Bob Dylan Spoke for Me in the Refugee Camp

Photo: Xavier Badosa

If you want to change the world, all you need is a guitar, some courage and a voice that could cut the still night air. Bob Dylan’s naked words in songs like “Masters of War” were close to that reality. As they left his lips in 1963 and drifted in the wind pushed by his electric guitar, they did not only ignite and energize generations to voice their opinions against the challenges of the day, but they irritated and forced the suit-wearing men, who sent the poor American boys to die in Vietnamese jungles, to change their minds.

When Bob Dylan became the first musician to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, I began to listen to Dylan’s “Masters of War” song again. He sang, “Come you masters of war.” I listened. “You play with my world.” I listened. I sang, “Like it’s your little toy.” I paused a moment, thinking about the word, “toy.” When politicians start wars, women and children escape to refugee camps, where they often become pawns. Aren’t Syrian refugees considered anything but toys? Weren’t Jewish refugees from the Second World War anything but toys? Wasn’t I a toy when I was in the refugee camp in 1991? I sang, “I will follow your casket.” Sipping a black tea, I dwelled in the raw, almost animalistic truth behind his words. If people who are decaying in a refugee camp got a hold of the man who master-planned their miseries, would his casket follow theirs?

Tilting my head, I gazed out the window and replayed that song again. I stared at the faces of the coffee-gulping women and men as they sat around me at Starbucks, where I often write. “When your death takes its toll,” Dylan’s lyrics rang out in my mind, “all the money you made will never buy back your soul.” Aren’t wars often over resources, where politicians make money? Judging his words, Dylan is not only a poet and a singer, but he is a philosopher because his words often make your mind spin in search of an answer.

We know that music reaches far more people than the written word ever could. In fact, when I was a little boy growing up in Somalia in the 1980s, because of his omnipresence on the airways, I thought Michael Jackson was a Somali singer. When I got older, and I began to reflect on the depth of Dylan’s naked lyrics, I began to see him as encompassing all the nations and peoples of the world. Dylan is not just a musician, but he is a poet with a guitar, courage and a voice. He was often referred to as a voice of his generation, something that the musicians of Generation Z are lacking.

I feel joy for Dylan for reaching such a deserving height, and I wished for history to carry his soul to the highest galaxy, where only the legends live. After listening to “Masters of War” again, I smiled. Getting up and wishing for someone to share the joy inside of me, I glanced at a man’s face and made eye contact with him. Attempting to spark a conversation with a stranger who was sitting right across from me, I said, “I’m so happy for Bob Dylan to win the Nobel Prize in Literature,” in a loud voice. With no response, the man switched his gaze from me to his computer screen. Sitting back down, I kept listening to Dylan’s song as I questioned the absence of Dylan-like artists in Generation Z.

What is literature? I asked myself. Isn’t poetry part of literature? What does Dylan’s win mean? Does it mean we can expect Rihanna’s “Work” to win the Nobel Prize?

Dylan spoke for me. He spoke to my core being, and I’m humbled by his naked words. I’m still in search of our Dylan-like artist with a guitar, a pen, some courage and a voice. An artist with lyrical genius that could make sense out of the mess we, human beings, are in.

Boyah J. Farah is a refugee turned writer from Somalia whose works of nonfiction have been featured in The Guardian, Harvard Transition, Grub Daily and Truthdig. A Judy Layzer fellow, he is currently taking the Memoir Incubator at GrubStreet Creative Writing School in Boston.

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