Thursday, 11 January 2007
The Wrong Shade of Blue
Owen Powell – 11th January 2007
Edgware Road was certainly proving to be one of the most unpredictable places we had found so far. After finding an Iranian man working in a Lebanese restaurant, we popped next door to a Saudi Arabian perfumiers and found a Somalian.
When I asked the man behind the counter if anyone who worked there was from overseas, he cracked a big smile and said, “You’re looking at him”. Ahmed (or ‘Arms’, to his friends) is in his early twenties and appeared to be running the Arabian Oud shop by himself. No other staff, or indeed customers, appeared while we were in there, so Ahmed was happy to chat and give us a tour of his perfume empire.
As he showed us the bottles, he told us bits and pieces from his life story. He had travelled to London from Mogadishu six years ago, arriving with his mother but leaving other members of his family behind. He has studied in London, notably English – which he learnt from scratch since he has been here. As well as Somalian, he also speaks Arabic, translating the names on the perfume bottles for us. The Arabian perfume he sells is Oud, derived from the oil pressed from certain woods, and can be an acquired taste. He let us smell the stopper from a bottle of Oud that retails for between £300-£500, depending on what size bottle you want (tiny or fairly tiny). It was rather potent, and significantly spicier than I thought perfumes ever could be. Ahmed said that while some of his customers are European, most are from the Middle East, searching for that smell that reminds them of home.
Ahmed had a few questions about the project, so we showed him the folder we’re keeping. It has details for all the people we’ve met, with their photo alongside their country’s flag, and at the moment looks disappointingly empty. He firstly noted that we had printed Somalia’s flag the wrong shade of blue, then raised his eyebrows as he saw all the photos we had taken of people. It was clear that he had some concerns about talking about himself and his country to two strangers, so I put two and two together and mentioned the recent invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia.
[This is all written later, after the meeting and when I’ve had a chance to read up on the subject. I was aware that Somalia had recently been in the news, but not how deep and how intractable the issues are. To try to put it briefly, undoubtedly missing out several key events and ideas, Somalia has been in almost constant turmoil since 1991, when the then President was ousted. Various areas of the country then declared their independence, although none of this was recognised by the UN, and peace-keeping forces were deployed with the aim of averting famine as the civil war escalated. The death of 18 American soldiers during a helicopter raid in Mogadishu (alongside the negative press and Hollywood film it generated) is seen by some as being one of the prime causes of US withdrawal from military interventions on the world stage during the 1990s. The UN withdrew, perhaps not coincidentally deciding against intervention during the Rwandan genocide the following year. The south of Somalia became a de facto Islamic Republic, and last December Ethiopian troops invaded in what was declared as an attempt to restore the official government to power. This invasion was with the tacit approval of the US, an approval that later strengthened into assistance involving gunships and aircraft carriers. The dreaded words ‘Al-Qaeda’ were bandied about. The situation, at the time of writing, is still unresolved. The pessimist in me says that at the time of reading, however far into the future you are reading this, it will still be unresolved.]
This means that for most of Ahmed’s life (we never found out his exact age, but he would have been a young child in 1991) his country has been in a state of flux, and involved in varying degrees of violent conflict. His arrival in London six years ago would have been at the time of the 11th September attacks, and the subsequent re-emergence of the US as a military force, particularly in Islamic countries. He clearly saw what was happening in Somalia as an extension of previous interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, asking quite angrily, “Why is the US invading my country?” He said he had lost brothers in the war – I didn’t have the journalistic gumption to ask much more about this. I was out of my depth.