The Coffee Shop Warriors of Minnesota-Somalia

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

MINNEAPOLIS, MN -- Here’s something fun to do on a Saturday morning.

Go to the Starbucks at Riverside Avenue and Highway 94 in Minneapolis and pull up a chair at one of the coffee tables packed with Somali immigrants who are sharing the day’s news, telling jokes, arguing politics, and comparing the merits of Somalia’s various clan leaders and warlords.

When the hubbub settles, as it eventually will so that the group can take stock of the newcomer, pull out a small notebook and tell the group you want to know the meaning of a new Somali phrase you have learned.

Jot down these three words on the paper: “fadhi ku dirir.”

Nonchalantly throw the piece of paper to the middle of the table. Now, sit back and enjoy the gale of laughter that ensues. In particular, note how all the men at the table (Somali women avoid this Starbucks) look at each other self-consciously as they finish laughing and whisper to each other in Somali.

As the laughter dies down, then ask the group “Are you guys ‘fadhi ku dirir?” The laughter will peak again, and this time notice the vigorous shaking of heads as each man protests “no, no, no,” while pointing to other tables around the coffee shop that are filled with debating Somalis.

Guns and Daggers

Americans might have a hard time believing that a phrase that describes a certain kind of political discussion could elicit such fun.

But that’s precisely the case. Literally translated, “fadhi ku dirir” means “fighting while sitting down.” More broadly, the phrase is now used so often and in so many ways, arousing so many emotions, that it's become a key to understanding modern Somali society. It plays an especially important role in the boisterous exile politics of a country up to a third of whose population lives as refugees outside of the homeland.

“‘Fadhi ku dirir’ means hanging around, talking and debating, especially if you are on opposite sides,” says Adi Galayd, a Somali professor of international relations at the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs in Minneapolis. “It's like joining a Dunn Brothers Parliament, a supposedly more peaceful way of engaging each other than by using a gun or dagger.”

When clan warlords forced Somali’s Prime Minister, Siad Barre, to flee the country in 1991, plunging the country into a civil war, “fadhi ku dirir” became an essential activity of the Somali street both in Somalia and in the Somali diaspora that stretches across eastern Africa (especially Kenya and Ethiopia), to the United Kingdom, Sweden, Canada, and the United States.

Without a government, Somalia is run by dozens of warlords, each of whom claims a territory, a platform for national governance, and a fight-to-the death constituency.

Deep Hatred

It would be impractical, of course, for these constituencies to actually fight to the death every time they met each other on a Somali street. Not to mention when they meet in coffee shops in Stockholm, Ottawa, and Minneapolis.

So instead of fighting to the death, they “fadhi ku dirir.” They order shots of espresso, sit across coffee tables from one another, and hurl rhetorical ordnance for hours at a time. They are Somalia’s coffee shop warriors.

“It’s not civic discussion, argument or debate,” said Abdirahman Aynte, editor of the popular Somali Web site, Hiiraan.com. “A lot of it is insults and name-calling, and sometimes it’s praising one’s own tribe. It’s tailored to deep hatred and dislike. It’s uncivilized and has a bad connotation.”

Name Calling

Which explains the self-conscious looks and the slightly embarrassed laughter at Starbucks. It also explains why, in the vast number of Somali Internet chat rooms, the phrase is used an all-purpose insult . Recently spotted outbursts in Somali chatrooms include: “You are nothing but fadhi ku dirir...,” and “You guys are all fadhi ku dirir…,” and “I am not a fadhi ku dirir who would have anyone who is not related to them fry in hell.”

A PhD studying how political discourse forms community and identity would find fadhi ku dirir a rich lode for research.

Abdirahman Aynte suggests that the activity is a form of “ritualistic presentation” that “confirms and reaffirms tribal stories and identities” – but which in doing so works against the broader aim of unifying clans into a single peaceful nation.

Abdullahi Daud, a graduate student at Metropolitan State University, wrote an essay for Hiiraan.com that made a case for stopping “fadhi ku dirir”-style discourse as a matter of utmost priority for establishing peace in Somali.

“They live in the most advanced country in the world, the United States,” he said of Somalia’s coffee shop warriors. “Yet they dance to the tune of warlords in the most chaotic and least-developed country in Africa. It’s hard to believe, but true. We have to unchain ourselves from clan slavery.”

Shoutfests

In the same essay, Daud says that warlords exploit the natural human tendency to boast about clan identity, and to belittle others, as a means to solidify their own hold on power. Meanwhile, “we never question the self-styled, so-called leaders who cash in on our division.”

He then tells the story of a Somali journalist who once asked the mayor of Minneapolis, “Why don’t you help Somalis in your city?” Upon which the mayor answered: “How can I help people when each group I meet discredits the other group that just left my office?”

Not that Somali exiles have a monopoly on shoutfest political discourse.

Anyone wishing to understand the gist of fadhi ku dirir need only switch on Fox TV, the blogosphere, or any of the other hyper-partisan “debate” forums that pass for political dialogue in our country.  

"Grill Them"

Whenever two people or parties get together to “discuss” issues like abortion, gun control, or gay marriage and simply lob talking points at each other instead of seeking open dialogue and common ground – that’s fighting while sitting down, in the truest Somali coffee-shop-warrior style.

"Deny our clan front-runners the free ride they have so far enjoyed,” Daud writes in his essay. “Grill them. Question their logic. Once we are no longer confused, we could then ask our elected federal, state, and local officials for assistance with our issues. We owe this to the next generation.”

You bet we do.

Copyright @ 2006 The McGill Report
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