Somalia's Farah: Humanizing a Broken Place Nuruddin Farah's novels chart the slow, nightmarish disintegration of his native Somalia into the civil war-torn place it is today. Though he lives in exile, his native land is never far from his thoughts.
NPR logo

Somalia's Farah: Humanizing a Broken Place

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Somalia's Farah: Humanizing a Broken Place

Somalia's Farah: Humanizing a Broken Place

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Mogadishu is a place most Americans first heard of back in 1993, when two Blackhawk helicopters were downed there and 18 Army Rangers 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.

Mr. NURUDDIN FARAH (Somali Novelist): I remember it as a very, very beautiful, very quiet place. And everybody had their favorite cafes. Theater was lively. Nowadays these are things that you can't think of.

MONTAGNE: We continue now our series War and Literature, about how writers portray conflict in fiction. Nuruddin Farah is talked of as a candidate for a Nobel Prize in Literature for his two trilogies and another now in the works, charting his country's slow, nightmarish disintegration.

But Farah has lived in exile since the 1970s. It was then, as a young writer, he made a big mistake. In an early novel called "A Naked Needle" he took on Somalia's powerful dictator.

Mr. FARAH: I would actually like to point out that "A Naked Needle" is a novel that I didn't think would get me into trouble. Now, it's a very naive kind of novel, very satirical. What I thought was everybody was going to laugh and simply say, ho, ho, ho, and then say, okay, well, what's next?

I didn't think that I would be in trouble, and I was in trouble and was promised that I would get a minimum of 30 years if I returned, possibly, as a sentence. And I was shocked and surprised and therefore chose voluntary exile in preference to be in - locked up or sentenced to death.

MONTAGNE: When you spoke of it as being satirical, it was satirical about the regime?

Mr. FARAH: It was satirical about the regime and, generally speaking, about the society too. I'm not one of those Africans who insist that everything wrong with the continent of Africa is thanks or no thanks to the colonial powers that colonized us. I also say that the African has to blame himself or herself for whatever it is that we have done wrong over the years.

MONTAGNE: In those early days it may have been the most natural thing to do because you were living in Somalia to write - obviously to write about the society and the world around you. When you were outside the country, you continue to, in your novels, follow the country, which inevitably meant writing about war.

Mr. FARAH: Well, because there is no other country that I could call my own. And there is no other country that I know as well as I do know Somalia, even though I may not be living in it on a daily basis. Because for years and years, I have carried Somalia inside my head and heart. 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.

MONTAGNE: I wonder if, as a novelist, who'd you write these books if you were living in the thick of it in Mogadishu?

Mr. FARAH: I doubt it very much if I could write it living in Mogadishu. And the reason is - well, for one thing, there is, you know, no guaranteed power; electricity is rather intermittent, you know.

MONTAGNE: So quite literally...

Mr. FARAH: I mean, these are practical things. I'm a very - I'm a pragmatist, and I could obviously live in Somalia, but - I was in Somalia recently. There was a very, very sticky moment when sitting in a car and having two guns pointed at my head asking for something equivalent to $2 worth of money; otherwise somebody was going to kill me.

Now, these are the kinds of things that you run into, the difficulties that one runs into in civil war Somalia.

MONTAGNE: That is practically speaking, it's possible you wouldn't get the writing done because you would - you would be killed?

Mr. FARAH: Yes, before I could finish it. And the reason is because I remember as these armed youths, one of them was holding a gun and not speaking. The other one was saying, blabbering away and saying - said some things. But I was thinking about this, the third novel, because at least once you've finished a trilogy, then, you know, you could take leave, so to speak. And I kept thinking, would this idiot understand if I said to him, you know, why don't you allow me to finish my third novel and then you can have me if you want and kill me and shoot me.

MONTAGNE: In your novel "Links," which is set sort of in the mid-'90s, the character Jeebleh arrives in Mogadishu after 20 years in exile in America and he gets in with the driver, who along the route quotes Voltaire to him. But on the roof are these armed youths guarding the car, the driver, and the occupants, and one gets the impression they not only don't know Voltaire, they don't read.

Mr. FARAH: Yes, because the gun has become so glorified in Somalia, you have an entire generation of children who have never set foot in a school, but who worship the gun as the end-all and the authority.

MONTAGNE: You rather famously have said that you are trying to keep your country alive by writing about it. Do you still feel that way?

Mr. FARAH: Well, in addition to continually writing about it so that the country lives, not in the headlines in - which they say, you know, 60 and other people killed and so on and so forth, so many people blown up - my intention is also to humanize the story of the civil war. So that instead of having a book like "Blackhawk 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.

So many terrible things happen on a daily basis in Somalia and in many parts of Africa that for me to keep saying, I have to continue writing, otherwise, otherwise I'd just go raving mad.

MONTAGNE: Nuruddin Farah, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. FARAH: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Nuruddin Farah's most recent novel is called "Knots." You can read a bit of it at our Web site. It's about a Somali woman who returns from exile to reclaim her family home from a warlord.

Tomorrow, our series War and Literature concludes with an Iraqi poet forced from her country.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.