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Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali

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Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali’s queer coming-of-age memoir illuminates a young immigrant’s struggles

Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali was 31 years old and homeless, living on the streets of Toronto, when he wrote his memoir, Angry Queer Somali Boy.

“I would park myself at a bench in the park. I would sit in the dining halls of various shelters where I was living,” Ali says over Skype. “I would take an hour or so and go to the library and I would transcribe [my words] on Google Docs.”

In Angry Queer Somali Boy, published in October by University of Regina Press, Ali invites readers into his world, entangling them in his complicated web of stories. Ali, who often goes by the nickname Mo, is a powerful narrator, vulnerable but frank. When I first read his book, I related to Ali so much: we both come from Muslim backgrounds and are queer, struggling to reconcile our conflicting identities. Ali did so while moving through different cultures and countries – from Somalia to the United Arab Emirates, then the Netherlands and, finally, Canada.

Angry Queer Somali Boy begins with Ali’s father, whose parents left him when he was a baby at his great-grandparents’ house. But as we learn throughout the book, Ali’s relationship with his dad was almost non-existent. “My father is the source of a lot of my experiences, good or bad,” Ali says. “It was difficult to engage him culturally and emotionally.”

The first part of the book is set in Mogadishu, Somalia, where Ali was born in 1985. At a young age, Ali’s father – who was at that time a stranger to the boy – took him away from his mother.

Ali moved in with his stepmother, Samira, and three stepsiblings in Abu Dhabi. The family was set to relocate from the United Arab Emirates to London, U.K., where one of Samira’s relatives lived. Instead, they stopped in the Netherlands where Samira lied to immigration about the direness of their situation so they could stay on as refugees.

Angry Queer Somali Boy illustrates various intersectional experiences. One of the most heartbreaking moments involves Ali’s recollection of his sisters being circumcised. “I remember going into their bedroom, I remember seeing their legs tied together so everything heals properly,” he says. “They were stationary, such a contrast from so vibrant to so docile, so exhausted.”

Ali also highlights the issue of how Somali refugees in the Netherlands struggle to fit into Dutch culture. “In the Netherlands, they have a policy of assimilation,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a Somali anymore. I tried to be Dutch for a very long time.”

At the same time, Ali was discovering his sexuality and questioning his masculinity. He recalls his crush on a straight male friend, Yusuf, and his dislike of sports, which was fuelled by the bullying he experienced during a soccer game. Ali was also questioning his religious beliefs. “Religion was a tool of domination,” he says. “I became eager to escape it. For me, it was searching for a place in the world. For a long time, I didn’t feel Islam offered that to me.”

Ali developed suicidal thoughts but found sanctuary in the story of Bilal, who was abducted as a child and enslaved by pagan merchants in pre-Islamic Mecca. Bilal converted to Islam, became free, and was the first man to call for prayer in Islam.

Wanting to be loved and understood, Ali instead faced violence and mockery, which deepened his depression. He began self-medicating with painkillers. “I had no way of releasing the constant tension in my body,” he says.

Ali and his stepfamily’s immigration to Canada marks another shift in the book’s narrative. “The Somalis that I grew up with in Toronto, they were very much Somali,” Ali says. “I didn’t necessarily feel Somali. I grew up in Holland. Not appreciating that I’m Somali signalled I was a traitor.”

Then, 9/11 happened. Many Muslims like us felt ashamed of our identities. “After 9/11, Islam took more of a political tone. Islam was now backwards,” says Ali.

Trying to come in terms with his past, Ali found solace in pornography, drugs, and alcohol. “It was really a way to escape myself and get out of this pressure cooker, constantly thinking about how I can escape my life,” he says. In 2016 – a year before writing his book – Ali tried to kill himself by overdosing on pills.

Around this time, Ali’s friend, who used to work at Penguin Random House and who loved Ali’s writing, offered him an editing gig on an essay collection of Afro-Canadian writing to be published by the University of Regina Press. That was when Ali met Bruce Walsh, the former publisher at the press.

“Bruce asked me to send him a sample of my writing,” says Ali. “I said I wasn’t published and I sent an essay. Bruce told me to forget about the editing and to write something.”

Ali spent the period from March 2017 to July 2019 writing Angry Queer Somali Boy, while living in a Toronto men’s shelter. He says that whenever he had to pause for treatment, his editors and publishers “were super understanding and supportive.”

Currently, Ali is working on a novel while maintaining his sobriety and “keeping my sanity about me.” He recalls being in detox in January 2018 and emailing his publishing friend. “He told me that as long as I stay sober, the work will flow. So I keep that close to my heart. I have to make sure my recovery is central and everything else will flow.”

Illustration by Rachel Idzerda