Book review: Giuseppe Catozzella’s ″Don′t tell me you′re afraid″

The flame of Olympia

″Don′t tell me you′re afraid″ is a heartbreaking and remarkable book about a young woman, like every other refugee, who deserved a better fate. Catozzella not only tells the story of Samia Yusuf Omar, but in the process brings the experiences of every refugee to life. Richard Marcus read the book

Four years after competing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the short life of Somalian Samia Yusuf Omar came to an end somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. Like refugees everywhere she was seeking to make a better life for herself away from the fighting and poverty of her homeland. However, she also had a specific dream – to compete at the 2012 Olympics in London. While it would be easy to categorise her as another in a long line of victims, her story belies that image and reveals a brave and determined young woman who wouldn't let anyone dictate how she should live her life.

The English language translation (translated by Anne Milano Appel) of ″Don't Tell Me You're Afraid″ by Giuseppe Catozzella, a fictionalised account of Samia's life, is being published by Penguin Random House. Telling the story of a real person through fiction is a risky endeavour. For while it allows you a certain latitude with the facts, it also means you have to walk a fine line between telling the story you want to tell and adhering to the truth.

Catozzella has made his job even more difficult by electing to use a first person narrative and tell the story as if Samia was relating it to the reader. This process is fraught with difficulties. For while if done well it can create a bond between reader and character, it can also go horribly wrong. An author takes the chance of creating something that feels contrived or worse, superimposing his or her feelings on the character.

Cover of Giuseppe Catozzella’s ″Don′t tell me you′re afraid″, translated by Anne Milano Appel (published by Penguin Random House)
"In telling Samia's story Catozzella has not only done a magnificent job of bringing her reality to life, but of capturing the indomitable spirit that drove this young women to succeed in her quest. While at first I found his prose almost simplistic, I grew to appreciate his sparse style as it allowed the story to shine through with even greater clarity. Instead of using elaborate language or allowing his own indignity to shine through we see everything through the eyes of someone whose life was shaped by growing up in a war zone," writes Marcus

Wealth of detail

Thankfully Catozzella is far too adept a writer to fall into either of those traps. He simply allows the story to speak for itself, without embellishment or attempting to manipulate our feelings. He has obviously done his research on both the situation in Somalia and Samia very carefully before writing, as he brings a wealth of detail to his depictions of both.

We're drawn into a world which, thankfully, most of us have never had to experience. The Mogadishu of Samia's childhood is a war zone. Between the war lords of rival clans fighting each other and al-Shabab, an Islamist extremist group backed by al-Qaida, gun fire and motor shells are an almost continuous soundtrack against which people live their lives. The constant warfare, combined with drought conditions, has also made it impossible for most people to feed themselves properly or scrape together the means to provide for their families.

Daring to dream

Samia and her family have created a small haven of peace in the courtyard they share with her father's best friend and his family. Although they share a two room house, have no running water and eat a minimal amount of food, they do find happiness and joy in each others′ company. It is through the encouragement and love of her family that Samia found the bravery to follow her dream of becoming a world class runner.

She and her best friend Ali, run through the streets of Mogadishu dreaming of a day when they can run to represent Somalia. Ali is smart enough to know he will never be fast enough, so he elects himself Samia's coach. The thought of these two eight-year-old children being serious enough to name themselves coach and athlete is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Heartbreaking because you can't believe they will ever achieve their dreams and inspiring because of what they are attempting to accomplish in the face of such overwhelming odds.

However, we watch in amazement as the dream becomes a reality. How Samia begins competing in races, defeating older competitors in spite of everything – and finally how she's called to race for her country in the 2008 Olympics. Horribly outclassed, not having any proper coaching and basically suffering from malnutrition compared to the athletes she competes against, she finishes last in her heat in the 200 metres. This only whets her appetite to compete again in four years time in London.

Unfortunately conditions in Somalia have worsened. Al-Shabab's influence and power in Mogadishu has increased to the point where it becomes almost impossible for a young woman to train as an athlete. Samia has to sneak out at night and make her way surreptitiously to a bombed-out athletic stadium in order to train. When personal tragedy strikes, her father is killed by al-Shabab and she discovers her childhood friend Ali was partially responsible for his death, she makes the decision to leave Somalia.

A fateful decision

Initially her plan is to travel to neighbouring Ethiopia and train with their athletes so she can compete in the 2012 Olympics. However, when it turns out she isn't allowed to train without paper work from Somalia, which will never be forthcoming as Al Shabab won't provide it, she resolves to make it to London on her own. While her elder sister had successfully made the long horrible journey from Somalia to Europe, it is only through making the journey herself Samia realises how dangerous the experience is.

Samia Yusuf Omar completing her 200 metre heat at the 2008 Beijing Olympics (photo: Stu Forster)s
Four years after competing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the short life of Somalian Samia Yusuf Omar came to an end somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. Like refugees everywhere she was seeking to make a better life for herself away from the fighting and poverty of her homeland. However, she also had a specific dream – to compete at the 2012 Olympics in London

In telling Samia's story, Catozzella has not only done a magnificent job of bringing her reality to life, but of capturing the indomitable spirit that drove this young women to succeed in her quest. While at first I found his prose almost simplistic, I grew to appreciate his sparse style as it allowed the story to shine through with even greater clarity. Instead of using elaborate language or allowing his own indignity to shine through we see everything through the eyes of someone whose life was shaped by growing up in a war zone.

This not only gives the book an authenticity, it makes it incredibly powerful. Not only as the tale of an amazing young woman whose life was cut short, but as a condemnation of a world which allows such tragedies to take place. This is a heartbreaking and remarkable book about a young woman, like every other refugee, who deserved a better fate. Catozzella not only tells the story of Samia Yusuf Omar, but in the process brings the experiences of every refugee to life. I defy anyone to read this book without being moved.

Richard Marcus

© Qantara.de 2016

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