Salma's World

America is engaged in a war without truly understanding what that war is about, or how to judge the world's response to it.

| Mon Sep. 9, 2002 3:00 AM EDT

Not long after the September 11 attacks, in the dusty town of Hargeisa in the highlands of northwestern Somalia, I met a young woman named Salma. At 25 she lived alone with her mother, who chewed the stimulant shrub khat all day, and together they watched the satellite television that her father's earnings as a migrant worker in Saudi Arabia had paid for. Salma was obsessed with the twin towers, for which she expressed a deeply personal love. When Rudy Giuliani and Oprah Winfrey commemorated the deaths in a ceremony at Yankee stadium, Salma watched in Hargeisa and cried. Her sympathy was composed in large measure of longing and loneliness. "Everyone there was crying together," she told me, "but I was crying alone."

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Outside her house were stone-throwing boys and the tyrannical imam of a mosque next door. Salma's gelled hair and bright skirts drew their abuse, so she stayed inside for days at a time with her lifeline, the TV screen, which brought tidings of a world that seemed far more real to her than her own. Hargeisa was bombed to rubble during Somalia's long civil war and it's now a city teeming with refugees. But the more her people suffered, the more Salma seemed to despise them. She found New York's gaping wound more grievous. Her English was littered with turns of phrase she'd culled from hip hop -- "bitch" was a favorite word. Like a teenager, she filled her diary with lyrics from Michael Bolton songs and a description of the menstrual cycle recalled from her years in a Kenyan primary school, when she and her mother were refugees from Somalia's civil war. Nairobi had been free and exciting, but dangerous. Somalia, on the other handÐshe hated it to the point of refusing to speak her own language. "I wish I had two Scuds," she said. "I would bomb all of Somalia."

She was half-educated, unqualified for most work, unwilling to marry a Somali and begin having children. She felt like a prisoner in her own country, and she feared going mad. A series of Americans in Hargeisa -- the most recent were Christian aid workers -- had briefly entered Salma's life (she struck up conversations with white strangers on the bus) and left her with a potent sense of hope and abandonment. Not knowing what else to do, I gave Salma a hundred dollars to help pay her way back to Nairobi, a sort of halfway house en route to her ultimate desire, which was to live in Miami or Beverly Hills. "Africa is stupid," she said. "Everything is about money because no one has any. That's all they can think about."

In some ways, Salma is a new figure on the world scene. In an impoverished, war-wrecked country, where no one is more than a generation away from being a nomad, her reality has been formed and deformed at dizzying speed by a narrow, but intense exposure to the modern world. If she were a young Somali man, poverty and dim prospects and news from the world she couldn't reach might have driven her to take Osama bin Laden as the spokesman for all her inchoate longings and frustrations. If she'd never gone to Kenya as a war refugee, she might already be having her third or fourth child. As it is, she knows too much and has too little. Her mental life far outruns her means.

There are millions of people around the world in Salma's position -- members of the vast poor majority on whom the modern world has begun to work. In reality, the problem today in those parts of the world like Somalia where food remains an issue is that food is not the only issue. Salma needs money, but she also needs a sense of how she fits into the modern world. A new kind of identity crisis holds people like her in its neurotic grip, trapped between one culture -- their own -- that increasingly fails them and another culture -- ours -- that promises much and delivers little. It's pointless to bemoan the effect of America's trash exports on ancient civilizations. For someone like Salma, who has lost a connection to the land and the clan, and who sees nothing but failure in her corner of the contemporary world, Oprah is the image of her desire.

I had gone to Somalia to find young Islamic fundamentalists, to ask about the appeal of radical Islam here in the horn of Africa. They were not eager to be found, for rumors were flying that Somali Islamists would be the next targets of America's war on terrorism. Since then, Somalia has dropped off Washington's radar again. A year later, I can see that the people I was looking for were in some ways less important than the person I found. The conflict that began around the time I went to Hargeisa has given Americans a misleadingly rigid notion of the way the world is lined up: On one side, the US and the west, democratic, modern, decadent, too-powerful; on the other, fundamentalist Islam, with its apocalyptic dreams and its siren song of third world solidarity. In this scheme, hundreds of millions of people throughout much of black Africa and Latin America and the non-Muslim parts of Asia, including Salma, have largely been forgotten. And yet they are the real audience for the war -- the ones whose hearts and minds belong by birth or tradition to neither side, and could be won by either.

A year ago, Americans discovered that we live inside the gates of an empire with unprecedented power. The initial response to this realization was characteristically American. Even Oprah devoted a show to Islam. Sophisticated Europeans sneered, but it's just this innocence and openness that many of the world's poorer citizens value about Americans, as anyone who has traveled through Africa knows. But in the year since then, the world has become alien again. The burst of self-education and self-examination ran its course, and Americans have withdrawn into a defensive clinch. As a result -- and this is true of the left in this country just as much as the right -- we misunderstand what the war is about and how to judge the world's response to it.

To one group of Americans, we are engaged in nothing less than a clash of civilizations, and "they" are dangerous fanatics who must be disarmed and subdued. To another group, the war against terrorism should be a war against poverty and America's victimization of the world's brown and black people. Underlying both these views, however, is an inability to imagine "them" as individuals. Conventional thinking on both the left and the right turns a good part of the world's six billion humans into either threats or victims, an undifferentiated mass of faceless objects of history, locked in a simple, static relationship with us. Neither view tells us what to make of a person as strange and shifting and hybrid as Salma. A central question of the war is whether the modern world, with its disorienting freedoms and choices and kaleidoscopic images, will work on behalf of someone like her, giving her a new sense of identity and fulfillment, or cast her into the unwanted pile. She doesn't want to be left alone by America; she wants to be seen and heard by it.

What will ultimately matter more than where and how we intervene militarily is whether there will be room for the restless poor in the world of satellite TV and the pursuit of happiness. This question is an economic one, but it is also more than that. Once people become aware of themselves as individuals, they won't dissolve back into the fixed identity of the mass. "I only think about myself," Salma kept saying. "I don't care about no one else." In America, we call this selfish individualism and rightly see it as the besetting vice of our freedom. But in Somalia, this assertion of a young woman's own desires against the severe limits all around her seemed a necessary and healthy thing.

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