A mesmerizing story of what it means to be American in the twenty-first century

"There wasn’t another cowboy in West Texas, or anywhere else for that matter, who had stumbled into the American dream like him."

Prologue from Murmuration by Sid Balman, Jr. Reprinted with permission from Sparkpress.


Charlie Christmas knew he was the least likely cowboy in West Texas, unless he counted his dark alter ego, his former self, the Somali refugee Sayiid Awale. There were plenty of African American ranch hands, but none any blacker than Charlie Christmas, skin the color of coal oil and teeth as white as the polished elephant-ivory dice he won throwing craps in the Kenyan refugee camp where he spent two years with what was left of his family after they fled the carnage in Somalia following the aborted American-led humanitarian invasion. And none with friends like Ademar Zarkan, a fourth-generation Texan, one of the first Muslim women to have graduated from West Point and a sniper who struggles to reconcile her roles as an assassin and a mother; Stone, an Army captain and lapsed Jew who brought them together amid a war and famine in East Africa the likes of which the world has rarely seen; or Buck, the fearless mixed- breed Army K-9 and best friend to the refugee boy who would come to define their life’s work.


Charlie Christmas was certain of something else. There wasn’t another cowboy in West Texas, or anywhere else for that matter, who had stumbled into the American dream like him. Although some of the time it seemed more like a nightmare—the war in the early 1990s, the ravening pirates, the tragic trek across the Somali savanna to Kenya, the hellish limbo of the refugee camps, and the white supremacists who hounded them from Indian country in the Badlands of South Dakota to their new home in Minnesota.


Through it all he could count on the Zarkans and the Laws—iconic families that had carved an agricultural empire eighty miles east of El Paso near the tiny West Texas town of Dell City, financed in large part by a Texas Supreme Court decision that redefined lucrative water rights in the American West. He shared Islam with the Zarkans, all four generations of them, and was certain their ancestors had somehow crossed paths in the mid-1800s when America was importing dromedaries from the Middle East and Africa for the US Army Camel Corps. But he shared something just as deep with the Laws, particularly Ademar and Jack, the patriarch, who didn’t give a shit about religion and whose partnership with the Zarkans dated back to the 1950s when Ademar’s great-grandfather saved Jack’s ass during a brawl at a Juarez cantina. Jack Laws had saved Charlie’s ass too, and his family, so many years ago in Kenya. Charlie Christmas never forgot, nor did Sayiid Awale.


Nearing seventy, and with almost a quarter century of life in the United States, Charlie Christmas felt like an American, even amid the chaos of the nation in 2021—or perhaps because of that chaos and how the hot rush of the danger that rides with it can seem like an old friend. The truth of it was that he felt American the day an Army sergeant in Mogadishu, who hired him as a translator, discovered he was born December 25, 1952, christened him Charlie Christmas and assigned him to Second Lieutenant Ademar Zarkan. The relationship that began that day would shape their entire lives. But his given identity and name, Sayiid Awale, never entirely left him.


Life was like that for Charlie Christmas, as it is for many immigrants who cross the burning bridge—two people living in the same body, one an undertow that pulls them relentlessly back and the other a wave that pushes them inexorably forward. The Yin and Yang of the immigrant. Charlie Christmas talked to himself frequently, and those who knew him chalked it off as some kind of tic. But it wasn’t a tic at all. It was a running dialogue between the forgotten and the forgetful, between the Somali and the American, between Sayiid Awale and Charlie Christmas.



Excerpted from Murmuration by Sid Balman, Jr. Reprinted with permission from Sparkpress.




The Writer in Residence at Sul Ross State University and a Pulitzer-nominated national security correspondent, Sid Balman Jr. has covered wars in the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo, and has traveled extensively with two American presidents and four secretaries of state on overseas diplomatic missions. With the emergence of the web and the commoditizing of content, Balman moved into the business side of communications. In that role, over two decades, he helped found a news syndicate focused on the interests of women and girls, served as communications chief for the largest consortium of U.S. international development organizations, led two successful progressive campaigning companies, and launched a new division at a large international development firm centered on violent radicalism and other security issues on behalf of governments and nonprofits. A fourth-generation Texan, as well as a climber, surfer, paddler, and benefactor to Smith College, Balman splits time between Alpine Texas, where he is the Writer in Residence at Sul Ross State University, and Washington DC with three kids, and two dogs.