Somali Sideways – an idea, a book and a chance encounter in Tesco

Image above: Mohamed Mohamud and the woman he met in Tesco

“I’m reading this book …”

Mohamed Mohamud was in Tesco the other day when a diminutive woman asked for his help in reaching something on a high shelf. Being a tall, lanky guy, this is something he is quite used to but what happened next took him quite by surprise. He recounted the tale on social media:

“So I’m doing my usual day-to-day grocery shopping at my local Tescos and this lady comes to me and says ‘Hi I’m sorry but could you help me out with picking an item from the top shelf?’

“As usual, being tall I get ask these kinds of things many times. So I said ‘Of course I can help you’. Once I picked up the item and gave it to her, she asks rather shyly ‘Oh by the way where are you from?’ I’m sure I’m not the only one but when I get asked this particular question…

“I don’t know to say. Shall I say I’m British or my Somali background? So I said to her that I’m born and raised in London but I’m originally from Somalia. To my surprise she says ‘yes I would have thought you were Somali’.

“I tell her funnily enough I don’t normally get that as a first response. So you think that would be the end of the conversation but it gets very interesting. She then tells me ‘I saw this book online called Somali Sideways and I bought it and I’m currently reading it!’

“Now when I heard her say that, I was completely taken by it and I whispered to her ‘oh by the way the book you are reading currently, I’m the author’.

“Her facial expression was priceless and she continues ‘You are Mohamed Mohamud?! I can’t believe it’ she then tells me that her husband took a photo of her holding the book and hopes to meet the author one day. Little did she know that I live a few minutes from her!

“Moral of the story: Sometimes when you think something won’t happen to you, life teaches you that anything is possible. I thought I could share this story to you all.”

Images above: Mohamed at a book signing; Somali Sideways, his book

Changing perceptions of Somalis

The idea of doing a book to change perceptions about Somalis and Somali culture came to Mohamed in 2014. Many Somalians came to Britain when civil war broke out in the early 1990s. Since then the country has been characterised as a ‘failed state’, associated with conflict and chaos.

Mohamed’s parents were among those who came and settled in west London. He was born here, went to primary school at Southfield Primary and secondary school at Acton High. He studied international politics as his first degree and conflict, rights and justice for his Masters at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

“While at university, I read an article in May 2014 that Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group based in Somalia sent in a suicide bomber who blew up the Somali parliament and deployed gunmen on foot in a highly-organised attack on the state.

“When I finished the article and after much research, I said to myself why are most of the news coverage on the Somali region about terrorism, famine and piracy? There wasn’t enough coverage showing Somalis in a positive light, so I thought it was vital to do something about it.”

He started taking pictures of Somali friends in London standing sideways. Why standing sideways?

“I wanted to show a different side, to change misconceptions about Somalis and their culture.

Image above: PHotographs from Somali Sideways

Somali Sideways

“I was drawn to the concept because people choose to share certain aspects of their lives and they keep other parts of themselves private. On the one side it’s about sharing stories that you wish to share, and the other remains a mystery.”

It is fair to say his friends were initially sceptical, but after the initial launch of the photography book at the Bush theatre in Shepherd’s Bush he has travelled to speak to Somali organisations and Black arts societies in Ohio, Minnesota, Vancouver and Toronto, where there are big Somali communities and he has also travelled all over Europe speaking in Germany, Holland, Sweden and Denmark. In December last year he visited Cairo and he is currently planning another tour of Canada.

“A lot of non-Somalis have come up and said “I didn’t know. It has changed my perception of Somalis.”

The only negative response, he told me, has been from someone in Somalia, clearly happy with the perception they were creating of chaos and terror, to warn him off.

Mohamed has brought out a second book, the Araweelo edition, (which his new friend from Tescos is pictured holding), called after a Somali queen in folklore, who represented the matriarchal society in the distant past when Somali women were the leaders in society.

He is now contemplating a third book, this time based on interviews with Somali elders.

“Some Somalis came her in the 1960s and ’70s [after President Sharmarke was assassinated and the Supreme Revolutionary Council took power]. They were ambassadors and politicians and many of them settled in Acton.”

Somali Sideways – Photobook in Changing Perceptions of the Somalis and Somali Sideways: Araweelo Edition are available to buy on Amazon.

Somali Sideways

Images above: Mohamed at a book signing 

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

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