In Mogadishu, a New Moral Code Emerges

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 19, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia, June 18 -- 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.

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.

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