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Queer Somali Babies Sing The Blues In Their Sleep


Diriye Osman Gay Somali Writer Gay Somali Artist

On the eve of my fortieth birthday, I went to see a witch. She didn’t live in an enchanted forest or a cottage made of gingerbread, but a modest council flat in Peckham, South London. The flat was sparsely furnished: in the living room, two tatty red couches from the British Red Cross charity shop faced each other over an IKEA coffee table. Along with the closed wooden blinds, naked white walls and vinyl flooring, that was the entire setup: there were no disquieting trinkets or tchotchkes, no creepy spell books stuffed with secret curses, or cauldrons that smelled vaguely of the sautéed giblets of overly inquisitive children. It was a clean space that resembled an impecunious student counselor’s office.

 

Her name was Astur and she was a Somali transwoman who had, she said, come from a long line of witches. Her foremothers had faced centuries of persecution in Somalia not simply because they possessed sight and practiced sorcery, which was haram in itself, but because their prophesies were scarily accurate. Astur’s mother, for example, sensed the Somali civil war three years before it happened and quickly made provisions for her family’s flight to Kenya. Her grandmother, who had long lost her vision to glaucoma, inhaled sharply the exact moment Siad Barre, Somalia’s former dictator, took his final breath and murmured, ‘We can exhale now.’

 

I know all this because it was in Astur’s bio on her garish Tumblr blog. All fuchsia backgrounds with sea-blue lettering, it was marginally rescued by precise punctuation. I was lured in by the cheap rates (£10 per session), the fact that she was also queer and Somali, and the minor issue of my turbo-charged desperation.

 

I had already attempted to self-refer to my local NHS Talking Therapies practice, but their motto was, ‘Unless you’re slicing your wrists every other day, we’re too oversubscribed, overworked, deeply undersexed and definitely underpaid to give a damn about your undoubtedly boring problems. Go get drunk/high like every other depressive in London.’

 

Deflated but not defeated, next I decided to try the private route. After days spent scouring the special hellscape that was the Psychology Today listings section, which connected potential clients with shrinks, I met with two separate white gay therapists for free fifteen-minute consultations over Zoom, to see if we clicked.

 

The first therapist was a relatively striking former pantomime actor/ party clown palpitating off-puttingly with narcissism and neediness. ‘Does this ring light look right? Can you see me properly? I hope I look moderately presentable.’ He reiterated these questions every two minutes until our fifteen minutes were up and he ended our Zoom call having asked me nothing about myself.

 

‘So each future session will be fifty minutes long and the fee will be £170 in advance,’ he concluded, still fiddling with his perfectly flattering ring light. ‘Any questions?’

 

The second therapist was the complete opposite. He was haggard and looked hungover.

 

I told him I was depressed.

 

‘You should try ketamine,’ he said blankly.

 

‘Excuse me?’

 

‘I mean, you should try medicine,’ he corrected himself, realising his mistake.

 

Too exhausted to embark on another stressful Zoom with another unstable psychotherapist, I schlepped off to an inclusive mosque in East London. The imam was Indonesian and trans, but he stuck to the same sanctimonious blarney bleated by every other imam I had ever met: pray, pray, pray or you’ll find yourself on the expressway to hell.

 

I felt it would be impolite to ask whether he, as a proud postop transman who snorted cocaine, drank copious quantities of whiskey and was in a party-loving polyamorous, pansexual throuple, would also be aboard this so-called expressway to hell. (I mention this because I had stumbled upon—and been impressed by—his memorably louche Grindr profile a few nights before.)

 

Following weeks of fruitless, increasingly frantic searches on the internet, I finally came across Astur’s suboptimal webpage. There was an email address listed in the contact section: bombass_bigtittybruja1999@yahoo.co.uk (the sort of address that gets your job resumé binned, but no matter: the sista was clearly self-employed). I sent her a carefully-composed email explaining my situation and prayed that it wasn’t some skeezy scam operated by a bored teenager in Russia, or worse, Ruislip.

 

Somewhat to my surprise, I received a response in under an hour. Astur was happy to see me later that afternoon: she had a window after her pedicure appointment, and she only accepted cash.

 

Nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.

 

*

 

Astur had the proportions of a classic Somali model—a pleasing confluence of angularity, suppleness, and symmetry. She wore her healthy, henna-tinted locs in pigtails, and her lips painted a matte mahogany which heightened her ultra-smooth complexion—the kind of skin sustained by alkaline diets, daytime rest, the right balance of exercise and electrolytes, supplements and serums. Almost invisible lines revealed she had undergone facial feminisation surgery, but it was done with restraint and discernment, and she moved like a woman whose body not only provided her with pleasure, but peace and ease. She moved like a fully embodied universe of her own making.

 

She welcomed me and led me into the living room. After we had both sat down facing each other, she smiled and said, ‘You’re awake.’

 

‘Excuse me?’ I said, though I knew exactly what she meant.

 

‘You’ve woken from a lifetime’s sleep and you’re now slightly dazed by all this giddy influx of seemingly endless epiphanies.’

 

‘How do you know this?’ I asked.

 

‘Like Miss Marple, I’m a noticing person.’ She chuckled. ‘Also, you babbled about it in your email.’

 

‘This feels a lot like a midlife crisis.’

 

She laughed. ‘What a parochial Western conceit. Midlife crises are not ‘crises’, they’re awakenings. But yes, awakenings without any guardrails in place are terrifying. Do you trust me?’

 

‘I don’t know you well enough to trust you, but I’m willing to give it the good old Dutch try.’

 

She nodded, and leant towards me. ‘Give me your hand.’

 

‘Why?’

 

‘Oh, I don’t know, I’m in a fabulous mood today and I feel like doing you a favour. Give me your hand.’

 

I did as I was told. She took my hand and held it for what seemed like a hundred million years, but was merely a minute in the objective sphere.

 

‘Do you know what we’re doing right now?’ she said. ‘We’re creating a thread, which connects us to ourselves and to each other, which in turn unspools not only who we are, but where we are coming from, as well as the separate but intersecting paths we will each take. Do you know why that is?’

 

‘Oh, God,’ I groaned, reflecting on my grim life choices up to now. ‘I’m too old for this shit. I have got to be too old for this shit. There’s no way I’m not too old for this shit.’

 

Astur’s eyes glinted and the good sista snapped:

 

‘To be queer and Somali and neurodivergent is concentrated alchemy, and yet we constantly raid the cupboards of our souls like we are a people of lack. When you operate from a position of lack, you don’t realise you’re robbing yourself of everything worth preserving, and forgetting to toss away all the empty pursuits that lost their synthetic spell several generations ago. And suddenly, you’re wide awake in a new country, in a new decade, and you’re startled because you can’t remember how you got here or why you’re still feeling hunted by your own reflection. You can’t remember how or when or where or why you misplaced all your breezy dynamism—all that wildness of perception you used to project with such ferocity. Where did it all go? We have conveniently forgotten that we have always been fundamentally idiosyncratic and fantastic and fucking alive. Instead we feed ourselves and our children and our children’s children prosaic fuckery for what? Respectability politics? So that if we twist and try our damnedest to conform to standards that have never been coded into our collective DNA, that we’ll what? Somehow be less strange? Less weird and wonderful? That we’ll transcend the soul-snuffing snare that is the myth of the good immigrant? That if we mute all of our magic—everything that makes us some of the most innately interesting, individualistic and fun, funny beings in this boring, beige-as-fuck world—that we’ll win over whom? Folks who don’t season their food right or whose understanding of freedom is a shitty Friday night sloshfest at a shitty pub playing shitty music, chatting nonsense that no-one with a single iota of sense gives a fuck about? Is that who you are so deeply invested in trying to impress? If so, then go for it, but don’t fool yourself for a fucking second into thinking that trying desperately to shave off your elemental peculiarities through self-diminishment is salvation, because it simply isn’t, honey, and it never will be.’

 

‘Shit.’

 

‘Precisely,’ she said, before fishing into her pocket and pulling out a small vial.

 

‘What’s that?’ I said uneasily.

 

Astur shook the vial vigorously, opened it, and handed it to me. ‘Drink all of this,’ she said.

 

‘I am not drinking whatever the fuck that is.’

 

‘First of all,’ she smiled, ‘I have no intention of killing you and harvesting your organs because I can see that you’ve been partying for decades, and your organs wouldn’t be worth a damn on the black market. You’re also financially incontinent, which means that you’re broker than I’ll ever be, so you’re going to drink this moderately disgusting concoction and I’m going to hold your hand because, honey, we’re going to do some memory restoration. That vial holds all the answers to your past. The vial will allow you to establish a root system in the present tense. The vial is old school Somali sorcery. Now, drink, before I change my mind and cast a cruel spell.’

 

I gulped the liquid down, which tasted of mint chocolate. ‘This tastes pleasant. Why did you say it was disgusting?’

 

Astur grabbed my hand. ‘Because I hate mint chocolate. And I only said “moderately” disgusting. Now close your eyes and get ready for the wildest ride of your life.’

 

She clicked her tongue twice and I found myself in a dark bedroom. Astur was standing next to me, still holding my hand. A young couple slept in the bed by the window and a baby wailed in the cot next to them. The room smelt of incense and White Diamonds, my mother’s favourite perfume.

 

‘What’s wrong with that baby?’ I asked. ‘Why is it making that weird sound? Is it a demon hell child?’

 

Astur slapped me upside the head. ‘No, dummy, that’s you as a pickney, and that knocked out couple are your exhausted parents. That’s how you always cried as a baby.’

 

‘God, I was so creepy. And why aren’t my parents doing anything? Why aren’t they comforting me?’

 

‘Because you’re not crying. You’re singing the blues. And they know there’s nothing they can do to comfort you. So they simply doze off and let you sing your blues until you fall asleep. That’s the story of your entire life right there. You sang the blues from birth and no-one knew how to hold you or make enough space for your sorrow. So we’re here to banish that energy. Go pick yourself up.’

 

‘I can’t,’ I said.

 

‘Go. Comfort yourself.’

 

Reluctantly I tiptoed to the cot and picked my younger self up. I was tiny and delicate and I possessed that particular new baby smell. The minute I held my younger self, the blues singing stopped and the baby started cackling with joy.

 

‘That’s all anyone wants,’ said Astur.

 

I started tearing up without meaning to as the baby version of me laughed with undiluted pure-heartedness. ‘How could anyone hurt this child? All this kid wants is to be comforted. That’s what we all deserve.’

 

‘That’s your life’s work now,’ said Astur. ‘Put the baby back in his cot and see how he behaves.’

 

I did as I was told. The baby immediately fell asleep.

 

 ‘Now whenever you’re experiencing anguish, you must remember how simple we all are,’ Astur said. ‘We just need to be held and soothed for a spell, especially by ourselves.’

 

‘Thank you,’ I said, wiping a tear from my face. ‘I’m ready to go now.’

 

Astur clicked her tongue twice and we were back in her living room. She was sitting opposite me, my hand still clutching hers.

 

‘It’s okay,’ she said, sweetly. ‘You’re okay.’

 

I let her go of her hand and tried to pull myself together.

 

‘Now, the real fun begins,’ she said, getting up and disappearing into her kitchen. She returned with a bottle of Japanese whiskey and two shot glasses which she set on the table. She poured the drinks and handed me a glass.

 

‘Happy belated fortieth,’ she giggled cheekily, raising her shot glass. ‘Here’s to at least another fifty years of pure, unfiltered fun. Salut.’

 

‘Salut,’ I said and downed the drink.

 

We drank and danced to Megan Thee Stallion and Victoria Monét, and slowly we transmuted into a shimmering constellation of divine queer black joy.

 

‘You want to know magic?’ Astur said tipsily, later on in the evening. ‘Magic is happiness and happiness is vast quantities of quality hemp oil. It's good for the mind, the body, the skin, and the sex drive. Happiness is hemp oil and Reece's Pieces ice-cream drizzled with melted Nutella followed by so much masturbation that you pass out pronto. 

 

‘Happiness is wildly indiscreet vibrators that make your whole clapped-out building quake and Jill Scott sex jams and Judd Apatow comedies set in L.A, preferably featuring Leslie Mann. Yes! Happiness is Leslie Mann because she's joyful and she always laughs like she's got an abundance of delightful secrets. 

 

‘Happiness is two-hour long baths during an energy crisis because it's fantastically irresponsible and fabulous for your soul. Happiness is fresh Spanish perfume on your collarbone and sipping ice-cool Caipirinhas with fun people whilst Mariah Carey's 'Babydoll' plays in the background on a booming system. Happiness is never giving a fuck about becoming fat because you will always fuck, and instead enjoying delicious, deeply satisfying suya and switching your phone off for a whole weekend. Happiness is bad bitches who no longer front like insanity is not festering on every floor of the Western Promise and finally stop giving a fuck. That's happiness.’

 

She looked me in the eye. ‘I'll tell you what isn't happiness. 

 

‘Happiness is not lame sex with diseased dickheads from the internet with no social or sexual charisma, whose entire personality is PureGym, and then finding yourself constantly dashing off to 56 Dean Street to make sure you haven't contracted chlamydia or worse. Happiness is not the School of Oriental and African Studies, or the Royal African Society, or any Africanists and Orientalists who schlep to cities like Kolkata and Kampala, and find endlessly inventive ways to weaponise their whiteness by explaining decolonisation to folks their own ancestors are still fucking over from beyond the grave. 

 

‘Happiness is not spending a single second reading endless—and I mean, endless—shitposts in The Guardian masquerading as reportage about the kind of very, very boring morons you actively go out of your way to never meet. Happiness is The Wellcome Collection, but never the Hayward. Happiness is Kylie Minogue and Graham Norton because they're both dope, but not Dua Lipa or Calvin Harris because even though they both seem to be everywhere, all the time, I swear I cannot for the life of me name a single song of theirs. 

 

‘Happiness is Paul Beatty novels and Joan Morgan memoirs and Janet Malcolm dissfests and Greg Tate anything and Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah everything because their prose is diamond-precise, hyperdimensional and spectacularly swaggy. 

 

‘Happiness is dream hampton valiantly trying to explain bell hooks’ theories to an unjazzed Jennifer Lopez in that genius 1999 Vibe Magazine interview, which is, by the way, a valuable historical artefact at this point. 

 

‘Happiness is the anarchic glee Ishmael Reed and Percival Everett and Colson Whitehead and Samatar Elmi and Saeed Jones and Danez Smith and Carey Baraka and Ross Gay take in making every sentence and stanza feel as pliable and pleasurable as Play Doh—without ever leaving a single fingerprint on the final page. 

 

‘Do you want to know what else is happiness?

 

‘Happiness is Nnedi Okorafor and Erykah Badu and Sofia Samatar and Sault and Snoop Dogg and Campbell Addy and Little Simz and Cleo Sol and Neneh Cherry and Wanda Sykes and Amaal Nuux and Alex Isley and Iman and Bowie and Prince and TS Madison and Tiffany Pollard, but never Tiffany Haddish or Tyra. 

 

‘Happiness will always be Binyavanga Wainaina because he was a blast on the page and the best in person, may he rest in peace. 

 

‘Happiness is Nuruddin Farah and Maryam Mursal and Buchi Emecheta and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and John R. Gordon and Brenda Fassie and Bessie Head and Kofi Olumide and Oumou Sangare and Arundhati Roy and Sade and Meshell Ndegeocello and Kate Bornstein and Kate Bush and the entire cast of A Black Lady Sketch Show and Audre Lorde and Alison Bechdel and Dianne Reeves and Kelis and Cree Summer and Lenny Kravitz and Tracy Chapman and Pamela Adlon and Lizz Wright and Allison Russell and SistaStrings and the War and Treaty. 

 

‘Happiness is having always known that Ms. Lauryn Hill was right and India.Arie was right and The Dixie Chicks were damn right and Fiona Apple was right. 

 

‘Happiness is wolfing down mushrooms and luxuriating in marathon sessions of Better Things and feeling so deeply restored that you end up resting for sixteen straight hours afterwards because your soul is replenished. 

 

‘What else is happiness? Happiness is gloriously sleazy German sex clubs, but never Grindr because nothing is less scintillating than whipping out your Google calendar and trying to schedule sex with complete strangers: that's just stressful, unpaid admin. 

 

‘Happiness is Ghanaian/ Gambian/ Nigerian/ Senegalese/ Somali/ South African/ Kenyan/ Zimbabwean/ Rwandan/ Cameroonian/ Congolese cuties with feather-soft skin and stress-free flavour and the kind of stroke game that will have you seeing stars for a minimum of six straight days; the kind of brothers whose calls you always pick up and whose joy you always celebrate because they are sources of light fluent in the lexicon of love. 

 

‘Happiness, however, is not weedy AI-using illustrators or wack Hackney-based hipster DJs or souped-up bodybuilders who secretly hate their own bodies and obviously hate yours, or needy tattoo artists or Oxbridge graduates of any race or gender because they all surreptitiously want a surrogate mother/ father/ lover/ therapist/ priest/ intellectual sparring partner/ actual sparring partner all rolled into one and you soon realise they're just identikit dumdums who will never not be tedious regardless of how much ketamine or kush they ingest, or how many Tyler the Creator lyrics they memorize. 

 

‘And, finally, happiness is day drinking in the middle of Oxford Street whilst dancing to Megan Thee Stallion on a busy weekend after having mixed up all your meds because surprises are fun, and sometimes it's important to be reminded of why you first moved to this weirdly wonderful, obscenely overpriced city. That is happiness and you don't need a therapist or a witchy, wasted transwoman to tell you that shit. Invest in a bombass vibrator, be nice to sweet old ladies on the tube because if you're really lucky, you too will one day grow old and you'll want someone to treat you with a modicum of kindness and care. And stop making yourself go grey with needless stress! Now get the fuck out of my house. You're starting to harsh my buzz.’

 

I thanked her, kissed her on her forehead, and stumbled out of her house. I had never felt so full of vim and vigor and vibrancy.

 

I stood still in the South London night and opened my mouth wide-wide-wide, eager to gobble up all the goodness this weird world had to offer me.

 

I was ready for my fantastically wild, joy-infused future.

 

I was finally ready.


***


SONG OF THE MOMENT: 'Springtime' by ALLISON RUSSELL



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