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Beloved, how to describe your laughter?

If I could, I would describe the moment you suddenly burst with joy. Your husky and almost masculine laugh softening with every second. As sacred as gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

“Say hello to your edo,” your father told you. I’m your edo, your paternal aunt. We were together when you called him on Messenger. Together when you appeared on the screen like the Madonna. Together when you smiled at us, Soraya.

Your father, Moh, is passing through Rome. He has some business to attend to, family—us—to visit, and friends to see. Your aabo has a return flight to Nairobi in fifteen days. It’s wonderful to have him around, like in our younger, carefree days. He laughs a lot, like you, my dearest niece. But his laugh is robust and full, almost overflowing. It has stayed the same since he was a stylish young man in the 1980s.

I already know my heart will break when Moh leaves like it always does. We who have been displaced should be used to these goodbyes, to the long separations that are the bread and butter of every migrant family. But the truth is, you never get used to saying goodbye to the people you love. You always want them close. To see yourself again and again in eyes so like your own. We are a family, wahaan nahay qoys, and like all Somali families in the diaspora, we are dispersed across all continents. Fragmented by the war that has ravaged us, by misfortunes, an ancient dictatorship, death, and love.

And every separation destroys us.

Scatters us.

Annihilates us.


Your aabo lives in Nairobi with your mother and little sisters. But your brother, Sueyb, is in the West, just like you, and studying civil engineering. Unlike you and me, he has a mathematical mind.

As you know, your father desperately wanted to move back to Africa. It’s been his dream since he first set foot in Europe at fourteen years old. Europe, that complicated continent that has always been cruel, sometimes even murderous, for Black men like him. Nahariis lahan. Your father is now an entrepreneur and has bought a house in Kileleshwa, a middle-class neighborhood in Nairobi. On the day he signed the property deed, he wore his Kenyan flag bracelet, which he never takes off out of loyalty and gratitude. In Kenya, your aabo has found a brand-new identity. Or, as he says in English, “a place to be.”


I’m here in Rome. A woman made in Italy. The only fixed point in a family always on the move. Firmly planted in the place where I was born and raised. Set in my ways like all Romans. Rooted in this West I also sometimes struggle with.

You, on the other hand, dearest niece, have gone off on adventures, forging your own path. And now you’re in Quebec, speaking French like Xavier Dolan’s characters, erasing the nasal vowels of Paris, almost rebelling against them. You only return to standard French with your mother, Naima.

Your hooyo, Naima, is from Djibouti, formerly French Somaliland, and today a place of international intrigue and military bases, of hooded US Marines, Foreign Legion soldiers, and the People’s Liberation Army’s support base. Her French sounds like something plucked from a Charles Trenet song—so pure it’s almost absurd—and your conversations meet halfway, at a random point to that faraway France, that Hexagon that you’ve never visited, though you pine for it as one does for love.

Naima also has a rough voice, like an Amazon’s, but hers is deeper than yours, more lived-in. She’s the mother of four children and the matriarch of countless constellations. Her voice is laden with her anxieties and hopes for all your futures. I don’t always understand her when she speaks Somali. She uses words I’ve never heard spoken aloud. And, my God, her accent sounds like a tank! Even with its harshness, I’ve always liked the rhythm she brings to her sentences when she uses the language of her deepest self. When she speaks Somali, your mother is a dancer, moving fluidly on her toes like an étoile. Her large breasts bounce with every movement, and she bobs her head like a whimsical child.


You speak English with your aabo. In your wanderings around the globe, England was an important stage. You probably even considered moving to Her Majesty’s country before life took you elsewhere. From those stays, I don’t know how many you’ve done, maybe just one, you’ve picked up an accent from high British society, almost as if you attended Eton. But your English has notes of pure madness, just like Benedict Cumberbatch’s, and it’s in that madness that you always meet your father. He has perfect pronunciation and a distinctly American accent, almost like Will Smith’s, acquired from the movies and the friends he hung out with when he was young. It’s an accent that smells of bodies, moons, planets, flirtations, and misunderstandings. And it’s in that English that you two always laugh like crazy.

But occasionally, when you’re on a roll, and this happens especially while you’re talking to your aabo, Somali leaks out unexpectedly. Not the Benadir Somali our family speaks or even the harsher and more closed northern Somali your mother spoke in Djibouti during her early youth. Soraya, your Somali smells of home, diapers, first steps, baby teeth. An almost newborn Somali, sweet and delicate like an Austrian Sachertorte, spongy and filled with sugar. It’s a childlike Somali, haphazardly jumbled with your posh British accent, that blooms in your young adult mouth when you chat with your father on Messenger. And each time, I listen to it with wonder. Hearing you speak enchants me, Soraya. It makes me feel alive.

I speak and write in Italian. I also speak Somali with the words that my mother, your ayeyo, taught me. She was a nomadic shepherdess during her childhood, and she’s longed for that rural life side by side with her own cattle and work ever since. I learned all the Somali I have inside me from her and the ancient sycamore trees that dotted the wooded landscape. My aabo, your awowe Ali, was a native speaker of Chimini, the language of Barawa, his hometown, overlooking the Indian Ocean south of Mogadishu. I can’t speak or even dream in Chimini. It is the language of my regrets, of my suspended being.

You and I mostly speak English with each other, of course. Lingua franca between us and the world. But I’m not perfect in that imperial language you speak like a scion of Eton. I stumble over grammatical errors and, like a good Italian, a descendant of Totò and Peppino De Filippo, have doubts about the correct verbal tense. Present perfect, present progressive, past tense. And then, of course, I’m always so deliriously happy that I can’t stay still and flit from English to Somali, from Somali to English. And every now and then, Italian makes an appearance. Each word flickers on the tip of my tongue and takes a different path from all the others. But despite this, we understand each other.

After all, I am still your edo, and you are my beloved.

Words are hardly necessary.

I am your edo, and you are my beloved.

My dream.


When your father gave me his cell phone, your face was already swimming in the screen, Soraya. You’ve cut your hair short in a fade and dyed it blond. You’re at home wearing pajamas with no makeup on your face. Completely at ease, you laugh, and sigh, and yawn.

I could listen to you for hours.

You tell me about yourself. About how close you are to finishing your sports science degree, how much you enjoy living in Quebec, and how you think you might stay there forever. “There are so many jobs here, edo,” you explain. “I have tons of friends,” you assure me.

I envy your nails, painted in a deep shade of lapis lazuli. Thick, long nails. Like a vampire’s. My writer’s fingernails are always poorly cut, short, unimaginative, and without nail polish. Fingers that have to play a symphony of words and punctuation. Then again, every vocation has its sacrifices.

Your call caught me as I was writing in the kitchen. To save money, I never turn on all the heaters in my house, so I look shabby, with a hot water bottle on my belly to keep me warm. I am bundled up with sweaters, cardigans, and a scarf. I only turn on the heaters in the living room, where my hooyo, your grandmother, sits. In September 2020, after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as you know, your ayeyo moved from North Rome to East Rome to live with me.

I’m kind of a mess. Nothing like the Hollywood image of women authors who write in a villa overlooking a breathtaking beachfront, with a young adonis in bed and a cigarette limply dangling from their fingers. I am neither Colette nor Joan Didion. I am an artist worried about the utility bill at the end of the month, who writes in snippets of time between one temporary job and the next, who is affected by economic and geopolitical crises, and who is always anxious about not being enough.

When I write at home, I wear a dirac, the Somali sack dress that every woman in the Horn of Africa loves. When I’m not wearing the dirac, I put on some other brightly colored old clothes to protect myself against the weather and sadness. I wear mismatched socks, and by the end of the day, when I’m finished working, my glasses are usually pitiful, caked with dust and neglect. I’m not a pretty sight, and that’s why video calls make me anxious: they always catch me at the wrong moment.

But you’re so kind, my lovely Soraya, and with your sweet, ferret-like voice, you tell me in that beautiful way that only you have of lying, “No, edo, you don’t look bad. No, really, edo, you’re a total knockout.”

I quickly snatch your compliment and keep it close to my heart. Not because I need to be flattered, but because in this “you are a total knockout,” I can feel all the love you have for me and all my love for you.

I almost desperately ask you, “When will you visit me?”

My voice is a yell.

Come to Italy, and I will show you around. Rome, Florence, Venice, Turin. You will have fun with me. Wallahi. I promise. And if I tell you “wallahi,” you must believe me, my love. I gamble with the best parts of my peninsula, bartering them for my niece’s love. A love that an aunt, an edo, needs like her daily bread.


I put your ayeyo on the phone. She takes it with aristocratic haughtiness. Then comes the inevitable moment of awkwardness between you two. The slightest crack in your voice searching deeply for a Somali that is nothing but a foreign language to you. I see how desperate my hooyo, your ayeyo, is to tell you about the world, her world, and to pass it on to you. This grandmother, who is now in her eighties, doesn’t speak any of your languages well. She doesn’t know French. And she only knows how to say “Hello, darling. I love you” in English.

You whisper in an impossible language, hovering between a childlike Somali and a summer dance hall English, and confess a desire that you’ve held inside for a long time: “I would like to learn Italian, ayeyo. So I can be closer to you.”

Italian, the language of those who colonized our ancestors in Barawa and Mogadishu. A language that was once an enemy, that was once the slave trader’s language, but which now expresses the affections of a generation from my mother to me. The language of our deepest secrets. The language that, despite its contradictions, makes us whole.

The language of Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Elsa Morante, and Dacia Maraini. The same language of Pap Khouma, Amir Issaa, Leila El Houssi, Takoua Ben Mohamed, and Djarah Kan.

Language once singular, now plural.

Mediterranean language, language of intersections.


My mother happily listens to your intention to learn Italian. She can finally see common ground between you. A future in which you won’t need interpreters or dictionaries. When you won’t need me to be your bridge. And she smiles at you, Soraya. And she tells you, “Bella ciao,” giving you your first language lesson, and life lesson, in an Italian that sparkles like a comet. You find the words that just came out of your ayeyo’s mouth so musical, so perfect, so Italian. “Bella ciao,” you reply to her. You love the Italian language. You already feel it on you like a delicate silk dress.

But then your smile fades, and you’re suddenly serious. Perhaps you noticed that there is a small, almost invisible off-key note in the musicality and dazzling beauty of Italian.

You noticed a crack in your grandmother’s, my mother’s, smile.

Yes, my Soraya. A crack.

What you see between her teeth, through the phone’s screen, is the Jiro. The Jiro that passed through us, my niece. And that continues to make us sick despite all the time that has passed.


Jiro. Like my mother, I also smile, speak, and exist with the same small crack that splits my gums. As if a hidden void existed between our lips, teeth, and tongue.

If you pay close attention, you will also notice that same crack in other parts of our bodies. In the crease of our eyes. In our bones that shatter and become ruins. In our hands that subtly tremble with each breath.

Your father is as broken as we are. But he hides it better beneath hearty laughter and biting jokes. But even in him, mind you, there is that small, almost invisible crack. And it is there that the Jiro has burrowed in.

Jiro literally means “sickness” in Somali. Any dictionary, even Google Translate, will give you the same definition.

But, for us, Jiro is a much more expansive word. It speaks about our wounds, our pain, and our post-traumatic, postwar stress.

Jiro is our broken heart. The precarious balance of our life between hell and the present.

We are diasporic beings floating in the wind. Uprooted by a twenty-year dictatorship, by one of the most devastating wars that have ever taken place on Earth, and by a massive arms trade that has buried our bones and those of our ancestors beneath piles of AK-47s that came directly from Transnistria to the port of Mogadishu. To annihilate us.

Qashin qub, “cesspool,” is what the media calls Somalia. We are garbage to the world, so no one speaks to us. And even when we do speak, no one truly listens. No one wants to deal with those who stink of misery and disease. The unscrupulous exploit us while polishing their reputations. And this is how Somalia was condemned without a judge or jury. According to those who matter in this world, we are the quintessential failed state.

Failed state . . . Yes, alas, they also call us this.

TV anchors and political analysts gleefully bare their teeth when they say: “Somalia, a failed state.” It makes me want to scream. But no sound leaves my throat. Nothing at all.