because he had triggered something massive that can derail this country. And when I see what is happening right now, I see my own childhood in the rear view mirror of America. It is not something that I wish for anybody.

Narda Zacchino:

I understand what you’re saying exactly because the only thing I think that explains to me the popularity of Trump and the gun carrying wild guys — what happened, I think it was shocking to the core to these people that a Black person could be elected president of the United States. And I think that just made these people who were kind of shut down by that for a while, so angry and so bitter. And they came back with guns blasting. When Trump was elected, it was, ‘now it’s our turn’ kind of thing. And it was shocking to me. It’s been shocking that you’d have this big turnaround.

And the other thing that’s more shocking though, is where are the protestors? Where are the people? Where are the anti-war protesters and the civil rights people who were in the streets? And it’s like it’s been shut down or something, it’s very-

Robert Scheer:

Well, I want to object to what Narda just said because we’re making it sound like there are these bad white people and then there’s all these good white people, and somehow the bad white people got riled up and did something. But in your book, there is a disappointment, an indictment, not of extremist white life, but of the normal white life. The people you are working with, you go through a horrendous experience and there’s a lawsuit involved and you can’t go into details, but you were one of the success stories. And you are working with a small group of Black professional people, basically, in some kind of setting. And you come across systemic racism almost every hour of your working. I think you were there for 10 years. And normal, safe, liberal life was quite threatening and quite unsympathetic. This is not just the bad rednecks.

Boyah J. Farah:

Indeed. Once again, when I really think about it, I think about it in terms of not individual, but a system. I think the individual that I met and the struggles that I had, for me, I was chasing that American dream. I wanted to have a job, maybe get a house, maybe see the green grass in front of my house. Those ideal American experiences that I was chasing. But in reality, I was not really an American until I got a professional job. And then I get to see that you don’t really see who is bothering you, you know who’s bothering you, but using a system to destroy you. So it’s something that almost everyone who looks like me experienced it. And we could all feel it, but we couldn’t touch it much. And we couldn’t say, “This is the problem, let’s remove it, let’s work towards it.” It’s not like that, it’s a system. It’s systematic racism that can destroy one’s life.

So it basically drives you crazy. And then you start losing sleep and you don’t know what to do. Maybe you lose that job, you get another job, you experience the same thing. Now, you get another job, you become a drifter from one job to the next, which is a very tragic way of living.

Narda Zacchino:

And I just want to say, we’ve talked a lot about the depressing parts of your book, but I was really lifted up by your faith in the country and also the beautiful way you, as I get back to the literature of your book, the way you phrase things and the way you describe things. It’s just like a counter to the depressing facts of some of the bad things that happened to you and your family members.

Robert Scheer :

It’s also, by the way, one last thing, an education for me anyway about Muslim life, that is actually the warmest and most positive description I’ve read in a long time of growing up Muslim. And the family support in Africa, in your Muslim community and the respect, and particularly for women, which the book is a lot of, we always think of Muslim religion as somehow we’ve been propagandized to think about it as violence and anti-women and so forth.

I think what Narda was talking about, the positive poetic beauty of your book. This is not a political manifesto or something, this is a memoir of a life in which you were rewarded, sustained, actually primarily by women. And I think we should note that at the end of this, this is a tribute to women and in this case, Muslim women that raised you. Why don’t you talk a little bit about that, because that’s one of the areas of ignorance in our life now is about people coming from this primarily different culture.

Boyah J. Farah:

Indeed. Yeah. I think this book is about life, love, and legacy. And that goes to my ayeeyo, my grandmother, who showed me the basic life, the beauty of life, and how to appreciate the earth, how to appreciate the words, how to appreciate life in general. And it was also my mother who struggled all her life, but she kept smiling. To this day, she still smiles despite everything that happened. And she always tells me that if you can make fun of the situation, you’ll survive basically. So keep smiling, never lose that hope. What is destined shall be, blame everything on destiny. It happened because it’s part of your destiny, keep moving.

And sometimes that is something that we don’t have in our culture here in America where when pain comes, you have to be able to look at it from a different angle. And words are significant in my life, language is significant in my life. I really wanted to do justice with the beauty of the language, and it came across like that. Thank you, I’m proudly grateful for that because I really wanted to describe America and its beauty, human beings and their beauty, and of course the other side as well, the ugliness of human beings. I wanted to balance between the two, I wanted the two to dance a great dance.

Robert Scheer:

Would you address something… In concluding, talk about something… Your book talks a lot about the relationship of Somali culture to poetry, to language, that there’s a kindred familial connection that maybe is more pronounced than just about any other culture. What is that about?

Boyah J. Farah:

It’s an ancient culture. Somalia has been at war with itself since 1989, even beyond. My father was a fighter, his father was a fighter. But what kept the Somali people together is their language, the nickname of Somalia is called the “Nation of Poets.” Every child is expected to recite poetry and it is a poetry of war, a poetry of love, a poetry of birth, poetry of death, poetry of the landscape. Everything is expressed through metaphor and proverbs. And as a child, you are actually much more attractive if you use proverbs or poetry in your daily life, that you’ll be able to get… Women will come to you, or if you’re a woman, boys will come to your side because you are the master of the language.

So language kept us together. I think part of my survival is the language. I’ve always used language to help me overcome all the many tragedies in my life. And the language turns into beauty. And that beauty is what sustains that hope, is what sustains your life — and that’s what sustained our lives in the last 40 years of tragedy in a Somali life.

Narda Zacchino:

I want to read one passage that I think sums up so much of you, who you are, who your people are, who your mother is. And this has to do with a woman cop who came to your home at risk to her job, to tell you to send your younger 14-year-old brother home to Somalia because he was going to go to jail for something that these white boys actually did, that they weren’t going to go to jail. And this cop’s name was Roshani, and here’s what you wrote.

“I was never able to find out just what happened to Roshani, even if we never find her or see her again. However, we honor her in her absence, the way we Somalis honor our own. We speak her name during our afternoon tea, we recall her in poetry we use in conversation. We honor her in our silent prayers. We honor her by giving a helping hand to others in her name.” That is, to me, so inspiring.

Boyah J. Farah:

Thank you.

Narda Zacchino:

So inspiring. Yeah.

Boyah J. Farah:

Thank you so much.

Narda Zacchino:

If that’s what your people are like, maybe Bob and I will move to Somalia [laughter].

Boyah J. Farah:

Thank you so much. That means a lot to me for you to read that, it’s beautiful. Thank you.

Robert Scheer :

All right, well that’s it. The book is called, “America Made Me a Black Man: A Memoir.” It succeeds as a work of literature. Actually, I don’t want to trivialize the political observation, they make one uncomfortable. There’s quite a critique of this country. But as a work of art, as a work of great writing, I believe it will be celebrated. The author is Boyah J. Farah. And that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence.

I want to thank Christopher Ho and Laura Kondourajian at KCRW for posting these shows. Joshua Scheer for producing it. And I want to thank the JKW Foundation for helping bring these on. And in particular, I want to thank Narda Zacchino, who by the way, is the person who invented the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, quite well renowned, and was the associate editor of Los Angeles Times and deputy editor of San Francisco Chronicle, for getting me so excited about this book. She grabbed it away from me, we then downloaded a copy. She finished it before I did. And she’s the one that sang your praises. And I hope we captured a bit of her enthusiasm for this terrific work of literature. So, thank you. And that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence.

7 comments

  1. Boyah J. Farah educates us using his contradictory point of view.
    He will always be an “other” out there on the fringe of existence, informing us about realities we avoid. He has chosen that role. Enormous patience with the inadequacy of language and comprehension enables a new effort.
    There are obvious things missing in this interview that I can’t describe. Maybe there is information outside my understanding. Something draws the audience into a void. Narda and Bob seem to miss plenty as they direct the discussion. Where do you find entry into a systematically sad situation? Without discrediting yourself? And when hope is lost how do we accept demise? We dream about the gates of Heaven knowing disappointment lives there.

    1. I have an aphorism about hope: hope is an unreasonable patience for that which should be a present-day reality. I’ve been gratified to hear Chris Hedges say numerous times that he is not an adherent of the cult of hope. Moreover, did I read that right? You’re criticizing Bob Scheer for something that seems to be missing, that apparently you can’t quite put your finger on? Never mind Scheer’s resume. An octogenarian he consistently does inimitable quality programming like this. Who else is going to broadcast a conversation with a Somali immigrant? I can’t imagine how he reads as many books as he does.

  2. And the US is restarting the Forever War in Somalia:
    politico.com/news/2022/05/16/trump-biden-deploy-us-troops-somalia-00032782

  3. “US will never produce a great poet or Painter”. A Gramsci
    Stendahl wrote the same.
    “art is impossible in USA”. Christopher Lasch
    this is not where social change is possible

    1. Nietzsche: The state and culture are antagonists. Where one rises the other necessarily recedes.

  4. Here we go yet again about racism being the narrative in America. The real story is that black areas really are more violent, hostile and dangerous and that’s not because of the police.. it’s because of the blacks. That the police that have the courage to patrol black neighborhoods have been reacting the way they do is a reaction to the problem, not the cause. Blacks are even killing each other in droves… that’s not racism, that’s violence.
    Cool it with the not so subtle rhetorical baloney that blacks continue to be victimized by whites. Obama didn’t get elected by himself.

    Robert Scheer, Chris Hedges; I’d like to see the both of you move to a predominantly black neighborhood, of your choice, for at least five years. Continue reporting on racism while you live there. We’ll see then if you’re narrative will change at least somewhat.

  5. Hedges began his career purposively in an inner city ministry in Newark. He’s reported from numerous war zones. I didn’t think your bigotry was worth responding to until you mentioned his name. The reason there is so much violence in Black areas is because of the lack of resources directed at those areas. Cops courageous. That’s a good one. Like in Uvalde? Or when they shoot down unarmed black men like Adam Toledo in Chicago. Or pick a name from a long list.

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