Bob Dylan Spoke for Me in the Refugee Camp

Amid controversy, the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan. Though he didn't respond to the Committee's messages for a few weeks, Dylan finally confirmed that he would absolutely attend the ceremony, "if it's at all possible." Needless to say, the literary community has been astir. Here, Boyah Farah, a Judy Layzer fellow in the Memoir Incubator program, on his support for Dylan and how the songwriter's lyrics speak to him.


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 the song, “Masters of War,” were challenging the political reality of the time. As the lyrics 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 poor American boys to die in the Vietnam 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 as my stomach swayed with remembrance of the war in my childhood Somalia. “You play with my world.” I listened.  I sang, “Like it’s your little toy.” My eyes leaked a bit with the emotions of hearing the song. Then 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. Are Syrian refugees considered anything, but toys? Were Jewish refugees from the Second World War anything but toys? Wasn’t I a toy when I was in the refugee camp in 1992? 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 would get a hold of the man who masterplanned 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.”        

            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 airwaves, I thought Michael Jackson to be a Somali singer. When I got older, and I began to reflect on the depth of Dylan’s lyrics, I began to see him as encompassing all the nations and peoples of the world. Dylan is not just musician, but he is a poet with a guitar, courage and a voice. 

            I felt a joy for Dylan for reaching such a deserving height as the Nobel Prize, 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 am 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. Turning away from him to the window, I thought about the absence of a Dylan-like musician from generation Z.

            Dylan spoke for me.  He spoke to my core being and I am humbled by his naked words. I am 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, the 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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