Setting and time: Mogadiscio, mid 1990s
About the author: Nuruddin Farah is Somalia’s most important writer. He was born in 1945 in Baidoa, then Italian Somaliland temporarily under British control. His family moved to Ogaden, a region populated by Somali people, but now part of Ethiopia. At school he learned English, Arabic and Amharic (the Somali language being codified only in the 1970s). In 1963, only three years after the independence of Somalia from the English and the Italians, he was forced to flee his home region of Ogaden due to serious border conflicts. Thanks to a scholarship, he persued a degree in literature and philosophy in India and then he returned to teach in Mogadiscio. His first novel, From a Crooked Rib (1970), tells the story of a nomad girl, Ebla, who flees her family camp because she has been promised in marriage to an old man, 40 years her senior. The novel reveals the authoritarian role of the patriarchal clan system, in which women are exploited and denied individual rights.
In 1974 Farah escaped from Somalia because of his second novel, A Naked Needle. Siad Barre’s regime banned all of his novels in Somalia and ordered that the author be killed. Since then, Farah has held teaching positions in different parts of the world. He saw again his home country in 1996, after 22 years of exile. He has written two trilogies: ‘Variations on the theme of an African dictatorship’ (1980-1983), which draws parallels between the colonial practices and authoritarian regimes in postcolonial Somalia, and ‘Blood in the Sun’, a study of the pain of cultural uncertainty in postcolonial reality. In 1998 he was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, widely regarded as the most prestigious international literary award after the Nobel.
Plot: Returning to Somalia twenty years after he was imprisoned and then sent into exile, Jeebleh arrives at a remote Mogadiscio airport now under the control of a major warlord. He has come from his adopted home in America to help Bile, his oldest friend from childhood, find and rescue his kidnapped niece Raasta, a ‘miracle child’ in many ways. Bile is affiliated with a warlord in the south of the city, but Jeebleh may be in a particularly good position to help him if the child has been taken by a rival, since he belongs to the same clan as the warlord controlling the north. The network of clan loyalties is so complicated and absurd that Bile and the abductor, Caloosha, though half-brothers, are rivals. The political situation is so tangled that at times no one really knows who is allied with whom.
Some thoughts: There’s a persistent buzz that Nuruddin Farah will be one of the next Nobel laureates. The recipient of the Nobel Prize is usually involved in some kind of social commitment or comes from a problematic country, and Somalia is certainly problematic (check out my post on Somalia here).
One of the greatest strengths of the book is the portrait of a city and a country ravaged by civil war and by years of colonialism (the Arabs, the Italians, the English and finally the Americans all invaded Somalia). Somalia appears to be a lawless country, where personal interests overcome justice or friendship relationships. His account of the tangled network of clan loyalties is astonishing. Jeebleh has lived in America for twenty years and does not recognize his own country, discovering that America has changed him in many ways. He does not want to rely on clansmen like all the other Somalis, and he is disgusted by the quality of food and accommodation in Mogadiscio (notice the spelling that Farah and Italians use for the English ‘Mogadishu’). He has no idea who’s to trust and who’s not, because he is no longer familiar with the ways of the Somalis.
I particularly enjoyed the references to Italy and its culture: each section of the book begins with a quote from Dante’s Inferno, clearly a metaphor for the nightmare of Mogadiscio, where Jebleeh’s life is constantly in danger. I am always amazed and surprised when I hear about people eating pasta all’amatriciana or drinking an espresso in East Africa (Somalia was an Italian colony).
Some critics argue that Farah’s English is a bit awkward, sometimes resulting in obscure sentences. It is true that sometimes the characters of the novel sound the same, but I understand the author’s choice to write in English, the language in which he was educated and one that gives you a wide audience. At the beginning of the novel, it was difficult to remember character’s names, so I had to look back and check every time. I started to enjoy the book when all the characters’ connections were clear to me. Strangely enough, Farah does not mention the names of the warlords that control the city of Mogadiscio or the names of the different clans to which the characters belong to. I would have appreciated more details on the clan divisions. Does the author think that western readers are not able to understand African culture or politics? One of the most interesting parts of the book, despite being a bit out of context, is the point of view on the American ‘peace-keeping invasion’ of Somalia (1992-93). I think that some of Farah’s reflections can also be applied to America’s involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan. Farah is quite harsh on American politics and the role of the US troops in peace-keeping efforts:
And then again:
Bile agreed, adding that, from the moment they landed and started putting on a circus for the benefit of prime-time TV back home, you felt they couldn’t have come to do God’s work. “Why did they come, then?” Seamus said. And when no one spoke, he gave his theory: that everything could’ve gone wrong for the Yanks had gone wrong because they saw everything in black and white, had no understanding of and no respect for other cultures, and were short on imagination, as they never put themselves in anyone else’s shoes. They were also let down by their intelligence services, arriving everywhere unprepared, untutored in the ways of the world; he brought up the collapse of the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and the disintegration of several ramshackle states in different parts of the globe. “They came to show the world that they could make peace-on-demand in Somalia, in the same dramatic fashion as they had made war-on-demand in the Gulf. They came to showcase peace here, as a counterpoint to their war effort elsewhere. Iraq and Somalia had one thing in common: both were made-for-TV-shows. Christ, they were uppity, but they never lost their focus – the prime-time performance was their focus all along.”
Bile spoke. “The U.S. forces failed to define why the really came to Somalia in the first place, soon after the Gulf War. This was never made clear. The ‘good’ Americans, just back from defeating Bad Guy Saddam, were seen on TV holding a dozen starving babies at a feeding center – a picture of postcard quality. Later, after the trigger-happy U.S. soldiers massacred hundreds of innocent civilians and turned the life of the residents into hell, we asked ourselves how the Americans could reconcile the earlier gestures of mercy with the bombings of the city, in which many women and children were killed.”