Kaha Mohamed Aden
Contributor: Simone Brioni, Institute of Advanced Studies Early Career Fellow, University of Warwick

Kaha Mohamed Aden is an Italian writer of Somali origins. She was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1966 and reached Italy in 1986. Her father, Mohamed Aden Sheikh, was a politician, who was imprisoned in 1975, and later from 1982 to 1989 (six of these years he spent in total isolation at the Labanta Girow prison), as an opponent of Siad Barre’s dictatorial regime. Kaha narrates when her father was arrested in the short story “1982: fuga da casa.” She currently lives in Pavia, where she moved in 1987. Kaha graduated in economics and took her Master’s degree at the European School for Advanced Studies in Co-operation and Development – IUSS Pavia. In 2002, she was awarded the San Siro prize by the Pavia city council in recognition of her contribution to solidarity and immigrant integration. Unlike most Italian authors of Somali origins, Kaha was educated in Somali schools, during the socialist period.

Her collection of short stories, Fra-intendimenti, was published in 2010 by Nottetempo. As Alessandra Martino points out, this title “introduces the central theme of the precariousness of intercultural communication as a border practice. The deconstruction of the Italian word fraintendimenti, literally meaning ‘misunderstandings’, refers both to the migrants’ condition of living in-between (fra) languages and discourses (intendimenti), and to the risk of failure that is embedded in the exercise of cultural negotiation” (139). One of the most significant stories of this collection is perhaps “Nonno Y. e il colore degli alleati,” which focuses on the Italian trusteeship administration of Somalia (1950-1960), a period that has still not received adequate critical attention in Italy. “Eeddo Maryan” shows the legacy of colonialism both in Somalia and Italy, as both Somalis and Italians have prejudices against each other. “Apriti Sesamo” describes Law 189 (Bossi-Fini) as a nightmare: like K. in Kafka’s The Trial the main character of this short story is arrested without having done anything wrong. Fra-intendimenti also recounts several specific periods of Somali history such as the campaign for alphabetisation, or Ololaha (“Xuseyn, Suleyman e Loro”), the ethnic cleansing after Mohamed Siad Barre’s fall in 1991 (“La casa con l’albero: tra il Giusto e il Bene”), and recounts some of the stories of the Somali Diaspora to Italy (“Nadia”).

Kaha’s work also includes a theatre play, Specchio specchio delle mie brame chi è più abile nel reame?, and the oral performances, such as Mettiti nei miei panni, La valigia della Zia, and La Quarta Via. La Quarta Via was presented at several cultural events and festivals, among which were the Seventh Conference of ISOLA – the International Society for the Oral Literatures of Africa, in Lecce (2008), the International Award ‘Alexandra Langer’ in Bozen in the same year, and the Italian Institute of Culture at Nairobi and the University of Nairobi in 2010.

In La quarta via, the capital city of Somalia is divided into five main streets, with each corresponding to different historical periods. The ‘first road’ is the Islamic district of Mogadishu, facing the Indian Ocean. A past of trade and commerce, cultural exchanges, knowledge and the scent of a thousand spices from Puntland becomes the starting point of a journey towards our contemporaneity. The ‘second road’ introduces a less mythical but important stage in the development of the town: the colonial period and the traces left by Italian domination in Somalia. The third road describes the hopes for a new Somalia during the 1970s, and the projects of female emancipation. This road also reminds us of Siad Barre’s dictatorship which forced Kaha to move to Italy. The ‘fourth road’ describes the current civil war, which broke out in 1991. It also describes the present condition of women who cover their bodies with burqas as if they were protecting themselves from a situation of violence and unpredictable danger.

The process of developing La Quarta Via into a documentary, La quarta via. Mogadiscio, Pavia began in 2009 (Kimerafilm, 38’, 2012, Eng. Sub., directed by Simone Brioni, Graziano Chiscuzzu and Ermanno Guida, and written by Kaha Mohamed Aden and Simone Brioni, and attached to the volume Somalitalia. Quattro vie per MogadiscioSomalitalia. Four Roads to Mogadishu, edited by Simone Brioni). This documentary was awarded first prize at Libero Bizzarri Festival -  Mediaeducazione section in 2010, and was selected at the Medea Film Festival, Gorizia in 2011. In La quarta via. Mogadiscio, Pavia, Kaha narrates her memories of Mogadishu, her hometown, and reconstructs its story in Pavia, where she currently lives. While the focus of the oral performance is to provide an interpretation and a reconstruction of recent Somali history, the documentary also raises questions concerning the link between territory and belonging, and describes an alternative geography of Pavia. The ‘fourth road’ symbolizes the actuality of civil war, but also negates the preceding periods and makes it necessary to set our hopes on a ‘fifth road’. La quarta via. Mogadiscio, Pavia brings to our attention the issues of a land which shared a number of historical relationships with Italy in the past years; yet, this problematic aspect unfailingly tends to be overlooked by Italian mass-media. The history of the city of Mogadishu gives rise to many important fundamental questions about the history of Italy itself, and its amnesia toward colonialism. Moreover, this documentary brings into question the concept of confines, not only in geographical, but also in cultural and identitarian terms. La quarta via. Mogadiscio, Pavia aims to present the story of a ‘new citizen’ in a country which appears to be growing increasingly xenophobic and intolerant.

1. Primary Sources

Kaha Mohamed Aden. “1982: Fuga da casa.” El-ghibli 5 (2004):. Web 20 Dec. 2012. .

———. “Apriti Sesamo.” Nuovi argomenti 27 (2004): 35-39.

———. “Autopresentazione.” Forme della diversità: Genere, precarietà, intercultura. Eds. Clotilde Barbarulli and Liana Borghi. Cagliari: CUEC, 2006. 17-18.

———. “Eeddo Maryan.” Psiche 1 (2008): 171-173.

———. Fra-intendimenti. Roma: Nottetempo, 2010.

———. “I sogni delle extrasignore e le loro padrone.” La serva serve. Ed. Cristina Morini. Milano: Derive Approdi, 2001. 27-31.

———. Specchio specchio delle mie brame chi è più abile nel reame? Villa Fiorelli, Prato. 23 Aug. 2006. Theatrical Play.

———. “Un tè serio bollente.” Costruzione psicoanalitica 10 (2005): 59-61. Print.

———. Interview with Clotilde Barbarulli. “Kaha Mohamed Aden e Ribka Sibhatu in dialogo con Clotilde Barbarulli” Poetiche politiche: Narrazioni dell’(im)politico: Figure e figurazioni della prossimità nell’intercultura di genere. Ed. Cristina Bracchi. Padova: Poligrafo, 2011.157-175.

———. Interview with Floriana Liparini. “Le cinque vie di Kaha.” Guerre&pace 162 (Feb. 2011). Web. 8 Aug. 2012..

———, perf. and narr. La quarta via. By Kaha Mohamed Aden. Cinema Teatro Lux, Pisa. Sep. 28, 2007. Oral Story.

———, perf. and narr. La valigia della zia. By Kaha Mohamed Aden. Villa Fiorelli, Prato. 3 Sep. 2005. Oral Story.

———, perf. and narr. Mettiti nei miei panni. By Kaha Mohamed Aden. Università di Pavia, Pavia. 8 Mar. 2003. Oral Story.

2. Critical Sources

Barbarulli, Clotilde. “Storia, corpi e mondo in testi migrant.” World Wide Women Globalizzazione, Generi, Linguaggi vol. 3. Eds. Tiziana Caponio, Fedora Giordano, Beatrice Manetti and Luisa Ricaldone. Torino, CIRSDe – Centro Interdisciplinare di Ricerche e Studi delle Donne Università degli Studi di Torino, 2011. 175-184.

Brioni, Simone. “Tradurre l’identità nell’Italia post-coloniale: La quarta via di Kaha Mohamed Aden” in Altreitalie 41 (2011): 110-124.

Brioni, Simone. “Memory, Belonging and the Right for Representation: Questions of “Home” in Kaha Mohamed Aden’s Fra-intendimenti.”Shifting and Shaping a National Identity: A Study of literature written in Italian by and about migrants in Italy. Eds. Grace Russo Bullaro and Elena Benelli. Forthcoming 2013.

———, ed. Somalitalia: quattro vie per Mogadiscio / Somalitalia: Four Roads to Mogadishu. Rome: Kimerafilm, 2012.

Jansen, Monica. Le cinque vie di Kaha: i colori dei «Fra-intendimenti», in Narrativa 33-34 (2012), pp. 237-248.

Marino, Alessandra. Rev. of Fra-intendimenti by Kaha Mohamed Aden. Anglistica 15. 1 (2011): 139-142.

Vivan, Itala. “L’Italia postcoloniale. I nuovi scrittori venuti dall’Africa.” Nuova informazione bibliografica 2 (2012): 279-302.

Kaha Mohamed Aden
Translated by Simone Brioni
By courtesy of Edizioni Nottetempo
Originally published in Italian as “Uno scialle afro-arabeggiante,” in Fra-intendimenti. Roma: Nottetempo, 2010: 83-88.

I have to get dressed as quickly as possible if I don’t want to miss the bus, which in turn would make me miss the train, which in turn would not take me to the barracks, where, according to the people who work there – who are, for the most part, policemen – they carry out interviews, while numerous immigrants consider that they are being interrogated. Well! Are they interviews or interrogations? Mysteries of the languages… Oh, I forgot, my role in this world is an Interpreter.

Rushing, rushing! Punctual, I arrive at the secretary’s office.

The secretary: Hello Madam! Today you should be working with Mr D. He’s waiting for you in his office.

So I go straight to Mr D’s office. An office which is precisely and neatly organised yet colourless.

With the officer is an old Somali lady who is wrapped up in an afro-Arabic shawl.

As I sit, the conversation immediately begins – there is no time to lose: “you must produce!” is the motto in this place.

The rules of the ‘game’: Mr D (the officer) asks questions, I translate them to the woman, who responds, and I translate this back to Mr D.

They both start talking to me at the same time. The day is off to a good start!

I ask the officer if he minds me listening to the woman. A little annoyed, he gives me his permission. After a brief presentation, the conversation always starting with his questions, it is clear that he is the better actor on this stage.

The woman: Who is this man, my dear? Is he your husband?

Me: No.

The officer: What is she saying?

Me: She wants to know who we are.

The officer: I’m telling you that I’ll ask the questions. How old is the woman?

Where I come from you should greet your elders and initially only they can ask the questions… This woman isn’t someone who makes concessions.  In fact: “If this isn’t your husband, what are you doing here in this room with him?”

I look at both my interviewers and I scratch at my hair, messing it up.

The lady orders me to bring my head closer, she takes hold of my hair and says: “Dry hair, unstyled, with a man whose role is unknown; satisfy my curiosity: your mother doesn’t live in this country, does she?”

Me: No!

The woman: I knew it! And tell me again: in what language were you speaking with the man with the light eyes?

The officer: For heaven’s sake! What is all this chatting between you two? Did you ask how old is she?

Me: No, she wanted to know what language we were speaking.

The officer: Tell her, then she’ll stop asking questions!

Me: We were speaking in Italian, Ma’am.

The woman: Ah! So are we in Rome?

Me: No, we’re not in Rome.  We’re in another country.

The woman: What country are we in?

Me: We’re in a country in which they speak lots of different languages like French…

I’d barely named French when the lady interrupted me again.

The woman: Are we in Paris?

Me: No, but they speak German too and we aren’t in Berlin!

The officier: What are you talking about?

Me: She wants to know which country we are in.

The officier: I heard a series of capitals, not nations. And I have not heard of Switzerland.

Me: I was trying to explain it now! You know, we Africans have time … more extended.

Officer: Yeah, you’re famous for this! I want to know how old the lady is.

The officier is getting nervous, it is in the midst of a dialogue in which he does not understand anything, he is totally excluded. The only way to enter the fray is to stamp his authority, and unfortunately (for me) my old lady is deaf to the questions that she does not like. Once, her authority as an old person gave her this freedom, and I do not think she will easily give up this privilege which she has exercised for so long. I explain to the lady that we are in a country where they speak three languages ​​and it is called Switzerland.

In the meantime, our officier has moved the few items that were on his desk, then he has returned them to their places. Frowning, he interrupted us, and again with a gruff voice asked how old the lady is.

This time, before I talk to the lady, I hasten to ask: “Ma’am, how old?”

The woman: You said three languages? Um, and they live in peace?

Me: Yes!

The lady: Daughter, They must be good… We haven’t be able to understand each other with one language… You know? The war…

I searched in my heart and my brain reasons that allowed me to be a cold professional, to justify why I do not understand it to say, lady I understand your problem and I’m sorry, but now we have to do this and that. My research has found a simple solution, thinking about my cash point.

I held my breath for a while, then I expired and I said: “In this office, people want you to answer to some questions concerning how old are you”.

The madam answered: “What a rude ways to force a person to say that her death is close! I am a woman who passed twice forty years, and one can see that…

“Why  should one insist on my age?”

“Why  should one count the time after a certain age?”

“How old am I? Nobody knows. Me neither…”

The madam collected her thoughts and started to prey. She had slammed the door on my face.

We do not deserve her attention, she addressed someone higher: God.

The officer was tired of waiting for an answer, and started to write.

I was there alone, left in a conversation where all subjects should address me in order to speak and act. I take a peep at what the officer is writing and I see that he has written: “The lady is reticent to answer my questions etc., etc., etc… Suddenly the woman started to sing”.

Me: The lady isn’t singing, she is praying.

The officer: Ah, she is praying. I do not want to know why she is praying.

Everybody wants something. Instead, I want no longer to float through all these emotions, which others produce, even with silence.

For today, I would have stopped being an emotive cable and so be it.

This publication has been possible thanks to the support of the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Warwick. I am grateful to Edizioni Nottetempo for giving me the permission to translate these short-stories I am also indebted to Serena Bassi for her comments on the first draft of these translations.

Kaha Mohamed Aden
Translated by Simone Brioni
By courtesy of Edizioni Nottetempo
Originally published in Italian as “Apriti Sesamo,” in Fra-intendimenti. Roma: Nottetempo, 2010: 61-66.

Wash your teeth, wash one foot, now the other, the bath’s so cold! Pyjamas, then under the covers.

I read, I don’t read, I turn off the light, then under the covers.

“Ring ring”, goes the doorbell, I go to open it, it’s the boys who usually hang out in the courtyard behind my house.

Me: Hello. Yes! Hello.

The boys: Could you give us a drop of water?

What a strange request. It’s not a common habit in this town, that of knocking on a door and asking for water. But it was in my old town and perhaps because of this the boys didn’t consider mine one of those doors.

I opened the door. They entered; they settled themselves on the chairs. There were ten of them and they had a stereotypical look about them: so why didn’t you hurry to give them the water? Since their entrance there was a strange silence that had hypnotized me until one of them, in a shrill voice, disturbed my ear, saying to me: are you OK?

Hurriedly, confused, I began to search for the glasses, obviously the plastic ones. I searched for them, and I didn’t find them.

One of them: What are you looking for?

Me: The plastic glasses.

A piercing voice: You want to serve us with the plastic glasses, but I asked how you were?

Me: Let me be! I ask you kindly to leave my house.

Another: My house! You make me laugh. You would even want us to address you as madam, next?

Whatever I would say they would repeat it to the parrot with great laughter. One could say that they were really enjoying themselves; obviously the feeling wasn’t reciprocated.

I’m giving up trying to convince them. I’m getting the phone and I’m calling the police.

Me: Hello, Police? I need you.

Police: What’s the problem?

Me: My house has been occupied by strangers and they don’t want to leave.

Police: Give us your phone number and address. We will get to you as soon as possible.

Me: Thanks, I hope that you arrive soon because this is scaring me.

Police: Don’t worry, madam.

I sat on my bed for 15 minutes, during which I waited for the police. They drove up to the front of my house. As soon as I heard the noises outside I left the house. Thank God the police arrived.

Policeman A: Who are you?

Oh God what a question. Every time an authority asks me it they seem to be saying to me: show us that you’re a good girl. And the answer that I’d like to give is: why should I? Obviously I didn’t give this response but I mumbled a few random, confused sentences, like: they’re the ones you have to talk to, I live here etc etc.

Policeman B: Documents, madamoiselle.

Me: Madam, please. I called you. You should check these guys here.

Policeman B: Excuse me, madam, don’t tell us what to do. We are starting with you. Are you married?

Me: No!

Policeman B: How did they enter the house?

Me: I let them in.

Policemen A: Now we are going inside the house. In the meantime, show us your documents.

We went inside, I did not understand anything anymore. I was anxious because I have been trying to renew my residence permit for two weeks now and have not yet succeed because of the very long queue one has to wait in. Practically, one needs to be there by 4 am and struggle to be one of the 15 who will be received at 8:30 am; the day is spent in the police office, then, even if you are successful in becoming a part of the selected group, the atmosphere that reigns inside varies between dramatic and dramatic and it is hard not to dismiss the existence of that day at all.

Therefore, I have forgotten to renew my permit. Why have I not renewed it? You could answer: I was not able to do so due to the long line outside the police office,” or: “I have forgotten”. Who knows? One thing is true: there, in the immigration office, many people find themselves flooded with documents, all with blank looks, as if they want to say: “we are not guilty”. Foreigners are all in the queue. I think it is normal to avoid spending the whole day in that place and to conceal the expiry date of the documents somewhere in one’s heart of heart. What I can tell you: the permit has not been renewed.

I was so anxious my heart pounded and filled me with fear.
Here is my residence, the card which allows me to remain in the world of lawfulness. You see, it is not nice to enter the lawlessness without doing any evil, nor wanting to do something evil, your document simply expired. Instead, for some foreigners not having all bureaucratic matters in order, means going underground, I do not want to imagine the consequences.

I insist: How scary!

Policeman A: Madam, this document expired two weeks ago!

Me: Yes.

Policeman A: Madam, we must go to the police station.

I watched the policemen. One was with the boys and had a friendly attitude with them. The other went towards the door to take me to the police station. I burst into tears, but the policeman was so indifferent to my attempt to give up, to pretend that I had never called him and my request could not reach him. I could hardly breathe, I felt suffocated, I opened my eyes in bed in a cold sweat. How lovely! The door opens, here is the treasure: it was just a dream. Time to get up.

I wish I could give this dream to someone. Someone worth opening this dream to. To open the dream, is literally what one says in Somali. One way to open it is to tell the dream to someone who knows you, someone you trust and discuss it.

I have a theory about this dream: all immigrants have it. In particular those immigrants who unfortunately have no community that recognises them, protects them. For them that exact ending is a nightmare, and for many it is a reality.

The dream is not frank if we don’t discuss at least two subjects: the dreamer and a person chosen by them. The person chosen should give the dream sense and make it sensible, by relating that situation to the past, or especially present, the everyday life of the dreamer.

I have decided to share the nightmare with you. It isn’t possible to discuss it with you, and neither can you discuss it with me. The simplest solution is to hide it in some part of our minds. In short, keep it out of reach.

Me: simple! Yes?

You: No answer, silence

This publication has been possible thanks to the support of the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Warwick. I am grateful to Edizioni Nottetempo for giving me the permission to translate these short-stories I am also indebted to Serena Bassi for her comments on the first draft of these translations.