Somalia’s best-known novelist, Nuruddin Farah, explains his often controversial themes in the context of his relationship with ?the troubled country of his birth
“It is preferable to be the hand above than the one below,” says Nuruddin Farah, quoting the Koran to me as we meet during a break between his scheduled readings and dialogues with other writers at the Berlin Literature Festival. Earlier, the Somali author of Links, Gifts and Knots, and winner of the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, had cut a lonesome figure on stage as he surveyed the crowd at this year’s Africa-focused festival. Facing an audience fed on endless horror-images of his country, Somalia’s ‘voice’ looked as if he knew there was little he could do in the allocated half-hour reading slot to alter the perspectives of a young European crowd.
?When the host asked why he had stirred such controversy in Somalia with his writings, Farah replied with an anecdote. “A mother longs for a child; at last one is born to her and the mother soon wishes it to speak. The child grows and reaches the age of three but still it doesn’t talk. The mother implores everything, making sacrifices so that her child will speak. But still the child at six years old is mute. The mother carries on praying and finally, when the child is ten, he speaks, saying: ‘Mother, I want to make love to you’.” The audience sat up, electrified. His point was that a nation cannot choose its voice, nor a voice its nation. ?
Farah has lived out of Somalia since 1976, when he went into exile having made an enemy of the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. His first novel, From a Crooked Rib, which narrated the story of a young girl challenging traditional beliefs about women in Somali society, and his first of two trilogies, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, earned him a reputation as a controversial voice in his homeland. Since then, Somalia has suffered the misfortunes of a fluctuating and often ravaged 30-year history of dictatorship, civil war, foreign intervention and, most recently, the ongoing violent struggle between the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and Ethiopian forces. Farah himself is no stranger to this political turmoil, having mediated between the parties involved. ?
Tea with the courts
?“It’s something that I hadn’t in mind to do, but I did it first of all because one of the Islamic Courts people approached me and said, ‘We know that you are not a religionist, an Islamist, in that sense, we know that you are more of a secularist than a religionist. And for that reason, we would appreciate it if you came to Mogadishu, became our guest, and then spoke to the two parties, since we are both, the two of us, preparing for war.’”
?Farah, who lives in Cape Town, promptly returned to Somalia in August 2006, carrying messages between the UIC representatives in the capital and the leader of the TFG in Baidoa, President Abdullahi Yusuf. Farah’s trips, he recounts, engaged him endlessly in trying to encourage all parties to pursue national priorities and put aside personal hatreds and goals. However, the author of Gifts – the second novel in the Blood in the Sun trilogy – redrafted the criteria of his own ‘intervention’.
?“I did not want to accept the hospitality of the Islamic Courts, basically because I knew that once you are given a gift, you become vulnerable; you are in the pocket of the giver.” What initially seemed a gift turned out to be a stalemate. “I don’t know if there was much success, but at least there was the initial belief that a truce was starting to crop. In the end it didn’t work because I had no endorsement, national endorsement, from anyone nor was Ethiopia interested in there being peace in Somalia.”
?In Gifts, the author leads his readers behind the material gift to explore the identity of the giver. Farah skillfully breaks down the dichotomy between giver and receiver: from the gift of a woman’s body to a man, to the gift of American aid to Somalia or the gift of an orphaned child found in the street. “A basic theme of the novel is that there is no gift that is pure. Every gift has something attached to it,” says Farah, who subtly ridicules the hypocrisy of gifts of aid by European states to African nations, which are strangled by debt owed to the very same givers. Gifts are presented as a symbol of power between giver and receiver, the former having the ability to dictate the process.?
A win/lose situation for the receiver and the faceless shadow of the giver seem to be the key elements in Farah’s thesis. “The big difference between an institution like the EU and a person-to-person relationship is you never meet the giver when you are dealing with an institution.” Farah chooses his words carefully, a soft-spoken man with powerful delivery. “If you give me a cup of tea, I can say ‘thank you’ to you,” he continues. “But if you order a cup of tea or a glass of wine for me, and just after you order, you vanish, then the waiter comes and offers me the glass or cup of tea and I say ‘Where is this from?’ and he says ‘Oh, some gentleman came and gave it to you and left’, you may still drink it but you would feel a little uncomfortable. So it is also that distance comes as a result of continuously receiving gifts.” ?
When I counter that institutions might retort that aid is often lost in corruption scandals and that accusations have been made regarding a ‘culture of bribes’, Farah is quick to respond: “You know, there is nothing clean about Western European institutions. What I mean is that they are no less corrupt than any other. The big difference is that the majority of Africans, when they are corrupt, we put a moral tag to corruption. A moral tag in the sense that we say it’s like taking food out of a child’s mouth.” Pointing to an article about $300m payouts to CEOs of collapsing banks in America he adds: “The corruption in Africa is just peanuts compared to this kind of sum.” ?
Yet ‘American gifts’ are something Farah sees as a two-edged sword. When Somalia and the US are even mentioned in the same breath, the macabre media spectacles of US marines being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu or, more recently, the sensationalist media approaches to Islamic extremism, seem engraved throughout Africa and the West. Farah challenges that singleness of imagery in his novel Links, which carries its reader, through its returning Somali protagonist Jeebleh, and traversing the war-ravaged and clan-divided streets of Mogadishu, deconstructing the myth of a ‘clan’ or ‘blood war’. Jeebleh has returned to pay respect to his mother’s grave and to assist his old friend, Bile, in resolving the kidnapping of a family member. Soon, however, Caloosha, a general in ‘StrongMan’s South’ sector and Bile’s half-brother, resurrects old feuds from the past between Jeebleh, Bile and himself in an intricate web of connections.?
Farah presents a world in which militants raised in hate and driven by murder have led astray a generation of young, uneducated and disenfranchised teenagers, who are both victims and perpetrators of the clan ideology. Links denounces a nation where role models and tradition have gone astray. Farah has spoken of Somalia as an ‘orphaned nation’ before, and his recent novels Knots and Links echo a desire for reconciliation and greater knowledge of self vis-à-vis nationhood. ?
“One of the reasons why I wrote Links, which is about a particular incident that took place with American corpses being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, is because I thought I should show the other side of the story that happened in contrast to Black Hawk Down, both the book and the film.”?
Farah, the author of ten novels, several plays and the editor of an anthology of Somali diaspora writing (he has also written journalism), is getting older, his voice fading. Yet his appetite – to silence the dominant image of Somalia as a violent backwater of the world and for his nation to write back through his words – is unabated. “People can do anything they like when it comes to Africa, in the belief that they will not be challenged by the people about whom they are writing,” says Farah with some sarcasm and a certain melancholy. “Quite often my friends ring me or send me emails, or electronic articles, and then they say: ‘This is the interesting article we want you to read about Somalia.’ And I might find an entire page written and yet I may not be able to find a single paragraph that makes sense. And the reason is because the majority of people write from a distance and they also write from a position of ignorance… It is different when you say: ‘It’s wrong, it’s full of violence, and these are the reasons.’” ?
Farah is no stranger to violence himself and has endured several threats to his life. However, it is the endless misconceptions about Somalia that continue to haunt him. “Many of the journalists [writing about Somalia] are foreign journalists that haven’t got the courage or the knowledge to write about Somalia and go beyond the cliché. The majority of things that are being said about Somalia and Somalis are clichés. Somalis then repeat those clichés like ‘everything to do with the Somali civil war is clan-based’ and such lies. It’s a lot more complicated than this. I would say it is personality-based.”?
While Farah admits he sees little prospect of peace in the near future (“conflict is part and parcel of this century”), he remains Somalia’s most accomplished and distinguished modern novelist, a voice “that writes to keep my country alive”.