In Conversation with Fatima, the Nomad – Part 2
*You can read the first part of this conversation in the previous post.
YF: So, tell me about your activism, what is it about and how did it come about?
FO: I think I’ve always been an activist, to be honest. Even after the war in Somalia when we ended up in Ethiopia, in a refugee camp, I was always doing activist jobs, you know, even as a 9-year-old. I was going around – I learned the Amharic language really fast from the workers’ children and by playing with other kids of Ethiopian origin in the neighborhood – and I started interpreting for the families, the Somali families. I did it for my own family and then word spread, and I was going every morning to interpret for different people.
YF: You were used to working so you had to find a job!
FO: Yes! For me I just was helping somebody, but it was also actively helping the community in whatever way I could. So, when I came to Denmark and I also learned Danish I was also helping my family with interpreting work and… I’ve always been on the move. I think this whole thing from my nomadic life of dialogues and talking and fostering understanding through people meeting, for some reason I just became this person who bridges gaps in some way, builds bridges. And I’ve always had that passion of helping people and getting people to talk. Then in my 20s I started doing religious activism. I’m a Muslim and I started practicing Islam and I just started trying to understand my religion and what it is, and… I found out that a lot of my activism came from that, in a sense, because I felt like, wait a minute, I can’t find myself as an African in this religion, I’m being erased. I felt like, as a woman, I was being erased. That was the feeling I had because of the places I was going to and the people that I was listening to, preachers. So, I went from that to seeking people who look like me who actually were Muslims and teaching [about the religion] and also women, just getting people who could mentor me in my religion, that looked like me and were female. I wanted to be taught, I wanted to have a better understanding of the religion. And for me it was very incongruent to sit in a mosque full of women in one section and full of men in the other and then an Arab preacher preaching to me about what it is to be a woman, or what a woman should wear, or how she should be, or the spiritual side of… I just didn’t feel… I felt like I should hear that from a woman. I needed a woman teacher to tell me what the religious scriptures say about being a woman and where that came from.
YF: How old were you?
FO: At this time, I think I was about 23.
YF: So, you were already doing representation…
YF: So, you wanted to be taught in a way that didn’t erase you
YF: You wanted to be acknowledged, really, while learning about this…
FO: Exactly! And I felt like the only acknowledgment I got as a religious being at that time was… the more I looked like an Arab woman, the more I covered up like an Arab woman, the more I walked and talked and acted like an Arab woman…
YF: So, the same issues, really?
YF: It’s funny because I thought about it when you said something earlier when you talked about the nomadic lifestyle. You talked about the colorism, how you were the darkest in the family. You said it’s funny how that traveled to even the deepest bush of Africa and my thought was, well, the Arab colonization of that part of Africa had already happened and, even though we don’t talk a lot about that, it was very, very strong as well.
FO: It was very strong, and you are actually quite right, it has come to us through that. Because, although we also had white colonizers later – we had the Brits and the Italians – we already had that. So, for me it was… I think one of the things is also that as a nomad – nomadic people are very proud people, in the sense that, I feel like God created me as I am, as a black woman, as a Somali woman, with the life that I went through, and I feel like that is only an enrichment to wherever I go, and to myself first. It shouldn’t be diminished or pushed to the side. That was a big thing for me. Then Next thing after that in terms of activism was the whole thing of Muslims and Christians and other faiths dialoguing…
YF: …bridging again
FO: Exactly. And then I started engaging with that type of work and I became a board member of different types of organizations and talking about, what is it to be Muslim? What is it to be Christian? and traveling to do workshops and really just talking about that for a long time. Then when I had children that changed. My blackness began to take up more space for me, it became more about that because I felt that, as a teenager in Denmark, I had to navigate… had to code-switch all the time. In the mosque I was a different type of Fatima than I was at school, I was a different type of Fatima when I was with my friends, and then at home, I was different.
YF: It sounds exhausting.
FO: It was exhausting, and when I had children something in me was just like, I’m not going to have that for them. I need to change that, I just have to do something about it, so my children will never feel like they have to code-switch so much. So basically, what is it to be black? What is it to be black and Somali? because a lot of times also, I felt I was very isolated from … whether it was self-imposed or not, I don’t know, I felt I was very limited when it came to engaging with other African communities, for me as a Somali. And I think a lot of that has deep roots in the Somali community, what I’ve learned from my community, and what I hear all the time, which is very… it creates distance from other African communities, and I wanted to challenge that within myself because I found that, essentially, I really needed other black people in my life and for me, it was just ridiculous this whole thing of… whatever it is that makes people distance themselves. It was a privilege I didn’t have, and I didn’t see that it was needed. I thought of it as a tool for others to dismantle us and never get together…
YF: Well, it is. Divide and rule, it’s worked.
FO: Yeah, exactly. I wanted to get rid of that for myself first, so I started waiting and for a long time waited for something to happen. Some activities for black women to get together…
YF: “When is somebody gonna come up with an idea?!” (laughs)
FO: Exactly! I was like, I really want to meet other black women, but who’s gonna do it now? (laughs) and I waited for a couple of years and afterward I was like, I think that’s me! and it was terrifying. It was really terrifying because, just like the whole African thing of who’s going to be with whom, and who’s acceptable, I think there’s a lot of, no, I don’t think, there is a lot of “black women don’t support each other, black women are just drama Queens, black women are this and that”. So, I was terrified because as much as I realized I needed black women in my life I was also aware of these messages. But I felt that there was just a way that a black woman could see me that nobody else ever in my entire life could.
YF: That brought me the image of your grandmother
YF: That’s where you learned that
FO: Yeah… it is, because I was seen by a black woman the first time in my life by my grandmother. She was the only one who saw me.
YF: So, you knew deep within you that that was possible
FO: I knew that that was possible. But at the same time, I was also taught all the other things. If you grew up with Rikky Lake and all the shows that portray black people as really… people who pull each other’s hairs and fight, you know, those kinds of things that I grew up with in the 90s. But I also grew up with Oprah, thankfully, she saved me in a lot of ways. So, I was terrified, I was like, OK I want to do this. And it came about, actually, the day that I decided I was talking to my friend, one of my African friends. We were sitting in a café and we were just talking… we were talking about our childhoods. I told her this story, I said to her, you know what, it’s a funny story but I never dare tell it to any of my white friends because they will see me as a battered child. I told her, I remember one time when I said to my grandmother, I’m going to go and fetch water from the waterhole, and she said OK. So, I took two plastic containers, and I went, and when I was at the place which was maybe a kilometer away from our hut, some other children came to me and said, there is another place – it had rained a lot that season and they were swimming in another place where a lot of water had collected. We couldn’t swim where I was, we could just be in the water and splash. So, they said, why don’t you come? I was like, great idea! I was seven years old. I put my buckets down and I went with them to this other far place. We swam and we had a great time, I forgot everything …
YF: So, you left the buckets at the well?
FO: I did, yes and I actually filled them up as well first
FO: … which freaked my grandmother out afterward (laughs) So, I filled them up, put them down, and then went away, and I was gone for hours, and I just…
YF: (laughs) I can already imagine what’s going to happen…
FO: I know, right? So, I was so happy, I had played all day and now, after so many hours I remembered the buckets. So, I thought, I’m going to go the well take the buckets, and go home afterward. When I got to the well, the whole village was there, the whole neighborhood was at the well, wailing… they were crying, Yema!
YF: They thought you had… they thought you were in the well (laughs)
FO: Yes, they thought I had drowned! My grandmother was wailing, everyone was wailing, and I started wailing with them, and I was next to them. Then, all of a sudden, my grandmother looks at me and she sees me! And she starts hitting me, you know, because she just saw me wailing and she was like, what’s she doing?? and she started hitting me… so funny, right? because I didn’t realize the people were crying for me, I thought something terrible had happened. So, when I told her, just like we are laughing now, my friend went into tears, we were hysterical. We were laughing so much in this café because she understood exactly and that’s when I thought, you know what? It felt so liberating, it’s so free to say that. Then she was telling me about one time what happened to her in War and, you know, it was just… those things are so funny because it’s love. My grandmother loved me dearly and she reacted… that’s the only way she knew how, it was like, how dare you do this to us, scare us like that! Those are things that I cherish, I felt so loved. She was happy at the same time as she was annoyed that I had scared them.
So, I felt like, from today onwards, I’m going to do something active in my black community, and at this point, I only knew a couple of black women, apart from myself, I didn’t know many…
YF: …which, if you think about it, if you think about the effect of just that, even without the racism or anything else, just growing up not seeing people like you. It’s incredible, actually.
FO: It is incredible, it can be really unhealthy psychologically, and physically and in every way…
YF: … in terms of self-perception, identity formation…
FO: … in terms of confidence, in terms of …
YF: … and, when you become a teenager you start being interested in love, in other people, you know…
FO: It really is interesting. It can be really harmful to the self, psychologically as black women and black people in general.
YF: Where does Black Woman Sanctuary fit into that?
FO: With Black Woman Sanctuary I wanted, first and foremost, a place where we just could be, just be. Because there was no space where I could just be. Even though everyone said, Fatima, you’re always so happy, you’re smiling, this and that and the other. I am but you don’t know the true version of me, because I don’t feel safe in being me when I’m not smiling, you know, or when I find that something is tough. I don’t feel safe sharing what is tough, because a lot of times it’s undermined because that’s not your way of seeing tough. What is tough for you is not what is tough for me. So, it was just a place to just be and for breathing together, but a place where we could also share childhood experiences, our relationships with our cultures, and all the dimensions of ourselves.
YF: So, your activism has really been a way, besides bridging other people, besides what it has done for other people, for you personally it’s really been a way of exploring the different aspects of your identity.
FO: Absolutely, 100%. I find that my activism has always been from a need within myself, something that I’ve needed to do for me in order to live as a whole and dignified person. But the Black Woman Sanctuary has been from an even deeper place than that. Black Woman Sanctuary has proven to me that I was, right. I needed it.
YF: And perhaps others needed it too.
FO: Yes, it’s something that I feel has dismantled all the stereotypes I had within myself of other black people and other black women. The whole thing of the drama, the whole thing of this and that and the other. It’s really been a space where I was like, wow, we’ve been lied to our whole lives. This is a place where we uplift each other, where we share, where we cry together, where we laugh, we give each other advice, where we empower each other and just can breathe together for a couple of hours.
YF: I think it’s a really wonderful space that you created there. But I was thinking as you were speaking about how for you it dismantled all the stereotypes, I think that we are … we are attacked, almost, with so many negative images all day every day, so it’s almost like those images – images are very powerful! – it’s almost like they created a certain view of yourself and other black women, and other black people that spending time with real-life black people and black women has actually dismantled.
FO: Yeah, absolutely. Because what it is, is misconception. It’s not even stereotypical, I mean, it’s really just misconception. It’s not true. It’s simply not true, it doesn’t make it not true because I found this space, that this space is a safe space – it’s not because of this space – it’s always been not true. And I think that’s something that is very powerful when you realize that, if we are able to sit here 20, 25, 30 women sometimes, and can do this for two years without any problems, it’s the best thing. A lot of these young women say to me that this is a space they’ve never thought would happen in Denmark, they never had foreseen it, and they didn’t even know how much they needed it before they got there. That means we could have also done it 10 years ago, we could have done it 20 years ago, we could have always done it. But the thing is it’s also, I think, the power of knowing that… we are on to something now. We are finding out that we have been lied to and we’ve lied to ourselves and that, when we get together, we can move a lot.
YF: As you were speaking about all this, this question came to mind about purpose. So, what would you say is your purpose? Is this something that you’ve thought about? that you have formulated for yourself?
FO: Yes, I have but it’s been a while since I last did that. Because I remember that I went through a period, when I was in my 20s, about what’s my purpose of life, at that time, and it was to be more God-like, to go through the universe with humility and being a good servant of people and basically just being a good religious person who minds their own business and doesn’t harm anyone. I haven’t really purposely sat down and thought of it like that, but now I think that my purpose is still the same, in the sense that I am here to serve, but the people I serve have sort of changed.
YF: It’s become clearer who you serve?
FO: Yes, it’s become clearer. And I think what I didn’t know in my 20s was that in order to learn to serve you have to learn to serve yourself first and get to know you. And I think my journey now is getting to know myself and my people and my roots and the power that my Ancestors have given me and given to the world, really. And I think that my Source has also shifted, it’s still spiritual for me and it’s still powerful and I’m still a religious person, but I think for me it’s not so much about deeds and doing good in the form of getting a reward or something like that. For me it’s more like, it’s so I can be my greatest potential.
YF: There’s this great South African poet I love, her name is Lebo Mashile, and she has this poem called What Kind of Woman. It’s long and she goes through different things about women, but there’s one line that I love, she says What kind of a woman knows that what she needs to learn is exactly what she teaches?
FO: Wow. That gave me the chills. That sums up exactly what I was trying to say. That’s very beautiful.
YF: What is healing for you?
FO: Well, healing for me has also changed through time. It’s really meant different things at different times. For me, before it could be hanging out with my friends, just simple, having a good time, going to parties, distracting myself from life. That was healing for me in the sense that it was like something that gave me a boost of energy. As I get older, healing for me is being seen. And it’s not in the sense of, here I am, see me! It’s not that. It’s truly being seen.
YF: In the way that your grandmother saw you…
FO: Exactly. And I think as I get older, I want that because I feel like it’s a right that everyone has, to be seen.
YF: We all want to be seen…
FO: We all want to be seen, and also make it my job to actually see other people, especially my black sisters…
YF: Just like you started out, in the beginning, talking about trust. We trust other people but we ourselves have to make ourselves trustworthy by having pure intentions towards other people. So, you’re saying that here it’s the same: I want to be seen and that begins by also seeing other people.
FO: Absolutely, which goes back to the poet you just mentioned, you know, there is nothing we go through without first learning the meaning of it for ourselves.
YF: Yes, and I think that it’s not even first, it’s ongoing…
FO: It is an ongoing thing and, a lot of times, what we are in the pursuit to change is also what we are in the pursuit to learn. Because we feel a need to learn this and it’s all a Yin and Yang thing.
YF: It’s all interconnected. So, what role have other women – particularly other black women or other African women – played in shaping and supporting who you have become? Have you experienced support from other black women?
FO: I have, and again, of course, the biggest support I’ve had is my grandmother. Also, as I was getting older and as a teenager, I got a lot of support from two of my aunts. Those two aunties continue to support me and the support they give, and the way they see me is so unconditional. It’s such unconditional love, they are sort of the anchor for me, they are always there with good advice or being silent when they know it’s not welcome. They have definitely supported me in knowing that I have a root that I can always come back to. There is a pillar, they have been my pillar. I could always go in whatever direction, but I always knew that when I came home it was home to them, especially since I don’t have my grandmother anymore. It has been something that I have really loved and cherished in my life.
And then, in my teenage years when I came to this country, I was looking for representation on TV. I watched The Cosby Show and there was strength for me in seeing a black wealthy family on TV, even though it was obviously TV…
YF: I understand, because, when all you see are images of starving Africans with flies on their cheeks…
FO: Exactly! And I will say one thing, this whole thing of Africans with… when we came to the refugee camp, we were hungry, but we are proud people, we didn’t have flies on our eyes! I don’t know where they get these people.
But then I saw Oprah. At that time, you have to understand, I didn’t know English. I had just learned Danish and I was heavily dependent on reading the subtitles, which went really quickly.
YF: So, they had all these American shows, they showed them here in Denmark at the time?
FO: Yeah, she would come on every day, I think for an hour, but I only watched on weekends when they showed all the week’s episodes. So, I sat there glued to Oprah, I think it was from 15 to 18 years old. I watched it every weekend because I saw that she was a powerful black woman who was sitting with all types of people. The thing is for me when she, for example, interviewed people that she didn’t agree with – it could be someone from the KKK, or I don’t know, people who had such an offensive way of being towards people of color – she would listen but the way she responded, like hmm… felt so healing for me because I knew that she was doing exactly what I had to do every day, which is listening to things that you don’t agree with, and thinking God, I cannot believe I’m listening to this, then sort of sighing and moving on to the next thing. And she did it graciously. I thought that’s amazing, wow, I mean, she’s actually rising above this, because she knows it’s not about her. And she’s just getting to the root of something, exposing something without maybe investing too much of her own feelings in it. Then, as time went on, she actually invited other black actresses, different types of women and men, and she talked about issues and she taught me… I think she was some sort of a mother to me. It seems really weird, but I would listen to every piece of advice she gave and hear her points of view on things…
YF: She says, I’ve raised a lot of people (laughs)
FO: I was one of them! She really did because, I remember one specific time when she was interviewing Halle Berry who had just gone through a divorce from an abusive husband, and she was talking about the warning signs. I was learning so much not only seeing a black woman on screen but also about how to protect myself, how to not end up in a relationship that is abusive, how do I see the signs. All those kinds of things.
YF: And coming from a black woman or two black women, in this case. It made me think about you seeking out a black female Iman.
FO: Yes! Yeah, I think that was it, because I felt like, in a way I always gravitated towards black women when it came to trusting my life with them and advice-giving or being seen. It always comes back to the fact that I am just nurtured by black women. And even when, for a long time, I didn’t have any connection with any black people, it was something I was missing. For me that was what was making me… it was making me miserable to be so detached from my black community. Because I felt like when I have my black community and I have that source of connection, then the rest of the world is that much easier to deal with.
YF: So, Oprah was one of those women, because the question was, what black women shaped you and supported you.
YF: And I think it’s wonderful that it’s actually possible to never meet someone but read their books and listen to their message and be affected in a real way and nurtured in a real way by them.
FO: Absolutely, absolutely. And then, of course, Oprah always talked about Gail, her black best friend.
YF: That’s true!
FO: So, she was also nurturing this whole thing of… it was just always in harmony with my idea and my experience of always having a black woman and nurturing each other.
YF: So, she was out in the world and talking to all these different people and sort of being hailed as such and such, but her rock was still coming from that place, and she had Maya Angelou as an auntie of sorts too.
FO: Yeah, exactly. And it’s really… she’s been absolutely a therapist for me. She has, definitely.
YF: Hmm, I believe that. And I think you’ve been a therapist for yourself as well, actually.
FO: … yeah, I think so too. I think so too now that you say it, I’d never seen it that way but yeah.
YF: And what made me think of it is also that Oprah says she’s never had a day of therapy in her life, even after everything that she went through growing up. I always say that’s actually not true. If I was speaking to her, I would say, that’s actually not true because you have been your own therapist.
FO: Yes, and it’s really interesting you say that because I know that my own therapy has been talking, you know, conversing. Not having things bottled up but talking about it. And I think that, in a lot of ways, that’s also what she did, especially in the early days. I mean, I remember she would always cry on TV and talk about things, talk about her views and everything, and that also gave me a sense of, you don’t have to be ashamed, what happened to you is not you. And I think that gave me strength to sort of say, hey, things happen but we are not what happens to us. We rise from it or we fall.
YF: I remember what I wanted to say before when you were talking about being seen as being healing for you. I think that’s why people come to therapy, to be seen.
FO: Yeah, that is very powerful. And I also think that that makes even more sense because I always encourage my friends and family who want to see a therapist, to see someone who looks like them. And I think it makes sense for me that if you are a black person you should try and see a black therapist because there is something that they can understand and tap into quicker, that you don’t have to explain so much.
YF: I think that is particularly true in a place like Denmark where there’s so little knowledge and understanding about… anything non-Danish, really, and the further away from Danishness, the more incomprehensible it becomes. I think there’s very little knowledge and understanding of foreigners and of foreigners who look different than Danes…
FO: And also, the whole idea of having a different experience than the masses is like, what?! how can you have… I’ve never had that, I’ve lived here my whole life!
YF: Yeah, because this is a country of boxes.
YF: There is no space outside the boxes, so if you don’t fit into any of the boxes it’s very hard for you.
FO: It is. And I think there is also a misconception that there are not enough people of color who are therapists, who are qualified and certified, and I think it’s something that we need to make people more aware of, that people actually exist that are very well qualified.
YF: Hmm, that’s the next thing, a conference or something!
FO: Hmm! that is the next thing, your purpose or mission! (laughs)
YF: Thank you, Fatima, this has been great! Thank you for doing this, but thank you more for creating that space, the Black Woman Sanctuary, it is a very healing space, and thank you for doing everything that you have done and continue to do.
FO: Thank you for inviting me and, as I always say, there’s no space without black women, so thank you for supporting it, yeah thank you for always standing by us and teaching us.
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