- Elusive Jannah: the Somali diaspora and a borderless Muslim identity by Cawo M. Abdi, and: Somalis Abroad: clan and everyday life in Finland by Stephanie R. Bjork
Somalis have been travelling outside the Somali Peninsula since time immemorial, but the most outstanding exodus of their recent historical and contemporary mass migration – displacement would be a better term – occurred after the 1970s, when the mobility and movement of the Somali diaspora to the Arab Peninsula, especially to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, attracted many Somalis. In comparison with other African diaspora communities, it is striking that the Somali diaspora – which constitutes one of the largest in the West and provides one of the most vibrant trading communities in Africa and the Middle East – has attracted less attention in diaspora studies.
The only previous books on the Somali diaspora were Rima Berns-McGown’s Muslims in the Diaspora: the Somali communities of London and Toronto (1999); Abdi M. Kusow and Stephanie Bjork’s edited volume From Mogadishu to Dixon: the Somali diaspora in a global context (2007); A. Osman Farah, Mammo Muchie and Joakim Gundel’s edited volume Somalia: diaspora and state reconstitution in the Horn of Africa (2007); and Nahla Al Huraibi’s Islam, Gender and Migrant Integration: the case of Somali immigrant families (2014). With the publication of these two well-researched books under review, the anthropology and sociology of the Somali diaspora may no longer be misread or misrepresented.
Cawo Abdi’s and Stephanie Bjork’s books provide differing explanatory analyses on the cultural and trade dynamics of the Somalis who migrated out of Somalia, following the collapse of Somalia as one unitary nation state when the military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre fled the capital in 1991. The result was Somali migrants scavenging for social, economic and physical security around the globe, with a preference for the West due to the perceived notion of finding solace there. Migrating overseas was seen as going to Jannah (paradise). It has become normal to find a Somali in every continent of the world.
The widespread displacement of the Somali diaspora remains a clear reminder that Somalis no longer live solely in East Africa or the Horn of Africa, but also form a critical refugee group in the USA, Australia and Europe. Despite their increasing presence in the diaspora, the history of the Somali global diaspora is yet to be written. Any serious study along this line would start with the Berber Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta, who hinted in 1331 at the presence of Somalis in Arabia and India, and even in the Maldives.1 [End Page 972]
The prevailing theme that dominates much of the analysis on contemporary Somali society is the enduring relevance of the clan system. This was extensively studied in the scholarship of the late British anthropologist Ioan M. Lewis, who spent almost five decades defending the supremacy of the clan in all things Somali. It is difficult to deny that cultural identities have been economically, socially and politically crucial for Somalis in the diaspora and back home. Economically, Somalis find insurance in clan networks. Politically, they seek contemporary power positions through clan mobilization after the institutionalization of clans in post-conflict Somalia.
However, clan has its own limitations. Both authors reviewed here use various research methods, such as survey data collection and ethnography, to study the action and inaction of the clan aspect of their subjects. Given their different disciplines in using anthropological and sociological tools, the authors reach different conclusions. Abdi, a sociologist, refuses to confer any role to clan in her study, downplaying its importance in the social interactions of the Somali diaspora. In contrast, Bjork, an anthropologist...