Aziz Mahdi is a translator based in Somalia who has translated works from Wretched of the Earth to The Communist Manifesto. He can be found on Twitter @AMAGuudcadde.
Can you Talk about your efforts in translating Marxist and Communist texts like the Communist Manifesto and Wretched of the Earth into Somali?
Since my high school years I was an enthusiastic reader. I was drawn into the world of letters. That is how I was introduced to a range of ideas and varied thinkers. Among them were the great Western minds; the likes of Freud, Fromm, Marx, Engels. That was in my university years, at Frantz Fanon University, the only such institution named after the exceptional revolutionary, in Hargeisa. I learned more about the man, Fanon, and other “non-Western” thinkers. Amilcar Cabral and Aimé Césaire, Edward Said, Paulo Freire, were among them. As I was going deeper and deeper into this ocean, I became different—one can say deviant. It was because of this experience with these different ideas and revolutionizing radical thoughts, that I started to think about the Somali context with these new tools. And then I made up my mind: these texts need to be translated. Not only because they are relevant to the Somali collective experience, as a postcolonial, “third world” nation, but also because they sow a seed of humanity into the mind of their reader.
Then I officially started this mission, a personal mission. With the collaboration of Hiil Press, an independent publisher whose mission is to print and put out as many books in the Somali language as possible, I have finished the translation of Edward Said’s The Representations of the Intellectuals (2020), and then Marx’s and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto (2020). After their publication, I have received enormous inspiring reactions from countless Somali readers, both in and outside of Africa. Then the train of translation ignited even more. And in 2021, the Somali editions of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Harold J Laski’s Liberty in the Modern State were published. And the Somali translation of Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is to be published in this year.
Why is it important to translate texts like these into Somali? How can it help revitalize communism in Somalia, largely gone since the era of Siad Barre?
The Somali language is counted as one of the oldest spoken languages in the world, dating back to at least 3000 BC as Charles Barber noted in his masterwork, The English Language: A Historical Introduction. But it was given an official writing script just fifty years ago, in 1972. Given this, one can estimate how much written literature can be produced in such a young script. Although we don’t have credible statistics, we can assume that there are very limited Somali titles. And the available ones are mainly about Somali traditional poetry, biographies, and such. That is partly why I have decided, though I’m not alone in this journey, to let the Somali general readership have varied ideas and original works in their own langue. This is the best way to understand something or someone: by reading their original text in your own tongue.
As for the revival of Communism/Marxism in Somalia, I think we have to go back to the Somali recent history to understand more about the context. Back in the 1960s, under a civilian administration, the Somali political sphere had a liberal democracy, and also a large skeleton of corruption in the closet. There were some progressive political parties and figures who were active at the time. For example, in 1963 the Socialist-leaning party, Somali Democratic Union (SDU), which was the second strongest party in the country, secured the first local council seat for a woman, for Caasha Oomaar Warsame (Aisha Omaar) in Hargeisa. And long before that, there was a large faction of Communist-leaning comrades in SYL, Somalia’s pre-independence party; that was the faction led by a great man, Yaasiin Xaaji Cismaan (Yasin Haji Osman). This wing had a cordial relationship with the Italian Communist Party both in Mogadishu and in Italy. For instance, the original flag of SYL (when it was SYC, the Somali Youth Club) has a hammer and sickle in it, an indication of the identity of the Club. Mohamed Trunji, in his Somalia: The Untold Story 1941-1969, writes that the Italian colonial administration even banned the Club because of its Communist tendencies. And then we have some young leftists in the country, who have studied abroad, mainly in Italy. From this you can grasp that Somalia, in its very first endeavor with statehood and independence, had all kinds of debates.
And in 1969 after the coup, the majority of the populace welcomed the move of the military. The Siad Barre movement gained the trust of not only the masses but also the leftist intellectuals, who convinced him to take the road of scientific socialism and lead the country into a democracy. But he betrayed the revolution and jailed every single, authentic leftist left in the country. And the rest is history.
So what I want from these translations is for the public readership to get a first-hand sources of debates and ideas, in their own language. And also to continue that progressive journey started by our freedom-fighting ancestors.
Why do thinkers like Frantz Fanon and Marx still resonate in Somalia?
These revolutionary, original thinkers are much closer to the Somali collective mind. Because they write about something which each and every Somali has lived through: social class, inequality, domination, imperialism, psychological suppression, the traumatic legacy of colonial wars and civil wars, oppression, lack of harmony, alienation, extremism, etc. We Somalis have witnessed what it means to be colonized, even enslaved in some parts of the country, and then we gained our independence in 1960 (and in 1977, in Djibouti)—at least we thought we did. After 1960, we have lived with the ordeal of neo-colonial policies and corrupted politics with reactionary myths like clan politics, although we have—at least in the Somali republic—a decent democracy. Then we had a highly anticipated coup led by the Generals. And we had a revolution, a Somali Revolution, after a team of progressive leftists and the military started to work together for creating a new society—or at least trying to. But the junta betrayed the essence of the revolution. And then we had an oppressed-turned-oppressor reality. That's why we need to learn much from history. And the best way to do that, I think, is reading and reflecting on progressive thinkers that outlined why such things happen. That is why I have chosen to translate the likes of Marx and Engels, Fanon, Freire: they talk about exactly what we need to hear. They are relevant.
What is the effect of the US military operation in Somalia on your operations?
As Siad Barre was becoming more and more tyrannical, he was acting in every possible way to consolidate his power—a power that no longer existed, as Dr. Mohamed Aden Sheikh argues in his book, Back to Mogadishu. In 1977 he invaded the neighboring Ethiopia, because he was deluded that by doing so he can gain the support of Western states and their Arab marionettes. His defeat coincided with the poisonous needle of the IMF and World Bank being injected into the economic artery of the Somali nation. We have also the petro-dollar Salafi Islamism of Saudi Arabia and its rival of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. These orthodox editions of Islam were mainly orchestrated, or resuscitated to say the least, by the American influence on these Muslim-majority countries to counter the Afghanistan crises at the time. And in the 1980s we paid the utmost price. The once secular Somali culture was distorted into a secluded one.
I must tell that background to let you grasp the objective reality on the ground. After the civil war, we had a direct intervention of American state terrorism, what Bush the Father dubbed "God's job" in Somalia. We also had another group who also claimed that they themselves are doing another "God's job" in Somalia; the Islamic terrorists. The circumstances gave birth to a hostile environment to every progressive idea and practice. No one can think about doing literary works, including translations, under such climate. But we still continue to fight back!
How does your translating operation seek to expand?
As I have mentioned earlier, we need to think critically and act radically. And debating, which raises what Fanon calls "the national consciousness", is the best way to do so. And the best way to do the latter is to have more reading options. And the best way to nurture such habits is to either write more or translate more. My 2017 book, Sicirbararka Fatwada ("The Fatwa Inflation") was my humble attempt to critically examine and analyze the role of the Islamic notion of fatwa (the clerical opinions) and why sanctifying them is bad for the public. And after that, though I continue to write in my personal blog, I started to lean into translations, because this is a detour to catch up with the knowledge and intellectual productions of humanity. And I look forward to continuing writing and translating.
How do Neo-colonialism and imperialism still affect Somalia today, and how can a communist program resist them?
In our recent history, leftist-leaning discourse, and anti-imperial oral literature have been used to counter the colonial powers. The 1969 coup and the revolution that followed were also a further step to oppose neocolonialism and the new imperialism. Had it not been betrayed by Siad Barre, the Somali Revolution would have been a success story.
Yes, capitalism and its imperial face have gained momentum. But a leftist program with a self-critique stance can counter the 21th century imperialism. And the best way for such program to reach the public is to have more intellectual production, including translating the fundamental texts.
How does the translation of texts help one reach more audiences politically and decolonize minds?
I see translation as a way to say what you think without saying it! When you're translating some important text, you are enriching the host language's usage and at the same time giving your audience tools for critical thinking. Fanon's classic book, for instance—the one I’ve had the privilege to translate—is not only a historical text; it gives the reader an ability to regain consciousness. But as translator, you don't talk to the audience directly: it's the original writer who does the talking and guiding, you only facilitate—to use Freire's term—the dialogue. And when the general readership get the chance to know all of these ideas and figures in their own language, they’ll start to think for themselves and—to employ another Freirean phrase—start being for themselves. And that is the starting point, as Fanon had argued, of any genuine liberation and decolonization.
How does Hiil Press play a role in disseminating more Marxist texts across Somalia?
Hiil Press is not a leftist publisher. It is just an independent printing house with a sense of revolutionary tendency—to revolutionize the Somali written literature. We have made contact by its manager in late-2019. Our mutual thinking was that we as Somalis are in need to have more books in Somali. And they thought that I can contribute to this. That is how we started collaboration. I do the selection of books, and after agreeing upon them they finance it and publish it. And I'm not the only translator who is working with Hill Press; there varied ones across the spectrum. I just happen to be the only translator with a special interest in the leftist literature.
What is the future for communism in Somalia, and the work of activists to be done?
No one can tell what the future holds for us. But reviewing our pre-colonial history, one can’t resist concluding that we were a free society which only lacks a central command. There is even an old Somali saying, “wax-wada-qab waa aad” roughly translating into “communality is perfect.” That was our way of thinking and what we can call “Somali doctrine.” But we have been forced to travel away from that progressive thinking. My humble opinion is that we all need to work together to rebuild and recover the most important aspect of our life that has sustained the most cancerous damage: the mind. To do so, all activists need to write more, translate more, and do more. Because our public readership are keen about reading more and discovering everything that can help them regain their free mind; they just lack the appropriate materials to read and dwell on them. We have to make that available.
What can we in the West do to resist American military destruction of Somalia?
We have no direct, ‘traditional’ intervention in Somalia of an American militarism. But, yeah, we do suffer from their proxies. (Even the notorious National Endowment for Democracy is active in different parts of Somalia). We also had the severe impact of the neoliberal economic experimentation. And the list goes on and on.
So, you in the West can raise the voice. You are the taxpayers. We need a collaboration, not collapse. We need learning from each other, not looting. We need coexistence, not conflict. We need life, not death.
Thank you to Aziz Mahdi for this interview.