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Imprints Literary Supplement

Life During Wartime

Nuruddin Farah's Nation of Horror and Hope

Tom Chalkley

Imprints Literary Supplement 1999

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By Frank Diller | Posted 10/13/1999

Maps, By Nuruddin Farah, Arcade, 288 pages, $23.95Gifts, By Nuruddin Farah, Arcade, 256 pages, $23.95Secrets, By Nuruddin Farah, Arcade, 304 pages, $12.95During the summer of 1996, Somali writer Nuruddin Farah returned to his homeland after a 17-year absence, and he was devastated by what he found there. Clan warfare, which erupted when the national government was overthrown in 1991 and continues to ravage Somalia today, had decimated the country and its capital city. "Mogadishu was a depressing sight," he said in a recent e-mail interview. "I found myself feeling angrier and angrier with myself. Could it be because I wondered [if] I could've helped prevent the disaster that befell the nation?"

For many Americans, Somalia is distinguished from other African nations as the site where U.S. troops lost their lives during the 1993 peace-keeping intervention. The image of a Marine's body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu was etched into America's consciousness, but it is just one event in a series of tragedies to occur during Somalia's decade of civil strife (the most recent of international note being the murder of UNICEF worker Dr. Ayub Sheikh Yerow on Sept. 16). The nation's 39 years of independence is a tumultuous history of famine and warfare that Nuruddin Farah is committed to documenting—even if he must do so from outside his country's borders.

Farah was born in 1945 and began writing seriously at the age of 19. Within a year he published his first novella. "Of course, I did write some apprentice work before that . . . before finding a publisher for my third to-be-written novel, which became the first to-be-published," he says of his early work. "I have no idea where the two unpublished books are, and doubt if they are any good."

Farah's published efforts, however, are riveting, drawing praise from esteemed contemporaries such as Chinua Achebe and Salman Rushdie—and scorn from his political targets. In 1979 he became persona non grata in Somalia with the publication of his third novel, Sweet and Sour Milk, a critically acclaimed and politically volatile text that served as the first installment to his trilogy, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship. Although forced into exile by the ruling government, Farah continued to write about his native land and became devoted to the project of keeping his country alive through literature. His latest trilogy, Blood in the Sun, continues the effort, with Farah depicting Somalia's history and filtering it through the domestic struggles of his main characters. The trilogy concludes with 1998's Secrets; the first two parts, Maps (originally published in 1986) and Gifts (1992), were reprinted this year.

Maps details the coming of age of a Somali orphan raised by an Ethiopian servant during the war between the two nations. When the boy is 17 and must decide between attending the university or joining the conflict against Ethiopia, he learns that his former caretaker betrayed her adopted Somali town for the love of an Ethiopian soldier. Farah reflects the national struggle in a very personal realm as the boy is forced to choose between his motherland and the foster mother who returns to him as a suspected traitor.

The second installment, Gifts, follows the story of a nurse struggling to remain self-reliant while caring for her family and an abandoned baby during a famine. Although the novel has a much lighter tone than its predecessor, the concerns remain serious as Farah reminds us it is better to be in the position to give than receive, since the acceptance of aid often adds to the debts of those in need.

Secrets is Farah's first book since his return to Somalia in 1996, and the impact of the trip is evident. In an interview, he recalled feeling helpless when he saw his nation's capital in its current state: "I wished I were a witness, a writer bearing testimony as Mogadishu "went to pieces' like a child's toy. And like a child, I wished I could cry openly and unrestrainedly, something I did in the quiet in my hotel room. There is a tyranny to the helplessness of a child, or an adult, who doesn't know what to do, given the hugeness of the problem."

Farah channeled those emotions into Secrets, in which a young businessman must come to terms with the return of a childhood acquaintance and painful revelations about his life as the madness of clan warfare infects his city. The novel is an impassioned rendering of the chaos surrounding the nation and a bold critique of the way Somalis value blood relations, a cultural fascination that pushes them to the brink of their own destruction.

Farah's belief that people are bound by love and not blood is one of the fundamental themes of the Blood in the Sun trilogy, with Somalia represented as an orphan itself: "The idea of the . . . trilogy is centered around the notion of an orphaned nation . . . I had in mind to have orphans as the central consciousness of each of the novels, and this serves as the trilogy's thematic concern," the author says. "As a general, Siad Barre [the national leader ousted during the 1991 uprising] fails the Somali nation when the national army is defeated at the hands of the combined efforts of Ethiopia, Cuba, and the then-Soviet Union. He fails a second time when he doesn't resign as soon as the defeated national army returns to base. Defeat is an implosive nature, an infestation capable of poisoning the body-politic of a people. Somalia, as a result, begins to rely on foreign aid. And Secrets is the novel in which it all explodes."

As that chaos unfolds, Farah identifies one possible source of salvation: his nation's women. Throughout the trilogy (and as he has since his first novel, From a Crooked Rib) Farah criticizes the misogynist tendencies of the Somali people. Whether openly strong (such as the aunt who works and drives while her husband stays home in Maps) or silent and enduring (such as the mother in Secrets), women carry Farah's hopes for the nation. This does not mean he spares his female characters from the sexual and physical violence that occurs in Somali society. Rape is a constant threat in his work, and although it happens offstage, it is no less reprehensible. Farah identifies this violence against women as the root of the violence that infiltrates his homeland.

He explains this belief near the end of Secrets, when one character, an oft-poetic, ever-cryptic grandfather, says, "Motherhood is the off-and-on light in the darkness of night, a firefly in joyous dizziness and rejoicing, now here, now there, and everywhere. Our problem as a society is that we pay mothers only lip service, nothing else. In fact, the crisis that is coming to a head in the shape of civil strife would not be breaking on us if we'd offered women-as-mothers their due worth, respect and affection, a brightness celebrating motherhood, a monument erected in a worship of women."

Until this hope becomes a reality, however, Nuruddin Farah will continue to work for his country the only way he knows—by writing about it. He is currently at work on a new novel set in civil-war-torn Mogadishu between 1991 and 1994—"very likely the first of yet another trilogy," he says. His first nonfiction book, Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora, is slated to be published by Cassell Books.

Although his heart is in his literary project on Somalia, Nuruddin Farah's literary voice continues to change and amaze with each new work. "I am learning the writing craft all the time," he says. "In fact, every time I [begin] working on a new novel, it is as if I've never written one before. Probably because I hope every book to be different from the one that became before it and the one to come after it."

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