Interview with Nuruddin Farah

A Miracle Child, Found and Set Free

Nuruddin Farah has more than once been taken into consideration for the Nobel Prize of Literature. In this interview with Qantara.de, the Somali author talks about his new novel, the civil war and his practical optimism for Somalia

Nuruddin Farah (photo: Samuel Shimon)
Nuruddin Farah: "I was born and brought up a Moslem, but I believe in the secular state"

​​Kapstadt-based author Nuruddin Farah is one of the most renowned contemporary African authors of our time. In his latest novel "Links", the main character comes back to Somalia, his country of origin, after having lived in the USA for 20 years, to finally visit his mother's grave. What he finds, is a country in disarray, torn apart by civil war. Ilja Braun met Farah in Frankfurt to talk about his new book

When Jeebleh, the novel's main character, comes back to Somalia, he finds it very difficult to decide whom he can trust and whom he can't. Why is that so difficult for him to tell?

Nuruddin Farah: Well, because he has been away for a long time and the game has changed. People have formed alliances that are different from the ones he knew from living in Mogadishu earlier in his life. The civil war plays into the hands of people who like to divide others into groups so that they can exploit the new situation. And that new situation obviously brings new challenges with it, it asks for a change of attitude.

Has he adapted a Western or Northern attitude by living in the West for so long?

Farah: No, it's just that he does not know the new game. The rules have been changed. And if you do not accept these new rules, then your life is in danger. This is a new phenomenon which is brought about by the civil war, it has nothing to do with the West. 20 years ago, the clan was not a political force. People being united through blood was not common in those days. Personal relations mattered, friends mattered a lot. The reason why the clan-business has come to the fore, is that many clan-families thought that in the previous regime they did not have as much power as some of the other clans. The civil war has brought out the tensions that existed previously.

What is the difference between a clan and a family?

Farah: A clan is a large family. In Somalia, if your surname is Braun, all the people whose surname is Braun are from your clan. And if you were an employer and had to give a job to someone, you would look for them. You would trust them, you would invite them to your house, you would mix with them. And let's say, the people whose name is Braun are related to the family Schmidt, your cousins. Then you would also mingle with those. That's what a clan is: a large family, numbering, let's say 50,000 or 100,000 people. Usually, they also live in the same territory, so the people in one village are of the same ancestry.

But Jeebleh is opposed to this sort of thinking.

Farah: He was opposed to it before, and he is opposed to it now. Because he says – and so do I – that you can not privilege people because they are related to you by blood. You should rather consider people's merits. If you were meant to appoint a minister of foreign affairs, and you appoint someone from your village, from your town or from your clan, then you are not doing your job correctly, because unlike ideology, blood is not a unifying force.

In "Links", the political context seems to be stronger than in your previous books, at least stronger than in the last trilogy.

Farah: A civil war is a very difficult subject to write about. If you have a hundred people demonstrating and causing public disturbance, it is already difficult for a novelist to identify individual characters. And a civil war involves 9 million people. How do you choose one or two or even a handful of characters to tell the story, to explain how the civil war has come about? You need to explain the background, you cannot come around asking why it is the first time in the history of Somalia that we are killing each other. And therefore you have to go into politics, into history, into sociology, into many different areas. And this book is the first part of a trilogy – the second and the third part will need less explanation.

An important motif in the book is a miracle child named Rastaa who spreads a kind of magic peace around itself so people will not be harmed by the ever present violence.

Farah: Yes, at least that is what people think. She is a person whom people need to create, because of the dire situation, because of the difficulties they are in. She is a symbol of hope and peace which attracts people to come to her and to the refuge which her uncle is running. And although she is a small child, she behaves like an adult, she is a 'protectoress'.

This character is based on myths that already existed in Islamic and African culture. So you obviously mix pre-existing traditions with your own inventions.

Farah: Yes, we all do, because it is very important to keep in touch with the past, which is tradition; the present, which is our daily living; and the future, which is where we are going or hope to be going.

In the novel, Rastaa is being kidnapped, and the offenders turn out to be in service of the warlords who have no interest in the kind of peace she brings, because they profit financially from the civil war. Do you consider this story a political parable?

Farah: You could read it as such, yes. You could say that the story of Rastaa being kidnapped means that hope is taken away from people, because hope is what she represents to them. So there is less of it during the time that the child is away.

The way Jeebleh finds her back at the end of the novel is something like a miracle itself.

Farah: It's through luck, and also because being a miracle child she wanted to be found, and she wanted to meet Jeebleh. And if you constantly dream and think of some thing, sometimes it becomes true.

You have left Somalia quite early in your life and have not come back for a long time. At the moment, you are living in exile as well...

Farah: No, I don't live in exile, I live in Africa. As long as I live in Africa, and I have been doing so for a number of years, I do not consider myself in exile. I may not be living in my own country, but in fact I visit Somalia quite a lot, two or three times a year.

Do you have any hope of going back there some time?

Farah: Eventually, if the country is back in peace and things are going well, if there are schools to which we can send our children. But I am not alone anymore, I have a family. So I will be talking to them, and once we agree, we will go and live in Somalia. I doubt very much though if this will happen in the coming few years.

What do you consider the chances of the central government to get settled in Mogadishu?

Farah: The warlords who control the city of Mogadishu benefit from the civil war, and as long as they do, they will make life difficult for any federal institution to be based in Mogadishu. But they can't continue winning, because more and more people want peace, and in fact more and more people in Mogadishu want the central government's base to become Mogadishu. One of our worries is also that the Islamic fundamentalists will have a stronger base in the city, if the government does not move there. And therefore it's necessary to make a fast move, before Mogadishu is taken over by the Islamists.

Is Islamic fundamentalism a strong force in Somalia right now?

Farah: It will become, because some people are trying to build a kind of alternative to the secular state. Me myself, I was born and brought up a Moslem, but I believe in the secular state, and I want religion to have nothing to do with the running of the state. If the Islamists are becoming more powerful in Mogadishu, it will obviously complicate matters politically.

The ending of your novel, however, is rather optimistic: the miracle child spreading peace, who had been kidnapped, is found and set free.

Farah: Well, in a very difficult situation, you have no other choice but to be optimistic. You can only hope that we have reached the bottom line, and now things can go up again.

Interview conducted by Ilja Braun

© Qantara.de 2006

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