Dhiin’s Palace

Dhiin’s Palace is a story about a unique Somali diaspora experience in the homeland. Dhiin, a Somali woman from the United States, decided to move back to her homeland in order to open up a restaurant called “Palace”. Her journey embracing the local cuisine and the art of Somali storytelling makes her restaurant a local favourite.

Dhiin was born in Somalia but raised in the United States of America. A Pan African, a feminist and a social justice activist, Dhiin was fond of the African continent and in love with its people. She found its rich traditions magnanimously rare and was inspired to embrace the beauty of all the different cultures by coming back to the motherland in order to make a place for herself.

Dhiin returned to Somalia after completing her degree in Creative Writing. She knew she would not get paid by staying home and writing full time. She was not expecting to get her work published soon either. Her academic advisor once told her to study something other than fine arts. Something that would put bread on the table. Dhiin would not have it. She slept, breathed and dreamed of writing. Composing her own stories, researching topics of interest and daydreaming about her next book would be the only thing she ever wanted to do. But that was not possible. She had to work and support herself. Making ends meet lessened her chance of writing and fulfilling her dream as a successfully published author.

When she saved a little she packed her bags to travel to Somalia in order to discover what else life had to offer her.

She landed in Galkayo for the first time in her life. She could tell by what she had heard about the city that a lot had changed since the civil war. The roads were paved, many businesses flourished, homes were built and buildings erected. She was taken to Suggule Hotel where she ate the freshest meat and tasted all sorts of organic foods.

Dhiin loved cooking. She explored different ways to balance comfort food with nutritional and healthy eating. She was very creative and after seeing the type of food that people were eating, she decided to open a small restaurant. She wanted to share her passion for cooking. Through her food, she would bring a different experience of eating in order to create a connection with the people that would visit her eatery.

The next morning, Dhiin left for Garowe. Garowe is the capital city of Puntland and is situated within the Nugal Region. The area is lush with greenery and rich with both red and dark sand suitable for farming.

In Garowe, the food industry was flourishing. The diaspora became known for opening food joints and introducing different cuisines to the locals. From chicken pizza to shredded spicy chicken gyro to French fries with herbs dipped into mayonnaise and ketchup.

In Somalia, food is just for eating when one is hungry. Driving in the middle of the night to fulfil a craving or ordering a late-night snack after 10pm was unheard of.

Dhiin went to Spaghetti House, also known as Cafe Express. This was one of the places in Garowe operated by a diaspora. Its owner, a Somali from Scandinavia, was said to be a seasoned cook and an entrepreneur. Being away for decades, he decided to return and settle in Garowe. The cafe offered a delicious menu, including spaghetti with slow-cooked sauce topped with fresh Parmesan cheese, tender steak seasoned with aromatic herbs, vegetable salad with a flavourful vinaigrette, and many more dishes. Their mint tea infused with mint leaves grown in the restaurant’s own yard left tea lovers mesmerized.

Opening Dhiin’s Palace meant that she would bring people from around the world into the small house she purchased from her aunt Toosan. Her aunt decided to relocate permanently to Hasbaleh, which was one of the growing villages near Garowe.

She remodelled the three-bedroom house in order to turn it into a restaurant. She painted the walls in warm tones and put small solar lamps everywhere. There were no chairs or tables in Dhiin’s establishment. Instead, customers would sit on fluffy mats made out of straws handcrafted by local women which were laid over heavy rugs shipped from Turkey and feathery large pillows for extra comfort. While waiting for their food, people would sip tea, fragrant with cloves, ground cardamom and ginger, infused with fresh mint and strong unprocessed tea leaves with sweetened steamed coconut milk accompanied by sesame brownies.

For each group of customers, Dhiin arranged there to be an elderly woman or a man who would tell stories of war, travels, and wondrous adventures in order to educate and entertain. Dhiin wanted to create a unique atmosphere hoping to satisfy her customers. She wanted to ensure that they heard these fascinating stories in order to learn more about their land and its people while they ate the tasty dishes offered at the Palace.

Male elders narrated about how they killed hyenas, hunted wild geese, fought and won many clan battles, walked many miles in search of water and married the best girls from the clan they fought against. As for the female elders, they spoke about the painful experience of labour, blessings of newborns, building huts, moving families from one village to another in search of water, slaughtering goats, and cooking all by themselves, feeding and managing village households without electricity, water, and necessary amenities.

Before opening her restaurant, Dhiin tweeted about the launch. She sent invitations and was interviewed about the Palace by local radio stations. Everyone was eager to see the eatery and taste the dishes that she created. Friends that were planning to work and or visit Somalia from all over the world contacted her and told her that they would visit her.

Fifteen of her friends coming to Garowe confirmed that they would come to visit her restaurant. Some of them included Saada and Ali from Canada. Jama and Tanya wrapping up their teaching jobs in China promised they too would come. As did Mohamed and Heyfa from Indonesia and Camilla and Ralph from Kenya. The list went on.

On the opening day, there were more than 100 people. They entered and talked with the host and waited to be called in. The locals also poured in and talked about how they never saw anything like this before. They were enticed by the aromas and the new hype surrounding Dhiin’s Palace.

Faarax and Filsan from the States came with their two children. They decided to move back to the motherland in order to invest in the country and create jobs. They met Dhiin through social media. They also brought their two consultants, Samira and Wardi, who were both born and bred in Garowe. The six of them were seated on the mats and were immediately brought sweetened chilled ice tea along with peanut bites moulded with boiled brown sugar and olive oil.

To engage them in stories while they waited for their order, Tarax, an elderly storyteller sat with them and narrated about his experience growing up.

Though it was something the elders were willing to offer for free, Dhiin gave her storytellers food and other benefits, in return for sharing their stories with her customers.

As the children took bites of the peanut balls and the adults savoured the taste of the iced tea, Tarax began his story;

“I was fifteen when I lost my parents. I was taken to Uncle Said, my father’s younger brother. He owned more than a thousand camels and never allowed to sell one of them. If he did, I would have gone to school. His camels were precious to him, they were his world. To me, gaining knowledge was all that mattered. I had a hard time learning how to herd camels. With difficulty, I adopted the herding life which was weakening.

I herded all day then went home with no food. I’d drink a cup of camel buttermilk and a piece of roasted meat. I’d be starving by the time I brought the livestock back. I usually slept before the food was ready. I was in that situation for a year, then one day, I was too tired and fell asleep. The dry season was harsh; it was days before we could get into the water well. A pack of lions came and took one of the prettiest camels. My uncle was furious and said that I was incompetent. He decided to send me away to Mohamud, another uncle who lived in a small village near the town.

Uncle Mohamud had two wives but no children. Johorad, one of the wives, was a businesswoman who owned a store. She sold clothes, shoes and household items. Dagan, the second wife, owned a small shop selling produce and dry food. I stayed with Johorad. I worked in her store in the morning. In the afternoon, I attended classes to learn how to read and write Somali. I learned to count and was very good at basic counting. Working at Johorad’s store helped me develop customer service, a skill I did know I had. But still, I longed for more knowledge.

Johorad was kind but she could not help me enrol in school full time. She needed me to work in her store to clean, sell and help customers. Another year ended without any schooling. One day, Kaaba, Johorad’s friend, came from Mogadishu. She was visiting her mother in the village. Kaaba was married to a wealthy man. They had five children, some died when they were born and some were miscarried.  In her last miscarriage, Kaaba was told she could not have any more children. She loved children and wanted to adopt me but knew Islam didn’t allow adoption since I could not take her husband’s last name. However, Johorad agreed with Kaaba to take me to the city and enrol me in a city school.

Kaaba brought me to her home. It was a villa with many rooms, beautiful furniture, and tapestries. There were three female servants that attended to visitors and did the cooking and cleaning. Kaaba’s husband was always on business meetings flying to different places. Due to my age, and what I knew, I was enrolled in the fifth grade. At home, I assisted the helpers but I studied most of the time. I was good at memorizing. I also was enrolled in dugsi, a school for Koran studies. In a year, I was able to jump from fifth to seventh grade. I completed one-third of the Koran chapters. Kaaba and her husband were proud of me.

Three years later, when I was in the ninth grade, I completed all thirty chapters of the Koran and excelled in history, math, biology and chemistry. On behalf of my class, I sat for the national literature competition and won an award for my school…”

Tarax concluded his story.

Their order arrived; sautéed curry camel kabobs infused with cloves, lime, sea salt and pepper with roasted potato sticks, mango salad with goat meat bits on basmati rice with roasted raisins and peanuts, baked goat legs on a bed of steamed and buttered veggies and finished their meal with banana bread topped with sesame seeds. The customers sighed, wanting to hear more of the story about Tarax’s story.

Tarax promised to tell them more. He moved onto other customers that arrived and had just given their orders.

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