By TOM ODHIAMBO
Saturday January 11, 2020
Renowned Somalia writer, Nuruddin Farah. PHOTO | FILE
In the past few years, Nuruddin Farah has written like an individual pursuing a very personal quest for peace in his country of birth. His recent fiction has intensively and extensively pondered the question of the relevance of war. He has written about what the war in Somalia has done to the country, its people, its neighbours, the region, Africa and the world.
Crossbones (2011), Hiding in Plain Sight (2014), and North of Dawn (2018) are odes to the tragedy of a once beautiful country turned upside down by an internecine war that seems to have no end in sight.
In Crossbones, Nuruddin takes the reader to Somalia. He sets the story in the epicentre of the violence, destruction and decay that Somalia has become. The reader is made to sense the immediacy of the suspicions, the fear, the horror, the lack, the nearness of death and the diminishing hope that shadow the lives of Somalis in their homes, villages, markets, on the streets, throughout the country, decades after the collapse of the central government in Mogadishu. But Nuruddin also connects the situation on Somalia to the global community, be it Somalis who have been forced by circumstances to migrate, and whose children have, in turn, been seduced and trapped by the same violence, either engaging in acts of terror wherever they have travelled to, or coming back to Somalia to join terror groups.
The drama of the violence in Mogadishu continues in Hiding in Plain Sight. In this case Nuruddin explores the consequences of death on a family. The drama is set in the United Nations compound in Mogadishu, which is attacked by an Al-Shabaab operative. Several people are killed, including Aar, who works for the UN. He leaves behind two children in Nairobi. The rest of the story is a drama involving the children, Aar’s female friend in Nairobi, his sister Bella and Aar’s ex-wife, Valerie.
But the story behind the story really is what happens to individual families when war claims its victims. What happens to the extended family? What happens to children? What happens to friends? What do the family, the community and the nation lose? What does humanity lose? These questions are raised again in North of Dawn with more urgency.
If one has been a literary follower of Nuruddin’s East African novels, then North of Dawn is Nuruddin’s European story. It is entirely set in Norway with the action, as expected, triggered in Somalia. The precipitating action for the story is the death of Dhaqaneh, son of Gacalo and Mugdi, Somalis who have settled in Oslo, Norway.
Dhaqaneh has travelled to Somalia to join the Shabaab, who have literally besieged Mogadishu. This is how the narrator describes the situation: “In Somalia, the bombs have been going off for months, roadside devices killing and maiming anyone unlucky enough to be in the vicinity. The frequency of the detonations and unpredictability of where or when the blasts may occur have left the residents of Mogadiscio, the capital, constantly on edge. No one knows how many people have been injured or how many have been killed. People no longer delve into the details unless they recognise the name of a victim or that of the perpetrator.”
When Dhaqaneh leaves Norway for Nairobi, he marries a woman with two children. So, when he dies in a suicide bombing incident, his family remains in the care of the parents. Gacalo believes that she is doing the right thing by helping the widow, Waliya and her son and daughter, Naciim and Saafi, to migrate to Norway. This is a difficult task considering the anti-migrants feelings in Europe, especially when they are Somalis. But through legal and illegal means, the family reaches Norway.
However, the widow and her children become a bother to Gacalo and Mugdi. Waliya seems to subscribe to a very conservative kind of Islam; Saafi is dealing with a tragic past — she was raped in the refugee camp back in Kenya; Naciim is a young man trying to find his feet in a new society and culture. Of the three, he adapts fastest, followed by Saafi, who only finds peace after a period of seeing a psychologist.
Waliya falls under the spell of fundamentalist Islamic preachers, which in the long run leads to suspicion of involvement with terrorists when she hosts a man, Zubair, who is suspected of links with a terrorist organisation.
Norway itself has its share of racists and conservatives who are opposed to migrants settling in their country. Alluding to history, Nuruddin revisits the case of Anders Behring, who detonated a bomb at the offices of the prime minister of Norway in July 2011, and thereafter went to the “island of Utoya, where the young acolytes of the country’s governing Labor Party were attending a youth camp, and proceeded to mow down sixty-nine” of them. Among these teenagers was “Mouna: charming, exuberant, barely eighteen, soccer-playing Mouna, Himmo’s daughter.” Himmo is one of the family friends to Gacalo and Mugdi.
In North of Dawn, Nuruddin writes plainly, showing how violence — real, imagined or prospective — shadows the lives of Somalis, at home and abroad. He speaks to the tragedy of individuals and families who are directly or indirectly pulled into the web of the violence and the pain and suffering they have to live with. Whether it is chauvinism, racism or inexplicable hatred, Nuruddin seems to suggest that being Somali in today’s world is a very troubled existence. The Somali is unsafe at home, is seen as dangerous for those who do not know him closely, is a victim and victimizer, is deemed a potential killer, and thus deemed a lesser human.
It is this question of humanity that appears to undergird Nuruddin’s stories in the three novels. What has happened to humanity in the recent past? What have human beings lost — or gained — by valuing others as lesser beings? Why would a country and a people with seemingly shared identity and culture(s) be so violent, against their compatriots, and against others? What does religion gain when it becomes a source of illogical hatred of ‘other’ humans? What does the society do about the loss of humanity by the victims of the violence spawned by religious conservatism and the perpetrators of the violence? Shouldn’t religion really be the refuge of those who have no one or nowhere else to turn to?
These questions are at the heart of the story of Dawn of South mainly considering the efforts Gacalo makes to bring her daughter-in-law and step-grandchildren into Europe, yet what she gets in return seems to be heartache that in the end kills her.
Even Mugdi, ever the cynic about the possibility for redemption for Somali immigrants grants the newly arrived relatives the benefit of the doubt but ends up disappointed. In the end it is difficult to understand how adults, institutions and governments cannot work hard at making and sustaining peace and alleviating the human suffering caused by violence, war and displacement, as currently happening in Africa and the Middle East.
Sense of humanity
Nuruddin Farah seems to have decided to speak to these issues not just from a creative writer’s point of view but also from a humanistic perspective; a position that seeks to acknowledge more of what is shared between human beings and what could make humans live together peacefully, in a world that is ever in turmoil. In other words, these are not just stories about the Somali and their troubled country; these are tales of a seeming inscrutable collapse of a sense of humanity in the world. Nuruddin has written about Somalia his entire life, but these three recent books are very personal testimonies to his concern for his people, culture, and country, and, one would add, Africa.
The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]