How Manchester's Somali Community Helped to Transform Moss Side
We spoke to the artists behind the new multimedia project "See My Dunya", which looks at Somali identity and the community's positive impact on Manchester since the 1990s.
Photo by Sharmaarke Ali Adan
"I love that the people who built those bricks would never imagine that people like us would be here," muses Somali writer Yusra Warsama as the camera cuts to a row of Victorian terraces in Manchester's Moss Side.
Built for the expanding workforce of the Industrial Revolution, in more recent history the area became notorious as one of the most crime-ridden inner cities in the UK, earning the name "Gunchester" in the 1990s. But in 2019, Moss Side couldn't be more different. In a large part, this is thanks to the contribution of Manchester’s Somali community – an effort that is the subject of See My Dunya [See My World], a new film and photography exhibition at the city’s Central Library.
While Somalis have been coming to the United Kingdom since the late 19th century, working for the British Merchant Navy, most Somali Muslims residing in the UK today migrated during the 1990s as refugees. According to the Office for National Statistics, the 2011 Census showed that there were 101,000 Somali-born residents in England and Wales. Analysing the data they write, "Many of these (36 percent) arrived during the 1990s following the Somali civil war in 1991. As the civil war continued, Somali-born residents continued to emigrate, with a further 25 percent (25,700) of residents in 2011 arriving during 2001-2003."
Despite this significant presence, the diaspora’s voices are missing from British politics, art and culture, and there is scant positive representation of Somalis in the media. The narratives of Somalia that persist focus on conflict, piracy and terrorism, with little documentation of the positive work Somalis are doing at home and abroad. In the UK's right-wing press, young British Somalis are often represented as a violent community living by their own laws.
See My Dunya aims to redress this. Captured guerrilla style by London photographer Sharmaarke Ali Adan, the See My Dunya imagery juxtaposes the everyday and mundane – a man standing on his doorstep, young boys playing football after attending mosque, a shopkeeper tending to her goods – with hyper-stylised fashion-referencing portraits of the community’s young creatives. In doing so, it questions the viewer’s perception of Somalis, and invites Somalis to see how the next generation are drawing from their heritage.
As Sharmaarke tells me, it was searching for like-minded Somali creatives that kickstarted the project in the first place. "Identity is a regular part of my work, so it was great to be able to have a dialogue with someone doing that through music," he says, explaining he got involved in See My Dunya after meeting musician and project creator Hamdi Hassan [HMD] through social media. "We connected on the exploration of what our shared heritage means in the diaspora, and helped each other fill in the gaps of our history, which isn’t accessible through other means."
See My Dunya is also the story of the struggles Somalis faced while assimilating in Manchester, where an estimated 6,000 people identifying as Somali reside according to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. HMD, who came to the United Kingdom in 2001, settled in Moss Side after his family were attacked by right-wing extremists in Denmark, fleeing there during the Somali civil war. "For a good seven years my experience living in Moss Side was just realising how much things can go wrong," he tells me, explaining that he arrived during the height of the area’s "Gunchester" years, a period of a high level of gun and drug-related crime.
A similar narrative of first impressions of Manchester emerges in the See My Dunya film. Recounting her own migration story and settling in Moss Side, performance poet, actor and writer, Yusra Warsama, tells me, "If you put poor people together fighting for resources – that creates a tension. The council deliberately placed people in particular areas. Why are you going to make whole streets Somali and then whole streets Caribbean and not think there’s going to be tension? You’re not letting people live side by side."
While discussing the past, See My Dunya wants to look forward. For project manager Tunde Adekoya, who’s a resident of Moss Side but working on See My Dunya from outside of the Somali community, it was especially important to show his fellow Mancunians how Somalis are shaping the infrastructure of the area right now. "Moss Side has a Somali councillor [Mahadi Hussein Sharif Mahamed], there are entrepreneurs, business owners, writers, artists – and a lot of people in Manchester don’t know about that," he says.
A walk down Moss Side’s main shopping thoroughfare, Claremont Road, will reveal just how much the Somali community has contributed. Tunde and HMD estimate that about 70 percent of the businesses here are now Somali-owned, from shops like Takkar Home Decorations, whose vibrant soft furnishings adorn the window display, to restaurants like Bahar Café selling specialities such as baastro (Somali spaghetti) and sabayad (Somali flatbread).
But, as Tunde points out, despite Somalis’ high visibility in Moss Side, there’s a disappointing lack of wider knowledge about the community’s positive impact on the area, as well as confusion about Somali identity: "I was speaking to a local teacher and she referred to the Afro-Caribbean students as black, but the Somali pupils as 'Somali kids', and to me that was an eye opener. That was weird, because Somalis are African – they’re black too."
"We’re a relatively young community, considering most of us have only been here for 25 to 30 years," offers See My Dunya filmmaker Mohamud Yusuf Mussa as way of explaining some of the misconceptions. He says he wants his film – made alongside fellow Manchester director Yasin Hayow, under the moniker SSCOPE – to "demystify the Somali community". Sharmaarke is equally hopeful, saying he’s keen for the exhibition to foster "more of a nuanced understanding of Somalis".
For SSCOPE, the way to do this was to convey the creative potential of the Somali culture. "Somali is a very rich and colourful language, and Somalis are very descriptive," says Yusuf, explaining they chose writer and performer Elmi Ali to discuss this in the film. Straight off the stage from his Contact Theatre-commissioned show, Water Seeds Not Stones, he tells the filmmakers, "It’s a highly literate language, highly metaphorical, there’s loads of riddles […] when something doesn’t work in English, I just flip it to Somali and there’s suddenly a brand new viewpoint that opens up."
Meanwhile, HMD is keen for the project to open up conversation about taboo subjects within the community. On forthcoming EP Hear My Dunya, which is a follow-up to the exhibition, he explores topics such as "coming to the UK and meeting a girl that you want to marry, but she’s not from the same background as you, or a young Somali woman leaving home to go study at uni who falls into drug abuse and drink. These are things we never talk about – we discuss everything but that."
The exhibition’s celebration of Moss Side comes at a pertinent time – the area is once again having to rebuild its hard-earned good reputation after media sensationalism of a rogue pellet gun shooting during an otherwise peaceful Carnival celebration last summer. But ultimately, the main goal is for the Somali community to be able to see their hard work honoured by their next generation.
"It isn't an uncommon sight to see Somali mums dragging several kids to school and back every day, whilst also working, helping in the community and at the mosque, and having a few side hustles to put some extra bread on the table," says Mohamud. "Celebrating these unsung heroes will show Somalis that we don’t need to look far and wide for role models and inspirations."
All photography courtesy of Sharmaarke Ali Adan.
See My Dunya launches on HOME on Saturday 12 January 2019, before moving to Central Libraryon Monday 14 January. It concludes on Saturday 23 March.