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Unravelling Narratives of Piracy: Discourses of Somali Pirates

Muna Ali and Zahra Murad | Journal: Issues | Pirates and Piracy [5] | Dec 2009

Earlier this summer, we were both at the Harbourfront Centre, on Toronto’s waterfront, watching performers do magic tricks for children and families. One of the performers was dressed as a pirate straight out of Walt Disney films, such as Hook[1] and Pirates of the Caribbean. He had a parrot on his shoulder, long leather boots, and a skull and crossbones hat. While he was introducing himself, he made a point to say he was a good pirate “unlike those nasty pirates out of Somalia.” This performer juxtaposed his pirate character against Somali pirates by creating a good/bad dichotomy. His pirate character represented the mischievous but good-hearted pirate constructed in Disney films. The Somali pirate, on the other hand, represented a threat to the safety of all people.

Piracy has recently recaptured the imaginations of the Canadian public. The issue of Somali piracy has become an almost overnight concern to North Americans, becoming the next in a seemingly never-ending series of disasters and social atrocities that mark the limit of North American understandings of East Africa generally, and Somalia in particular.

In this paper we are focusing on the West and its relationship to discourses of piracy off the coast of Somalia. We are however, aware that countries not considered to be part of the ‘West’ – South and East Asian nations, Arab League nations and nations in Eastern Europe – are also implicated in and are active agents in these discourses.

In this article, we are looking at stories about pirates. We use ‘story’ to mean discourses, tales we tell about ourselves and others that lend meaning to our lives and contextualize our environments. Here, we are looking at good pirates and bad pirates and, within this political moment, which kind of pirate Somali pirates are being storied as. What are the stories the media is telling about Somali pirates? What are the stories Somali people in Toronto are telling about Somali pirates? And what do all these stories mean? When we were young, many of us learned that stories have morals – that tales we tell each other convey not only entertainment or information, but meaning and cautions and wisdoms as well. As academics, we learn the same about discourse. There is a discourse being re/created about pirates in the media. The stories of the good pirate and the bad pirate are raced, classed, geographically and historically located, and draw on older, larger stories of colonialism, capitalism and racism to tell their tales.  What are the morals of these stories?

Through a discourse analysis of instances in recent media, and through a relaying of stories from Toronto-based Somali communities, this paper seeks to understand both what the stories are, and what morals they tell. We acknowledge that the people referred to by the media as ‘pirates’ have consistently identified themselves as Somalia’s Coast Guard. Our use of the word ‘pirate’ to refer to them is not a refutation of this identity. Rather, we use ‘pirate’ because we focussed this paper on an inquiry into what the discursive work of the coverage around Somalia’s Coast Guard is, and not on an affirmation or condemnation of the Coast Guards themselves. In order to remain consistent to the analysis we present here, we have chosen to use the term ‘pirate’.

We begin by examining the trope of the ‘good’ pirate. Pirates have featured as well-loved characters and amusing villains in children’s fiction for years, and have recently recaptured hearts in the form of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy.[2] In this section, we examine the construct of the ‘good’ pirate, what narratives allow him to exist and what the work of these narratives might be. Using our understanding of the construct of the ‘good’ pirate and what he symbolizes, we then deconstruct the ‘bad’ pirate, looking specifically at media attention to Somali piracy. In our last section, we present some of the stories from interviews conducted with eight people born in Somalia and living in Toronto. All of the interviews are presented here in English, but four were conducted in Somali and translated for this paper. We conclude by bringing together some of our discourse analysis and the wisdom shared by our interview participants to create an alternative understanding of the situation for Somalia’s pirates, and of the construct of pirates and piracy.

The Good Pirate: Meet Captain Jack Sparrow

To say that pirates are portrayed in popular media as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is perhaps an oversimplification. For years before Somali pirates were shoved into the spotlight, pirates have captured imaginations in stories for children and adults. People have been telling stories about pirates and piracy in the “New World” since the Golden Age of piracy in the 16th and 17th centuries.[3] Pirates have figured prominently in the histories of settler-colonies in North and South America and have, at various times, been portrayed as indigenous/runaway slave heroes, lower class heroes, outlaws, criminals and merciless villains. In mainstream representations, the element of racialization and colonization in both the motivations and identities of pirates has been obscured or overlooked. The representations are, nevertheless, raced and positioned within a simultaneously historical and ahistorical context of colonialism and imperialism. The story may not always be set in ‘real’ history, but some combination of elements of a context for piracy – fictional or not – are present, albeit in the background; savage natives, wealthy people, and an environment in which there is either no stable legal authority, or where that authority is far away. These elements are not a natural part of the global environment. However, in creating an ahistorical tale using historically contextual tropes and issues, pirate-stories often set these aspects up as natural, making them seem inevitable. Thus, the sympathetic pirate is likable because he is good deep down, and the unsympathetic is simply rotten. These historical elements are telling, and contextualize pirates as a socio-political phenomenon that is neither ever ahistorical nor apolitical. Instead, these elements make clear that pirates and piracy are perceived to exist in situations where a system of law is absent or in conflict and where social inequity and colonization are material factors. It also indicates that who we perceive as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ pirates might be determined along these same lines of racialization and colonialism.

In this complicated context (which is rarely outlined for viewers or readers but rather implied through a set of symbols and cues), pirates play complicated and shifting roles. They are not, perhaps, merely ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but are certainly pictured as either sympathetic or unsympathetic characters, both in fiction and in the news. Acting in difficult and often chaotic circumstances – like the early stages of settler-colonism or just after the collapse of a nation-state in an anarchic international community – pirates make wonderful material for slightly more complicated, conflicted and/or misunderstood ‘villain with a heart of gold’ characters. Sympathetic pirates are often used as variants on beloved diamond-in-the-rough, rebel-without-a-cause or Robin Hood themes. They are shown as rough-and-ready men who are nonetheless charming, amusing or honourable enough to remain non-threatening. Unsympathetic pirates are often depicted as cut-throat and greedy, men who not only live outside the law, but outside any code of honour or conduct.

Disney’s immensely successful Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy gave audiences a new lovable and highly sympathetic pirate-hero. Captain Jack Sparrow’s adventures take audiences through a fictionalized world of stodgy colonials oppressing innocent white working class folks, sometimes honourable but always loveable white-skinned pirates, and disreputable, often evil mercenaries and pirates of colour. While the first movie is perhaps the best known, and each movie uses constructs of the pirate we are discussing here, the third movie (At World’s End) most openly and frequently brings into play racial and colonial power relations, though certainly in an uncritical manner. The movies portray pirates as an unruly and disorganized group, who pause in fighting one another only when they are forced to join together against the British. But while the final movie does give us one unsympathetic British character, pirates and colonials alike are shown as complicated, likable, conflicted or blundering – neither truly good nor evil, but people who are positioned by circumstance for or against one another. To this amiable melee of trust and betrayal, there must be added some element of the Other.[4] The pirates of colour we meet in this trilogy rarely have lines, let alone character names.  Captain Sao Feng, played by Yun-Fat Chow, is one of the two non-white pirates portrayed in the trilogy with significant roles. Yet he and his crew are written along a different set of rules than his white counterparts. While he, too, is created as a pirate without social or historical context, and is clearly a man of negotiable morality, he is neither particularly intelligent nor endearing. He is at his most charming shortly before his death, apologizing to Keira Knightly’s character, Elizabeth Swan, for attempting to rape her – all the while under the false impression that she is the goddess Calypso. Through Sao Feng, and other characters of colour, we see a cunning, intelligent, amusing, sympathetic white self develop that is contrasted not to an arch-nemesis or particularly villainous character, but to the simple-minded, petty and often incomprehensible pirates of colour.

What we see through the eyes of movie-going audiences is a world of adventure-hungry men (and occasionally women) who were either born into piracy, or else who become pirates either by coincidence or the machinations of fate. Why do pirates exist? There is rarely a reason presented in the text, and, interestingly, there is rarely a reason sought when the issue is discussed in the mainstream media. Read as a discourse about pirates, stories of fictional pirates teach us how to understand and interpret piracy as a social and political phenomenon.

What is the significance of fictional depictions of piracy to a deconstruction of media attention to Somali pirates? As we will lay out in the next section, Somali pirates are portrayed as either sympathetic or unsympathetic along three specific lines of tension: the protection of the West and its property, their identities as Muslim and therefore automatic links to terrorism and their depiction as either selfless martyrs or greedy villains. All three themes are expressed in relation to Somali pirates in a historic and political vacuum in the mainstream media. Context is either not given, or else paid lip-service in a sentence or two which is quickly contradicted. In this way, each theme is touched by the half-contextual nature of fictional representations of pirates – pirates pop up on their own and help create their context, rather than specific contexts creating situations in which pirates are necessary or possible. The third theme, of pirates as martyr-rebels or greedy villains, is further constructed within traditional conceptions of sympathetic and unsympathetic people of colour. Somali pirates are set up as sympathetic based on their level of vulnerability or helplessness. When it becomes evident that they are, in fact, capable agents acting in spheres of moral ambiguity, they appear less sympathetic. This up-and-down game resulting from a perennial confusion as to how to read people of colour taking up arms and claiming a voice is reflected and dealt with in fictions about pirates. As we see in the escapades of Captain Jack Sparrow, stories about piracy are also stories about colonialism and white supremacy.

Denying Somali pirates the benefit of context is not simply an act of ignorance; it is in act of imperialism. In her book Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, Sara Ahmed argues that the body of the Other, who we are often taught to recognize as strangers – either exotic or dangerous – is actually a rejected part of the Self.[5] To know someone is a stranger, after all, we must first recognize them. We recognize them as unfamiliar, as not us, and so reject them. Once rejected, the stranger becomes no more or less than what we are not – not a Self in their own right, the stranger is simply what we have rejected from ourselves. Thus reified, the Othered body is bereft of context of their own. They become bit players, or arch-nemeses, in the ongoing story of the Self. Somalia’s pirates are viewed within a narrow binary of good or bad, as sympathetic or repellent; more nuanced readings are made difficult because we view them only as villains in the West’s story of economic and territorial growth, resource acquisition and political domination. Somali pirates, as dangerous strangers at sea, are labelled as any number of things that all spring from an understanding of their existence only in relation to ourselves. As they are portrayed and understood through these ahistorical, acontextual channels they become, more and more, fairy-tale monsters capable of anything and incomprehensible to the Self.

The Bad Pirate: A Deconstruction of the Somali Pirate

In his song entitled Somalia, Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan asks, “so what you know bout the pirates terrorize the ocean?” K’naan follows this rhetorical question by stating:

“To never know a simple day without a big commotion. It can’t be healthy just to live with such a steep emotion. And when I try and sleep, I see coffins closing.”[6]

In this song, K’naan’s statement points to the significance of social, political, and historical context. As stated earlier, the story of piracy, whether in fiction or in the media, lacks an understanding of the root causes of piracy. Piracy does not just appear out of thin air. It is created as a result of a variety of factors including social inequities and colonialism. K’naan’s lyrics allude to the lack of discussion on the reasons behind piracy off the coast of Somalia. There is very little analysis of power, imperialism, and the West’s involvement in the creation of piracy in the media. In his interview with Hard Knock TV,[7] K’naan discusses the complexity of Somali piracy. He explains that Somalia’s waters have been the site for dumping toxic waste by several countries for almost two decades, and that the international community did not respond to the cries of Somali people.  The result of this illegal dumping is piracy. However, the discussion of piracy in the mainstream media is a discussion of protecting the West from Somali people. There is little discussion implicating the West in the creation of piracy. K’naan ends his interview by stating, “if you want the piracy to stop, stop dumping nuclear toxic waste in our country.”[8]

Somali pirates are understood through ahistorical and acontextual channels and as a result have become fairly-tale monsters that bear no resemblance to the Self. Telling the story of Somali piracy without an understanding of the historical context is a form of imperialism.  The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is significant to imperialism and imperialist agendas.[9] On November 21st, 2008, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) radio program, The Current discussed piracy in Somalia.[10] This episode of The Current attempted to demonstrate two sides of the Somali pirate issue by interviewing a man named Muse, who identified himself as a Somali Coast Guard, but who the host persisted in referring to as a pirate. Sunil Ram, a Security Consultant with Executive Security Services International was also interviewed. The host, Indira Naidoo Harris, conducted the interview with Muse first, followed by the interview with Ram. Muse explained the need for coastguards such as himself to stop foreign ships from entering Somali waters to dump nuclear waste. He stated that being constructed as bad guys or pirates was part of the “enemy politics of the West.” Muse added, “We are the defenders of Somali waters and land.”[11]

Following Muse’s interview, Harris discussed the issue of piracy with Ram. Ram’s analysis of the situation lacked any sort of historical, social, and political analysis of current problems in Somalia. He simply critiqued and dismissed all of Muse’s points and experiences and offered ways in which Canadian ships can protect themselves when travelling through the Gulf of Aden. The safety of Canadians traveling through the Gulf of Aden was a major concern for Harris and Ram. Ram suggested starting with non-violent tactics, such as more sirens, stronger lighting systems, greasing the rails, and later using force if the situation escalated. The Current attempted to present an unbiased view of Somali piracy, however, they clearly demonstrated a bias. This was seen first in the familiarity with which the host spoke to Ram as compared to Muse and then in the strategic placement of Ram as the second interviewee, able to comment on Muse’s thoughts and to have the last word. The placing of Muse’s interview before Ram’s telling of piracy was a strategic way for Muse’s story to be dismissed and further separate the Canadian Self from the Somali Other. One of imperialism’s achievements was to bring the world closer together and at the same time further separate the West from the East.[12] The Current’s attempt to discuss piracy demonstrates a further separation of Canada from Somalia.  Nowhere in the discussion of piracy is Canada held accountable for its participation in the creation of piracy in Somalia. Instead, as stated earlier, Somali piracy is decontextualized and the story of piracy becomes about how Canadians can protect themselves from pirates.

The construction of Somali pirates through the media is one that is highly racialized and arises from an understanding of their existence only in relation to ourselves. We have established that Somali piracy is a Western creation in the sense that piracy off the Horn of Africa came out of foreign countries abusing and dumping waste into Somali waters in combination with political instability within the country. However, the ways in which the Somali pirate is produced as a threatening stranger is a method to manage the story of piracy and construct ourself. Somali pirates, as dangerous strangers at sea, are labelled in this way to differentiate ‘us’ from ‘them’.[13] Similar rhetoric from the United States’ War on Terror is used in the discussion of piracy. In fact, according to several media outlets, Somali pirates have been linked to “Islamic terrorist” organizations. There has been little discussion on the fact that these links were made simply based on these men’s identities as Muslims. The BBC reported that Somali pirates have been accused of forming an “unholy high seas alliance” with Islamist insurgents in Somalia.[14] In The Current’s interview with Ram, he referred to these Somali men as terrorists.[15] US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has called for the world to take action to end the “scourge” of piracy.[16] Clinton describes these men as criminals that must be brought to justice.[17] These stories of Somali pirates, as terrorists of the sea, are stories of colonialism and white supremacy. A decontextualized understanding of piracy does not allow for an understanding of the West’s complicity in the creation of piracy.

A common theme in the construction of the Somali pirate is as either a martyr-rebel or greedy villain. Somali pirates are set up as sympathetic based on whether or not they are helpless, and therefore unthreatening to the West, or as active agents of change. When they are recognized as active agents, they become unsympathetic. This speaks to the point we made earlier about the simultaneous historicity and ahistoricity surrounding pirates in general and Somali pirates in particular. Why are Somali people more threatening when they are actively seeking to alter the abject[18] nature of their condition? We would argue that this is because, despite lack of context in the coverage of Somali pirates, there is an awareness that the West in general, and North America in particular, is responsible for the fall of the Somali nation. During The Current’s interview with Security Consultant Ram, he continuously stated that the story of piracy would be different if the pirates were using the money to feed their people.[19] Instead, according to Ram, these men are using the money they receive to have luxurious weddings, buy fancy cars, and build mansions. In other words, Ram is arguing that if these men were engaging in complete social banditry, similar to Robin Hood, the pirate would be constructed differently. However, since they are not selfless martyrs their story can be decontextualized and voices unheard. Ram believes that they have legitimate concerns in Somalia, however, “they have crossed the line” with their actions. The image of the greedy pirate has been presented in several media outlets that have highlighted piracy in Somalia in the same way. For instance, in April 2009, a ship holding food aid from the United Nations was hijacked. Many media sources centred on the notion that Somali pirates were keeping their own people from receiving aid. One headline read: “Somalia Piracy Hurting Aid delivery – UN.”[20] According to this article, “attacks by pirates off Somalia are making it ever harder for the UN food agency to deliver relief aid to the hungry in East Africa and the Horn of Africa.”[21] Here we see the construction of West as the heroes who are attempting save the poor Somali people, but cannot as a result of Somali pirates. This further situates the pirates as evil people who came out of nowhere – not as some of those very same ‘poor Somalis’ the West is trying to ‘help’.

Western media outlets have created two types of Somali bodies – the greedy pirate and the helpless Somali victim that is suffering as a result of piracy. These two bodies are put against each other to further Western narratives of Somali piracy as evil and of Somalis as either immobile helpless victims or as criminals.

In the Daily News, reporter Helen Kennedy wrote an article titled “Piracy Big Boon to Somalia Economy; Hotels, Restaurants Sprout in Port of Eyl in Pirates’ Presence.”[22] The reporter focuses on how the Somalis are spending profits from piracy. Kennedy states, “Big villas and hotels are sprouting, former subsistence fishermen are driving Mercedes-Benzes and gold-digging women are showing up. So are accountants.” Concentrating on where money, that is considered ‘illegally earned’ is going allows for the discussion of piracy to be dehistoricized and decontextualized. The discussion is not about how or why piracy off the coast of Somalia exists, instead it looks at where ‘illegally earned’ funds are going. This is a tool to draw attention away from the larger context and issues making piracy in Somalia a necessity.  So what are some of these issues? What is the context of Somali piracy? In our next section, we put some of the thoughts of our interview participants together with the analysis of these sections to build some context.

Searching for Context: Interviews

Context is important to understanding. Where context is lacking, or where context is denied, it becomes easier to manipulate understanding. As we have discussed in previous sections, this kind of control over context, particularly between the media of Western colonial powers and the stories of marginalized communities, people and nations, is an act of cultural imperialism. Sara Ahmed articulated the ways in which this process of the Self storying itself, and using the Other as a constitutive character within this story, is an integral element of racial domination.[23] The people interviewed, who had settled in Canada from Somalia, agreed to share their ideas and stories with us also perceived this imperial power-relation in the storying of Somali pirates. Every participant, regardless of their personal views on piracy and Somalia’s pirates, pointed out the lack of historical and social context in the media’s reporting.

Farah Adam, who was ambivalent as to whether he felt the pirates were justified in their actions, remarked that the “media portray Somalis as thieves and low-lives.”  Discussing the complexity of the situation, and her dissatisfaction with the media’s portrayal, Idil Mohammed points out that, “It’s important to think about what’s driving this, not necessarily what it is.” Another interviewee who felt conflicted about the morality of piracy, Raage Wardhere, noted when asked about his feelings regarding the media’s portrayal of the pirates, “uh…I read some of their…uh…writings. But, that is not the whole truth.” Shukri Haji Omar, who felt the pirates were entirely justified in their actions, expressed her frustration over media representations saying, “This is a war over money…and people are not talking about ongoing abuses, like nations such as Saudi Arabia continuing to buy plundered resources from warlords.”

For the interview participants, context in the media was not always about affirming the pirates. It was also about treating Somalis as people; showing respect and contrition for the difficult situation Somalis find themselves in, and the complicity of the international community in creating this circumstance; and explaining to the world the difficult, conflicted nature of the situation in Somalia as a whole and of piracy in particular. Sometimes, this did mean siding with the pirates. Always, it meant taking into account the nuances and difficulties of a Somali narrative of piracy, not simply of Western understandings, interests and concerns.

For many Somalis, piracy has become a viable option for survival in the area for the same reasons that they have been displaced and forced to leave their homes as refugees. The silence and bias of the media and the international community has cost lives, but while those lives were not white, Western lives, the attention of the international community was not attracted. Farah Ali noted that, “the Somali diaspora tried to talk to the international community to do something about these violations, but they did nothing positive about this.” Perhaps this is why calling for context on the part of the Somali community is not simple – not a request for impunity or pity, but a demand to be treated as though their lives matter. Shukri Haji Omar pointed out that, “When Somalia started to fall apart and people were dying, no one was paying attention. Now, they are only watching because white interests are challenged.” While the Western Self features as the lead character in this tale of good or bad pirates, the pirates themselves cannot be more than what is convenient for us that they be. Haji Omar described piracy as people’s livelihood – not criminal activity or a revolutionary political movement, but a means of day-to-day survival in unspeakably difficult circumstances.

Perspectives: Good and bad – same definitions, different sides of the line

What emerges from the complexity of insight and perspective we find in the voices of our participants is a real sense of the Western-centric understanding being conveyed through the media. Perhaps what one might expect to find in response to colonial and imperial agendas is a straightforward resistance and denial of Western claims.  What we see instead is a complicated, nuanced and often deeply personal set of understandings and opinions that only in-part respond to Western understandings; they are not constructed by Western media perspective either in agreement or rebuttal. Rather, they are constructed by interview participants along myriad lines of identity and experience that help inform a nuanced understanding of piracy from Somali perspectives.  One particularly interesting pattern that surfaced in our examination of these stories was the repeated use of ideas of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The concepts were used in much the same way that the Western media might employ and understand them – good meant good for the people the story is about, while bad meant the opposite. However, participants unanimously employed the terms from a perspective counter to that of the Western media. Using the good/bad binary and notions of country, nation and ‘the people’, participants put forward a different, and more complicated story of pirates and of Somalia than the ones we have been examining so far.

Responding to a question about her thoughts on the justifiability of pirate action, Khatra Ahmed says, “Although they [pirates] can be bad people, what they are doing is good for the country because the international community is dumping and fishing on Somali waters and the piracy is stopping this; piracy is bad, but the intruders are also doing bad things, they must pay the price.” Echoing these thoughts, Farah Adam describes pirates as a, “bunch of thieves, but some, as far as Somalis are concerned, are heroes because they are defending our natural and marine resources”. Evoking the importance of nationhood and the nation-state in today’s anarchic international community, Mohamad Omar says, “Pirates are citizens, Somali citizens…The word is a violation or degradation of Somali men who are fighting for their rights.” Also picking up on the matter of national sovereignty and defense, Farah Ali says, “I don’t agree with the piracy by itself. But, in this case, to go against the illegal dumping and the fishing…they have a right to do that, they have a right to protect the country and the water.” Defense of state and land were prominent concerns throughout the interviews. Justice and a sense of having been wronged by the international community were certainly important elements of the stories shared as well, but interviewees seemed more concerned about the material harms being inflicted on Somali people than debating the theoretical morality of Somali piracy. Some interviewees did, however, express their ambiguity about coming to conclusions over actions undertaken in extreme and adverse conditions. Ibrahim Said began his descriptions of what he thought of when he heard the word ‘pirate’ by saying, “Somali men, who are hungry. So, they wanted to eat. The hunger forced them to, uh, [inc]…They exist because they don’t have anything. It’s a matter of survival.”  Debating whether he felt supportive of the piracy itself, he expanded to say, “I disagree with them because they capture ships, and ask for a lot of money. They should take something for their survival”. Raage Wardhere also did not theoretically support the use of piracy but, like Ibrahim Said, became conflicted about this stance when the element of survival became an issue: “It’s a business now…that’s a quick way of making money…but originally the pirates started in Somalia because of the collapse of the government. Uh, a lot of companies started dumping chemicals – nuclear waste. And some others were fishing in Somalia’s territorial sea illegally…before it was not piracy, it was enforcing the law.” Working through these conflicting issues of absolute right and wrong versus survival as vulnerable people, the nuances of Wardhere’s understanding brings him to conclude that, “To solve the problem of piracy, the international community must solve the Somali problem.” This very reasonable assertion is one missing almost entirely from the media perspectives on piracy that we have been seeing in the mainstream. Regarding piracy as an element of Somalia’s general chaos and violence, seen as both natural and incomprehensible to Western eyes, the idea of taking responsibility and positive action in this situation has rarely come up. Looking at piracy as an historically situated and politically contextual element, Wardhere and other participants see practical solutions; pirates to them are not inexplicable natural phenomena against which we must protect ourselves – they are a reasonable and predictable response to a situation the international community has the ability to change.

Telling stories at home: News outside the media

It is important to recognize that while discourse analysis and studying the meaning and agendas of various media are important, it is equally important to understand that people do not respond to media stories by simply agreeing or disagreeing with them. This is not to say that discursive analysis is irrelevant unless it can prove that discourses are received in exactly the manner intended. Rather, it is to point out that people who become objects of stories – bodies who find themselves ejected from Selfdom and positioned as the Other – are viewed and interpreted as the Other but are also much more than that. Communities that find themselves the focus of negative media attention often find ways of resisting the stereotyping they are saddled with, or of communicating their own stories, their own ideas and their own realities. They do not always choose to make these stories public – to counter discursive hegemonies with discourses of their own. Sometimes, these stories are simply ones people tell themselves, and one another, consciously or unconsciously taking control of the narrative and refusing to accept status as the Other.

As our interview participants told their stories, they articulated themselves as the active Self in many different ways. For some, control over narrative was about denying the mainstream media a place in their lives and understandings of the situation. When asked what she thought of when she heard the word ‘pirate’, Shukri Haji Omar commented, “Now I think of Somalia and rude racist news reports. I can’t even watch the news, it’s so racist.” When asked about his feelings regarding the media portrayal of pirates, Farah Ali said simply, “The media is Western – they always say bad things about Somalia”. Idil Mohammed said, “I’m not paying that much attention to the media…they demonize pirates, for example saying they are building mansions next to shacks – that’s bullshit. Knowing my people – I do not believe that mansions are being built next to shacks. I’m sure there is some distribution of wealth.” Choosing to reject or dismiss the media, or media content, is not a decision to remain ignorant. Rather, these participants choose to privilege other stories and other sources. Mohammed, for example, articulated the privileging of her own knowledge and experience of Somalia and Somali people over media reports. Whatever else this may mean for Mohammed personally, it is an act which shows a sense of power and agency in the face of Western narrative hegemonies.

Other participants did not choose to shut out Western media sources, but doubted its legitimacy and developed their own understandings and narratives instead. Nothing they said in their interviews indicated that they felt their own narratives were threatened by Western interpretations. Rather, they articulated that their consumption of Western media was premised on the understanding that media sources have political agendas. Raage Wardhere, who felt ambivalent about the morality of piracy, said in his interview, “I agree with some of the writings – but they are not all true. The truth is that it started in a legal way. The media is biased – not telling all the truth. They are ignoring the whole problem.”  Ibrahim Said, who also maintained that he was not fully in support of piracy, was in agreement with Wardhere, and stated succinctly, “I am aware about the Western media, but disagree with most of what the media is saying.” Khatra Ahmed could not fully agree with piracy, but felt that action was warranted and explained her mistrust of media narratives, saying, “The West always creates something that doesn’t exist because they have an agenda. The West always talks before they take action – for example, Iraq.  The media is powerful. They spread propaganda in the media so they can later justify an occupation or invasion.” Once again, it is clear in the knowledge and understanding behind these statements that participants are neither ignorant of current events in Somalia, nor choosing to cultivate a sense of ignorance. Rather, the naming of the Western media as biased, but the simultaneous refusal to turn their opinion of piracy and Somali pirates into a less-nuanced disavowal of the media’s view, demonstrates a lot of control over narrative and storying.

All participants took active control over media representations of Somali pirates and Somali people. They rejected the Western media as a relevant source of information, or they used the media as a questionable source of information looking at it as one side of the story rather than the definitive news. Situating Somali piracy in social and historical contexts, they exercised narrative power. This is what piracy looks like, in context – nuanced, morally ambiguous, revolutionary, powerful and complicated.


Although they have been portrayed as good or bad, sympathetic or unsympathetic, it has become clear through our analysis and through the thoughts and opinions of our participants that pirates are anything but a simply binary matter. Deprived of context, they can be used as a convenient tool to convey meaning or demonize victims of colonial and imperial policies. However, whether contextualized or not, pirates are political. The people we worked with through narrative interviews to write this essay have diverse and sometimes contradictory views of pirates. Yet all of them place Somali pirates within the context of colonial agendas and globalized racism. The context, then, for Somali pirates might be said to be one of strife and conflict, a context which is not limited to an examination of whether the individual actions of pirates are good or bad, but which takes into account the last 50 years of Somali history, and the realities of life for all people affected by Somalia’s current situation. This context situates pirates as people, not catalysts for change or terrorist-criminals on the high seas. It allows a view of Somali pirates that sees them as a Coast Guard, or as a group of intrepid boys and young men taking control of their destinies, or as poor people looking to make their lives better, or as petty thugs, or as a combination of all these things. As people, the pirates have the ability to be complicated, contradictory and a story in themselves rather than simply the Other to the Self or the villain in our tale. In this context, the pirates then also have the ability to expose the contradictions of the Self, and of Western actions and interests. As a moment in history, the pirates gain coherency and can become part of a narrative that counters colonial and imperial efforts. As ends in themselves, the pirates gain personhood in our eyes, challenge our own notions of our Selves and our Others and force us to question our own narratives, and how we use them.


1. Stephen Spielberg, Director, Hook, 1991. [↑]

2. Gore Verbinski, Director, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, 2003; Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, 2006; Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, 2007. [↑]

3. Web page: centuries (“History of Piracy,” True Caribbean Pirates, The History Channel, http://www.history.com/marquee.do?content_type=Marquee_Generic&content_type_id=53944&display_order=1&marquee_id=53952 (2008). [↑]

4.  Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination, (London: Vintage, 1993), 12. [↑]

5. Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, (London: Routledge, 2000), 25. [↑]

6. K’naan, “Somalia,” on Troubadour, A&M/Octone B001L2I27O (CD), 2009. [↑]

7. “K’naan on Somali Pirates – There is a Reason Why This Started,” Hard Knock TV, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTxJLlQCe4U (30 Dec. 2008). [↑]

8. “K’naan on Somali.” [↑]

9. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, (London: Vintage, 1994), xiii. [↑]

10. “Somali Pirates.” Indira Naidoo Harris, Host, The Current, CBC Radio One, http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/2008/200811/20081121.html (21 Nov. 2008). [↑]

11. “Somali Pirates.” [↑]

12. Said, xxiv. [↑]

13. Ahmed 25 [↑]

14. Martin Plaut, “Pirates ‘Working with Islamists’,” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7737375.stm (19 Nov. 2008). [↑]

15. “Somali Pirates.” [↑]

16. Sue Pleming, “Clinton Says World Must End ‘Scourge’ of Piracy,” Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSN08546967 (8 Apr. 2008). [↑]

17. Pleming. [↑]

18.  Julia Kristeva,  Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, (New York: Columbia UP, 1983), 14. [↑]

19. “Somali Pirates.” [↑]

20. Frank Nyakairu, “Somalia Piracy Hurting Aid delivery – U.N,” Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/homepageCrisis/idUSL9949491._CH_.2400N (9 Apr. 2009). [↑]

21. Nyakairu [↑]

22. Helen Kennedy, “Piracy Big Boon to Somalia Economy; Hotels, Restaurants Sprout in Port of Eyl in Pirates’ Presence,” NYDailyNews.com, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/us_world/2009/04/10/2009-04-10_piracy_boon_to_somalia_economy.html (9 Apr. 2009). [↑]

23. Ahmed, 25. [↑]

Article printed from darkmatter Journal: http://www.darkmatter101.org/site

URL to article: http://www.darkmatter101.org/site/2009/12/20/unravelling-narratives-of-piracy-discourses-of-somali-pirates/