The most pioneering families and figures in Somali society belong to a proud albeit entirely secretive lineage which supersedes their outwardly-revered clan genealogies and perhaps even their sectarian oaths. It may seem bizarre, but in just the past four years we’ve learned through science that Adolf Hitler has genetic markers matching up with many of the world’s Jews, and by personal admission we’ve learned that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes directly from a family of Jewish weavers.
Unabated by political correctness and the legacy of anti-Semitic pogroms so common throughout Western history, many in Africa tout playfully that Somalis are “the Jews of Africa.” This phrase is used by Kenyans, Ugandans, South Africans, and even Nigerians who are only mildly accustomed to Somalis, to describe the business acumen of the latter. Although often looked over as only a playful title, there is a much larger truth to the statement than is willfully swept aside by most Somalis.
Somalia’s Resilient Jews
The topic of Jews and Judaism takes up a very small space in the breadth of Somali social discourse. It begins and ends with Israeli Zionism and the plight of Palestinian Muslims. At least that’s what Somalis wish to perceive. But, conversely, ordinary Somalis views on Jewish people are incompatible with the state of Israel and their views aren’t based on theology. For a people who have supposedly never bordered any Jewish communities, the Somali masses speak of Jewish peculiarities that only a longtime neighbor would know.
The most well-known openly Jewish group among the Somalis is the Yibro clan (singular; Yibir), based in the northern city of Hargeisa, and can be found scattered across Somalia and Djibouti. But they are not alone, they’re just the least willing to hide their roots. The Yibro, named for their Hebrew-based origins, make up a part of the greater Gaboye caste with other Jewish-origin Somalis; the Tumal and the Midgan. The latter of the two prefer to be known as the Madhiban in contemporary discourse, which translates to “those who do not harm [others],” but the notion itself is false and is adopted only as a form of self-preservation; the truth is that the Midgan were historically resented for their random assaults on host communities and for showing noncompliance toward traditional peace agreements.
Somalia’s Jewish castes carry occupational names akin to Jews in Persia, and these unique group titles reflect the Gaboye peoples’ role in society, and more importantly their foreignness to traditionally nomadic Muslim Somalis. The Tumal are blacksmiths, the Midgan are leather workers, and the proclaimed Hebrews of the Yibro use their claimed ancestral uniqueness to practice quack medicine. But those are only occupations which circulate hard cash for the community, some among the Gaboye had to create new systems in order to maximize their income. The Yibro, for example, are known to derive their greatest source of income from levying a tax on the birth of children belonging to Muslim Somali parents. This tax has become so affixed and commonplace that it is openly accepted by Somalis. In earlier generations, the Yibro enforced the tax by threatening nomadic Somali communities with dreadful curses, overwhelming their conservative Muslim countrymen. The Yibro also receive gifts for blessings (conversely, non-giving Somalis are cursed).
The Gaboye are also one of the few claimants to Jewish descent in the world who show a lack of interest in any relationship with Israel. The groups who clamor most for Israeli acceptance and citizenship are the destitute Falasha Mura of Ethiopia and younger generations of secular Western Jews seeking guidance. But the Gaboye enjoy comfortable economic situations at home and among Somali communities abroad, despite the mainstream’s unease about having full disclosure on Gaboye identity. Like many non-Western Jews, the Gaboye are never open about their true views on Israel and world Jewry for pragmatic reasons.
Until recent generations, Somali history was exclusively transmitted orally, and it resulted in a stifled record of Somali history which was limited to just the most recent generations preceding the reciter. Setting aside the question of Somali origins to linguists, historians, and geneticists, we can focus on the more important question of Somali Jewry and their history.
Somalis unanimously believe that the Midgan came to be shunned for having eaten human flesh during a period of drought, but this myth is also ascribed to all of Somalia’s lower castes. The most peculiar part of this myth is that it is always told in a way that it trivializes and simplifies the ease with which the community’s patriarch is shunned, especially in a highly clannish culture. The entire myth is an elaborate Somali ploy to avoid the responsibility attached with the truth that their longtime countrymen may in fact just be Jewish. At some point the truth was lost, either naturally or deliberately, and we are left to investigate using what little clues we have.
One hypothesis is that Somalia’s lower castes belonged to a culture which predated the arrival of Somali nomads, but even nomads had fixed locations in the last few thousand years, and it’s implausible to think that the highly dependent Gaboye could survive in a population vacuum in the absence of their nomadic Somali providers.
Somali historian Mohamed Abdi Mohamed concluded in his 1989 study La Somalies that the Yibro (with the possibility of other Jewish-Somali castes) were descended from Hungarian gypsies who settled along the northern Somali coast. This explains why the Yibro branched out into services-based professions akin to Western Jewry. During the middle ages, the earliest Jewish settlers in North Africa and Europe were known to carry out all of the public’s services; medicine and accounting primarily, the former of which began almost identically as the quack medicine practiced so widely by contemporary Yibro in the absence of further education in that field.
The strongest theory on the origin and integration of the Gaboye into Somali society suggests that the Gaboye are merely another traveling branch of world Jewry, and one whose encounter with their host community in Somalia shares every classical hallmark found in the early encounters of European Jewry and Moorish Jewry during their respective time periods and in their respective host countries.
Rising Gaboye status
Over time, the Somali Jewry found an ideal system of coexistence through reliance on their Muslim Somali host communities. The various branches of the Musa (Moses) segment of the Yibro have spread out to live among several Somali patron clans; the Bali became clients of the Ogaden clan, the Malekhal became clients of the Garhajis clan, the “Red” Yibro became clients of the Warsangeli clan, the Galab became clients of the Gadabursi clan, and the Gedideri became clients of the Majerten clan primarily. The Midgan and Tumal have found their greatest acceptance amid the Majerten clan, sometimes being permitted to claim the identity of their Majerten hosts to gain favorable political or economic positions.
Throughout the centuries in which traditional Somali clan identities were being shaped, many lower caste groups have been adopted and assimilated into the genealogies of major clans on a full-time basis, and the practice is still widespread. The “adoptions” are usually forgotten after one or two generations have passed, during which point the host clan’s future generations willfully guard their clan’s sanctity against claims of forgery. Every Somali believes himself to be a valid member of his clan and attests to the validity of the fabric of his clan, but it’s a claim which has never been tested, and a claim which is guarded sacredly despite very rampant and obvious cross-clan assimilation taking place. Some segments within the Gaboye have had their members fully absorbed into each of their respective patron clans, although the Gaboye newcomers to these clans have kept secret dialects among themselves with which to communicate with their cherished kinsmen among Somali Jewry.
During the phase preceding Somalia’s independence after World War 2, many Gaboye abandoned their patron clans to live in large northern Somali cities like Hargeisa and Burao where the country’s largest hide and leather markets were based. These early Gaboye city dwellers became prominent traders and earned fast promotion in public office, allowing them shortly thereafter to influence legislation which banned discriminatory language against minority castes such as theirs.
Just as progressive Jewry had done in Europe, Russia, and Turkey, the Gaboye were quick to embrace Somalia’s 1969 revolution, which ushered in the reign of Siad Barre, a socialist dictator. His promises of women’s rights and more importantly the abolition of ethnic and clan barriers and the promotion of minority castes were very popular among the Gaboye, but caused anxiety among Somalia’s hegemonic clans. Barre’s progressive experiment eventually led to the appointment of Mohamed Ali Samatar as prime minister in 1987. Samatar is a member of the Tumal caste who had gained prestige by using the protection and services of his patron Majerten clan. This is equivalent to an American or French Jew enjoying the dual identity of both a protected minority and also belonging to the privileged White race group. Somali Jewry had found a delicate but very fruitful balance with which to maintain their livelihoods.
Greater Jewish presence in Somali society
Those of the Gaboye whom still find themselves under a harsh microscope are the ones who proudly cling to their original tribal ancestry, which opens them to criticism of their true religious background and cultural loyalties. And while all Gaboye openly embrace Islam, it’s common knowledge in the Muslim world that Jewish communities have faced pressure at different periods to hide their faith, sometimes keeping up with their fabricated Muslim identities for centuries. While Christian societies had a more distasteful historic narrative toward Jews, Muslim leaders were easygoing with their Jewish subjects, often being satisfied with simple words or gestures to be convinced of a genuine conversion. Unlike Muslims or Christians or even smaller sects like the Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and Yazidis, the Jewish diaspora has always been more resilient under faked conversions, never having felt pressured to revolt or to carve out a territory which allowed them to practice their culture. To this end, we can observe that the diaspora-based dependencies of Jews made it much harder for them to live independent existences like exiled and rebellious Yazidis or Sikhs. This handicap ultimately made a centuries-long religious secret a bearable lifestyle.
While the true religious observances of the Gaboye can be speculated upon, what is certain is that some among them like the Yibro openly proclaim their proud Jewish heritage, while also professing an Islamic religious observance. We know that since there are prominent Atheist Jews, it is also possible to be a Muslim Jew under the same rules, with a resulting scenario that nullifies the attached identity tag and leaves only the trace of a Jewish individual who takes momentary refuge in a foreign cloak. Genuine and lasting conversions of Jews to Islam in the middle ages and up to recent centuries has been very rare, which leaves little chance that the majority of Gaboye have made a real switch to Islam over time.
In some towns like Afgoye in southern Somalia, traditional Somali names ascribed to the Yibro appear among some individuals and families who claim membership in a distinct and established Somali clan. There are very clear examples of Gaboye assimilation into other clans from this scenario. The Galgala, a southern relative of the Gaboye, have been undergoing full absorption into the Majerten clan for two generations now. Privileged segments among the northern Yibro have been assimilated into the Habar Awal clan while segments of the southern Yibro (known as the Yahar) have been loosely assimilated by the Majerten clan into a new lineage which accompanies the small Arab Salah clan, whom live among the Majerten but are not genealogically affiliated with them. Despite the perceived level of assimilation assumed by the host clan, the newcomer caste always remembers his old dialect and secretly cherishes his original sect. The Hawiye clan famously attempted to assimilate neighboring Somali Muslim clans during the 1980s, but with only marginal success. If one Somali Muslim clan cannot fully assimilate its own identical neighbors, then it should be noted that loyalty between Gaboye candidates within their adopter clan will never be achieved.
These crisscrossing assimilation patterns have become the latest face of Somali socio-political competition, where instead of territories they exchange entire communities at a whim, and the Gaboye have become the pieces which are moved around the board. Somalia’s political hierarchy is no longer decided by brute strength, but by the shrewdness of your capacity to seek out new bloodlines at the cost of your original one. He who collects the most, wins, and the Gaboye get all the benefit from it.
Jewish faces in the crowd
It usually wasn’t until the end of their legacy that the obscure Jewish ancestries of famous European and Arab figures throughout history were made public. The same can be expected in a place like Somalia, where anti-Semitism runs high, and for reasons irrelevant to the Somali experience. Throughout his term in the late 1980s, Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Ali Samatar was fiercely proclaimed to be a Majerten kinsmen, a notion fabricated and defended by his family’s defensive patron clan. It wasn’t until recent years that the memory of his Tumal history came to light. And like other Gaboye, he possesses the same classical syndrome of double-identity. The revolutionary Siad Barre regime to which Samatar devoted his life, had risen to overthrow a Majerten-dominated civilian administration.
Other famous Jewish faces include Maryan Mursal, the most staunch social activist in the Somali music scene, known for her calls to break down the great caste barrier [primarily against Somali Jewry]. Only in recent years have the Gaboye taken their civic message to a public medium.
As a critic of history, I seek clues from our past to decipher our present. There are two central features of Jewish civic preferences which can be seen most prevalent among Somalia’s Gaboye base in the north. Early Jewish communities in Europe were landless foreigners, but they found a niche in providing services to non-Jewish property holders, which is one of the main reasons why financial instruments are so important to Jewish prosperity. A second feature among Western Jewry is that agglomeration and urbanization has always been preferred to sparse networks of petty towns and artisans from whom little wealth or curiosity was derived, ultimately giving way to monopolies and the industrial age. Europe without its big banks and strategic business realignments would have never developed into a modern industrial zone.
When the first generation of Gaboye had accrued sufficient money at the Hargeisa hide market, we soon saw the first Somali remittance companies take shape in the 1970s and 80s — coincidence or not. After the collapse of the failed socialist experiment in 1991, Somalia entered its first foray into capitalist enterprise and the world of modern financial techniques. We then saw mergers, acquisitions, and shareholding take form at every level of commerce. The amount of innovation coming out of war-ravaged Somalia alarmed curious parties across the regional and global spectrum, setting off serious research on the subject. Aside from a glaring lack of infrastructure, Somalia’s economy and the outward development of its cities grew at levels hardly seen in non-resource based economies anywhere in the world.
To put it simply, the trend of financial creativity and maturity in Somalia is inextricably linked with the trends of Gaboye physical movement and their rapid mobility in society during a key period in mid-20th century Somalia. Most importantly, this juggernaut deployment and adaptation of complex business instruments by otherwise indifferent Somali communities is simply implausible in the given scenario. In the late 1980s, Somalis were subsistence businesspeople, not particularly interested in maximizing their opportunities if they were comfortable, and there was plenty of room in the Somali economy for outsiders. At times, even semi-literate Yemeni and Indian traders edged their Somali counterparts through trivial gimmicks. This environment was not even born out of socialist restrictions, it was simply the natural pace of things for Somalis.
Shortly after the war, newly-exiled Somali entrepreneurs were crowding economies from Dubai to Durban with cut-throat precision and dynamism. The gap between otherwise modest Somali merchants and their market competitors which are funded by industrialized states, is so small today that it would take miraculous intervention to have made the leap toward such financial acumen. Just this past year it was reported that Somali merchants are muscling their Chinese competitors out of business in many parts of Africa, a difficult scenario to imagine since this level of financial ambition is alien to the archetypical Somali. A miracle maybe, but I believe that credit goes to the ancient mercantile niches of a perpetually nomadic people living among us all along, waiting for the forces of history and opportunity to come their way.
Mohamed Yusuf, DN Contributor/Staff