One August afternoon last year, waiting in the polished lobby of the Maan-Soor Hotel in Hargeisa, Somaliland, I wondered if it wasn’t too late to cancel the appointment I had made. I had been returning to the city of my birth regularly for the past eight years, but my experiences were always screened by the purdah of wealth, protected by tinted windows and uniformed guards waving metal-detecting wands at every entrance. I had spent even longer away than most of the returning diaspora that clogged the city every summer, having migrated in 1986, before the civil war, to join my father, who moved to England in 1947. Today I was venturing beyond the tinted glass into the real city, to attend a class on marriage.
I had heard about it from Caroline, a tall, American Ph.D. student. She knew the city better than I did and had signed up for the course, to further understand “negotiations of intimacy and morality” in Hargeisa. Love can be a taboo subject in Somali families; relationships come together and fall apart mysteriously, shrouded in secrecy. Caroline had agreed to take me to the next class so I could hear for myself what they taught about how it happened, how a happy marriage worked.
The building was along a street I hadn’t visited before, in a workaday district of car mechanics, teashops and khat stalls. Two little boys in long white khamis chased a third over uneven ground, leaping pools of gray rainwater. We climbed a dark concrete staircase, past a landing dotted with handmade posters, until we heard our names being called from above.
The classroom was so full that I had to tiptoe between feet and knees to the chair a student had vacated for me. A young man with a neat beard and glasses stood near the whiteboard. In front of him, the dim room was a sea of black: black abayas, head scarves, niqabs, gloves. I stood out there in my gaudy prints and sheer hijab. (In Somaliland, that item is nonnegotiable.) I smiled, nodded and tried to make my body smaller, to reduce the feeling that I was intruding on a space that was not my own.
In London, my interactions with girls in floor-skimming abayas are a study in avoidance; we simply pretend not to see one another. Clothing is not a perfect barometer of religiosity, but somehow tribes have been marked out. Only recently, two girls in loose, halfhearted hijabs and skinny jeans passed me on a London street, and one, taking in my only marginally less “modest” dress, muttered to the other in languid distaste: “Somalis these days. … ”
The class leader was a brisk, short young woman with bright black eyes, a ready smile and the energy of an aerobics instructor. She simultaneously apologized for and boasted about the number of students in the class. Then she explained, for my benefit, the modules and levels of the course: cooking, health, negotiating a dowry, raising children. Today the young man waiting patiently behind her would be speaking, on the subjects of confidence and communication. His qualifications for speaking on female confidence were obscure, but he had prepared a PowerPoint presentation, so we readied our notebooks.
Nervously, with a hurry to his voice, he ran through his slides: “How to Be a Good Listener,” “Having an Opinion,” “Bringing a Positive Outlook.” There was a strong tang of Oprah-style self-help to his lecture, laced with an intimation that society as a whole might need help as well. “Kalsooni lahow,” he repeated: Have self-confidence. His audience, women studying for their first or second university degrees, seemed to have confidence already; they only wanted to learn how to transfer it into the romantic sphere of their lives. This wasn’t something they were likely to learn from their mothers’ generation, women who were taught not to argue with men.
After the lecture, the classroom erupted into discussion and laughter. The students complained about their male peers, who they claimed didn’t take marriage seriously — who would marry impulsively just because a girl looked good in a selfie. These women were idealistic, moralistic and opposed to much of what they saw around them: corruption, hypocrisy and disappointment. They seemed intrigued by my way of life — independent, unmarried, peripatetic. No one seemed to find any contradiction between the ideals they were espousing and the path I had chosen.
It is rare for me to feel completely at home in Hargeisa, but to my surprise, I started to. Perhaps, I thought, if I had lived here — if I had seen the war, survived the refugee camps, returned to the city to resume my studies, flourished academically — perhaps my alter ego would have found her way to this room, too, in a black abaya, planning the next stage of her life.
Nadifa Mohamed, 34, is the author of the novels “Black Mamba Boy” and “The Orchard of Lost Souls,” both published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In 2013, she was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists.