Somalia's Farah: Humanizing a Broken Place

Nuruddin Farah i i

hide captionNuruddin Farah's novels chronicle the slow, nightmarish disintegration of his native Somalia.

Philippe Matsas
Nuruddin Farah

Nuruddin Farah's novels chronicle the slow, nightmarish disintegration of his native Somalia.

Philippe Matsas

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Mogadishu is a place most Americans first heard of back in 1993, when two Black Hawk helicopters were downed there and 18 U.S. soldiers died in a battle with the city's warlords.

The Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah knows that city well. He also knows another Mogadishu — the city of his youth, which he remembers as a beautiful and quiet place.

Farah's novels chart the slow, nightmarish disintegration of his country into the civil war-torn place it is today.

He has lived in exile since the 1970s after taking on Somalia's powerful dictator in a novel called A Naked Needle. The author says he didn't think the book would get him into trouble.

"Now, it's a very naive kind of novel, very satirical," Farah tells Renee Montagne. "What I thought was everybody was going to laugh and simply say, 'Ho ho ho,' and then say, 'Ok, well, what next?'"

Farah was told he would be sentenced to prison or death if he returned, so he chose voluntary exile. But his native land is never far from his thoughts.

"For years and years, I have carried Somalia inside my head and heart," he says. "For years, I have turned Somalia into an obsession. And every Somali, including every single member of my family, wants to take their distance from Somalia. That is why I continue writing about Somalia. Because nobody seems to love it as much as I do."

Farah has said that he's trying to keep Somalia alive by writing about it.

"My intention is to humanize the story of the civil war, so that instead of having a book like Black Hawk Down, in which the Somali people are wooden figures, with no life really to speak of, as a novelist I would like to humanize these people — give back their humanity to them."

Excerpt: 'Knots'

Cover Image: 'Knots'

Knots

by Nuruddin Farah

Hardcover, 432 pages

List Price: $25.95

Zaak says to Cambara, "Who do you blame?"

"Blame?" Cambara asks tetchily, as she goes ahead of him taking the lead, although she has no idea where to go. As it happens, she arrived in Mogadiscio earlier today after a long absence and does not know her way about, the city's landmarks having been savagely destroyed in the ongoing civil war to the extent where, based on what she has seen of the city so far, she doubts if she will recognize it. Cambara has had the proclivity to keep a safe, polite distance, the better to avoid Zaak's bad breath, diagnosed as chronic gingivitis. When both were younger and growing up in the same household, the dentist would prescribe special toothpaste with antiseptic and aromatic qualities, in addition to a medicinal mouthwash, and a very soft toothbrush with which he was to clean his teeth. Cambara remembers his gums bleeding prolifically and receding wastefully at a phenomenal rate, the inflammation, combined with the irritation on account of the tartar deposits, causing the loosening of several of his teeth. She remembers his suffering from persistent indigestion ever since Arda, her mother, who is also his paternal aunt, brought him from a nomadic hamlet during his early teens as her charge in order to facilitate his receiving proper schooling in Mogadiscio.

Cambara waits for him to push the door shut, which he does with a squeak, and she watches him as he turns the wobbly handle a couple of times in a futile effort to secure it, notwithstanding its state of malfunction. Meanwhile, she reminds herself that it has been years since she last set eyes on him or was in touch with him directly. Arda has carried words back and forth from one to the other and has persuaded her daughter to put up with him, at least for the first few days, since Cambara informed her of her wish to go to Mogadiscio. At her mother's cajoling, Cambara acquiesced to stay with "her blood," as she put it, for the first few days, until, perhaps, she has made her own contacts with a close friend of a friend living in Toronto. No doubt, Cambara cannot expect her mother to recall her nephew's malodorous breath, nor is it fair to assume that this is reason enough to warrant her daughter's not wanting to share the same space. But how on earth could she, Cambara, have forgotten the awfulness of it, so vile it is sickening? Nor had she known him to be a chain smoker or a constant chewer of qaat, the mild narcotic to which urban Somalis are highly addicted. "Surely someone is to blame?" Zaak insists.

"Who?"

Zaak lets her go past him and out the side gate—she almost six feet, he a mere five-foot-seven. Scarcely have they left the compound and walked a hundred meters when she slows down, covers her head more appropriately with a plain scarf as the Islamic tradition dictates, and stays ten or so meters behind Zaak. Her eyes downcast—again, as expected of women in Mogadiscio these days—she reaches into one of the inner pockets of her custom-made caftan to make certain that she has brought along her knife, her weapon of choice, if it comes to self-defense. A glance in her direction will prove that she is bracing her courage in preparation for an ugly surprise, to which anyone in a civil war city is vulnerable. Herself, she looks in consternation from the dilapidated tarmac road to Zaak, as she releases her stiff grip around the handle of the knife. Then she tightens her lips and moistens them, her head sending two contradictory messages: the one advising that she remain wary, the other declining, as per her mother's suggestion, to put all her trust in Zaak, because he has firsthand knowledge of how things are likely to pan out. Adopting an indifferent posture as she focuses for a moment on Zaak, she studies his expressions or lack of them, and remarks, with surprise, that he does not appear as if he is expecting an untoward occurrence: the telltale advent on the scene of armed youths intent on launching a virulent mayhem that might end in either of them being shot or killed. She tries to relax into a high state of alert, if that is at all possible, and then picks up Zaak's pungent body odor, the unwashed detritus of a qaat-chewer's unhealthy living. The power of the stench hits her forcefully, and she comes close to fainting.

In a belated answer to her question "Who?" Zaak mumbles an unintelligible remark she is unable to make out. With so angry a face, she nervously scans the horizon, as they turn a sharp corner and are suddenly face to face with several sarong-and-flip-flop–wearing youths armed with AK-47s. Her instinct tells her to prepare, her hand making renewed, abrupt contact with the knife, even though two of the youths appear indifferent to her and are religiously chewing qaat and arguing, bansheelike, about yesterday's match between Arsenal and Manchester United, and agreeing that the referee made a balls-up of the game by unfairly red-carding the Gunners' captain. Her sense of caution remains relentless until they are well out of danger.

Zaak asks, "Et tu?"

She is in no mood to answer such a question early in her visit, not until she comes to grips with the complexity of what is in store for her. In fact, she is delighted that she has refrained from engaging him in a serious talk so far, worried that this might give him the license to zero in on her scant preparedness for what she intends her visit to achieve beyond perhaps getting reacquainted with the country of her birth and maybe reacquiring the family property now in the hands of a minor warlord. She is consumed with doubt, wondering if it is possible to accomplish such a feat without a lot of help from a lot of people. Of course, she is well aware that the warlord will give her kind no quarter whatsoever, it being not in the nature of these brutes to show mercy to anyone. What about Zaak, her cousin and current host? Will he extend a protective hand to her if she makes the resolve to confront the warlord? How will he react when she puts his loyalty to the test?

Whatever else she might do, she must not afford Zaak free access to her affairs, at least not before she has consolidated her position and fortified it against its inherent weaknesses, which might come to light after she sets the confrontation with the minor warlord and his armed minions into motion. At any rate, she must not allow Zaak to make her question the motives of her visit, what has prompted her to leave her peaceful life, husband, and job in Toronto, where she has been resident for three-quarters of her life, and come to the war-torn country. She could see questions forming in his head when he met her at the airport, sensing that he wants to ask if she has moved house and relocated to Somalia. Why has she brought so many hefty suitcases filled with all her movable assets?

That she has been unhappy in her marriage to Wardi is no secret—everybody has been aware of this for a long time. Moreover, having once been Cambara's "husband" on paper and having "lived" with her in confined spaces, first as children growing up, then as a couple who entered into a contract of the marriage-of-convenience kind, Zaak has his partisan views. He thinks of her as a woman capable of exemplary generosity, most loyal, above all, to her mother, very devoted to her close friends, especially to Raxma. But she also cuts the figure of an impulsive woman, difficult to please, harder still to pin down, and known, lately, to be off her rocker, understandably so, because of her son's death. Cambara blames Wardi, her husband, and his Canadian mistress for her son's drowning. And even though he has not dared ask her—fearing she might flare up, presuming his question to be provocative—Zaak supposes that she is here for a lengthy period, considering the weight and number of suitcases that she has brought along. She may have been attracted to the idea of relocating here out of her desperate attempt to put an ocean between herself and Wardi, but told everyone else, apart from her mother and intimate friends, that she is here to mourn the passing of her only son. But Cambara hasn't dwelled on her huge loss, not even after Zaak offered his condolences, beyond acknowledging them and saying, "Thank you." Nor has she let the name of her husband pass her lips or alluded to what is to become of their marriage. She has made a point of giving brief responses to his questions, now nodding her head yes and elaborating no more, now shaking her head no and preferring not to expand further. The last Zaak heard, Wardi is doing splendidly: He is finally a partner in the law firm. For his part, Zaak has steered a judicious course, ostensibly avoiding the obvious and the not-so-obvious pitfalls, and has refrained from pressing her. And whenever they have run out of topics of interest, their conversation has taken a detour and led them to Cambara's mother, whom they both love.

However, if there is a subject that neither is comfortable discussing, it is their own shared past as putative husband and wife. Ill at ease, they have reined back from revisiting it, apprehensive that, unchecked, their talking might deposit them eventually at the door to a concern better left alone—the two years spent together under one roof, in her apartment in Toronto, as man and wife—"Only on paper, I'll have you know," she will point out again and again—which had been an utter disaster. Maybe she means to have no intimate talk, none whatsoever.

"Has there been fighting here lately?" she asks, coming level with him. Then, seemingly tired, she squints at the afternoon sun, hesitating before cracking her jaws in the yawning attitude of a passenger in a plane clearing her ears of accumulated air pressure. The sun burns down so harshly that the contours of all visible items melt in its fierceness. She sees the giveaway evidence of civil war devastation wherever she turns: buildings leaning in in complete disorder, a great many of them boasting no roof, others boarded up, looking vandalized, abandoned. The road—once tarred and good enough for motor vehicles—is in total disrepair; the walls of the house fronting the street are pocked with bullets, as if a terrible sharpshooter with assault rifles has used them for his target practice.

"Skirmishes," he says, as if in an afterthought.

"How many militiamen died?"

"Only unarmed civilians."

As though out of kindness to Cambara, Zaak holds his cigarette away from her—in his left hand—and he keeps the fingers of his right hand close to his mouth, almost covering it. Moreover, his head veers away from her; she is not clear if he is doing so to protect her from the slightest whiff of his nicotine or if he has lately become conscious of the ill effect his evil-smelling breath is having on her.

All of a sudden, however, he springs on her a challenge with the strident voice of a man of huge contradictions, courteous in one instant, cruel in the next. He says, "Do not tell me that you are frightened."

You might think from the way she takes a step back that she is readying to give him a slap across the face. Not so. All she wants to do is to look down on him from her great six-foot height. She also thinks that there is the bravura of a young boy's dare to his taunting, which irks her no less. She remembers their young years together in the same household—Cambara's parents' house, to be exact—and how she would do anything for a dare and he wouldn't; Zaak was not a rebel by nature, was less inclined to act as wild as she would. After all, she was the beloved daughter of the house and he but a poor relation.

She would throw in his direction all manner of gauntlets, but he wouldn't pick them up. Annoyed, she would goad him, "Three dares for your one." And she would wet her index finger, which is a child's way of timing the retort of the opponent: If the forefinger dries before the response, the challenger will forfeit, and the dare lapses, in which case she would declare herself the winner. He liked to stay out of trouble, preferring living and going to school in Mogadiscio to being sent back to his poorer parents in the hinterland, close to Galkacyo, in Mudugh. Always conscious of their difference in height, he was irritated by her rubbing it in.

She opts for a different tack. She says, wisely, stressing the validity of her point, "Only fools are unafraid."

"Please don't take it that way," he apologizes.

As he prepares to walk away, Cambara remarks that they are close to an open-air market. In fact, they meet shoppers returning, the forlorn expressions of the women swathed from head to toe in cheap veils evident, on occasion with only their eyes and hands showing. The women are carrying their small purchases in black plastic bags. To encounter these women in their miserable state saddens Cambara. Even though the men look equally dour and unfulfilled, they seem relaxed. Maybe it is because the men have preciously tucked away under their arms their fresh bundles of qaat, the stimulant that some of them have already started to chew. Whereas the women have nothing of importance to expect, save more war-related miseries and rape and sick children to care for, useless husbands whom they serve hand and foot as they chew to their heart's satisfaction and talk politics.

She thinks of herself as being, already, a victim of the habit. After all, he has dragged her out of bed and forced her to carry the lethargy of jet lag to escort him so that he might buy his daily ration. She has found proof of chewing in the upstairs room where she is staying, which is littered with the dried detritus of the discarded stems of the stuff. For a nonchewer, nonsmoker, she looks upon the upstairs room allotted to her as a hellhole, smelly, the walls green from the spit of the chewers, the crannies stuffed with the plant's unchewed stems.

When Cambara puts urgency into her steps with a view to catching up with him, she trips, loses her balance, and almost tumbles over. Zaak stares accusingly at her sandaled feet, which are now covered with fine brown sand.

I'll put on walking shoes next time," she says.

"If I were you, I would also put on a veil."

The liberties he allows himself, she thinks to herself, as she reflects on what he has just said. Of course, she is no fool; she has come prepared, having acquired a pair of veils, one in Toronto, the other in Nairobi. But she will don the damn thing on her own terms, not because he has advised her to wear one. She needs no reminding that she is dressed differently from the other women whom they have encountered so far, the largest number of them veiled, some in the traditional guntiino robes and others in near tatters. She is in a caftan, the wearing of which places her in a league of one. She wore it, she reasons, because it was close to hand and she hadn't the time to open her suitcases and rummage in them, looking for a veil. Besides, this custom-made caftan permits her to carry a knife discreetly.

He asks, "Shall I take you to a who-die stall? Where you can buy a veil?" She reads meanness in his eyes and interprets the expression as a male daring a woman to defy the recent imposition, which stipulates that women should veil themselves. When she was young, it was uncommon for Somali women to wear one; mostly Arab women and a few of the city's aboriginals did.

" 'Who-die stalls'? Why are they called that?"

"Stalls from where you buy secondhand veils."

Then Zaak explains at length that in recent years, dumping of secondhand clothing on the world's poor has become de rigueur, as many citizens of these countries are in no position to pay the astronomical prices for new clothes.

"I see," she says, nodding.

He is in his element, and goes on. "The who-die stalls are run by local entrepreneurs who buy a shipload of secondhand clothes for next to nothing from a dump house in the developed world and then import these in. The importers and the retailers are all under the impression that everyone is getting a bargain. The truth is, sadly, different."

"Why is that?"

"Because the practice has destroyed the local textile industries, as they can no longer compete with the dumpers. People have dubbed the practice with knowing cynicism; who-die clothes from who-die stalls!"

Soon enough, a vast sorrow descends upon Cambara, as she remembers how she had taken a suitcase full of her dead son's clothes, and donated them to charity so they might be parceled out among Toronto's poor. Of course she does not know where the clothes that have survived her son have ended up. Years back when she lived here, it was the tradition for well-to-do people to offer the clothes of their dead folks to a mosque. Now, in the harsh light of what she has just learned, she is aware that it won't do to shrug it all off. She will have to think of how best and sanely to dispense with the garments to which she attaches fond memories—her living, active son wearing them. She will wait for a few days before deciding what to do and among whom to distribute them, gratis, no doubt.

He says, "What do you say? Shall I take you to a who-die stall to buy a veil?"

Cambara sidesteps his question, putting one to him herself. "Hadn't you given up smoking many years before you left Toronto?" she asks.

"Yes, I did."

"Then why have you gone back?"

"One vice leads to another," he says with a smirk.

"How do you mean?"

"Qaat chewing is the first vice I've picked up coming here," he says, waving his cigarette. "It passes the time."

"What does? Smoking?"

"Qaat chewing helps me to bear the aloneness of my everyday life," he says. "You see, Mogadiscio is a metropolis with none of the amenities of one. There is nothing to do here: no nightclubs, no places of entertainment, and no bars in which to drown your sorrows, as even the teahouses are dry of liquor. Only restaurants."

"No cinemas?"

"None to speak of."

"No theaters?"

"None," he says.

"What has become of the National Theatre?"

"The National Theatre is in the hands of a warlord whose militiamen have used the stage and props, as well as the desks, doors, ceiling boards, and every piece of timber, as firewood. The roof has collapsed, and everything else—the cisterns, the sinks and the bathtubs in the washroom, not to speak of the iron gates, the computers—all has been removed, vandalized, or sold off."

"What if someone wants to put on a show?"

"It would be a hit, but it will never happen."

"You mean because of the warlords who run the city?" she asks.

"Or the Islamic courts that will step in to stop it going ahead," says Zaak.

"On what grounds?"

"On moral or theological grounds."

"But you reckon ordinary folks will watch it?"

"I reckon they would," he replies.

Cambara's enthusiasm is unconcealed. "How do the armed youths entertain themselves when they have time on their gun-free hands?" Zaak replies, "They watch videocassettes of Hindi, Korean, Italian, or English movies."

"Surely they are not schooled in these languages?"

"The movies are dubbed into Somali."

"Dubbed? By whom?"

Chuffed, Zaak is clearly pleased that he has for once impressed Cambara with his knowledge about something of which she hasn't an idea.

"There is a burgeoning dubbing industry in Mogadiscio," he says.

"There are also kung fu films, locally produced and entirely shot here."

"Where are they shown?"

"In the buildings that once belonged to the collapsed state, which are now free-for-all, run-down, and populated by the city's squatters. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the city polytechnics, the secondary

schools."

"How are the films distributed?"

"The Zanzibaris, who have come fleeing from the fighting in their country," Zaak informs her, "have cornered this side of the business. They have total control, Mafia-like."

"Have you seen the dubbed movies yourself?"

"No, I haven't."

Maybe he has time only for qaat, she thinks, then she asks, "Do you know anyone who has?"

He shakes his head. "No."

She needs to get in touch with Kiin, the manager of Maanta Hotel, who, according to Raxma, a close friend of Cambara's back in Toronto, is well connected and might serve the salient purpose of Cambara's accessing information about the videocassettes and of building local contacts, including the Women's Network, which may help her with all sorts of matters.

Cambara will admit that she has made a faux pas arriving in Mogadiscio unprepared, with no addresses and no telephone numbers of anyone except Zaak and no personal contacts. Perhaps it is too late to think of ruing her impromptu decision to come. Granted, she mulled over the visit for a long period. No matter, she won't engage Zaak in serious talk until she has been here for a while.

She has no idea what Zaak will think of it, but she cannot help imagining him being more sarcastic than her mother, who reacted with unprecedented bafflement when Cambara informed her of her imminent trip to the country. Asked why, Cambara, in a straight approach to the task informed by a touch of defiance, told her that she meant to reclaim the family property, wrest it from the hands of the warlord. Arda instantly fumed with fury, describing her daughter's plan as a harebrained ruse. "This is plain insane," Arda had observed. Then the two strong-headed women battled it out, Cambara pointing out that those warlords are cowards and fools and that it won't be difficult to be more clever than they so as to boot them out of the family property.

"This is downright suicidal," Arda reiterated.

After arguing for days and nights, Arda consented to Cambara's "ill-advised scheme" with a caveat: that they involve Raxma, who had wonderful contacts in Mogadiscio and, while waiting for things to be put in motion, that Cambara should either wait in Toronto or go ahead and stay with Zaak. Being a schemer with no equal anywhere, Arda set to work clandestinely on setting up a safety net as protective of her daughter as it was capable of keeping her abreast of every one of the girl's madcap schemes. Only then did Arda agree to "give her blessing for whatever it is worth for a plan as flawed as a suicide note."

A battlewagon hurtling down the dirt road and coming straight at them startles Zaak, who grabs her right arm and pushes her off the footpath into the low shrubs. The vehicle is carrying a motley group of youths armed to their qaat-ruined teeth. Cambara picks herself up, dusts her caftan, and has barely sufficient time to stare at the backs of their heads before the battlewagon vanishes in the swirl of sand it has helped to raise.

This excerpt from Knots by is made available with the permission of Riverhead Books.

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