Nuruddin Farah


"Knots"

(reviewed by Poornima Apte MAR 21, 2008)

Links by Nuruddin Farah

Read a few of Nuruddin Farah’s books and you begin to see a pattern. You get the impression that the Somali writer doesn’t think very highly of men. After all, as one of the characters in his latest novel, Knots, explains: “Men are a dead loss to us, and they father wars, our miseries.” Starting with his early From a Crooked Rib, Farah has consistently commiserated with women and written about them. And as Farah explains both in his fiction and in real life, there is a compelling reason to do so--it is the women, he believes, who struggle and keep things going even in a country as brutally torn apart by conflict, as Somalia.

The protagonist in Knots, is a tall imposing woman named Cambara who has decided to visit her native city of Mogadishu (spelled Mogadiscio here). If this seems like a plan “as flawed as a suicide note,” Cambara has her reasons. She is looking for peace and closure after the death of her young son, escaping from a failed relationship with her husband Wardi and from the clutches of a domineering mother, Arda. Cambara’s childhood home has been taken over by a warlord and she wants to wrest it back from him.

The mission seems almost too grand to be realistic but Cambara manages to accomplish her goals with a lot of help from many quarters most reliably from a local network of women called Women for Peace. In the end, Cambara uses her skills to direct a play and even finds new love in the city.

Farah’s use of the language is sometimes awkward and stilted as in here: “She thinks that the slight wind blowing into the open door that is her mind is the harbinger of good tidings of which Bile is the bearer.”

There are a fair number of unconvincing plot twists in the story at least to Western eyes. Often it seems as if Cambara moves along by sheer impulse alone. She sees two orphans on the street, she adopts them in an instant; her decision to move into her newly recaptured childhood home also seems to be done on an impulse. What seems more unconvincing is the amount of help that the leader of the Women’s Network, a woman named Kiin, gives the newly arrived Cambara. She arranges for a hotel stay, provides armed escorts, helps Cambara accomplish her work; all these tasks seem too huge to undertake to help out a relative stranger. The source of funding for the women’s network (which can provide sumptuous meals, arrange for hospitalizations) is also sketchy even if Farah writes that they have been funded by the EU.

Where the book does succeed is in showing how life can be lived elegantly even under conditions of total destruction. It is unnerving to see middle class Somalis who employ armed militiamen as casually as if they are picking up a regular taxi ride. “We are members of a nation of losers, of clans warring, of youths without schooling, of women continuously harangued. We are a people living in abnormal times,” says a character in Knots.

Nuruddin Farah beautifully shows how ordinary citizens can live with grace in “abnormal times.” That they can achieve it in a city even as far gone as Mogadishu is no mean feat as the book Knots ably proves. Political statements are layered throughout Farah’s writing and his work has earned him a lot of Nobel buzz lately. In that sense it is not just his protagonist Cambara who proves that art can triumph over politics. Nuruddin Farah too uses his pen to effectively describe the plight of the land he left many years ago. There is a lot of truth in the old adage: The pen is mightier than the sword.

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"Links"

(reviewed by Mary Whipple APR 23, 2004)

"We will defer only to the brute force of guns. Maybe the answer lies in [Somalia's] history since the days of colonialism, and later in those of the Dictator, and more recently during the presence of U.S. troops: these treacherous times have disabused us of our faith in uniformed authorities—which have proven to be redundant, corrupt, clannish, insensitive, and unjust."

Links by Nuruddin Farah

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 daughter and a friend. 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 political situation is so tangled, however, that at times no one really knows who is allied with whom.

As he travels around the ruins of Mogadiscio, once a beautiful city filled with educated people, Jeebleh comments to an acquaintance: "This city is a disaster. I haven't met anyone who openly disapproves of what's happening, and yet the fighting goes on and the clan elders continue soliciting funds for repairing deadly weapons."

His acquaintance explains, "Here we don't think of 'friends' anymore. We rely on our clansmen…sharing ancestral blood….Every clan family feels that it has to form its own armed militia, because the others have them. The elders, almost all of them illiterate and out of touch with your and my sense of modernity, spend their time trying to raise funds from within the members of the blood community. In truth, it's all a pose, though, and everybody knows that the elders are doing this to make sure they seem important."

As he searches for his mother's unrecorded grave and tries to help Bile recover his daughter Raasta and her little girlfriend, he finds himself becoming divided, emotionally and culturally. Here, in the surroundings in which he grew up, he feels like someone looking at the outside world from inside Somalia, but the environment in which he grew up has changed, just as he has changed from living in the United States, and as he contemplates these changes, he also feels like an outsider looking in. His life is constantly in danger, he is often followed, he sees people gunned down "for fun," and he has no idea who is friend and who is foe. Unfamiliar with the political territory in which he is operating, he is not sure how, if at all, he will be able to extricate himself from Mogadiscio, even if he succeeds in finding Bile's daughter.

It is not accidental that Jeebleh has received his doctorate for a book he has written on Dante's Inferno, the symbolic parallel for the existentialist nightmare he sees in Somalia. "We are at best good badmen or bad badmen," a Somali tells him as he tries to navigate the minefield of loyalties in Mogadiscio. As Jeebleh tries to figure out whether his friend Bile is one of the "good badmen" or "bad badmen" and whether Bile's half-brother in the north is involved in the kidnapping, we learn about the family history, Somali culture and history, and the mysterious associates of various warlords who want to "help" Jeebleh.

The novel is filled with high tension as various characters, including Jeebleh, are pulled in different directions by circumstances over which they have no control. His enigmatic dreams and nightmares are much like the reality of life in Mogadiscio, where the vultures are now tame because they are so well fed by the violence. "A cynic I know says that thanks to the vultures, the marabous, and the hawks, we have no fear of diseases spreading," one of Jeebleh's contacts says. "My cynical friend suggests that when the country is reconstituted as a functioning state, we should have a vulture as our national symbol."

Author Farah's own background as an exiled Somali makes this novel particularly vivid, and the cultural conflicts and the pressures placed on Jeebleh's family loyalties ring with truth. As he represses his American values and makes some major decisions as a Somali, Jeebleh becomes part of the story of Somalia, "I've taken sides and made choices that may put my life in danger." Stressing that it is "only when there is harmony within the smaller unit," i.e., the family, that "the larger community finds comfort in the idea of the nation," Farah creates a taut novel in which the tensions within the family are a microcosm of the tensions within the country. Realistic in its descriptions and allegorical in its implications, Farah's novel is a breathtaking and sophisticated study of violence and betrayal certain to receive international recognition. Mary Whipple

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"From a Crooked Rib"

(reviewed by Tony Ross NOV 16, 2006)

"We will defer only to the brute force of guns. Maybe the answer lies in [Somalia's] history since the days of colonialism, and later in those of the Dictator, and more recently during the presence of U.S. troops: these treacherous times have disabused us of our faith in uniformed authorities—which have proven to be redundant, corrupt, clannish, insensitive, and unjust."

From a Crooked Rib by Nuruddin Farah

This recently reprinted slim novel by Somali writer Farah was originally published in 1970 but fell out of print until the widespread acclaim of his "Blood in the Sun" trilogy in the late '90s. Written in 1968, the book is set during the months leading up to Somalia's independence in 1960. Like a great deal of postcolonial African fiction available in translation, its primary theme is the role of women in society. The story is written from the perspective of Ebla (perhaps so named because at the time of the writing in 1968, Italian archeologists had just identified the site of ancient city of the same name in Syria), an 18-year-old nomad woman who flees her rural settlement when she learns of her impending marriage to a middle-aged man. In doing so, she is spurning the traditional values of her culture -- perhaps foreshadowing for the societal changes that will come with independence and modernity.

Sneaking out of her hut in the wee hours, she flees without a plan, leaving her brother and grandfather behind. Her first stop is a small town (although quite large and bewildering to her), where she stays with a distant cousin. There, she cares for her cousin's pregnant wife and makes the acquaintance of a confident woman next door. Drawn into smuggling by her cousin and alerted to his plan to sell her off as a bride, she flees again, this time to Mogadishu with the nephew of the neighbor. Here, life is even more confusing, as she becomes his bride. When he leaves for several months training in Italy, she must rely on another self-sufficient older woman in her building. She somewhat passively reacts to this abandonment by allowing herself to be propelled into the arms of yet another man, who pays her for the distinction of becoming his "wife."

The cultural mechanics of all this are somewhat confusing to the non-native reader and a certain amount of annotation would certainly help this almost 40-year-old book. For example, some background on the quasi-Islamic practice of informal "temporary" marriages at the time would provide some much-needed context for some of Ebla's actions. So while the broad theme of Ebla's treatment as just another "beast" or "cattle" subject to the whim of the men around her is evident, I suspect there's a good deal of nuance that lost along the way. Written when Farah was only in his early 20s, the English prose is rather awkward and makes for choppy reading. While certainly of interest to those interested in feminism in Africa, those seeking a more accessible introduction to Farah's work might be better off trying his more recent novels, Links and Knots, which are set in Mogadishu during and after the American peacekeeping efforts in the early '90s.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship (fiction):

Blood in the Sun:

Non-fiction:

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Nuruddin FarahNuruddin Farah was born in 1945 in Baidoa, in what is now the Republic of Somalia, and raised in the British-occupied Ogaden. His father was a translator and his mother an oral poet. Together with his three elder brothers, Farah was educated, at great sacrifice by his parents, first at a community school (one his father helped establish) and then later at a Christian missionary school - opportunities the majority of Somalis did not enjoy. During his formative years he learned five languages -- Somali, Amharic, Arabic, Italian and English.

Somalia was granted independence by the British and Italians in 1960; three years later Farah moved to the southern region to flee from border conflicts in the Ogaden. After studying literature and philosophy in India at the University of Chandigarh, he returned to Somalia and taught in Mogadisho. In 1974 Farah escaped from Somalia after authorities had condemned his second novel, A Naked Needle. Siyad Barre's regime banned all of his works in Somalia and ordered that the author be killed.

Farah has held teaching positions at universities in the United States, Germany, Italy, Nigeria, Sudan, Gambia, Rome and India and has visited the former Soviet Union. Farah saw again his home country in 1996; the first time after 22 years in exile. In 1998 Farah moved to Capetown, South Africa.

Farah is a multilingual fiction writer and playwright best known for his novels. He has been awarded the Premio Cavour in Italy, the Kurt Tucholsky Prize in Sweden, the prize for the best novel in Zimbabwe. He also won the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature for triology of novels known as Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship. In the same year the French edition of Gifts won the St. Malo Literature Festival’s prize.

Farah and his wife have two sons and a daughter and live in Cape Town.

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