Somalia's True Colors

Why do they call Mogadishu grainy, ugly and hellish? It is a difficult place, where war is tattooed on hands and tongues, but you have to have loved a place to see its true colors.
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This essay was originally published in Vogue Italy, November 2008.

When I was a boy, growing up in Mogadishu Somalia, I was not aware of the opinion discrepancy created by the heart's colors. Since the many hearts of the world contain various feelings about whatever the object or subject may be, there could not be a unanimous agreement on the color best suited to paint an object or subject.

My subject is Mogadishu, an ancient port city in Eastern Africa. The name Mogadishu is a corrupt pronunciation of Muqdisho, which itself is a corrupt pronunciation of something else. Since Muqdisho is not a Somali word, there are a few opinions on the origin of the name. The most popular explanation is Maqadul Shah, Arabic for "The Imperial Seat of the Shah," suggestive of the old Persian/Somali trade, which has been said to predate the 9th century. But Maqadul Shah also means "The House of Tea" and that's suggestive of, well, a bunch of tea-drinking Mogadishonians.

The latter explanation is something I can attest to.

As a child the colors of this place intrigued me. The sky was sapphire, a leaking sort of blue impregnating the wind, and turning it to a murk of purple hue. Purple is what you get when you mix our exhibitionist blue sky and the fire red earth. The sun was often a beastly yellow, which when sucked down by the dirt produces an orange contrast against the Blackness of our skin.
A tangerine moon connived with the thieves in the night, encircling their skinny ankles like a hand clutching a flash light. In this place the stillness had color, and so did the motion. The motion of the planet is not subtle. Here you can feel yourself stirring in the pot of the world. The liquid measure of this vast spinning is white, pearl white, as in the threatening vomit of the ocean. When the war happened it was draped in the color of mud, as in the beginning.

During this period one could see bickering sparks of bronze, the color of anguish.
The hours of the day too, had their own distinct colors. The morning spew of misty chartreuse only lasts from about 5:30 a.m. till 6:05 a.m. That is the laziest color of the day, taking a shift leave only a few minutes after a half hour. Some say it was granted special privileges in honor of its bullying beauty. It is then followed by the color of the learning hours. This is a warm chalcedony yellow, the underrated jewel of the day, lasting several hours. Everyone knows the color of midday, as they are usually the same all over, so I won't
waste your time with it. But have you ever seen an aqua sea evening?

Later, when I was about 16 years of age and living in North America, I started to read the accounts published in the English language about the city that I knew. The disbelief plundered my eyes. Not one single mention in the newspapers, not one photograph, nothing at all was said about the colors that I've known.

This is a tall disappointment. It can span the distance between two hearts which will never fall in love. Why do they call this place grainy, ugly and hellish? True, it is a difficult place, where war is tattooed on hands and tongues. For if it is not being fought it is being talked about. True, it is a place of thirst, belly aches and unforgivable remembrance. But what about the colors? What the hell have they done with my colors?

It was much later in life that I began to realize, that these newspaper men and women were not conspiring and concealing. That in fact they were colorblind in the worst way. That they could not see the beauty I grew up seeing.

You have to have loved a place to see its true colors.

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