The "good pirates" of Somalia

My father's hometown of Eyl, Somalia, was once a pirate's haven. I sat down with an ex-pirate to learn why

Published April 30, 2017 11:30PM (EDT)

The village of Eyl, Somalia.   (AP/Ben Curtis)
The village of Eyl, Somalia. (AP/Ben Curtis)

One morning in Eyl, Somalia, Osman, a married fisherman in his thirties, woke up with the rising of the sun. His wife and eight children, all under 14 years old, were still sleeping in the hut beneath the edge of the mountain. The ocean breathed cold. Osman had a small boat with a tiny engine. Taking a drag of his cigarette, he prepared his fishnet, got on his boat, turned the engine, and waved goodbye as his wife, pregnant with their ninth child and woken by his commotion, poked her head out of the hut. Osman took off.

Three years later when I met Fawzia, Osman’s wife, she told me how she could not forget the memory of her husband's one hand holding the engine handle and his other hand waving to her as the image of him on the boat grew smaller and smaller and then disappeared into the blue Indian ocean. He never made it back to his family. Four days later, the ocean spat out his decomposed body. His mouth was duct-taped shut, his hands were tied together with a gray zip tie behind his back, and bullet holes littered his chest.

Fawzia and I sat in her hut, and she pulled out a gray burlap bag and pushed it to me. “Here,” she said. Tears poured from her eyes. “His pictures are in the bag.”

“Thank you,” I replied and I placed my hand over her shoulder. I was in Eyl because it is the birthplace of my father. As a child, my father talked a lot about this coastal city, but it now looked like an abandoned oasis, with its white sand beach, white birds, palm trees and monkeys giggling from the top of the mountain.

A fisherman, Osman was the breadwinner of the family. After he was murdered, Fawzia’s family nearly starved. She began to beg the other villagers for food so her children could eat. Osman was not the first or the second victim who went to work and never returned. Other fishermen disappeared. The suspected killers were on foreign ships and boats on the ocean, visible to the villagers on land.

Looking through the pictures of Osman’s dead body, I did not know what to say to her. He was gone and I knew that none of my words could bring him back.

“We have nine children together,” Fawzia said. “He is not here to help me raise the kids.”

“I am so sorry,” I whispered. “May he rest in peace?”

I took some pictures of her family. I hugged her and gave her the little money I had. My tears soaked my chin. Anger boiled inside of me and my stomach turned. And then I returned to my motel. Sitting on a green plastic chair outside, I placed one leg on top of the other and listened to the faint splashes from the ocean waves. Asha, the owner of the motel, stepped out of the kitchen. She was a dark, tall and chisel-faced woman in her thirties. I asked for a cup of tea. She brought it to me.

“Eyl is so beautiful,” I said. The air smelled of a mixture of earth and sky. The soft sand felt good beneath the soles of my feet. A thin butterfly with black and white wings lifted up and hovered over the water well to my right. “My father used to talk to me about Eyl before he died.”

“May he rest in peace?” she said and lifted her cup up to her lip and sipped it. “The pirates ruined the good name of Eyl.”

When young boys were sent to protect the villagers’ lives as if they were the coast guard of Somalia, the elders did not expect their boys to turn out to be pirates, drawn into crime by the lure of money, sex, alcohol, trucks, houses and fame.

“Did I hear that you are a poet?” I asked.

“Maybe,” she answered shyly. “I will recite a poem for you to record before you leave.”

“Tell me something about Eyl and its pirates.”

“Despite our boys who turned into pirates, no murder took place in this city for over thirty years,” she said. “None. It is very peaceful here.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said with smile crossing my lips. “I love Eyl.”

Memories of my father swirled in my mind. As a child, my father sat on this soil. He played soccer here and swam on that white beach. In his teens, he perhaps kissed a girl. He lost his father. He lost his mother. He lost his five brothers. While his younger sister looked after the goats and sheep in the forest, the British army kidnapped her. My father lived with the hope that, one day, he would reunite with her somewhere in London. My father ran away from Eyl and met my mother in Mogadishu. Since Eyl gave birth to my father, I felt that Eyl did not belong to the pirates, but it belonged to me.

“What you called ‘pirates’ are our local boys who were protecting the sea from foreign thieves,” Asha said.

While the foreign ships and boats fished illegally, they also harmed the villagers. Since there was no Somali central government, the crews on those ships and boats were unafraid. And knowing that there would be no consequence, they often ruined the villagers' fis nets, killed the fishermen, and dumped their bodies in the ocean. The ships and boats often flew flags from North Korea, China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Iran, Pakistan, India, Yemen and many other countries.

“Eyl lost too many boys to piracy,” Asha said with a pause. “Isn’t death the final chapter to life?”

I loved talking to Asha. Her poetic language made my stomach tingle. Looking at her mouth, I held my pen and tapped on my front teeth and motioned for her to say more.

“At night, there were so many lights from the ships and boats on the sea that it resembled another city floating on it.”

“That is insane,” I chuckled. “I wish I were here to see that.”

While the problem of losing fishermen mounted, and traffic from the sea increased, the village elders called for an important meeting. They traveled in from adjacent villages. Goats were slaughtered and fresh camel milk was delivered. Large pots of rice were cooked. The meeting was convened under a tree in the forest, outside of Eyl.

As the day died down and the sun turned to a ball of yellow falling behind the mountains, the elders decided to fight back. They agreed to put their resources together: guns, boats, young men, communication devices and trucks. In the following days, each elder brought young men from his sub-clan.

Equipped with weapons and, most importantly, the blessings and the prayers from the villagers’ supreme elders, the young boys boarded mini-speedboats and ventured into the ocean.  They attacked a ship. They captured it and brought it back. While pirates are as old as the sea, Somali good pirates were born out of the villagers’ basic right to life and their desire to protect their resources in the sea.

In a week, the owners of that ship paid a large ransom to the young men, who had never seen such a large quantity of money before. The word got out. Other young men picked up guns and took in other ships. As they gained wealth and attracted international notoriety, they bought trucks, and attracted gorgeous girls. Some learned to drink alcohol, something their culture frowns on. The money inspired them to seize anything in the ocean: freighters, oil tankers, yachts, sailboats.

The more money the boys who turned pirates took, the more the elders lost control of their sons. Some boys were caught, and they ended up in foreign prisons. Other boys were lost in the illusion and the sudden gain of money and they drifted in the wilderness of drugs and alcohol. Not only were the villagers losing their identity, but the international threat of invasion from the air and sea hung over them. The villagers often saw fighter jets flying high in the air.

The elders called for another meeting. With rice, meat and cups of fresh camel milk, they once again sat under a tree. They debated over the departed souls of the young men whom they had encouraged to go after the ships, the boys in foreign prisons and the boys now lost in the world of chewing qat — a stimulant — and alcohol and womanizing.  They decided to stop their boys, now known to the world as “Somali pirates.”

While I sat and sipped my tea, a young man in his twenties with a Muslim headscarf wrapped around his head came to us. Taking a drag of his cigarette, he chewed qat leaves, and green saliva oozed out from the end of his lips. Asha got up and pulled her chair to him.

“Tea,” he said and sat.

“He is an ex-pirate,” she said as her eyes danced between us. “Tell him your experience.”

“Only if he will pay for it,” he hissed and looked at me. “If not, I do not have a free story.”

“Come on, I am not a white man,” I interrupted him. “I was born behind that mountain,” pointing my finger in the direction of Dawad. My cheeks stretched as I opened my mouth in a smile. There are two parts to Eyl: Dawad and Badey. We were sitting outside of the Libin Motel in Badey. From the way I exaggerated my laughter, he could tell that I was not born in Eyl. I was born in Mogadishu. But since my father was born here, I could claim Eyl to be my birthplace.

“Do you chew?” he said.

“Sure,” I lied. My father used to chew it. I once chewed it in my teens when I was in a refugee camp, and I liked it. Since I made it to America, I did not have the time to sit and chew. Almost all the men in Somalia chew qat.

Qat is a leafy substance that, when chewed, releases an active drug that makes a man feel as if he were Superman. Depending on who’s doing the chewing, the effects of qat can be compared to a combination of marijuana, coffee and acid. Its side effects vary; some experience orgasms, others hallucinations in which they build houses, win battles, graduate from college, get married, raise children — all while only sitting there. For some, however, qat merely functions as strong caffeine.

“Your chew is on me,” I offered and watched him as a smile crossed his lips.

“The chew is on him,” he repeated and lifted his chin at Asha. “Prepare a room for us.”

Asha got up, placed a bamboo mat under the tree in the courtyard, covered the mat with a white sheet and put two white pillows on each side. Before we moved to the mat, she brought an ashtray, a tea thermos and extra sugar in a ceramic cup. He did not ask me for my name, and I did not ask him for his, but we acted as if we were brothers from different mothers.

“You smoke?” he asked, and he took a drag of the cigarette hanging from the left corner of his lip.

“No,” I replied. "I can try it, but do not laugh at me if I cough."

We sat. He opened his bag and I opened mine. Holding fresh leaves of qat in my hand, I bit it and chewed it.

“You know, one of my cousins became a pirate,” I said.

“Where is he now?” he asked. “Do not tell me in prison somewhere in the world.”

“His family sent him to Mogadishu,” I replied. “And he now lives there with a wife.”

“Tell me about your time as a pirate,” I said. “To be a pirate sounds to me like some Hollywood action movie.”

“I never got on the ships, but I helped a few guys who were pirates,” he said calmly.

“What?” I said. “You are not a pirate then?”

“What is a pirate?” he asked smilingly.

“You,” I answered. “A skinny Somali man with a large forehead on a speedboat who climbs in back of a large ship and takes it as theirs.”

“You are silly when you speak like a white man,” he scolded me with laughter on his lips. “My friends captured a ship and when they got paid, they gave me some money.”

“So, where is the house or the truck?” I teased him. “You got money, but you got nothing to show. You should have at least bought the chew for us.”

“Filthy money never lasts,” he said. “It came in fast and it left out of my hands so fast.”

I kept looking at his face and I put qat in my mouth and chewed it. In a few minutes, I felt its stimulus working in me, and I became a bit talkative -- excited and yet fully aware. I liked the qat-chewing part of my visit to Eyl.

“My father did not like the money, and he told me to burn it because it was bad money,” he said. “So I buried it and used it to chew away. I used that money to wet my penis, too.”

“Wet your penis,” I repeated after him and looked at him with a smile. He returned my smile.

“Your Somali is strong, and so I know you understand me,” he said.

“Sure, I understood you,” I said. “Remember, my umbilical cord was buried in the Somali soil.”

I knew what he meant, and so I smiled. Wetting his penis was another way of saying he had gotten married and had sex. As he spoke to me, that good-pirate young man was now broken, and he had a great battle with his conscience. He was now a bad pirate.

“Good,” he said. “Your language is very good.”

He knew something about me. He knew that I was not from Eyl, but that I was from the United States. Perhaps Asha told him something about me.

“In the beginning, piracy was something holistic and organic,” he said. Shaking my head up and down, I bit a qat leaf and chewed it as I looked at his face and motioned for him to say more. “We were defending our sea against international ships stealing our resources and killing our men.”

“I see,” I said. “But that is the story that people in Europe and America and the rest of the world do not know.”

“My question is do they want to know the truth,” he said.

“Maybe,” I answered.

“No, they do not want to know the truth,” he raised his voice a bit. “Truth belongs to the powerful.”

“Hmmmmm,” I chewed his words in my mind.

“The distorted truth from the mouth of the powerful is the truth that everyone else accepts,” he said. “Since we are now part of the weak nations, our truth is meaningless, but we hold our truth high until we reach that galaxy of death.”

“I guess you are staying true to being a part of a ‘nation of poets,’” I said as my mind stretched trying to understand his poetic use of the Somali language. He smiled. I returned his smile. “Or is it the qat that is making you spit out such fine language?”

“One cannot claim to be a man without a degree of mastery in poetry and proverbs,” he said. “See, what really defeats piracy are poems from the elders.”

“How so?” I asked.

“They recite poetry of curses against the young boys, against the fathers who hide their pirate sons, against the clans and against mothers who allow their daughters to marry a pirate,” he said. “Words are greater weapons than the guns here.”

“Hmmmm,” I hushed.

“Guns can kill you, and you would be buried, and that would be it; but poetry can stay on the lips and in the memory of the people beyond your lifetime,” he said. “Today's poetry of curses against you is so damaging that a man might refuse to marry your daughter’s daughter. It is important that we listen and obey our elders' poems.”

His words made somewhere in my body itch. Hearing the sound coming from his mouth chewing and seeing the dancing smoke rising from his mouth, I remained as silent as New England snow, where I called home for more than twenty years.

“Among such were the curses to become poor, childless and of course a life after death in hellfire,” he said. “None of us could handle the poems of curses from the elders.”

“Hmmmm,” I said.

“Many of the boys who refused to hear the elders were either captured or killed,” he said, as if he wished for the elders never to utter those poems.

“So, the international community shall celebrate the work of the elders,” I said.

“It is the truth that the elders did a lot to stop piracy, but remember that the truth from the international community is much more powerful.”

“Thank you,” I said. "I now understand piracy from Eyl perspective."

“No one wants to hear the truth from poor elders with canes,” he said with a short pause. “But time and history will hear us.”

By Boyah J. Farah

Boyah J. Farah is a refugee turned writer from Somalia whose works of nonfiction have been featured in The Guardian, Harvard Transition, Scheer Intelligence at KCRW, Grub Daily and Truthdig. A Judy Layzer Fellow, he participates in the Memoir Incubator at GrubStreet Creative Writing School in Boston. He is a team member of Open Learning Exchange.

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Africa Life Stories Somali Pirates Somalia Travel