Nuruddin Farah
Voices from the Diaspora

The illiteracy rate in Somalia is around 75 percent. And yet the country has produced an author who has been mentioned for some time as a possible candidate for the Nobel Prize. Read Ilja Braun's review of Nuruddin Farah's latest novel "Links"

photo: AP
Nuruddin Farah

​​Somalia used to be a colonial country, occupied by the British, French, and Italians and divided up on the drawing board. Today it is one of the poorest countries in the world, in which a bloody civil war is raging.

Nuruddin Farah has yet to write a book that does not deal with the disastrous past and present of his country. Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship is the name of his first trilogy, published between 1979 and 1983. The individual titles are: Sweet and Sour Milk, Sardines, and Close Sesame.

The author uses family histories to examine the interrelationship of dictatorship and traditional values in Somalia, a country greatly influenced by Islam. In Sweet and Sour Milk, the military junta tries to exploit the death of a rebel brother for propaganda purposes. Sardines settles the score with the practice of female genital cutting, common in Somalia.

And in Close Sesame, the legitimacy of political violence is examined through a father-son conflict. In all three books, the private is subject to the political, and the individual is subject to traditional patriarchal structures.

Food aid in exchange for dependence

The first trilogy was following by a second, published between 1986 and 1998 entitled Blood in the Sun. The three parts, Maps, Gifts, and Secrets, deal with the borders that colonialists drew through Somali land in the nineteenth century, and with the difficulty that nomadic Somalians have had since then to find their own identity without bloody territorial battles.

Gifts is a fictional account of the author's view that every present has its price. Just as the protagonist can only be lucky in love with her dream prince Bosaaso if she gives up her personal independence, Africa too receives Western food aid only under the condition that it remains dependent on the First World.

Farah's new novel Links was published last year in South Africa by Kwela Books (to be released in the United States and UK by Riverhead Books, New York, 2004). It is the first part of yet another trilogy, this time dealing with the collapse of Somalia.

No entanglements in "Clan affairs"

The Somalian Jeebleh returns to his homeland Somalia after twenty years in exile in order to pay his final respects at the grave of his recently deceased mother. He promises himself not to get involved in any "Clan affairs" while on this visit, but it doesn't take long for those intentions to go awry. A young girl, a miracle child, is kidnapped from the refuge which his childhood friend Bile is running.

The girl, Raasta, has the ability to create a kind of magic wall of protection around her. People in Raasta's presence experience a feeling of safety and protection from the ever-present events of the civil war.

She is like an angel of peace in an environment marked by violence. It is therefore not surprising that the girl was kidnapped, as there are always people who are not interested in the peace that Raasta could bring. Jeebleh sets out in search of the girl.

The story can be read as a political parable: With Rastaa, hope itself is being kidnapped, taken away from the people. And it is kept under arrest by the very same persons who profit financially as well as politically from the civil war, i.e. by the warlords.

Yet, the story of the miracle child is also a phantastic tale, a fairy tale. And the miracle child is a motif which preexisted in Islamic and African myths, as Farah informs the reader in the novel itself. Linking traditional myths with the historical present is, however, not uncommon in African literature.

Organ trading under the guise of charity

"The motor that keeps the Somalian civil war running is money," Farah said when Links first came out. With an almost satirical viciousness, the novel translates that statement into fiction. A nonprofit NGO called Funeral with a Difference collects corpses from the streets of Mogadishu, supposedly in order to give the deceased a funeral with dignity.

In reality, the organization's director Af-Laawe, who supposedly has good contacts to the United Nations, is running an illegal organ trade with countries in the Middle East. That is a very evil notion.

If Gifts and Secrets can be read superficially simply as romance novels, then the sinister danse macabre atmosphere in Links brings to mind Kusturica's film Underground.

Farah under consideration for the Nobel Prize

In some way this is Farah's most radical novel about Somalia so far. But how it is even possible to write about a country that has no shortage of weapons, but hardly any bread?

The fact that Somalia, a country with an illiteracy rate of over 75 percent, has produced an author like Nuruddin Farah is remarkable enough. For several years he has also been considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He has long since been deserving of it.

Ilja Braun

© 2004/2005

Translation from German: Allison Brown

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