serendipitously, Ayeeyo Asli//my grandmother came to america a couple of days before 9/11. she was bedazzazled with gold jewelry that had emerald stones and wore a thick african tunic dress that bore a heavy scent of ‘uud//incense. her blue eyes were -/weary/- the long flight, – /animated/- the reunion with her daughter after so long and -/haunted/- the civil war does things to you. she kept a woolen handkerchief in her pocket, to wipe tears? sweat? her nose? i still don’t know. i knew the moment she stepped into the small apartment, her momentary existence in my world would create an unequivocal change.
the following years, my quiet revolution to becoming a strong, independent woman began to take shape.
Ayeeyo would teach me somali grammar and syntax without knowing how to read. she’d ask my uncle to grab somali newspapers and ads from the suuq//store, he would obediently oblige not knowing the long hours i’d slave over them. grasping for any understanding or context, i’d look pleadingly into my Ayeeyo’s sharp gaze knowing she wouldn’t offer help but instead ask me to read the sentence again. she wove mysterious folktales from thin air and expected me to keep up with the quick pace of events. there were times she would swear to tell the whole truth but i knew better. Ayeeyo’s tales were never accurate but instead partial truths, leaving the rest to my imagination.
in rare circumstances, i would hear her hum in the kitchen, softly singing heeso qaraami//old tunes and poems. my curiosity caused me to ask how she had learned these songs. “xifdiska//memorization,” she responded and promptly gave me another task: memorize gabay//lyrical poems. the importance of classical african storytelling came to life and i quickly picked up the distinct rhythm of each poem. the autumn of 2002, i fell in love with sadness as i learned more about the heartbreak of somalia’s civil war. i’ve never experienced such turmoil but through gabay, i explored the intergenerational transmission of trauma. the painful truths Ayeeyo couldn’t verbalize, she sang so hauntingly.
Ayeeyo had a penchant for cooking but found it difficult to transfer her skills from africa to america. once she felt she had perfected a recipe using a combination of “bland American spices” and xawaaji//curry, it was my turn to recreate her recipes. i once made the severe mistake of overexpressing my love for her spicy french fries. soon after, my grandmother made 2 pounds of fries and set a large bowl of it in front of me, her blue eyes glittering. we won’t talk about my stomach pains that night…
i hadn’t fully grasped the deen until Ayeeyo made religious studies an obligation afterschool. we began with salat//prayer, perfecting the motions and the supplications. i slowly learned how to recite Qur’an with care, instead of rushing to finish. she taught me the importance of talking to Allah and the humility in submission. Ayeeyo stressed the necessity of reciting duaa//prayer for aabo//my father – she pleaded, “don’t you want him to enter jannah//heaven?” i spoke to Allah every night after that, making a point to ask for aabo’s peace in the hereafter.
milicsiga//reflection: i have passion: she poured her soul into everything she did. i am powerful: she would tell me to hold my head up high when i was taunted for wearing a hijab in school. i embody my somalinimo//somali identity: she transported my culture from home and made it accessible. i am an unapologetic black female muslim: she emphasized my strength even when i couldn’t see it. every now and then, i carefully pull out the cassette recording of her gabay. i find myself replaying the first recording about her arrival to a new country: not knowing the alphabet, how to read/write in English and her fear of navigating non-somali spaces. despite her worries of the future, there was always determination in her voice and i hold onto that during times of uncertainty.