The New Republic
October 2, 2000
The tennis courts at Casa d’Italia, a country club in Mogadishu, have nourished several generations of players. First, there were the Italians who built the club and who controlled Somalia in the days of Mussolini; apparently, you had to develop a good backhand to be a good fascist. After Somalia gained independence in 1960 and took an ill-advised turn toward Marxism, Russian advisers arrived to offer pointers in building a socialist state, and they, too, found time to work on their ground strokes. Back then, Somalis rarely appeared on the courts except as ball boys. But today the regulars at Casa d’Italia are Somalis. After all, only a handful of foreigners remain in lawless Mogadishu, mostly Libyan and Egyptian diplomats, and they behave like hostages, rarely venturing outdoors.
At first glance, the tennis scene in Mogadishu appears another casualty of the decade-long civil war. Casa d’Italia’s two courts represent 66 percent of the functional playing surface left in town, and their condition is not what it could be. The unpainted cement courts are marred by cracks that spider from the walls to the nets, and players must take care to avoid the gouges left by direct mortar hits. The streets of Newark, New Jersey, are smoother. Casa d’Italia’s restaurant, which in its heyday boasted splendid penne and Chianti, served its last meal long ago. It is now a looted hulk of concrete and metal, its once immaculate grounds a refuge for goats. The surrounding neighborhood is an end-of-days panorama of war blight, filled with buildings that resemble construction skeletons picked clean by the ravages of battle and thievery. It evokes comparisons to Grozny or Sarajevo or Dresden, and, if one’s mind doesn’t make the connection, the occasional round of gunfire jogs the memory.
Even so, a miracle is taking place at Casa d’Italia: Tennis is on the upswing. At almost any time of day, a visitor will hear the sound of balls being swatted back and forth. The swatting is being done by a squad of youths under the tutelage of Mogadishu’s Pied Piper of tennis, Abdul Rahman Warsame, the 37-year-old deputy president of the Somali Tennis Federation. Thanks to the several thousand dollars in equipment that the International Tennis Federation sends to Mogadishu every year, Warsame oversees the instruction of about 40 youths, many of whom might otherwise occupy their hands with assault rifles. “I encourage young boys and young girls to learn tennis instead of wasting their time in the streets,” he told me. “It contributes to our people and our country.”
During the early and worst years of the fighting, play was impossible. When Mohammed Siad Barre, the dictator nicknamed “Big Mouth,” was overthrown in 1991, the coalition of clan warlords who defeated him decided that instead of setting up a new government, they would fight among themselves–which they did, quite tenaciously, causing mass starvation. In 1992, an American-led U.N. force hit the beaches. But after 18 U.S. soldiers were killed the following year in a botched raid on a warlord’s presumed lair–which led to the famous and humiliating spectacle of a GI’s corpse being dragged through the streets–the United States withdrew its contingent. Soon afterward, the remaining U.N. troops packed their bags, too, and the warlords were free to feast upon their suffering nation.
The fighting has tapered off in recent years, largely because of exhaustion, and this has allowed tennis enthusiasts to retake what’s left of Casa d’Italia. Soccer remains Somalia’s most popular sport by far, but Warsame is making sure tennis is not forgotten as Mogadishu tries to reassemble itself. The tennis federation pays “rent” to the local thugs so they won’t attack the players. There’s still occasional fighting in the neighborhood, which means the kids risk substantially more than pulled muscles when they take to the courts. But they still play–in an atmosphere several universes removed from the elite tennis camps that create the likes of Andre Agassi and Anna Kournikova. The afternoon I visited, a burst of gunfire interrupted my chat with Warsame. None of the kids so much as flinched. “It’s our daily life,” Warsame explained. “It’s normal.”
The star of Somali tennis is 18-year-old Abdisamad Hussein Jumale. He started playing six years ago but occasionally had to flee the courts under fire. When there was too much fighting around Casa d’Italia-which sits alongside the oft-disputed “green line” that separates north and south Mogadishu-Jumale practiced in a gym. When the fighting prevented him from leaving home, as it frequently did, he watched the same tennis video over and over. When I asked how many times he had seen it, he was speechless for a moment, then concluded, “Uncountable.” And when asked why he risked venturing onto the courts-his uncle, also a tennis fanatic, was killed while practicing-he shrugged and said, “I loved tennis too much.” Jumale does not own a racket; few players can afford one. Some actually practice without shoes. So he plays with a racket borrowed from the Somali Tennis Federation and shares it with anyone who needs it. As we talked courtside, one of his friends lifted it from his hands to hit a few shots. If someone needs his sneakers, he loans them, too. That’s the way things work.
When I visited, Jumale was practicing six hours a day, six days a week, training for this year’s Olympics. According to Warsame, Jumale had played in only one international tournament, in Nairobi, and lost his first-round match. Even so, the Somali Olympic Committee-the only national organization that has survived the fracturing of the country-was applying on his behalf for a wild-card invitation to Sydney. I couldn’t resist the temptation to rally with a potential Olympian, so I asked Jumale if he wouldn’t mind hitting a few balls with me, which he was glad to do. It quickly became apparent that Pete Sampras doesn’t have much to fear. But, then again, Sampras has never had to hit the ground, racket in hand, because somebody was shooting at him. Surely that should count for something.
Several weeks after my visit to Mogadishu, I learned that the International Tennis Federation had decided against granting Jumale one of its coveted wild cards. I felt sorry for him, but I suspect he won’t jump into the warm Indian Ocean and let the sharks devour him. After all, things are going a lot better in Mogadishu. The business sector is growing at a surprising clip-there’s even a DHL office in town-and a peace conference in Djibouti agreed in early August on a transitional parliament that will, if all goes according to plan, guide Somalia out of the abyss; the parliament has already chosen a new president.
Jumale could see it coming–in the survival, and renaissance, of Somali tennis. “People watch us and are surprised,” he told me. “They say it is a sign of the beginning of peace.”