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In Mogadishu, a new moral code emerges

Most of Mogadishu has been taken over by Islamic militias that are curbing crime but also demanding adherence to strict moral codes in some neighborhoods.
Militia from the Islamic Courts Union drive through Balad on a machine gun mounted truck, on Saturday.
Militia from the Islamic Courts Union drive through Balad on a machine gun mounted truck, on Saturday.Karel Prinsloo / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

That warm February morning felt so perfect that Abdirisack Noriftin, a 22-year-old movie buff whose friends nicknamed him "American," said he imagined himself in the kind of sandy, sexy Hollywood movie he had watched just the night before.

He had no surfboard or volleyball, as did the carefree stars of that film. But his girlfriend, Faisa Hassan, 18, cast aside her Islamic modesty by stripping off her head scarf and exposing her dark hair to the sun. Together, she and Noriftin walked on the beach. They kissed in the surf. Never before in their young lives, they recalled later, had they felt so exhilaratingly free.

Then, this being Somalia rather than a Southern California movie set, gunmen arrived and abruptly reminded the couple of the perils of being young and in love in one of the world's most dangerous cities.

Just hours earlier, when Noriftin enticed Hassan into the taboo-breaking trip to the beach, he had vowed to protect her. This, after all, was a man who had taught himself to walk like James Bond, pump iron like Arnold Schwarzenegger and speak English like a New York gangster. Many nights, alone in his bed, Noriftin had practiced saying firmly, yet with seemingly offhand cool, "Get the hell out of here."

Yet on this occasion, words failed him as one of the four gunmen reached for Hassan. She screamed. He screamed. Nearby villagers arrived in time to chase the attackers away.

Noriftin and Hassan have not gone back and, they figure, never will. Not only do criminals still prowl the beach, but two weeks ago most of Mogadishu was taken over by Islamic militias that are curbing crime but also demanding adherence to strict moral codes in some neighborhoods. Coed beach trips, already perilous, are now strictly off-limits, the young couple has concluded.

Learning to fit in
Caught in this shifting mix of secular violence and rising Islamic fervor, Noriftin and Hassan say they want nothing more than to live as they imagine Americans do -- without fear, without money troubles, without roving gunmen.

But stuck as they are in Mogadishu, Hassan thinks it may be time for her boyfriend to act more like other Somalis, and to cut back on using the English he learned by sitting in movie houses night after night, mouthing the words along with the characters until he sounded a bit like a Somali Robert De Niro.

"Since he's here," Hassan said softly, "it would be better for him to have a long beard and short hair."

Noriftin, who recently trimmed his hair and began wearing a knit cap, has come to agree. "Right now, I must change the nickname. I must change the accent. . . . If I go to American films anymore, I'm not going to speak aloud. I'm going to shut up."

Many residents of Mogadishu have embraced the militias and their enforcement of Islamic law through neighborhood courts. But some young adults have bristled as their personal freedoms diminish.

In the years between the fall of the central government in 1991 and the victory of the Islamic militias on June 5, this oceanside capital had few rules. A group of warlords controlled the city, but in the absence of schools or laws, youths adopted lifestyles devoted to music, fashion and surreptitious meetings with the opposite sex.

That has changed with a swiftness that many young adults say has left them frustrated and afraid.

Abdifatah Nur, 26, said he was watching a World Cup soccer match at a movie house when Islamic militiamen crashed through the doors and ordered the television turned off. They beat the children with lashes and took the young men to a jail. Before the militiamen let their prisoners free three days later, Nur said, they whipped him and cut off his long, curly hair.

Nur said that a few days later, in a different movie house, he watched as Islamic militiamen beat the owner to death, apparently for ignoring earlier orders to not show soccer matches.

"I hate what they are doing," Nur said. "We have no choice."

'No better than the warlords'

Several leaders of the Islamic militias have said they have issued no orders banning World Cup broadcasts or requiring men to cut their hair. And in dozens of interviews in Mogadishu, such accounts seemed confined to only some areas of the city.

But even supporters of the Islamic militias acknowledge that their leadership is divided between extremists and moderates, and few are willing to predict which will consolidate power in the weeks and months ahead.

To many young Somalis, the Islamic militias seem to bear an eerie resemblance to the old warlords. In many cases, they are in fact the same gunmen, carrying the same AK-47s while riding on the backs of the same pickup trucks, residents here said. As the secular warlords' grip weakened, many of the families controlling the gunmen simply ordered them to switch sides.

"The people who are running the sharia courts now are no better than the warlords," said Salad Adan, 16, who lost an eye to a stray bullet when he was 14 and, this year, was shot in the leg by a gunman working for a warlord. "They are the same. . . . It's like they put on another shirt." Sharia refers to Islamic law.

Several young women in Mogadishu said they felt growing pressure to cover every bit of their hair and their faces.

"We are afraid to walk in the street with these clothes," said Nawaal Mohamuud, 18, a student, as she gestured to her bright red headdress, which revealed some of her hair and a sliver of her neck. A friend sitting beside her, Ismahaan Ali, 18, wore a similar one that was pink with gold lamé.

"Before the Islamic courts, we used to walk down the street like this," Mohamuud said. "We would listen to music, and we would dance with boys."

Some young Somali men were also attentive to their looks, using gel to tease their hair into high, curly locks.

Faysal Dhaqane, 22, still carefully styles his hair and has elaborately manicured fingernails. But when he sees the Islamic militias approaching, he said, he pulls a cap over his head and stuffs his hands in his pockets. As the militias gained control, he also closed out of fear his business of playing music at weddings. Some Islamic militiamen once ordered him to turn off his sound system.

"It is forbidden," Dhaqane recalled being told.

Like some other youths, he longs for the days before the Islamic militias came to power. "During the days of the warlords," he said, "we were free."

In love with America
Noriftin once felt such unalloyed joy at all things American that he would walk down the streets of Mogadishu listening to American music, speaking in American-accented English. During movies, he delighted in words that caught his ear.

"Stick around. Stick around. Stick around," he said with a wide, toothy smile, his eyes bright and beaming. "I like that phrase. When I hear that, I sometimes burst out laughing. 'Stick around' is my favorite word."

His fascination with the United States dates from the American military intervention that ended after two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in 1993 and 18 U.S. servicemen were killed.

Before the souring of that mission, it was the servicewomen who caught Noriftin's eye. A tall, attractively built, brown-haired female soldier entered his home once and gave him two pieces of candy, he recalled. Later, another female soldier, dressed in far less than Somali women would consider decent, used to jog near his house and eventually learned his name.

The departure of the Americans deeply upset Noriftin, he said, but he soon reconnected in the movie houses and, more recently, with CNN broadcasts beamed into his house through a satellite dish. He studied American accents so relentlessly that he eventually opened a private school for teaching English, gaining dozens of eager students and a modest, if steady, income, he said.

His American ways do not always endear him to Somalis. Once, after watching a restaurant scene in a movie, he went to a neighborhood eatery and tried to order a hot dog, greatly irritating the staff there, he said. Other times, young men would accuse him of being crazy as he walked down the street chatting to himself in English. In the most serious incident, he said, a neighborhood religious leader last year sent an e-mail ordering him to drop the nickname. He didn't.

Noriftin's ways also won him Hassan, who found herself attracted to the way he spoke, she said. It was at her request that he learned to roll his right shoulder in a mock James-Bond walk -- even though he could not bear to learn his unappealingly British accent.

Now they dream of marrying and of moving to the United States, where Hassan's 30-year-old sister lives, raising her children and cleaning homes in Washington, D.C.

They also dream of someday returning to the beach. But not in Mogadishu.

"In America," Hassan said.

"It's really the best thing," Noriftin said, smiling at the memory, "to kiss a girl while in the water."