Mogadishu Day

Is the most vital television news in the cities taking place on cable access?

 Having directed an all-day wedding ceremony at his home, public access producer Abdulkadeer Osman breezes into the Minneapolis Telecommunications Network (MTN) studio late on a Saturday afternoon. Osman intends only to check on the progress of his five-man crew, who are supposed to be recording a future episode for his Somali community news and music program, Somali TV. Then, he'll return to the Islamic ceremony that will sanctify the coming marriage of one of his younger brothers. But Osman finds the studio dark and barren and the crew and guests are nowhere to be found. There is only a sole cameraman, Siyad Saalax, who is sitting and watching old, funk-filled Somali music videos in an adjacent editing room.

Saturday, popularly known around the station as "Mogadishu Day" after Somalia's capital, is typically when MTN's numerous Somali programs are recorded. But Osman, the inspiration behind nearly all these shows, seems accustomed to scheduling glitches.

"Today I don't worry. We shoot another time," Osman says as he watches a music clip from a recent broadcast of Somali TV. "Ah, this is really something to see."

News that cares, not news that KAREs: Cable access impresario Abdulkadeer Osman
Darin Back
News that cares, not news that KAREs: Cable access impresario Abdulkadeer Osman

In a segment recorded in the same MTN studio in mid-July, a slim, young Somali man does the moonwalk across a small stage to the sound of Michael Jackson's "Jam." His getup and moves bear a striking similarity to those of the King of Pop from the Dangerous years. While editing cuts flash fast between dance spins, kicks, and hip thrusts, the superimposed image of a young Somali woman standing behind a video camera rises over the flashy dancer.

"With that one we got a lot of calls and it was bit of controversial," says the 44-year-old producer, who also works as an elementary and middle school teacher for Minneapolis Public Schools. "But the youth, they like the music. I want to reach out to them as well as older Somalis."

Broadcast every Monday and Thursday at 5:00 p.m. on Channel 16 in Minneapolis, Somali TV opens with footage of camels in rural Somalia, which soon leads into a morality segment: either readings from the Koran or religious guidance from a local Somali sheikh. A well-groomed presenter, Mahomed Shiino, then soberly highlights news and events from the Somali community and often interviews at least one prominent Somali or regional African figure. The July 28 broadcast, for instance, spotlighted Mohamed Shidiye, a former member of parliament in Kenya who previously survived an assassination attempt that hospitalized him for more than two years. The final portion of the show is devoted to Somali music and includes live performance, lip-synching, and old footage of Somali concerts--whether shot in Djibouti or at a wedding on University Avenue in Minneapolis.

"The music culture is very new to Somalis--it only started in the 1950s and most all the pioneers are still alive today," Osman later explains from a café below the studio at St. Anthony Main. "It mixes Sudanese, Arab, Indian, and sometimes Western styles. When my students found out I was the producer, they would say something like, 'Teacher, can you play me this or that song on your next show?' Hah! Other people, they are thinking that we make a lot of money doing this."

Despite his rise to community-star status, Osman is a pure behind-the-scenes man, a soft-spoken, pious Muslim with a trim goatee and gentle, rotund eyes. Even while slugging down dark-roast coffee and deferring a half-dozen other responsibilities, this father of eight children seems about as easygoing as the slow-rolling river nearby.

In this equanimous spirit, Osman says he attempts to avoid controversy, even while appealing to a wide range of groups in the community. Other shows have drawn heated criticism for airing clips of Indian films and suggestive movements between men and women, taboo by Somali standards and extra mild by nearly any other.

Tarek Bagdadi, senior production manager at MTN, regularly works with Somali and other immigrant producers and jokingly referring to some of the more "risqué" programs as "PG-13" for Somalis. He calls Osman "a very honorable man" and tells of how Osman has encouraged and given guidance to countless other producers from Minneapolis's immigrant communities.

Seeing Osman as a father figure for nearly all Somalis at MTN, Bagdadi says he often solicits his advice, especially when he feels he has hit a cultural or personal impasse with another producer or crew member. He adds that he has regularly pressed some of the producers to include more women in front of and behind the camera.

"We are open to it. Any lady who is ready to volunteer, we will welcome them," says Osman, adding that Somali TV did have one female presenter until she moved to Canada. "We get a lot of feedback from the ladies saying that there are no ladies on the show, but sometimes they don't want to be seen and share with us. It's part of the culture."

It's worth noting that even in the segment with the Michael Jackson impersonator, the accompanying young Somali woman--dressed in tight blue jeans and an equally tight sleeveless shirt--keeps her eyes cast down while she answers questions in a hushed tone. Other controversial topics, such as divorce and female circumcision, remain strictly off-camera, falling to either discretion or self-censorship.

As he straddles the line between being a social pioneer and traditional patriarch, Osman hews to his original vision of using public television as a means to educate Somali people. When he first aired Somali TV in 1997, Osman already had two years of experience as a teacher and a Somali interpreter at Hennepin County Medical Center. A former USAID employee in Somalia, he says he saw the need to reach more than five or six Somalis a day with important cultural and health information. That's when he learned about MTN, a moment he describes as "guidance from Allah."

Since then, Somali TV has been imitated by countless other public access shows, many of which are produced by Somalis who used to work directly for Osman. According to Osman, many Somalis living in Minneapolis subscribe to cable just so that they can view these MTN programs and some hard-to-find music videos. (Committed fans of cable access--what a country!) What's more, he reports that tapes of Somali TV have turned up in pirate video shops and markets all around the world, from London, England, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. While struggling to expand his broadcast in the metro area, he hopes to bring Somali TV to audiences worldwide via the internet. Perhaps one day he will return to his homeland, he says, if only to do a video project for MTN.

 

Back in the editing room later in the week, Osman splices together bits and pieces of songs and interviews, recorded weeks earlier. Close to polishing off his 49th program, he recalls the moment when he truly appreciated what he and his collaborators could do through television.

"In March 2002, after the Minneapolis police shot Abu Jeilani on Franklin and Chicago, there was a big demonstration at city hall," he says. "We were there right along with all the big news stations. We were taking on the whole story and we were proud of doing that for Somalis, fighting for many communities."

Osman returns then to the editing board, becoming at once absorbed in the bit-by-bit process of creating television. He points out that this pending episode is set in a popular Somali restaurant on Lake Street where, like a young East African Jay Leno, host Mohamud Mas'Adde jokingly quizzes patrons on Somali history and politics. As Osman winds back the footage, he cracks a smile. "Sometimes, I look up and see it is very late in the night and they tell me, 'Osman, you are still here? We are closing. Time to go.'"

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