- Ifrah Monsur: Voice of a refugee artist | #SaturdayReview
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Ifrah Monsur uses art to send messages of love and hope for better days in Somalia while seeking mutual understandings for African refugees, Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy writes
Ifrah Mansour is a US-based Somali artist who identifies as a multimedia artist because her form of art involves the interplay of sound, movement and digital media. She uses her art to explore the lives of Somali Diasporas, the Somali culture, and the need for acceptance in the world. Her work has shown much future prospects, and it is hoped that she would continue to dazzle the world with her art.
Ifrah was born in Saudi Arabia to Somali parents who later moved to Somalia. Unfortunately, a tense civil war broke out in the country (in 1991) not long after her family returned home. Ifrah was to live through the war, famine, droughts, and the refugee camp experience before she attained the age of ten. Her family would later migrate to the US and she counts this a lucky moment which brought forth a second shot at life.
Her fascination with theatre came after college when she got a job at the theatre and saw black actors breathing life into stories. Since then, she has lived her life through the stage.
Her most prominent work is How to have Fun in a Civil War which is a short play inculcating poetry, puppetry and video to capture the Somali Civil War experience through the eye of a seven year old refugee girl.
She is very passionate about the issue of accommodation and tolerance between different human races, especially between refugees and their host communities. She says her target audience are young Somali children who she wants to have access to their history in a most original and authentic manner.
Aside from being an artist, Ifrah Mansour also works as a bilingual teacher and enjoys gardening and cycling.
From her various performances which I have seen on YouTube, Ifrah Mansour seems to be the next big thing from the Somali Diaspora community. Most striking is her poem in honour of the October 14 bombings in Mogadishu where two trucks loaded with explosives detonated and caused the loss of over 27 scores of human lives. In this poem, she interrogates the ugly and unfortunate incident which took place on that black day via the use of graphic images and rhetorical questions. She says:
Walaalo maacan (Lovely brothers)
Did we witness a single truck bombing
Claiming the lives of more than 300
Affecting the lives of more than 600
Under a secluded nation
Yet over a week of searching
Souls still hovering the skies of Mogadishu
The world still watching us like a million dollar action movie
Did we think of what we’d say
To little brown Mohamed when he asks:
Abor, did you stood still?
Hoyoo, did your blood not move?
Abaayo, did you see the hand of a child
No mother present to claim?
Abowei, did you see them dig
Only to find an unrecognisable Somali?
Walaliya, is our humanity trapped in a darkening ozone?
The employment of rhetorical question in the lines of this poem deepens the perplexity of the phenomenon and makes us wonder how man could go to such extent to wreak damage upon his fellow men.
However, Ifrah goes on to send the message of hope, resilience, strength, and love in the concluding part of the poem where she affirms that even if the gruesome occurrence had ‘shook us to our gores/And our lives may be under constant fear of injustice’, the Somali are not easily beaten for they are ‘stubborn survivals’. She says:
Today, we send our strings of tears across the globe
We ache for wounds without a flesh.
Today, we buried our kin limp by limp
Bodies without body parts
And babies without faces.
Our bodies are present
Ready to show to our kids watching us
What love looks like in the midst of tragedy
What strength feels like in the midst of pain
And what cuds look like in the midst of fearful times.
Home is calling us
And it left us a message of love
Stronger than hate
Strength, stronger than fear.
Another of her poems titled ‘Dear America, dear neighbour’ addresses the issue of displacement, accommodation, understanding, and the need for a seizure of hostilities between refugees and their host community (the American society). She went on to give reassurances of peaceful coexistence and the joy that dwells in the world when one is brought in contact with different cultural perspectives. She says:
I came to you with only the clothes on my back
A heart full of hope and an open wound ready to heal
With the right home, the right education, and the right family
I found that home, that education, that family right here,
Next to you.
Your son will play at our side of the street
And you’ll feel at ease knowing that I too am as watchful guardian
Our daughters will face the cultural exchange presentation
Because we would have shown them a real taste that is yet to be found on Wikipedia or Google
You will know why we send a small gift
With each item we borrow as is our tradition
We will hear of your Christmas carolling out through our window
As is your tradition
Your relatives visiting you at the hospital
Will be perplexed by our many presence by your side
As is our tradition
We will bear witness or real kindness as we wake up
To an already mown lawn on a long Ramadan day
As is your tradition.
Because you know, because we know
That we have to be the acceptance that we want in this world
That we have to create
The kindness that our world is in need of now
That we have to uphold the justice
That will allow our children to live in a world
Filled with many voices and cultures
As will be our legacy.
The feeling of displacement and the issues that come with it is perhaps more evident in the lives of the younger generation of refugees who have to struggle with the question of identity and their roots. Another of Ifrah’s poems addresses just this issue. The poem is presented to read like a letter written by a famous female ancestor by name Xaawotako, and which is addressed to the younger generations of Somalis who she calls her sons and daughters. In the voice of a doting mother, the poem persona shows sympathy over the feeling of displacement experienced by the younger generations of Somalis outside the shores of their country by hinting at the beautiful world of the Somalis before its fragmentation and the dissipation of its people to various part of mother earth, there is also the mention of the fight against colonialism as sacrifice for the younger generations to live freely on their land, and lastly a call for a return journey home to help establish lasting peace:
My dear, my dear daughters and sons
Our ancestors have made gabay and murambur
Hidden within the designs of deeley
Within the nuts of guntino
Gabay and murambur filled with wisdom
Just for us to thrive in our world
But we were tested
And in the end, we fled only with our precious.
So, we brought you into this new world
That has built timeless barriers and fortresses
To keep you from accessing our ancestors’ wisdom.
You’re made to feel lost, forsaken, and dispersed
Before you can even pronounce your Somali name
You’re kept apart and dehumanized
When you come together.
My dear daughters and sons
I know there’ll be many days where you’d not understand
What I came from
Or what I gave up to see you live another day, another year
And there will be many moments
Where I would not understand the languages you speak
The ways you feel and the things you care for.
My dear daughters and sons
I am sorry for we have failed to show you
How precious you just are.
My dear daughters and sons
You are not lost
But in search of a new connection to our ancestors
Wisdom that works for you
And you are not forsaken
For many years ago
I have picked up rocks to chase away the enemy
Because I know a precious being like you was coming.
But I know you dream in a different language
Love in a different world
And wear colours that I cannot name
But that does not make you less of my kin
It makes you a survivor
A fierce being that I am proud to have in my lineage.
And for the days you can’t find the Somali word
To speak your truth
I am here still listening, still rooting for you
Because you’ve always been my precious
And you’ll be my pride the day you learn to pronounce your Somali name
And you’ll be my joy
The day you extend a hand to another Somali
That is very different from you.
And you’ll be my beating heart
The day you bring peace in all places
That our ancestors have called home once.
My precious, I still hear you
Listen for you, and call for you.
Speaking of the refugee experience, the poem ‘I am a refugee’ also bemoans the fate of a refugee as he or she attempts to integrate into the society he seeks refuge in. This poem also labels the refugee a stubborn survivor, and it is aimed at dousing the fears of host community over their perceptions of black Muslim refugees, seek understanding, and appeal for acceptance; more so since America is a melting pot.
I am a refugee,
a global citizen,
aching for 2 continents,
2 countries, 2 histories, 2 nations,
yet abandoned by all.
I am a refugee
and I shelter humanity.
I walked, and ran, and screamed,
miles on end,
to find peace,
before I could pronounce my own name.
I come with too many invisible treasures,
feared by all,
banned by politics,
and always longing.
You see cruelty tried to break me,
wars tried to erase me,
bigotry tried to silence me,
and politics tried to ban me,
but still like time, I stand,
still like dust I rise,
and still like hope I move,
and still like love I flourish.
I am a refugee
and I heal humanity.
I am a refugee,
a wandering, colorful, restless, foreign, alien soul.
Won’t you just let me find my humanity,
right here next to you?
Amongst the Somalis, tea making and its drinking goes beyond refreshment or for the mere purpose of quenching thirst; it is a revered art which can aptly be described as a ritual process that has persisted over several decades now, and which is still very much in vogue. In fact, there is a special blend of tea known as the Somali tea (Shaah) offered as a gesture of love, brotherliness and friendship.
Ifrah Mansour captures the significance of the Somali Shaah in her poem titled ‘The Perfect Shaah’. Calling upon the magic of poetry, she describes the tea making process, and how it is savoured with ‘sheeko’ (stories) from those sipping it:
Skip across the Indian Ocean
And beg a handful of Malabar shah
Just for two and enjoy the luster
Knead it like precious moments
And let it be for a bit while.
Now might we have a good time
To look through your window
And see if the world
Isn’t just the little bit spicer deep within your soul
Affirm that it is a good moment
And count your blessings, and your blessing blessings.
Now, your shaah is ready
Soon, you will know why a good shah
Is solved with a sheeko
From a being in flesh with their own stories.
Ifrah Mansour’s form of art springs from her experiences as a refugee who absconded from the violence of a civil war and long period of droughts. For her, art is therapeutic as she uses her art to express pent up emotions and gives voices to the many who have long bottled up memories of their tragic experiences within them. Her voice is sonorous and her words reach down her listeners’ souls to strike chords in them. Her poetry always points us the way back to where she came from due to infusion of local colours which ornaments her presentations, especially her diction. While using her art to send the message of love, brotherhood, peace, and hope for better days to come back in her home country, she also calls for mutual understanding and accommodation on the part of the host community of African refugees.
‘Artist Ifrah Mansour Headlines Fall Somali Programs at Minnesota History Center.’ http://www.mnhs.org/media/news/10436. Ret. Oct. 25, 2019.
Dear America, dear neighbour poem by Ifrah Mansour. https://youtu.be/xNG48IrgbWg. Ret. October 24, 2019.
Felicia Philibert. ‘Multimedia Artist, Educator, and Somali Refugee.’ https://www.dreamrefugee.org/stories/2018/8/18/ifrah-mansour-multimedia-artist-educator-and-somali-refugee. Ret. Oct. 28, 2019
I am a Refugee Poem by Ifrah Mansour. https://youtu.be/Y5sIAY8jPB0. Ret. October 24, 2019.
‘Ifrah Mansour’s How to Have Fun in a Civil War’. https://www.childrenstheatre.org/about-us/newsfeed/1009-ifrah-mansour-s-how-to-have-fun-in-a-civil-war.
Ifrah Mansour Somali Poet, international women’s day 2018. https://youtu.be/bIG2b5e0gwE. Ret. October 24, 2019.
‘Nov. 21 Ifrah Mansour’. https://pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org/ifrah-mansour/. Ret. Oct. 28, 2019
Ifrah Monsur and Ahmed Knowmadic English Poets Somali Museum Night 2016: https://youtu.be/DgaDc0-4omQ. Ret. October 24, 2019.
Somali Museum Night 2018 Poem, by Ifrah Mansour. https://youtu.be/E7yABkGvVX8. Ret. October 24, 2019.