Somali Chef Seizes The Chance To Return Home
London-raised Ahmed Jama won't give up on Mogadishu, Somalia, even though his restaurants have been attacked by suicide bombers more than once. In fact, he's leading the city's cultural revival, one dish at a time, by offering residents and visitors a taste of authentic Somali cuisine and hospitality. (This piece initially aired Nov. 26, 2012, on Morning Edition.)
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After years of violence, Mogadishu is becoming somewhat safer. The capital of Somalia suffered through more than two decades of civil war. But ever since African Union peacekeepers came in, the city has been relatively peaceful, and a Somali expatriate has seized on the chance to come home. He's a restaurant owner who wants to revive Mogadishu one seafood dish at a time. NPR's John Burnett went to order a meal.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Ahmed Jama was running a successful Somali cafe in southwest London when he decided it was time to go home. Against the urgent advice of friends, he returned to Mogadishu three years ago and started cooking.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
AHMED JAMA: The vegetables here, the bananas and spinach, carrots, pumpkins, potatoes all mix in the flavors.
BURNETT: Jama, self-described as the skinny, bald Somali guy, stands in his open-air kitchen surrounded by bubbling pots of broth and plates of lamb shoulder and lobster tails. His customers sit under a thatched roof on a floor of red African sand. This is one of four restaurants Jama has opened in Mogadishu since he came back. Each is named the Village. A fifth is on the way. They're packed every day.
Jama's restaurants had been spared the mindless bloodshed that earned Mogadishu the moniker of the world's most dangerous city until recently. On September 20th, an evening crowd was enjoying tea and political gossip at his place in central Mogadishu across from the National Theater when two men wearing explosive vests blew themselves up in the dining room.
Fourteen people died and 20 were injured. Jama knew them all, except for the suicide bombers who were thought to be linked to Islamist militants opposed to the Western-backed government of Somalia. Jama dealt with the trauma of the attack the only way he knew how.
JAMA: Following the explosion, I went in the kitchen cooking.
BURNETT: That restaurant was recently renovated and reopened.
JAMA: I showed them I'm not going to give up. I showed them I'm still wanting to stay here.
BURNETT: Jama strengthened security at all of his locations. Today, his cafe here in the Hodan district may be the only seafood shack in the world with its own guard tower. There is, in the Village restaurant these days, the same feeling that was palpable when a beloved restaurant in New Orleans reopened after Hurricane Katrina - an emanation of humanity, a celebration of good food and a triumph over chaos. One only has to speak to his customers.
BURHAN GUTALE: I cannot even explain to you what's the meaning of what happened in Somalia. But the worst of the worst happened in here.
BURNETT: Burhan Gutale is a local businessman, a regular customer and one of the friends who cautioned Jama not to open this place.
GUTALE: I remember when he start here. And I used to say: Please, don't do it. It's not a good place. He said: Listen. Somebody has to do it. Somebody has to start to do it. I have to create a place where people can come and talk decent. And, you know, let us do it something different. And he did.
BURNETT: Symbolism aside, what draws people to the Village restaurants is a reconnection with delicious, authentic Somali cuisine, which is a crossroads of tastes from the Middle East, Italy, Ethiopia and Persia. A meal starts with a salad of shrimp, mango, lime and strips of chapatti bread.
A fillet of kingfish, caught that morning, is grilled over charcoal and enlivened with a light green chili sauce. The side serving of rice is garnished with carrots, onion, cinnamon, cardamom, raisins and green pepper. Everything is local. Everything is fresh, because it's so hard to get processed food in Mogadishu.
There are also traditional Somali dishes on the menu like soor - sorghum mash, canjeelo - Somali pancakes and camel meat. Locals say you could not get good food in Mogadishu during the civil war. People wolfed down their food, oblivious to palate and raced home, because they were afraid. Fatima Abdullahi is a former BBC reporter and now a Somali political consultant who moved back from London.
FATIMA ABDULLAHI: Yeah. It's something Mogadishu needed. You know, Mogadishu was all, like, the traditional food, the same kind of canteen-style. So it's great somebody comes and opens a restaurant and raises the standards.
BURNETT: The despite-all-odds success of the Village Restaurants has been an inspiration to other Somali expatriates to return and start businesses. Ismael Assir recently moved back from Boston to sell solar panels here.
ISMAEL ASSIR: Actually, one of the main reasons I moved is because I was inspired by him. It takes a lot of courage.
BURNETT: Courage indeed. The terrorists returned. Two more suicide bombers tried to force their way into the restaurant where these interviews were conducted. When the assailants would not agree to a patdown - required of all customers - a gunfight broke out with the security guards outside the entrance. Then they detonated their bombs.
Though Jama's heroic guards were injured, the only fatalities were the bombers. Jama's staff cleaned up the blood and body parts, repainted the steel gate and reopened three hours later. Reached by phone in Mogadishu, Ahmed Jama says simply: We're OK. We're open for business. People in Mogadishu are resilient. John Burnett, NPR News, Nairobi.
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