Djibouti: The tiny country where worlds meet
This blog is partly driven by my love of Birmingham’s multiculturalism and a desire to see how many countries’ food and culture I can experience without ever leaving the conurbation. Over the weeks I have found many fun little niche shops and restaurants, but Djibouti has stumped me. I guess it’s not surprising — Djibouti has less people than Birmingham and the smallest population in Africa — and I presume that Djiboutians have trouble finding Brummies selling potato scallops.
But what I did find was that there are many links between our two lands… Djibouti is also multi-ethnic with Somalis, Afar, Yemini Arabs, Ethiopians and Europeans all living together. This is partly because it is only 18 miles between Djibouti and Yemen (the same distance from my home to Coventry). At one point there was even talk of building a bridge between Asia and Africa. Of course such nation building projects are on hold due to the tragic war that has engulfed Yemen over the last decade…
Unlike Birmingham, Djibouti is a trading port and because of the French colonial period, its food is a melange of foods from other countries. The 10 dishes you need to try includes samosas (known as Sambuussa,) Ethiopian bread, skoudehkaris (the food I cooked this week — similar to a biriani), sabayaad (like the msemen we ate in Algeria), and ful medames from Egypt. I can also highly recommend the national desert, banana fritters. We bought the msemen from Moseley’s I&M Deli which does traditional Moroccan food and perhaps the best pizza in Birmingham. All of this we washed down with Chai, for apparently Djibouti drinks more tea per head than the Brits.
For music I found the Dancing Devils of Djibouti which has a real cross cultural feel to it, kind of like Radio Tarifa who play music from the area of Spain closest to Africa (if you ignore Ceuta!) You can also find a playlist of old Djiboutian songs here.
So far then Djibouti has been a rare treat… the food was great, as was the music and the tea… but then the book let the whole side down. I plumped for Passage of Tears, by Abdourahman A. Waberi, a book that weaves history, politics and religion together. Its heart is the tale of a man who has left both Djibouti and his twin behind and set up a new life in Montreal. He returns to his homeland at the behest of a shadowy economic intelligence company and finds his brother is now a Jihadist. So far, so good, but as if this story wasn’t complex enough it starts to weave in the story of German philosopher Walter Benjamin. This was one step too far for me, and for the first time in a while the book was a struggle to get through. At least it was short, and at least I now know that the strip of water between Asia and Africa is known as the passage of tears.
The film Dhalinyaro: Djiboutian youth, was quite a contrast. It is about three women coming of age and deciding what to do with their lives. One is from a poor background, one from a religious family and one is rich. They all need to decide whether they are staying around and going to Djibouti University or whether they are leaving for the excitement of Paris. It’s an easy watch and nice to see that their problems are pretty much the same as 18 year-olds everywhere. We truly have more in common than differences, and it is a pleasure to have spent a week in a land where difference can be enjoyed and cultures shared.
But none the less it is time to bid farewell to this tiny land and say hello to the even smaller Island of Dominica.