Somalia in the fiction of Nuruddin Farah
Despite being exiled for several decades now, Somalia has been the creative matrix for Nuruddin Farah, and a psychic necessity too, as evidenced in all of his eleven novels, one non-fictional study on the Somali diaspora and several essays and articles.
An exile’s angst
Exiled from Somalia for his critical and satirical remarks against the Siyad Barre regime, in his second novel, A Naked Needle (1976), Nuruddin Farah has continued writing only about Somalia, a coping strategy he adopted over the years, to overcome his grief and loss. And obviously enough, his next set of books that followed encapsulated the 21 year tyrannical rule of Siyad Barre, with its overall title, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship and subtitled, Truth versus Untruth, considering the rigid censorship that was prevalent during the Barre era. His obsession with Barre is summed up as: “Somalia was a badly written play, I had thought, and Siyad Barre was its author. To our chagrin, he was also the play’s main actor, its centre and theme; as an actor-producer, he played all the available roles. He did not think anyone was as good as he, so he was its stage-designer and light technician, as well as the audience.” (Why I Write, 1597.)
But at that point in time, Farah was rather unsure of tackling a challenging subject like dictatorship which was unfolding itself in front of his eyes. Here is a choreograph of terror in a totalitarian state. “How can I write about such a grand subject? Keen-eared, I listened to the debates; also I watched people’s features, conscious of their psychological and bodily behaviour as fear began spreading on their faces, as though it were melting butter. Yes, the days were noisy as violent tides; and the nights were filled with frightened whispers of people listening for the footsteps of the NSS men who were sure to come at dawn to arrest them, to humiliate them, to take away the husband from the wife, the son from his parents, the bread from the breadwinner. Mine was a mind in great disorder.“ (Why I Write, 1596.) This creative endeavour resulted in three books: Sweet and Sour Milk (1978), Sardines (1981) and Close Sesame (1983), which deal with the resistance put up by a group of intellectuals against Siyad Barre ‒ ‘General’ and ‘Generalissimo’ in the books ‒ and his repressive policies.
Variations on the theme of an African Dictatorship (1978‒83)
In the first book, Sweet and Sour Milk, the twins Soyaan, the Economic Advisor to the General and Loyaan, a dentist, take up the struggle with Dr. Ahmed Wellie, Ibrahim and Siciliano as associates. In Sardines, the struggle is continued by a journalist Medina, her husband Samater and Nasser, her brother who collaborates with actress Dulman. In Close Sesame, the struggle intensifies leading to the belief by Mursal and his friends Mahad and Mukhtaar that violence is the only answer to tyranny and autocracy.
Sweet and Sour Milk
In Sweet and Sour Milk, Soyaan, the Economic Advisor to the General, is poisoned to death for confiscating official documents and for writing subversive materials with hopes of publishing them abroad. His ‘Memorandum’ and other politically inflammable tracts, rich as Russian underground literature, offer a scathing criticism of the government. Loyaan is upset at the turn of events. Though unable to grasp the full implications of his dying brother’s incoherent last words, he suspects the government’s hand in it. Though different in temperament, the twins possessed the fire of revolutionary zeal so much so, that after Soyaan’s death, Loyaan takes it upon himself to find out the real facts behind his brother’s politically-connected death through Margaritta, his brother’s former mistress, and Dr. Ahmed Wellie and Ibrahim, fellow-dissenters. He not only learns of his brother’s role in underground movements but of the deadly games the General and his henchmen have played in Somalia. “In this whirlpool of immense and unregisterable movements, in this complicated circle-within-circle of waves, in this plot-within-plot drama,…” it is not easy to trace the evidences that led to the death of his twin brother in the politics of Somalia which had almost turned Stalinist (Sweet and Sour Milk, 233). Unlike the principled twins who rebelled against the corrupt regime, their father Keynaan was an ardent supporter and a liaison of the regime. Having beaten up one of the political detainees to death at the insistence of the government, the twin’s father Keynaan was not only pensioned off quickly by the government, but also asked to marry Beydaan, the dead man’s wife, in order to ward off any suspicion.
There are several twists and turns that intrigue Loyaan during his investigation into the death of his twin that he thinks aloud to himself: “What am I? Who am I? Whom am I dealing with? What century is this? Of what era must I partake fully, actively? Must he fully and actively belong to this century of technology, of SAMs, MiGs and satellites and KGBs and CIA espionage networks, or to one of the Beydans and Qummans, one of wizardry and witchcraft and hair-burning rites of sorcery?” (Sweet and Sour Milk, 150). When Beydaan dies during child birth, and the child is named after dead Soyaan, it suggests some kind of hope in the politically turbulent Somalia.
Women living in dictatorial and patriarchal Islamic societies are in a double bind. Patriarchal structures, both at the state and familial level, oppress and limit them for “What is not tabooed by religion is tabooed by tradition” (Sardines, 99). In 1975, Siyad Barre had announced the equal inheritance rights and the abolition of polygamy. And, ironically enough, Medina’s narrative in Sardines commences with her demand for a space of her own. Medina, a journalist, walks out of `her own home,’ (the house being in her name), highly critical of her husband Samater who joins the General’s regime. Unlike her husband, who is an ‘incliner of head’ and ‘bender of body’, she is upright when it comes to “a question of principle; loyalty to a cause, to ideas, ideology and movements” (Sardines 140, 61). Medina’s mother, Fatima bint Thabit is upset that Medina refuses to incline and bow her head in supplication even before her dead grandparents in the family cemetery. In Sardines, older women resist modernity, in spite of being bound hand and foot by the chains of tradition. The younger ones rebel against traditional and oppressive structures in every form. Medina’s longing for space and an ideology of her own again necessitates a rereading of history.
During the initial years of the Barre regime, it appeared as if the government was committed to the political, economic and social advancement of women only. The state sponsored feminism of Barre did not fulfill its promises of uplifting Somali women, only a minimal change was felt. Medina also takes pains to liberate Ubax, her daughter, from the traditional and patriarchal structures imposed upon women. She wants Ubax to grow up as an enlightened child, devoid of complexes and inhibitions and to live her life according to her dreams. Medina deems it necessary to protect Ubax from Idil, her mother-in-law, who insists on Ubax being infibulated, the customary practice of Somali women. Medina, who had herself suffered infibulation complications during her pregnancy, recalls in horror the pain she underwent. “I fear the descending knives which re-trace the scarred wound, and it hurts every instant I think about it” (Sardines, 58). To Medina, both matriarchy and patriarchy are stifling cultural institutions.
Personally, Close Sesame, is Farah’s favourite text and in an interview with Ahmad Samatar, he has this to say about this work of his: “It’s a work that is very sane, calm, religious, well proportioned. It’s a book that talks about Somalia of more than one century. It’s a book that actually deals with violence, and whether or not it is Islamic to engage in violent action ‒ if it is justifiable to kill someone for political reasons”. In Close Sesame (1983), a group of four young dissident-intellectuals turn to the Koran/Islam for answers to political problems in their state. They are in a bid to silence Siyad Barre’s tyrannical regime in Somalia. The four young men “…bamboozled with notions of power and the weighty responsibility of restoring it to the masses at whatever cost,” deliberate on the concept of lex talionis or the law of retaliation ‒ the Islamic principle of retributive justice (Close Sesame, 71). Their conversations revolve round power struggles and assassinations for political ends since the days of the Caliphate.
The Barre era was known for its state-sponsored violence, hence violence becomes the only means to seek vendetta against the neocolonial dictator. When Zeinab, Mursal’s sister takes him to task for his unlawful activities, Mursal defends himself thus: “We’re exacting the precise price and vengeance.” …“This seems to be a very laborious way of justifying the madness in which we dwell, the kind of madness we’ve witnessed in this country and many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America” (Close Sesame, 114).
The text is constructed within an Islamic framework in order to generate a discourse on the dynamics of traditional vis-à-vis state politics. Beginning with the elderly central protagonist, Deeriye, whose piety is so intense that even his features are “cast in a worshipful mould, silent, reverent,” to the dialectics of political Islam, debated strongly by the younger intellectuals, the text offers a subtle critique on Islam (Close Sesame, 8). Deeriye’s son, Mursal, one of the dissidents, has a PhD in the political relevance of the Koran in an Islamic state. Islamic prayers are interwoven into the narrative to sustain the polemics on political Islam, simultaneously endowing the narrative with an atmosphere of religious piety.
Blood in the Sun Trilogy (1986‒93)
The Blood in the Sun Trilogy, labeled as ‘body novels’ by Farah, deals with specific historic events that caused a rupture in the body-politic of Somalia. This Trilogy comprises Maps (1986), Gifts (1993) and Secrets (1998). Maps makes an attempt to define Somalia in terms of its national borders; Secrets attempts a definition of the nation on the basis of its lineage identity; Gifts (1993) examines how developmental assistance in the form of foreign aid has actually thwarted the economy of the country leading to an erosion of cultural values.
The problematic border-issue between Ethiopia and Somalia is fictionalized in Maps using a mother-child dyad. The orphaned Askar, though of Somali origin, is reared by Misra, an Oromo in Kallafo, (where Farah himself spent his childhood) in the Ethiopian-administered Ogaden. Askar is emotionally inseparable from Misra, but as he comes of age, he gets deeply involved in the nationalistic struggle of the Somalis in the Ogaden and this focused concentration requires that he sever ties with her. When the Somalis, with Soviet assistance, win the war, the Ogaden region changes hands and Misra joins the refugees who break the seams of Mogadiscio. Later, the Ogaden region goes back to the Ethiopians after the Soviets shift alliances and patronize them by extending military and technical support which enables them to recapture the Ogaden region. Misra is supposed to have committed treachery resulting in a very big casualty on the Somali side. The estrangement with Misra is painful for Askar. Caught between conflicting loyalties of mother and motherland, Askar’s life ‘becomes a war of sorts.’ He is unable to accept the fact that his very own Misra has committed treachery. This is too painful an experience for Askar who himself is in a terrible dilemma at that point of time, wondering how to liberate his country ‒ whether to seek knowledge by pursuing higher education at the National University of Somalia and enlighten his people or to wield the gun. Much later, the hospitalized Misra disappears and is found murdered, her body mutilated and flung into the sea and Askar, the prime suspect, is interrogated by the police towards the close of the novel.
In Farah’s Maps, the concept of the nation is protean and even elusive given the case of the postcolonial Somalia. Military leaders like Siyad Barre have thwarted and manipulated the destiny of their country according to their whims, in their effort to garner support and patronage from the superpowers. This also explains why we find it difficult to come to a stable understanding of the import of novels like Maps and Secrets with their dense and complex images and metaphors.
Gifts (1993), is a fictional reconstruction of the Somalia of the `80s, fully dependent on foreign/international aid for its developmental projects. The pity is that in Somalia, this development assistance had been part of the problem and not part of the solution as asserted by most developmental experts and analysts. Foreign aid had not only resulted in the politicization of the economy but also contributed to the destruction of the economy in more ways than one. Gifts can be read as a stringent discourse/critique on this development. Farah not only chastises the Somali government for its heavy reliance on external funding and donations for its developmental projects, but also lambasts the very notion of foreign aid because of its far-reaching consequences for the political economy of developing countries.
Hence, Duniya, the middle-aged nurse and a single working mother, resists gifts, as she strongly believes that ‘no giving is innocent’, except her brother’s gifts, which are free of ulterior motives. Storytelling is again the ploy in the narrative and all stories merge into Duniya’s story. Newspaper clips of aid reaching Africa and politicians pleading for more assistance is inserted at the end of most of the chapters to depict Somalia’s mere satellite status in the global economy. Duniya falls in love with Bosaaso and wants to be a giver rather than a receiver in the relationship and is happy to have found true love unlike her two previous marriages where she was treated like a commodity. Taariq, the journalist, and mouthpiece of Farah condemns the internationalization of Africa’s poverty. He finds those photographs on poverty and starvation rather loud and obscene.
Farah’s Secrets (1998), as pointed out by some critics and readers, veers close to pornography, the result of an overdose of sexual metaphors and images within this narrative. Farah in an interview gets self-defensive about the aspersions cast on this novel and argues that the text is plainly erotic literature, the likes of which is found in James Joyce’s Ulysses. The very purpose of employing the predominantly sexual and erotic images is to shock the indifferent Somalis and draw them out of their self-complacency just around the time their nation was on the verge of collapse. Sex, like violence, has shock-appeal and wide universal significance.
When an endangered species is on the verge of extinction, all efforts are made to conserve it. Likewise, Farah, whose creative matrix has always been Somalia, is agonizingly aware of its fall and its impending destruction. In Secrets, he deliberately moves toward the primitive and bygone eras in order to place his nation in its historical context. He is pained by the fact that, “Our nation is on the precipice of collapse, the country in turmoil, and the entire continent being taken to a land of virtual ruin, a land without memories” (Secrets, 287). For achieving the non-rational effect, he equips Kalaman with an “atavistic memory” and endows Nonno, his non- biological grandfather with “a harvest of nearly three score years of memories of which he had been a faithful repository”. Nonno is an epoch reminding the Somalis of other eras (Secrets, 4, 193). Appropriately enough, Nonno possesses the necessary wisdom to pontificate on the shifting culture of the dying autocratic state of Somalia. The clan has begun to replace the family unit. Even familial ties have been rendered meaningless. Nonno, who refuses to align with any clan, defines the cultural ethos of the nation by a comparison of animals with humans.
Past Imperfect Trilogy (2004‒11)
The diaspora engagement towards peace and reconstruction efforts in Somalia is reflected in all three books of Farah’s Past Imperfect Trilogy. Jeebleh of Links (2004), Cambara of Knots (2007), and Malik, Jeebleh’s son-in-law in Crossbones (2011), visit Mogadishu for various reasons. The changing political contours of Somalia are visible in all three books. The warlords, US interventionists, the Islamic Courts Union, and Ethiopian forces have taken control over Somalia at varying periods.
Published six years after the state-collapse of Somalia, Farah’s Links fictionalizes the anarchy witnessed soon after the dictator Siyad Barre was ousted from power that culminated in the civil war and the subsequent intervention by the U.N. Published first in South Africa, Links is partly fiction, partly documentary in that it reviews the U.N. intervention of 1993 in Somalia within the spaces of fiction. The state-collapse and the subsequent US-UN intervention raised such a furore that it generated several analyses within diplomatic and academic circles. The paradigms for external military intervention have been reviewed since the failure of the Somali intervention resulting in a significant body of literature on the ethics involved in intervention and also on the issue of when and how to intervene. New modes of thinking and cross-disciplinary dialogues in the field of international relations and politics have been mooted ever since the 1993 Somalia debacle.
Somali-American Jeebleh of Links revisits Somalia after almost two decades to honour his dead mother and to learn things first hand in the God forsaken country, to put it in the words of his wife and children. He merely ‘listens’ to other people’s versions, not taking sides or getting sucked into the vortices of clan-intrigues because it would then mark a shift in his position from bystander and onlooker to victim. He performs accordingly by asking, prodding and posing questions, to which he receives answers from his friends and their associates. Jeebleh’s chief mission in the narrative is “to ask the appropriate questions so that his friend might build a bridge between his elusive past and the murky present in which they found themselves now” (Links, 113). Also, ‘listening’ is an important recuperative strategy in post-conflict societies.
When grief-stricken, expatriate-Somali, Cambara, leaves Toronto for Mogadishu, a decade after Jeebleh of Links visits Mogadiscio, the power-scales have tilted from the two chief warlords to the Islamists’ militias and to other smaller armed factions, symbolised by the ‘veil’ metaphor in Knots. Having lost her son due to the utter negligence of her second husband Wardi, Cambara decides to travel to Mogadiscio to compensate the tragic loss and to reclaim her family property from Gudcur, a minor warlord. Her mother and her friends are aghast at Cambara’s decision but Cambara possesses the gumption and the grit to navigate the perilous paths in Mogadiscio. Trained in theatre and self-defence, Cambara networks with a few women and together they help her stage her puppet theatre, an indigenous form of story-telling and her way of moving forward in a war-ravaged country. Farah’s disappointment at the total neglect of women in peace talks is obvious and he has dedicated Knots to the cause of women, who he believes have unlimited potential in peace-brokering. The politicization of the veil has infuriated him as women have to bear the brunt of rigorous cultural codes.
Jeebleh of Links reappears along with his journalist son-in-law Malik to Mogadiscio and in the process, attempts to debunk several myths pertaining to piracy off the Somali coast and the alleged collaboration of Al-Shabaab with the pirates. Dumping of charcoal wastes, illegal fishing around Somalia’s coast are all issues that need to be highlighted and Farah wonders who the real pirates are while the characters are touring in the piracy towns in Puntland, unearthing rackets behind the expeditions. Malik earnestly longs to write an unbiased and unprejudiced account of contemporary Somalia, a desire of Farah, which is manifested in this Trilogy. Farah, once again, sets the novel in Mogadishu, once the pearl of the Indian Ocean, but today battered and devastated.
Like a few of his other African counterparts, Farah, the literary-historian, seeks vital and relevant clues for a proper understanding of the chaotic present. And, in the process, his fiction transgresses several interdisciplinary areas, such as development studies, international politics, gender, culture and religious studies, human rights, law and ethics and much more. It is his strong conviction that Somali solutions have to be found for Somali problems rather than rely on external intervention and assistance.
Dr. Geetha Ganga teaches English language at an Arts and Science College in Chennai, India. She earned her Doctorate from the University of Madras, for her thesis entitled “Historicizing Somalia through Literary Narrative: the Fiction of Nuruddin Farah”.
Affi, Ladan (2004). Men Drink Tea While Women Gossip. In Abdi Kusow (ed.): Putting the Cart before the Horse: Contested Nationalism and the Crisis of the Nation-State in Somalia. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 91‒116.
Farah, Nuruddin (1976). A Naked Needle. London: Heinemann.
Farah, Nuruddin (1979). Sweet and Sour Milk. USA: Graywolf Press.
Farah, Nuruddin (1981). Sardines. USA: Graywolf Press.
Farah, Nuruddin (1986). Close Sesame. USA: Graywolf Press.
Farah, Nuruddin (1986). Maps. New York: Arcade.
Farah, Nuruddin (1993). Gifts. New York: Arcade.
Farah, Nuruddin (1998). Secrets. New York: Arcade.
Farah, Nuruddin (2004). Links. USA: Riverhead.
Farah, Nuruddin (2007). Knots. USA: Riverhead.
Farah, Nuruddin (2011). Crossbones. USA: Riverhead.
Farah, Nuruddin (1998). Why I Write. Third World Quarterly 10(4): 1591‒1599.
Samatar, Ahmed, I. (2001). Interview with Nuruddin Farah. Bildhaan 1: 87‒106.