The Ties that Bind, Pt. I Blog

June 28th, 2015:

After an exhausting day at work, I plopped myself onto the leather couch in my living room, flipping on CP24—a fast-paced Torontonian news station that has become the choice ‘background noise’ channel at my house. A news story broke about the killing of two men in a condominium somewhere in downtown Toronto. The headline darted across the screen in caps: MAN WANTED IN DOUBLE HOMICIDE, and accompanying it was a photo of the suspect. Unable to racially place the face on my screen, I callously thought: Damn, that South Asian looking dudes’ braids need to be touched up, then diverted my gaze towards my phone to begin replying to iMessages that piled up over the course of the day. With the TV still on in the background, the newscaster uttered the name of the man wanted. Suddenly my head shot right back up to the TV screen, attention fixated on the man with the messy braids and vacuous stare. It was a Somali suspect.

My heart sank with disappointment. Mere seconds ago this account would have been tucked away in my brain, filed under: another depressing news story. But it meant more to me than just that. Now, did I know or have any affiliations to this young man? No. Nothing bound us together but the paltry fact that we were both Somali. However such instances for me tend to spur a thing I’d like to call “Somali Guilt”—an affective state of being in which I personally feel responsible for the wrongdoing in question. Such “Guilt” is characterized by feelings of melancholy, apathy, anger, frustration, and embarrassment in varying degrees. Yet unnerving in that moment was how fleeting this “Guilt” was. I mean, hey, it was almost afur (break-fast) time so what quickly preoccupied my thoughts was the moist banana bread that I smelt upon entering the house. Little did I know how personal this story would end up being.

A few nights later I found myself laying in bed doing what I do best post-Fajr prayers during Ramadan: worry. I itemized a daunting ‘to-do’ list for work that week; experienced waves of panic as I thought about the prospect of school starting up in the fall; had a bit of an existential crisis thinking about the fact I was turning a year older soon. Standard stuff, really. Suddenly, I remembered news of the shooting that quickly flashed on my TV screen days ago and decided to give into the time-suck that is Google to get more information. How else was I going spend my time in the wee hours of the morning now that I had given up Tumblr during the holy month?

0.39 seconds later, I saw faces (actually mug shots, oh joy!) of three Somali men. I instantly recognized one of them and whispered shit!” then quickly realized I shouldn’t be swearing, “Astakfur-Allah!” I shuffled back to the web results, though before I had read any of the articles on the Toronto Star or CTV News, I caught myself crafting narratives of these men: Ugh, Somalis acting reckless, again. When will we get it together!; Subhan-Allah!; Their poor mothers, how do they do it! This internal dialogue had an uncanny familiarity to the remarks hooyo (mom) would make whenever she heard bad news, but I digress.

Now to begin reading the short but distressing reports. As I read on it hit me; the face I recognized earlier was not the one of a perpetrator but of a victim. Tears flooded my eyes instantly.

He. Is. Dead.

I was hit with flashbacks to my middle-school days in which we would MSN message each other, gabbing about quotidian issues that consumed our lives; homework, basketball stats and prospective games, crushes circulating between members of our grade etc. A deluge of questions overwhelmed me: Why would they use a mug shot instead of another picture? Wait, was the tacsi (funeral) hooyo went to for him? Why didn’t I go? Why didn’t I even ask whom it was for? (She attends so many; I no longer probe when I see her in a black abaya). I couldn’t escape the niggling feelings of guilt as I tried to wrap my head around the poignant reality that this boy, now man, no longer walks the earth—his footsteps simply erased by a trigger. Not having knowledge of him beyond the formative years we shared in middle school allowed me to seamlessly decontextualize, fetishize, and deny this man time as he became trapped within nostalgic visions of who he used to be to meSelfish, sure. Yet I can’t help but be tormented by this elusive question: How could this have happened?

*Pt. 2 coming soon*



Ayan Kassim is a Masters student in the Department of Religion at the University of Toronto. When she isn’t researching about the role religion and morals play in North American organ procurement policies, she is critically reflecting on her own Canadian-Somali identity, and the Somali diaspora in general.


  1. Thank you for this evocative piece, Ayan, and I look forward to part 2. You, too, have discovered that there is no getting away from the ‘ties that bind’. It was a similar question, “why is this happening?,” that led me to a PhD program. No one (outside of their families) ever reminds us that the men in the mug shots who are portrayed as menace to a civilized society were once sweet-faced middle school boys who’s only interest were girls and basketball. Only their peers, like you, can remind us of that past. Incidentally, I checked the local news this morning as I do every morning before heading to work only to find a photo of a young man who had died from gun wounds over night. The shooting happen yesterday. The name sounded Arab, he could be Somali but could be something else ( I hoped) – his last name was not a familiar Somali name. I read on. He was Somali. The news report said his brother was killed in 2000, his father was killed in Somalia. There was something about his brother getting killed in 2000 that I could not get out of my head. And then I remembered that I was the interpreter for his mother during his bail hearing. It was a day I couldn’t forget because there was a mother who had just lost a young son and the other facing lengthy prison sentence for trying to kill his brother’s killer. He must have been around 16 years. Today he’s dead. I thought about that mother this morning.

  2. Somalian in distress Says: August 9, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    It’s only been a 2-3 days since this was posted. While I was waiting for part 2 to get posted we’ve already had multiple Somali men gunned down in Toronto. Just received notice that another Somali guy was murdered downtown right in front of Toronto Marriott Downtown Eaton Centre Hotel.

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