From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject Dhalinyaro : An Ode To Somali Girlhood
Date June 3, 2020 12:00 AM
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[ A new film set in Djibouti City presents a searing class
critique of Somali girlhood.] [[link removed]]


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Safia Aidid
May 26, 2020
Africa Is A Country
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_ A new film set in Djibouti City presents a searing class critique
of Somali girlhood. _

Still from Dhalinyaro.,


In the popular imagination, Somali women are viewed as passive,
oppressed subjects, the hapless victims of their patriarchal culture
and religion. Where they are visible, it is often through the
iconography of the veil and female circumcision. Lula Ali
Ismaïl’s _Dhalinyaro_ (Youth)—the first full-length feature
film by a Djiboutian woman—is a radical departure from this corpus
in depicting Somali girlhood in its full depth and complexity. Most
importantly, it does this through depicting the mundane events of
everyday life in Djibouti City. There are no wars here, or pirates, or
terrorists, no young women escaping fathers, husbands, or the blade of
a female elder, no white saviors ready for the rescue. What we see
in _Dhalinyaro_ is a coming of age story that shows Somali girls as
they are.

The film’s storyline revolves around the final qualification
examination for Djiboutian secondary students to enter university, the
baccalaureate. The three main characters, Deka, Hibo, and Asma, are
classmates at the Lycée de Djibouti but hail from markedly different
class backgrounds. The Lycée space becomes one where the different
segments of Djibouti’s population interact and form friendships,
bonding over the shared ritual of studying for the baccalaureate. Yet,
it is the question of higher education that renders class divides most
explicit. For wealthy Hibo, who arrives at the Lycée each day in a
chauffeured private car, there is no question that she will continue
her education in Paris. Deka, who is securely middle class, is less
certain, but with the funds saved up by her mother over a number of
years, the idea of going to France for university is within the realm
of the possible. Asma has no such choices available to her; poverty
dictates that she must stay in Djibouti, unless she is among the few
top students to receive a scholarship to study abroad.

The palpable burden of class difference saturates the film. One shot
silently juxtaposes a well-dressed man at a cafe with a young boy on
the street as he hands his shoes to the child to polish while drinking
coffee. In another shot, women in wide-brimmed sun hats sweep the city
streets at dusk to the sounds of _ciyaar Soomaali_, a traditional
Somali folk dance. It is palpable in Asma’s hesitation to attend
Hibo’s birthday party at the luxury Djibouti Palace Kempinski, and
in the _fuul_ bean stew her family eats at mealtimes, like the poor
neighborhood children that come to Deka’s home for bread. When Hibo
gets into an altercation with a group of schoolgirls outside of the
Lycée, she disparages them as the
“stupid _Balabois_”—residents of the impoverished Balbala
suburb. An angered Asma, who tells her that she is “one of them,”
accuses Hibo of believing that her wealth gives her more rights. Over
the course of the film, Hibo’s character arc moves from a sheltered
and careless rich girl to a more understanding and self-sufficient
individual, a transformation made possible by honest friendships
across difference.

The stunning cinematography with long shots of the sea and glimpses of
the Port of Djibouti subtly signals the confluence and contradictions
of global wealth and local poverty. This infrastructure of state
capitalism—and, at the end of the film, the national radio
broadcasting examination results—are the only glimpses of the state
or politics in _Dhalinyaro_. Djibouti is among the most enduring
dictatorships in Africa, ruled by an extended family since its
independence from France in 1977. Its ruler, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, is
famously a patron of the arts and culture, and Lula Ali Ismaïl has
described the support she received for the film from both the private
sector and a government eager to develop the country’s nascent film
industry. While one can wonder about the possible implications of this
government hand for artistic freedom, Ismaïl’s decision not to
engage formal politics explicitly is another subversive act of
representation, given that the region is mired in images of political
dysfunction. Ismaïl’s political critique is muted and indirect, but
no less searing. It takes the form of a city-wide power outage that
forces the “haves” to turn on their private generators and the
“have-nots” to light lanterns; it is in the figure of the elderly
veteran telling Deka the forgotten stories of Djiboutian soldiers who
fought for France during the Second World War; it is, at the
metalevel, what the film itself embodies in its very existence, in its
very refusal to conform.

What _Dhalinyaro_ foregrounds is female sociality and intimacy as it
unravels the complex layers of contemporary Djiboutian life. The film
has a decidedly female gaze, decentering maleness to the extent that
most of the male characters in the film remain marginal and unnamed.
Instead, it is the inner worlds of Somali women that are fleshed out
in full, and with the immense care and tenderness of a Somali woman
behind the camera. When Hibo has a miscarriage in a bathroom stall at
school, it is the conservatively-dressed Asma who immediately removes
her abaya to cover her friend’s blood-stained clothing, stating that
“girls look out for each other.” They openly discuss sexuality and
their relationships, the lively female banter reminiscent of the
Somali _riwaayad_ (play) and theater tradition that has pushed the
envelope on notions of female morality and modesty in Somali society
since the 1960s. Markers of Somali womanhood are interspersed
throughout the film: the breezy _dirac shiid_ worn as loungewear at
home, the fragrant _uunsi_smoke used to perfume one’s household,
clothing and hair, the _huruud_ face masks made of turmeric to keep
one’s skin soft.

At the heart of _Dhalinyaro_ is the tension between visibility and
invisibility in the desire for a particular kind of freedom. In an
early scene, Deka, Hibo, and Asma quietly talk at their desks as their
teacher—played by Lula Ali Ismaïl herself—explains the upcoming
deadlines for students seeking to go abroad for university. “Think
of the freedom!” Deka whispers to her friends, “no one holding you
to account, no one looking at you and saying ‘you’re the daughter
of so and so.’” These moments of recognition occur most often in
their encounters with men. As the girls sit by the waterfront and
jokingly evaluate the appearances of young men passing by, a man
pauses and greets Hibo, telling her to say hello to her father for
him. “There’s no getting away!” an exasperated Hibo tells her
friends. In another scene, the searching glance of a male waiter at a
restaurant where Deka is having an intimate dinner with the older
married man she is seeing is enough to unsettle her and abruptly end
the date. Yet, it is the same surveilling gaze—this time by
women—that precipitates the end to the predatory relationship, after
Deka’s mother hears about it. The communal nature of the Somali
social world, while frustrating any notion of individual anonymity,
fosters a sense of interdependence and female solidarity that uplifts
the girls in times of need, as their friendship illustrates.
Ultimately, Deka chooses this world by staying in Djibouti for

Ethnicity is conspicuously absent from the film. Djibouti, while
dominated politically, culturally and demographically by Somalis, is a
multi-ethnic country comprised of the Somali and Afar, as well as
smaller communities of Arabs, Ethiopians and Europeans. That diversity
is represented in the casting, with the three lead actresses
themselves belonging to Djibouti’s different ethnic groups: one is
Afar, one is Somali, and one is Arab Somali. Yet each plays a Somali
character, in a Djibouti where only Somali people and culture appear
to exist. However, there is some ambiguity to Hibo’s background that
is not discernible to the non-Somali speaker and flattened by the
limited subtitles. In the scene where Hibo is confronted on the
schoolyard, a voice in the background, which does not make it into the
subtitles, can be heard saying “the little Arab girl is being
attacked!” in Somali. Her father, in other scenes, speaks one or two
words of Arabic, albeit words that have entered the Somali lexicon.
Asma and Deka’s households are completely immersed in their
Somaliness, with illustrative scenes including Asma’s sisters
playing _jag_ on the veranda as their mother gives them advice using
Somali proverbs, and Deka’s single mother listening
to _gabay_ poetry composed by a heartbroken Cilmi Boodhari
[[link removed]]. Hibo’s family, on the
other hand, only speaks Somali at home when talking to their maid;
they converse in French exclusively between themselves, listen to
European classical music during formal dinners, and go to France for
education. There is an unexamined politics of language and ethnicity
yearning to be explored.

_Dhalinyaro_ is a remarkable feat, particularly for a first
full-length film by a self-taught filmmaker hailing from a country
with a film industry still in its infancy. Though initially released
in 2018, it has recently seen a surge in popularity when it was made
available for free streaming as part of this year’s Cinewax Online
African Film Festival, breaking OAFF streaming records. It is a
beautiful film—a love letter to Somali girls—that deserves to be
seen widely.


_SAFIA AIDID Is a historian specializing in the Horn of Africa and a
postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto._

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