Somalinimo: Black & Muslim at Cambridge University

‘Somalinimo’ in its loose translation means ‘the essence of being Somali’. In her debut documentary of the same title, Awa Farah, 26, explores what it means to be Somali at the University of Cambridge in collaboration with filmmaker Alice Aedy. Here, Farah shares her motivations behind the project, recalls the journey of embracing her identity and expresses her hopes for the future and what she wants to achieve…

What made you want to make this film?

I’ve been at Cambridge for three years now and I’m currently doing a PhD exploring the shifting identity of black Muslims, specifically the Somali diaspora in the UK. The subject is something I am really interested in. So much has changed since our parents came to the UK. There is a whole generation of us who were born and raised here and who are now adults doing really amazing things. I’m interested in that shift so I think Somalinimo was kind of an extension of that.

My background is in journalism and so that’s why I wanted to use documentary film as the medium to tell this story. I’m more comfortable doing that, especially in terms of narrative because I’m passionate about exploring real stories. This was my first major project and it took forever because I had so much to learn. It was so great working with Alice because we are both so passionate about stories about women and especially underrepresented voices. Together, we were able to get the funding for the film and make it exactly how we wanted. It was a long journey but I’m so proud of how it turned out. I’ve been overwhelmed by the amazing, positive response the film has had. The thing that blew my mind completely is that so many people from different backgrounds have said how much they identified with the doc. Even though this film was very nuanced, navigating your identity is such a shared experience and so many people related to it. It’s a really important issue for me.

Image: Still from ‘Somalinimo’. Alice Aedy / Awa Farah

What was it like growing up as a Somali in London vs being Somali in Cambridge?

It was interesting growing up as a Somali in London, there was a very negative perception of Somalis, especially as a teenager. People would make fun of us all the time and some would even say Somalis were not black. I was confused about my identity for a long time. I always felt like I wasn’t black enough and I wasn’t Muslim enough because I didn’t wear a headscarf – so what was I? There was a lot of confusion for me as a teenager. But London is a complete melting pot of different cultures so I felt invisible there, in a good way, you just kind of blend in with everyone so I didn’t think about it much.

When I first came to Cambridge, I stood out. After a while I got used to being the only black person or the only Muslim person in a room. It definitely brought my identity to the forefront. Because it was something I was constantly thinking about and noticing, I was forced to question my identity in a way I had never questioned it before.

That feeling of not belonging was very much a topic you only discussed behind the scenes with people who had the same experience. I was part of the black and Muslim societies and sometimes we would just sit in circles and have these discussions, it was honestly like therapy! I think in the last two years, especially since the book ‘Taking Up Space’ (by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi) came out, the conversations are being had out in the open and extending beyond just those affected. Cambridge University was really supportive and accommodating for this film too which was great.

It was a really positive journey for me because I think I got lost in thinking “I’m just Awa, whatever.” Identity is such an important thing, you can’t just ignore it. Now I’m in my 20s, I am so proud and embrace every part of myself. I feel like it’s coming together and I am making it what I want it to be. Nobody has to verify my identity for me. I know I’m Black, I know I’m Muslim and I love it.

There was a moment in the film when you got emotional, what were you thinking about in that moment?

I got emotional because I’ve always had this thought of like, “imagine having a sense of home and never having to question anything”. It’s a luxury to be from a place, grow up there, go to school there etc. There is so much confusion around identity for people in the diaspora and not having that would make life so much easier.

For the film we made a set that represented a Somali household. It was perfect. We were talking for hours because we were just so comfortable and the conversations we were having were so authentic. They were conversations I’ve had with black muslim women time and time again. It was really a safe space and I wanted to recreate that feeling of a comfortable environment. There is so much unseen footage we hope to put out one day.

Image: Still from ‘Somalinimo’. Alice Aedy / Awa Farah

The film recognised the differences between the British and Somali cultures and how that plays into identity. Why was it important to show this?

People in our generation do partake in aspects of both cultures and that’s fine and it’s up to them. If you compare Hafsa and Miski in the film, they are very different. I didn’t really think about how different they actually were because they are just my friends. It’s amazing to see the different types of Somali women and the way we deal with Somalinimo. The reason we titled the film ‘Somalinimo’ is because there is no one way of being Somali, and this is just one little example of that.

I want to see a wider range of narratives of black muslim women. We don’t always have to be talking about terrorism or domestic violence. It doesn’t always have to be something bad. Obviously those topics are important and do need to be discussed but there is so much we are doing and it’s a shame that the positive, inspirational stories don’t get funded. I just hope we can hear different, more positive things about black muslim women.

Congratulations on the film, it’s really incredible. Do you have any plans on what you will be doing next?

Thank you! I’m continuing with my PhD, I’m so interested in the intersection of blackness and Islam and class. I definitely want to explore this more in film and writing, I hope to write a book on this topic one day.

Watch Somalinimo here:

Images: Alice Aedy/ Awa Farah / The Guardian

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