In the West, people tend not to call their friends and colleagues nicknames that pick on negative physical traits. But in Somalia, people have a love of such nicknames.
When I got my ID badge for the president’s office in Mogadishu the other day, I knew I had finally been accepted.
It had taken a year.
There it was – International Media Advisor, Office of the President, and next to my name the two Somali words in brackets, Timo Cadde, which literally translates as White Hair.
At last, I had a nickname.
Somalis are inveterate givers of nicknames but for the past 12 months the closest thing I had to one was Gaal – or Infidel – and, let’s face it, there is little distinction in that. It is routinely used to refer to any non-Muslim, black or white. Gaal, come here. Where is the gaal, and so on.
Now Timo Cadde, or White Hair, may not be the most flattering nickname in the world, but I will take it any day over Infidel.
The first time I came across Somalis’ love of nicknames was when the cleaning lady in our house asked where was Faroole, the young man who delivered our lunch.
“His name’s Abdifata,” I said, thinking she had made a mistake. She shook her head vigorously and held up a couple of fingers. “No, Faroole,” she said stubbornly. Now Faroole means No Fingers. Abdifata lost two fingers a few years ago during a mortar attack on the presidential compound by al-Shabab, the local al-Qaeda franchise.
So much for sympathy.
A word of explanation – Somalis are no shrinking violets as a rule and certainly do not hold back when it comes to giving nicknames. My predecessor in the president’s office, another Brit, had a harelip. He was always known as Farurey, or Harelip. Somalis would helpfully put a finger to their upper lip just to make sure you understood.
Direct physical observations – generally negative – are the order of the day when it comes to choosing someone’s nickname. Dentistry here is not what it could be, so there are plenty of Somalis called Genay, meaning Missing Tooth or Chipped Tooth.
Suffer from hair loss and chances are you will be called Bidar – or Baldy.
Somalis can be quite a xenophobic lot and foreigners are frequently given short shrift. The Chinese are known as Indha Yare (Small Eyes), while Arabs are Dhega Cas (Red Ears). Since I have been in Mogadishu I have met a Jilbo Weyne (Knock Knees) Shigshigaaye (Stutterer), Yare (Shorty) and Yarisow (Tiny). Yarisow (Tiny), the president’s spokesman and senior advisor, in front of a portrait of Madaxweyne (literally Big Head, or The President)
Before he was busted in a sensational sting in Belgium, I had a rooftop lobster dinner with the notorious Somali pirate Afweyne – Big Mouth. Boy did he live up to that one. One of my best friends, a senior official in the prime minister’s office, is Indhaade – White Eyes.
Somalis also do a good line in schadenfreude. A while back some of my colleagues went to Uganda. They returned with the story – told with huge delight – about one of our team chasing a Somali girl. He is a good-looking young man with a large scar on one cheek. He was starting to chat up the girl when she suddenly caught sight of his scar. At which point her whole demeanour changed instantly. She looked at him contemptuously, snarled “Get lost, Canjeh!” (Scarface), and turned on her heels. Romantic encounter over.
After more than two decades of fighting in Somalia, there is no shortage of people with war injuries. So you will come across men – and most nicknames are reserved for men – called Langare (Limpy) or Coryaan (Handicapped). An amputee is Lugay, or One Leg.
A fairly high incidence of eye defects accounts for people called Wershe (Cross-Eyed). Those without sight are Indhole (Blind) and if you lose your hearing you are Dhagole (Deaf). In a regrettably unchivalrous move, women with larger than average behinds have been known to be called Foto Weyne (Big Bottom).
But women are generally spared the abuse. Lul, or Diamond, is a common nickname for ladies. Then there is Macanay (Sweet), Cod Weyne (Rich Voiced), Dahable (Golden) and Indho Daraleey (Gazelle Eyes).
My favourite nickname? It has got to be the Somali-American I heard about recently with a large gap between his front teeth. Only one possible nickname for him: “Field Goal”.
I was talking to my Somali friend Sheikh Mohamed about nicknames the other day. In the UK, I said, some of these could get you in trouble with the police if someone objected. He snorted. “Puh! You know what would happen if someone called the police? The policeman would come, he’d look at the guy and say, what’s the problem? He called you Lugay, or One Leg? So what? You have got one leg, that was Allah’s decision. Now stop wasting my time!”
Some nicknames (translated)
- Big Bottom
- Field Goal
- Small Eyes
- Missing Tooth
Justin Marozzi is a travel writer, historian, journalist and political risk and security consultant.
*This article was first published in BBC News Magazine.