Stained Glass Ceilings (Hargeisa Airport, Somaliland)

I arrived so early to the airport, I was the first one there. I was so early, the security guard’s name is Ayaan, and we got into such giggles during the security screening that the male guard asked if we knew each other.

At immigration, the officer asks me which guesthouse I stayed in. I tell him I was working here, that I had a house here. It’s always strange, the first time you articulate a change. The first time you use the past tense.

Past security and immigration, the terminal is quiet. The roof is stained glass, with a second floor balcony, framed by wrought iron railings. The gate between the terminal and the tarmac is wrought iron to match, with golden flowers along the top, and great flowering bushes of deep pink on either side. A clock shows the time in Dubai. A small coffee shop makes espressos for a group of men, and for a moment, the sputtering of the coffee machine is the only sound. Nobody is wearing masks.

The stained-glass ceiling of the Hargeisa Airport.

For a moment, I cannot help but feel that this is not an airport, that I am waiting for a tiny cup of coffee instead of an airplane to take me out of the country. For a moment, it feels as though I am staying, as though I will relax by the flowers and the stained glass and then return to my house.

There are still four clothespins on my clothesline.

But I will not return to that house. I have already been stamped out of the country. Airports are a one-way stream of people, pushing us towards the beyond, towards the tarmac past the gate, to the collapsible staircases leading us to the great flying machines. For the moment, I know my fate. I chose it. The bird will swallow me, and spit me out across an ocean.

Getting on the plane in Hargeisa, headed for Addis Ababa.

Lemon Juice and Fleece Blankets (Hargeisa, Somaliland)

There is no conductor on the bus, no ticket collection — only a Zaad number, written on the roof in permanent marker. We send our fares without acknowledgement or question to the driver, a cashless society. 

As Salat al-Maghreb approaches, the air loosens around us. We drive with the door open, rolling down the street with the city beside us, traffic to thick to allow for enough speed to close it. Gas station, bakery, computer shop, pipe fitter, tyre supplier, supermarket, bookstore.

A man scatters water from a bucket to hold down the dust. White people with laminated signs in Somali stand in the intersections, palms outstretched. The driver says they’re from Syria. Fifty men gather around bundles of imported cast-offs, holding up tailored shirts and jeans to their hips while the merchants shout about discounts. Two women sit on white, plastic chairs, the hems of their jilbabs fanned out against the ground. A old man in a kofia and perfectly-circular gold glasses sticks his head out of the front passenger window of a bus, grinning. A woman sits on the corner, holding up a piece of paper with her Zaad number, hoping the phone will buzz from a stranger’s kind deposit. Businesspeople in dress clothes walk home from the office, holding binders and briefcases.

Inside the mall, across from an eight storey hotel covered in glass windows, there is Cookies Time. Three booths and two tables, nestled next to a glass case full of bakery and cheesecake. Three women order a plate of cookies and flip their niqabs up over their foreheads to eat. The table on the other side of us is four young men, wearing black sweaters with gold letters, and immaculate tennis shoes with dark skinny jeans. I order an Americano, which comes in a pink ceramic cup, and a lemon juice.

Outside, we get a rideshare and go to Cali Jirde. 

You can hear the music from the street, on Wednesday nights at Cali Jirde. If there is a place to see and be seen in Hargeisa, this is it.

Onstage, one man beats the drum, one plucks the strings, and one belts into the microphone. There is no use describing Somali music in English, but still — like waves, crashing and endless and somehow taking you home, wherever you are from. When they get tired, a woman comes to sing. When she tires, a group of teenagers in white, gold, and navy blue costumes comes to the stage to dance. Women across from men, they line up and dance across from one another, each daring the other’s next move, spinning so fast the fabric billows up like parachutes.

A man stands and takes the microphone, delivering and impassioned speech about the importance of dance and music and culture. The crowd applauds, as we are those who have come to see these things. The performers return to the stage, and we listen as we eat dinner, seated in our chairs, wrapped in fleece blankets.

As the end of the evening approaches, the music and dancing expands from the stage as the beautiful people of the city introduce themselves. An old woman in a gilded yellow hijab grabs everyones’ hands and plays match-maker, dragging couples together relentlessly, not in the slightest discouraged when her offers are declined.

But, at exactly midnight, the music cuts, as though we are all Cinderella. The lights go up, and the place empties within minutes, the crowd vanishing into taxis and ride shares and vehicles with private drivers, to be redistributed to houses across the city. The next call to prayer is in five hours.

If you’re in Hargeisa and would like to attend Cali Jirde’s music nights, these happen every Wednesday evening, from 8 o’clock (ish) until midnight. You can read more on their website.

Salat al-Maghreb (Berbera-Hargeisa Roadside, Somaliland)

The women’s prayer room is in the back of the restaurant, where the men sit and drink tea and soda. Compared to the main mosque, out front by the road, the women’s space is austere. Dirt floor, corrugated iron for walls and roof, tacked onto the building itself. We wash in a small fenced area outside, and then line up along the edge of a straw mat.

Allahu akbar.

When we kneel for the first rakat, I realize that the mat is plastic, not straw. We press our foreheads against it, and repeat three times.

Subhana rabbiyal a’Allah.

Standing for the second rakat, my shoulders touch those on either side of me. I am one of many, and there is a certain peace to it. The darkness of the room becomes a blanket, and I am glad we do not pray in the well-lit mosque, with the doors open to the road. These moments are not for the passer-by.

Wa laa hawla wa laquwwata illa Billaah. There is no strength nor power except with Allah.

Repeat until it is true. Repeat until that is where we find our strength. Repeat until we stop looking under the corners of old rugs, until we stop digging between the cushions, looking for strength like it’s a lost coin. Repeat, and find strength in the consistency. Repeat, and find strength in Allah.

While the first two rakats are spoken, the third rakat is silent. Be lost in yourself, together.

Allahu akbar.

Pause and remind yourself of what is true, and what is a distraction. Remind yourself what is important. Remind yourself five times a day. Remind yourself until you don’t forget, knowing that you will always forget. There is peace in accepting your own fragility.

Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah.

Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah.

The drive, just before we stopped for prayer.

On Floating (Mansoor Beach, Berbera, Somaliland)

“Can you teach me how to float?” she asks, standing in the waist-deep water. 

With my support beneath her legs and back, she lies back in the water — body tense, head bent forward away from the waves, hands raised to hold the edges of her hijab against her face.

“You’re going to have to relax,” I tell her. “You can only float if you relax.”

She takes a deep breath, and then another one. As a wave comes, I lift her up to keep the salt water away from her face. The motion scares her, and she raises her head sharply.

“I don’t want to die,” she tells me, suddenly becoming young.

“You won’t,” I say.

It takes her a minute, to finally let go. She lets her arms down, and her head falls back into the water. Her hijab begins to flow away from her scalp, and I turn to block her from the shore, where the soldiers and guards are.

When she no longer seems to be thinking about it, I move one arm away from her, leaving just the water to hold her. With no response, I remove the other one, and she floats on the turquoise water, suspended. Her face breaks, and the smile has shifted from nerves to serenity.

“This is amazing,” she whispers, and then repeats it again, to herself. This is amazing.

What a blessing, to witness awe which I’ve long since forgotten. I’ve been floating for years, been swimming in the ocean too many times to count. I don’t remember the first time. I don’t remember whether my face looked like hers. I suppose we never know what our own faces look like. 

Something snaps, and she breaks her relaxation. Her body begins to sink, and a wave crashes across her face. The burning saltwater surprises her, and she sputters, feet unable to find the bottom.

I grab her shoulders and pull her up, placing her on her feet. She wipes her eyes and nose, and then immediately splashes off towards her friends. She says nothing of the first sensation of floating, already having forgotten. We forget so easily, not knowing what we’ll wish we remembered.

I didn’t take photos in the water, because of dress and local/Muslim standards of modesty. Here’s a shot as we approached the beach, with the water behind.

COVID-19 Testing in Hargeisa, Somaliland (PCR for Travel)

Travelling from Hargeisa to the US, I’ve had to get a COVID test done (PCR, within 1 day of the flight, according to the US guidelines). I thought I’d share the process/logistics, for those planning a trip.

COVID-19 testing in Hargeisa is available at the Hargeisa Group Hospital, in the city center. There are no rapid tests available, just PCR.

Entering the hospital complex, there’s a one-way flow of vehicle traffic (in one gate and out the other). Follow the vehicle traffic all the way to the end, right before the exit gate, and the COVID testing will be on the right hand side. It’s not really marked or signed, but you’ll see the lines of people.

COVID testing in Hargeisa operates from 6:30am to 12pm every day (except for Fridays), although it’s recommended that you arrive earlier rather than later. When I went, I got there for my test at about 9am, and waited for about 15 minutes. There are no appointments, you just show up. There is a queue to the right of the door, up to a window where you pay for the test. It’s 45 USD (or shilling equivalent) and they accept either cash or Zaad. You’ll need to show your passport if you’re getting a test for travel. Once you pay, they’ll give you a receipt, and you’ll be taken inside for the test. The PCR test itself takes all of 30 seconds, and then you’re done!

The results are available the next morning, as standard procedure. If you need a rush test, you can try and ask for one, but if you can manage to arrange your travels so that you can come back the next morning, it’s ideal. As of now (December 30, 2021), flights to the US require a COVID test from the day before you flight (not necessarily 24 hours). So, the ideal schedule (which worked for me) was morning COVID-19 test on “Day 1,” get the results the morning of “Day 2,” and then fly out to Ethiopia on the evening of “Day 2.” Keep in mind that they’re closed on Fridays, so be careful when booking your ticket (you don’t want to book a ticket for Saturday, for example, and then find yourself out of luck without a test on Friday). If you’re travelling somewhere with a 2-3 day window (ie. NOT the US), then anticipate getting your test 2 days before your flight (day 1 = test, day 2 = results, day 3 = flight).

The hours for getting PCR results are the same as the tests — 6:30am to 12pm, every day (except for Fridays). The window to the right of the door is the results window. You’ll present your receipt from the previous day, and they’ll print out a paper with your results, which has your name, birthday, passport number, and test results. The results page specifies that it’s a PCR test, and includes a QR code to verify your results. Once you’ve got your paper, you’re all set!

The whole process is very well set-up and quite efficient, and all the lines and waiting spaces are outside. Social distancing, however, isn’t strictly followed due to space, so remember to wear a mask (although they’re not required, I saw about half-half wearing and not wearing masks). If you forget a mask and would like one, there are plenty of entrepreneurial people around who would be quite happy to sell you one.

Happy travelling, and stay healthy!