Remona AlyWednesday 09 September 2020 The Guardian
‘It’s like opening up a wound to let it heal’
If there’s one thing podcasters should be good at, it’s talking. And so it is with Surer and Saredo Mohamed. There isn’t a moment I’m not drawn into the 90-minute Zoom call with the sisters, whose voices tag-team through their equally compelling new podcast, On Things We Left Behind – although never in the same episode, since they say people can’t tell their voices apart. “Not even our mum!” they laugh.
I don’t know which sister is more eager to credit the other. Surer says that Saredo is the heart and soul of the project. Saredo says her older sister is the mind and the membrane. Their story-driven podcast masterfully explores the hidden afterlife of war, and was conceived as conversations between them – children of Somali refugees who were forced to flee their homeland at the outbreak of civil war 30 years ago. The sisters were raised in Canada and are now based in the UK. Surer, 26, is in Cambridge pursuing a PhD; Saredo, 24, is a master’s graduate from the London School of Economics, currently working as a policy researcher.
For Saredo, a deeper awareness of identity came in high school at the age of 16 when she addressed the multiple facets of herself as Somali, black and Muslim. She began to write poetry, inspired by the likes of Warsan Shire, a Somali-British poet, to capture her complex existence. Meanwhile, Surer tabled the title “On things we left behind” and tapped out sentences that years later would form the introduction to the podcast. Their ideas melded, but studying in different cities and a lack of resources meant their passion project was stalled.
Then the LaunchPod competition opened in 2019, the UK’s first podcast competition set up by the podcast businesses Acast and Listen Entertainment. Surer entered without even telling her younger sister. After being shortlisted from hundreds of entries, they were tasked with creating a pilot episode. An expert judging panel crowned them the winners.
“We felt so lucky, alhamdulillah,” says Surer, using an Arabic expression that invokes praise of God.
Their podcast is perceptive, poetic and deeply personal. For Surer and Saredo, it was “emotionally difficult” listening to their parents’ stories. Their parents had to move from country to country, with Surer born in Italy, and Saredo in Canada. They were constantly seeking to lay down roots. Their father, a former commercial pilot, features in the pilot episode; their mother is in the fifth and final entry of the season, entitled Hooyo, “Mother” in Somali.
Straddling multiple worlds grounded the podcast’s vision. Their honest search for reconciliation appears early in the first episode, when Surer tells the listener: “Many of us who have grown up in the aftermath of war have made whole lives out of fixing this, not as a passion but as an obsession.” Is this podcast their way of fixing it? Surer nods. “Yes, for sure! There’s a reason we keep orienting to these conversations like a moth around a flame, there’s a reason I’m doing a PhD around conflict studies. A lot of people come from fractured pasts, and this is our attempt to bring the suitcase to the middle of the table so we can all start to unpack.”
Before the unpacking started, Saredo researched how journalists go into interviews. She found directives such as “go for the grit” and “make sure you get what you want”, but says this is the opposite of how they perceived their podcast. Instead, the sisters give agency to their guests, empowering them to determine the stories they tell. This ethical sensitivity repositions the podcast as a space where we don’t hear what terrible things happened to the speakers during war, but delves into their personalities, emotions and memories. “I want the audience to gain a series of new perspectives that move beyond the questions people normally ask of those from war scenarios,” says Saredo. “They are agents as opposed to victims. We aren’t a content farm, it’s a slow-moving podcast. It’s something you have to sit with and experience.”
The departure from sensationalising a person’s story brings a new narrative that is intimate and nuanced, more about feeling than fact. This point is made in episode three, entitled The Parts We Don’t Share, in which Alice Musabende, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, talks not about her ordeal, but the impact of having to talk about it.
“We didn’t want to do this for an external gaze; we were our own audience first. We’re so grateful for the artistic freedom Listen Entertainment and Acast gave us, and to the producer Lucy Hunt, who had a great sense of our vision. She captured the texture and feeling of the podcast perfectly.”
One of many textures is the theme of letter tapes, mentioned in the first episode by Nadifa Mohamed, a British-Somali author based in London. At a time when telephones were a rarity in Somalia, audio cassette tapes were sent between family members to exchange updates on life. Also sent was poetry, verses of the Qur’an recited by children in the household, and even the sound of goats bleating in the background. By discovering her father’s old letter tapes after he died, Nadifa got to hear her late grandmother’s voice for the first time in 30 years. This window to the past brought a complex surge of emotions for Nadifa, some conflicted. “We want to show how there are different narratives even within one person’s life. These questions we’re invoking are the same ones we ourselves are working through,” the sisters tell me.
I ask if their profound empathy for each guest is a double-edged sword of trauma and healing. “Absolutely,” says Saredo. “It’s like opening up a wound in order to see it heal again.”
Their podcast is not a war archive, it’s a human one that we are all invited and even challenged to experience. As Surer says: “When you speak from a place of specificity, you can get to deeper universality. That’s when real connection gets made.” It is a suitcase we all have the privilege of unpacking.