The Woyingi Blog

Short Story Review: Government by Magic Spell by Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi

Government by Magic Spell is a fascinating short story written by Somali feminist writer Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi. This short story is not easy to find here in North America. If you have an edition of the Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories edited by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, published in 1992, then you might be in luck.  This collection brings together 20 short stories written between 1980 to 1991. However, the story is well-known among Kenyan high school students as it is part of a compilation of short stories from North and East Africa which is mandatory reading for English Literature students. This complication also contains Herzi’s other well-known short story, Against the Pleasure Principle, which confronts the practice of female circumcision. I had hoped to find out more online about Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi, but unfortunately, like so many African authors of her generation, I cannot.

But, thanks to the BBC, more people outside of East Africa, will be familiar with this short story as it was chosen to be read as part of the BBC’s The Human Cradle Series, which featured readings of three contemporary short stories by writers from the Horn of Africa. The other short stories included Saba by Eritrean author Suleiman Addonia. According to the BBC site:

In Sulaiman Addonia’s new short story ‘Saba’, a former cinema employee decides to create a ‘cinema’ of his own inside a refugee camp. Read by Abukar Osman.

The first of three contemporary stories from the Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Produced by Emma Harding

About the author: Sulaiman S.M.Y. Addonia was born in Eritrea to an Eritrean mother and an Ethiopian father. He spent his early life in a refugee camp in Sudan following the Om Hajar massacre in 1976, and in his early teens he lived and studied in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He has lived in London since 1990. His first novel, The Consquences of Love (Vintage) was published in 2009.

The second story, The Invisible Map, by Ethiopian writer Maaza Megiste, is described on the site as follows:

In Maaza Mengiste’s new short story, ‘The Invisible Map’, a young Ethiopian woman, hoping for a better life in Europe, finds herself trapped in a Libyan prison. Read by Adjoa Andoh.

The second in our series of contemporary stories from the Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Produced by Emma Harding

About the author: Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. Her debut novel, the critically acclaimed ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’, has been translated into several languages and was a finalist for a Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. She teaches at NYU and currently lives in New York City.

Government by Magic Spell is the last in the series. It is wonderfully read by British Somali performance poet Yusra Warsama.

It is important to keep in mind that the story was written some time between 1980 to 1991. Described as a “satirical parable of power and corruption”, the story exposes the machinations of Somali clan politics but also holds lessons for anyone concerned about justice and democracy.

The story begins with Halima at the age of 10, who we learn, has been possessed by a jinn, better known to Westerners as Genies.  Halima had been ill for several months, but the local religious healer, or Waadad, soon discovers that the origins of her illness are supernatural. An infant jinn which she had accidentally stepped on one night in front of the bathroom has possessed her. Luckily for Halima, and soon her village, the jinn is benevolent and helpful. The people of the village soon believe that Halima’s jinn can give her the power to foretell the future and heal the sick. Halima is able to acquire a great deal of power and autonomy for a woman because of her family and clan being in awe of her jinn. Halima is able to refuse all the men who proposed marriage to her, including the Waadad. Halima’s jinn is perceived to be the reason for her clan’s worldly success and she is seen as a blessing to her family. For that reason, she is summoned from her village to the country’s capital, Mogadishu, where many of her fellow clan members have gained the most powerful positions in government. As Herzi describes:

It had all started with one of their men who had become very powerful in the government. He had called his relatives and found big government jobs for them. They, in turn, had called relatives of theirs until the government virtually had been taken over by Halima’s people. And that had meant quick riches for everyone concerned. Nor had they been very scrupulous about getting what they wanted. Anything that stood in their way had to be pushed aside or eliminated.

Halima’s fellow clan members want to use her powers in order to consolidate their political power, which they have established over a short 10 years, despite many of them being illiterate, although still taking up government positions. The capital’s water system is consolidated so that Halima can placate the jinn but also cast a spell which cures all of the capital’s residents of their curiosity, so they will no longer ask questions about the current state of their government and the actions of Halima’s clan.

We learn from the story about the belief in the power of jinn within traditional Somali Culture. The story discusses ritual sacrifices made in honour of the jinn, in order to keep them placated and for the entire clan to benefit from the jinn’s benevolence. Based on my own experience, I can vouch that belief in jinn and their ability to possess people is quite commonplace among contemporary Muslims, and still strong amongst members of the Somali diaspora. But it is interesting to conjecture how the role of jinns in traditional Muslim African cultures could be seen as a throwback to earlier pre-Islamic beliefs in ancestor spirits. In the story, we learn that the parents of Halima’s jinn even come to visit her in order to advise her on the proper care of their child. What I find truly compelling about the story is how Halima manipulates people’s fear of her jinn in order to gain power, both over her own life, which as a woman would have ordinarily been quite limited, and then political power within her clan.

Further Reading:

Government by Magic Spell by Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi available online

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Article: Black History Month: A Challenge to My Fellow Muslims by Chelby Marie Daigle

For me, Black History Month is not only about celebrating the contributions of my fellow Black Canadians, it is about remembering the impact that the enslavement of Black peoples has had on Africa and the world. It’s about building on the strengths of the Black community in Ottawa by working across the socio-economic, religious, ethno-cultural, and linguistic differences of the diversity of individuals who make up our community. It’s about examining how anti-Black racism still exists within Canadian society and recommitting myself to challenging it by trying to understand why it persists and how it affects my life and the lives of my fellow Black Canadians.

This year, I was honoured to be invited to speak about youth engagement through arts and media at the launch of Black History Month at the City of Ottawa and I was humbled to be presented with a Community Builder Award by Black History Ottawa. For me, Black History Month has definitely started out with a bang.

I have been asked by Muslim Link to write a piece commemorating Black History Month. I feel obligated to take this opportunity to admit something: I often find it frustrating to be around Muslims during Black History Month. Why? Because, although there is often a celebration of Black converts to Islam, like Malcolm X, and condemnation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade perpetrated by the West, there is little, if any, examination of the history of slavery in Muslim societies or of the persistence of anti-Black racism within these societies as well as within Muslim communities in Canada. The reality is I have faced more blatant anti-Black racism from my fellow Muslims than I ever did growing up in a predominantly White community.

Anti-Black racism, which includes beliefs that Blacks are inherently less intelligent, more violent, lazier, dirtier, uglier and more sexually promiscuous than other races, is just as prevalent within Muslim societies as it is in the West, if not more so, because there have not been similar movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, aimed at combatting these prejudices, within Muslim societies.

Unfortunately, although Muslims will often cite the Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, to demonstrate that racism is condemned in Islam, there isn’t really an examination of whether Muslims over the course of their history actually stuck to these beliefs.

It is important for Muslims to look deeper at their particular societies of origin in order to see how the enslavement of Black peoples in these societies has led to the development of anti-Black racism. For example, the fact that in several Arab dialects the word ‘abd, meaning slave, is used to refer to any Black person demonstrates that in these societies the equation of Black people with slaves still persists.

To read the my complete article visit Muslim Link

Further Reading:

Arab Views of Black Africans and Slavery by John Hunwick (academic essay available online)

Religions and the abolition of slavery – a comparative approach by William G. Clarence-Smith (academic essay available online)

Islam and Slavery by William G. Clarence-Smith (academic essay available online)

Islamic Abolitionism in the Western Indian Ocean from c. 1800 by William G. Clarence‐Smith (academic essay available online)

“Slaves of One Master:” Globalization and the African Diaspora in Arabia in the Age of Empire by Matthew S. Hopper (academic essay available online)

Straight, No Chaser: Slavery, Abolition, and the Modern Muslim Mind by Bernard K. Freamon (academic essay available online)

Oxford African American Studies Center: Middle East Page

Race and Slavery in the Middle East Histories of Trans-Saharan Africans in Nineteenth-Century Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Empire (American University Press in Cairo) Review by Gamal Nkrumah available online

Slavery and South Asian History (Indiana University Press)