A television program in Mogadishu, which has become popular among Somali youth, provides a different and entertaining narrative of the beleaguered city—a narrative that is bridging cultural divisions and healing old wounds in the wake of Al-Shabab’s devastating bombing campaign in the city. While Al-Shabab (the name means youth) wreaks havoc among innocent people with bombs and other weapons of destruction, the youth are coming to the show to sing or dance.

Universal TV’s weekly program Masraxa Furan (Open Mic) has become a hit in Somalia and in the diaspora. The show is the first of its kind in the country and freely mixes comedy, music, dance, poetry, and storytelling. It is hosted by the Benadiri comedian, Abdi Muridi Dheere, better known as Ajakis.

Participants selected to the program are expected to sing, dance, recite poetry, or tell stories. The method of selection is simple: Ajakis, who uses a stick, goes through the audience and places it on the head of the person selected. The selectee immediately goes in front of the audience to perform. The mantra of the program is simple: you are either an observer or the one observed. “Please greet the audience, state your full name, and tell us what you have prepared for the program,” instructs Ajakis, who is the gatekeeper of the show. He then asks if this is the first time the selectee has been to the show or not. Thus, the entertainment begins.

Mogadishu has come a long way. Not so long ago, Al-Shabaab ruled there with an iron fist. Music was banned, intermingling of the sexes was prohibited, Western dress was frowned upon, cell phones were periodically monitored for pictures or indecent messages, and offenders were severely flogged. These days, Masraxa Furan is rewriting the narrative and pioneering a culture that is anathema to all things Al-Shabab.

Although the military has kicked the radical group out of Mogadishu, it still maintains dangerous secret cells that kill and maim innocent civilians at random. Recently, Al-Shabab ramped up its ruthless and indiscriminate bombing campaign by detonating bombs in highly populated public places. On October 14, the group was allegedly responsible for the worst suicide bombing in Mogadishu’s history, when car bombs killed or injured over a thousand people. The radical group has not targeted Masraxa Furan, which ironically owes its success to the public-spirited and peaceful participation of Mogadishu’s younger set. These young people are not afraid of Al-Shabab and openly appear before TV declaring their full names.

The possibility of becoming famous or simply having fun are the main reasons why youngsters flock to the show. On the one hand, their participation is a manifest exhibition of fearlessness in the face of Al-Shabab’s killing spree; on the other hand, it is a way of showing that the youth are no longer prepared to conform to strict cultural norms.

Masraxa Furan’s participants are much like any youth in Nairobi, Johannesburg, or Cairo. Some wear jeans, others come with stylish hairdos that would make the rapper Ludacris green with envy. The women dress modestly, but stylishly. Their clothes are a tapestry of beautiful colors. Many wear makeup, a departure from the customary lack of facial adornments. Most of all, these young people are not shy of performing in front of strangers. When one young lady hems and haws before taking the spotlight, Ajakis reassures her by coaxing and cajoling her. His self-deprecating humor and encouragement generally put hesitant performers at ease.

The show addresses a wide range of topics, from romantic love to love of the Motherland. However, like any typical youth gathering, love talk reigns supreme. Even Ajakis himself is occasionally nudged and teased. One beautiful young lady, who had an effervescent smile and animated eyes, brazenly asked him if he had ever fallen in love. Her blunt remarks managed to produce some rather amusing howlers.

Ajakis, who has little trouble with eloquence, did not blink and responded, “I am actually in love now.” Emboldened, she asked him if he had two wives. If Ajakis was uncomfortable, he did not show it. He mumbled for seconds and then, sounding celebratory, said, “Only one.”

When the bantering seemed to have ended, it suddenly took an unexpected turn. “Well, I want to be your second wife,” the young lady said, flashing a small grin. By this time, Ajakis had had enough, and laughingly changed the topic. For the record, Ajakis excoriates polygamy, a system he strongly believes some Somali men have abused.

In one episode, a young lady read a poem titled, “Men who lie constantly.” She presented men’s foibles with an elegant, witty, and sarcastic style. She contrasted the empty promises some men make during courtship—nice villa, beautiful car, latest electronic gadgets, and shopping sprees abroad—with what they actually deliver after marriage—a hut or a shack, no electricity and no running water, and abject poverty.

The audience roared with laughter, and then Ajakis issued his own verdict: “I really like you,” he told the performer.

The egalitarian nature of Masraxa Furan is palpable. While the host and his support staff are middle-aged men, the amateur performers are young and are equally selected for the strength of their performance, without one gender being favored over the other.

Ajakis constantly subjects his audience to a relentless fusillade of laconic and sarcastic humor. At times, he goes out of his way to do some matchmaking. He boasts of the program’s worldwide reach and mentions, for instance, a young man in Australia who had fallen in love with a young performer named Nasro. Ajakis calls her to come to the front and tells her about her admirer in Australia. Nasro is obviously flattered and giggles, but makes no statement.

Ajakis has reiterated numerous times that he wants “to see the girl in Somaliland marry the boy in Puntland.” He wants young people to meet during the show and, if possible, to tie the knot. At every show, Ajakis rattles off some names, and reads greetings from Somalis abroad who regularly watch the program.

“Three guys in the U.S. have contacted me” he boasted in one episode, “and they are coming to Mogadishu for the sole purpose of visiting our studio to perform.”

The diversity of Masraxa Furan’s audience is staggering. The show transcends the artificial borders Somalis have erected between them since the 1991 civil war. These divisions, either geographical or tribal, are marginalized during the program. The show welcomes all Somalis, regardless of their background.

In one episode, two young men from Burco, Somaliland, were guests and one of them read an inspirational poem titled, “Mogadishu as it was before.” The young man recalled the good times in the city before 1991 and he connected all the threads that unite Somalis: from Djibouti to the Northern Frontier District (Kenya), from Galkayo to Baidoa, and from Hargeisa to Beledweyne. He then emphasized that Somalis are one body, one nation, despite their current state of misfortune.

Speaking of Somaliland, Ajakis, who normally avoids politics, had an unfortunate incident in January 2017. While on a business trip to Somaliland, he was arrested in Hargeisa. In 2014, Ajakis had mocked the president of Somaliland, Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud “Silanyo,” during a Universal TV show. The Somaliland authorities were not pleased with the segment and he became a figure of loathing in government circles, despite his public apology.

“I am an artist, not a politician,” the remorseful Ajakis said.

The regional authorities in Somaliland, who have a history of muzzling journalists and imprisoning them, took a measure of revenge when Ajakis finally landed in their lap. According to Ajakis, he was slapped, pushed over, and detained for a day.

After interrogating the comedian, the authorities finally deported him back to Mogadishu. “Don’t you ever come back to Somaliland again,” he was warned. Ajakis got the message.

Back in Mogadishu, Ajakis was philosophical about the incident: “The Somaliland official who roughed me up at the airport was of a dark complexion and he seemed to me like he was the angel of death.”

In another well-covered political incident, Ajakis once ridiculed Farah Moalim, the former deputy speaker of Kenya during a TV show. Moalim was portrayed as a self-serving, bad-tempered politician, who is only seen by his people in northern Kenya during elections. Moalim, Ajakis said, dresses stylishly, lives in a five-star hotel in Nairobi, and wears expensive perfumes whose fragrances can be detected from miles away, while his people die from starvation and poverty. Moalim was not laughing, and threatened to sue Universal TV until it was driven into bankruptcy.

Masraxa Furan is still evolving as a popular show. The host and organizers are as new to programming as the amateur performers they attract. Sometimes, the songs are subpar, the plays are haphazard, and the sound system lacks quality. But that is why it is a show for amateurs. Although Ajakis is an established comedian, he would indeed benefit from the services of a knowledgeable expert in the entertainment industry. However, all these shortcomings are outweighed by what the program has accomplished. It is serving a specific but limited purpose: providing a peaceful venue for the country’s youth to meet, exchange skills, and have fun, while at the same time negotiating the country’s cultural taboos. The program is an alternative for some of the youth to be radicalized. Ajakis puts it aptly, “Here, in this show, there are no thieves, no violent people, and no troublemakers.”

Perhaps he and his TV show will heal the divide that has ruptured so many innocent lives in Somalia.

Hassan M. Abukar is a writer and the author of Mogadishu Memoir. He can be reached at abukar60@yahoo.com.