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Features

Cooking for freedom

A London chef has returned to Mogadishu to make a stand against al-Qa’eda

24 November 2012

9:00 AM

24 November 2012

9:00 AM

A few days before I met Ahmed Jama in Mogadishu, three Islamist gunmen from Al Shabaab — al-Qa’eda’s Somali branch — burst into his new restaurant wearing suicide bomb jackets. They sprayed the place with bullets and then detonated themselves.

One bomber set himself off in the dining room itself, killing 20 of Ahmed’s customers. Standing in that room, watching Ahmed’s workmen clean up, I realised what the term ‘pink mist’ really means. The bomber’s solid body had expanded outwards into an aerosol cloud of human particles that now covered every square inch of ceiling, walls and floor. The workmen were using trowels and shovels to clean up.

‘They’re scrubbing it, to get rid of the blood and human remains. When they’ve done that they’ll put on four or five coats of white paint,’ said Ahmed.

He seemed remarkably uncowed by the horror, but then Ahmed Jama is an unusual man. He’s Somali-born, but for years he’s been a British citizen living in London. He’s a talented chef who runs a successful restaurant: the Village on Fulham Palace Road, which is much-loved and patronised by famous types. Even Bruce Willis loves Ahmed’s date cake. So why on earth would he come back to Mogadishu and open another restaurant here?

The answer, it turns out, is to show solidarity with the suffering Somalis; to play his part in what he hopes will be the last push against Al Shabaab. At the height of their power here Al Shabaab went mad, outlawing anything they saw as western, or infidel: football, music and moustaches. Restaurants were frowned on, western food forbidden. Even samosas were outlawed as blasphemous after some mullah decided their three corners might represent the trinity.

Now, after a concerted effort by UN-backed African armies, Al Shabaab are on the back foot. They were forced out of Mog-adishu last year and two months ago left their financial hub in Kismayo port. But still the bombs go off, and the people in Mogadishu are afraid, which is why Ahmed wants to make a stand.

True to his resolution, within a fortnight of the bombing, Ahmed had reopened his restaurant. ‘I’m staying here. We’ll build it again and show them,’ he says. Ahmed has a wife and three children in Fulham and, quite understandably, they refuse to join him out here in Somalia. ‘What does your wife say? Doesn’t she demand you go back to London?’

‘Yes, yes,’ says Ahmed, ‘but I told her I have a journey to finish and I’m not going to run away.’

‘Aren’t you afraid for your own life?’

‘Very scared. Panicking, worrying…’

[Alt-Text]


It’s not just his wife — even ordinary Somalis think Ahmed is mad for coming home. One is Abdullah Mohamed, a journalist shot in the leg during the restaurant attack. Three other reporters sitting with him that day were murdered. I met Abdullah as he lay in a hot, dirty hospital room, planning his next move. ‘They broadcast news about peace breaking out in Somalia but the truth is we have no peace.’

He’s right in a way. Every day there are still reports in the city of roadside bombs, suicide attacks, assassinations and skirmishes. While I was in Mogadishu, the corpse of a journalist was discovered outside his home, his head placed neatly on his chest.

I ask, ‘Do you want to leave Somalia?’

‘I will escape Somalia by foot, by plane, by ship — anything to get out of here.’

‘Where will you go?’

‘Anywhere — I just need to save myself. Nobody wants to stay here. If everybody got the means, I think this country would empty.’

Does any of this intimidate Ahmed Jama? Not a bit of it. Ahmed insists that though he is first and foremost an Englishman, and that England is his home, he must send a message to other Somali refugees that it’s time to rebuild the country. Too many Somalis come back just to play politics, he thinks, or to profit from the chaos by becoming warlords. Ahmed’s remedy, as ever, is to cook good food. That way other businessmen may feel they can return, too.

‘When I see my customers happy, I feel the streets of Mogadishu are safe. When I see my customers smiling, I feel like I’m smiling too,’ he tells me as he throws clams into a huge saucepan.

If Somalia could rid itself of extremists and warlords, it could have a bright future. The outside world often assumes that there’s a constant famine here; that all Somalis must be starving. And yes, countless thousands have died of hunger, but that was due to war, not drought or a harsh environment.

The truth is that Somalia has wonderful food in abundance. It has some of the best surviving tuna fisheries in the world, thanks to the pirates, who have protected these waters. Its river lands are fertile and the markets are piled with fruit and vegetables — all organic thanks to the isolation of Somalia for a generation. The meat — ah, the meat! There are more camels in Somalia than any other nation worldwide.

‘Whether he comes from north, south or east, every Somali adores camel meat,’ says Ahmed, smacking his lips and urging me to try a thick broth of camel soup, which is excellent. Somali food reflects a mix of Arab, Indian, Italian and even British culinary styles.

Ahmed Jama believes the strength of Somali culture will mean private enterprise is more help in rebuilding the country than the aid handouts that have been so damaging since the 1990s. Many in Mogadishu agree. There is construction going on across the city, even while some districts resemble Aleppo, Grozny or Stalingrad.

Under a new government that has pushed back (though not defeated) the extremists of Al Shabaab, Mogadishu today is a thrilling, transitional place. At my hotel two women sat with their pretty faces exposed, with lots of lipstick applied, laughing throatily and smoking cigarettes.

An astonishing sight, they both agreed. One said, ‘If we’d done this when Al Shabaab were in charge, they would have stuck guns up our vaginas.’ They’re not exaggerating.

Under Al Shabaab, a 13-year-old girl was stoned to death for a ‘sex offence’. She had been raped. No surprise there, but the Salafists even decreed women’s bras to be the devil’s work. Given that girls were forced on pain of flogging to cover themselves entirely, it was hard to enforce a ban on bra-wearing. Moral police roamed about, forcing women to jump up and down to see if they jiggled.

Now the extremists are in retreat, but retreat is a dangerous time when you’re dealing with madmen. They resort to desperate last measures.

The day Al Shabaab bombed Ahmed Jama’s restaurant in September, a spokesman for the group telephoned a TV journalist friend of mine and promised they would be back to kill anybody who survived the first attack. ‘They got what they deserved. The same will happen to… anybody who follows the infidels.’

That includes Ahmed. As far as the jihadis are concerned, he’s an apostate. He’s not in politics, but by returning relaxation, fun and a normal life back to Mogadishu, he is doing something highly political. And that is why he’s a target.

‘I’m not going anywhere,’ said Ahmed when I saw him last, in October.

Days later, Al Shabaab launched a fresh attack on Ahmed. Two bombers tried to enter one of his restaurants again. When a policeman stopped them, they blew themselves sky high, killing nobody else but sending a message: they are still after Ahmed.

‘The Master Chef of Mogadishu’ will air on Unreported World, Channel 4, on Friday 23 November at 7.30 p.m.

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