Igiaba Scego: Oltre Babilonia (Beyond Babylon)

The latest addition to my website is Igiaba Scego‘s Oltre Babilonia (Beyond Babylon). Scego is an Italian writer of Somali origin. This novel tells the stories of four women, Zuhra, daughter of Maryam and Elias (Zuhra she has never met Elias), Maryam, Mar, daughter of Miranda, an Argentinian woman now living in Italy, and an unknown Somali man, and Miranda, a published poet. Scego jumps around in time and place, as we follow the Italian occupation of Somalia, its independence and what went wrong later, the repression in Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s, the story of Elias, Maryam’s husband who is now back in Somalia and who Zuhra has never met, and his parents as well as the journey Miranda, Mar and Zuhra make to Tunis to study classical Arabic, a key part of the novel, with each woman finding out something about herself. What makes this novel is a whole slew of colourful back stories, wonderful imagery and, above all, the fact that the four women. all happily freely and often wittily speak their minds on controversial issues (female genital mutilation, racism and sexism) and on less controversial issues (jobs, family, Peter Sellers). It is a first-class book – the second of Scego’s book to be translated into English – and one that deserves to have considerable success.

Nuruddin Farah: Maps

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The latest addition to my website is Nuruddin Farah‘s Maps. This novel is somewhat different from many of his others, as it focuses on an earlier part of Somali history, the war between Ethiopia and Somalia over Ogaden. The focus is very nationalistic, in that the Somalis feel that, unlike the Ethiopians, they are a unified race and that a Greater Somaliland, incorporating all the areas where Somalis live, should be created. We see this through the eyes of Askar, a boy who, like Farah, lives in Kelafo (this book calls it Kallafo), in Ogaden. Askar’s mother died giving birth to him, on her own, and the pair was found by a servant, Misra, who rescued Askar. He is brought up by Askar, who is of Ethiopian origin and, while this is not an issue for him, it does become an issue for Misra and others. Askar and Misra are very close indeed and she brings him up like her own child and he clings to her. This close relationship is key to the first part of the book. However, when a bit older, Askar goes off to Mogadishu to live with his uncle and his uncle’s wife and he becomes more obsessed with the war. However, Misra turns up in Mogadishu, having been driven out of Ogaden, while Askar is wondering whether to go to university or join the liberation fighters. Identity, both national and personal, are the key themes of this book, as Askar tries to find who he is.

Nuruddin Farah: Close Sesame

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The latest addition to my website is Nuruddin Farah‘s Close Sesame. While we are again dealing with opposition to the Somalia dictatorship, this one is slightly different from many of his others, in that the main character is not a Somali expatriate returned home. The story centres around Deeriye. He is now an elderly man, living with his son, Mursal. He had been appointed to be head of his clan when very young and almost immediately faced his first problem The Italian colonisers were looking for a man who had killed an Italian officer, apparently in self-defence. They have learned that Deeriye’s clan is sheltering him. However, Deeirye refuses to give him up. As punishment, the clan’s cattle are slaughtered and Deriye is sent to prison. He will spend twelve years of his life in prison, both before and after independence. However, he has always espoused non-violence. However, he now learns that Mursal, and three other young men, including Mahad, son of the man who killed the Italian and nephew of Rooble, Deeriye’s best friend, are planning some sort of violent attack. He initially opposed any sort of violence but gradually changes his views when faced with the reality of the situation. The history worth studying is one of resistance, not capitulation and all great men have one thing in common: the shaping force of their lives has been resistance is a phrase Mursal quotes back at him having learned it from his father. It covers much of the same ground as his previous novels but Deeriye’s doubts and soul-searching certainly make it one of Farah’s more interesting novels.

Nuruddin Farah: Sardines

Sardines

The latest addition to my website is Nuruddin Farah‘s Sardines. This is similar to many of his other novels in that we have a brave person, in this case a woman called Medina, who stands up to the brutal repression from the General/President, the tribal system and the old-fashioned and repressive Islamic law. She is well-educated and was a journalist, till she was thrown off her paper and banned by the government from publishing any of her writing, for her criticisms of the President. She lives with her husband, a weak man who called Samater who is appointed Minister of Construction. They have an eight-year old daughter, Ubax, for whom Medina is now translating some of the classics of world literature into Somali. His mother, Idil, an old-fashioned and dominating woman, also lives with them. When Idil wants Ubax circumcised, Medina and Ubax move out, though the house belongs to Medina and not her husband and live in a house belonging to her brother who is abroad. Apart from a couple of plot elements – Medina’s best friend, Sagal, who is a champion swimmer and, if she qualifies for a championship in Budapest, plans to defect, and the Media-Samater relationship – the book is somewhat bitty. Inevitably we see the horrors of life in Somalia, particularly the arbitrary repression of the government, and the opposition to it, which is invariably repressed by the government. However, this is not one of Farah’s best.

Nuruddin Farah: Sweet and Sour Milk

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The latest addition to my website is Nuruddin Farah‘s Sweet and Sour Milk, another grim tale from Somalia. Soyaan is feeling decidedly unwell and, by the end of the chapter, is dead. Has he been poisoned and, if so, by whom? The family, not wishing to make a fuss and also because Muslims bury their dead quickly, do not have an autopsy. His twin brother, Loyaan, aware of Soyaan’s role in government, finds out that Soyaan had another side to his life, indeed, more than one side. Firstly, he had a long-standing relationship with Margaritta, a half-Somali, half-Italian woman, by whom he had a son, Marco. Secondly he seems to have been very much involved in the opposition to a man known as the President, but clearly based on General Mohamed Siad Barre. However, the regime seems to honour Soyaan as a hero of the revolution, naming a street after him and writing a tribute to him in the government newspaper, with the help of Keynaan, Soyaaan’s and Loyaan’s somewhat scurrilous father. The more Loyaan investigates, meeting not only Margaritta but various people who may or may not have been involved with Soyaan in the opposition, the more he is drawn into this opposition himself and the more he learns about the nasty side of the Somali regime, including arbitrary arrest, not documented, torture and vicious repression. Farah’s novels invariably paint a grim picture of his country and this one is no different but, as always, he tells his story well.

Nuruddin Farah: Crossbones

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The latest addition to my website is Nuruddin Farah‘s Crossbones, the third book in his trilogy about Somalia at the beginning of this century and the the efforts of expatriate Somalis visiting the country to improve things. This one sees three visitors – Jeebleh, who visited ten years previously in the first novel in the trilogy, Malik, his son-in-law, who has never been to Somalia before but who is a journalist and plans to write about the current situation and Ahl, Malik’s elder brother, who is looking for his sixteen year old stepson, who has become a jihadist. The situation in Somalia has changed, with the Islamic Courts Union in power, aided by their aggresive youth wing, Shabaab. Women have to wear the veil and can be punished if they are inappropriately dressed. Ahl heads out to Puntland to try and track down his stepson, with the help of some decidedly unpleasant people, while Malik risks the wrath of Shabaab, who have made a habit of killing Western journalists, by writing about what is going on in Somalia. This book is particularly interesting, as it shows what is happening in Somalia outside Mogadishu, it gives a rationale or even a justification for their piracy and it shows some recent developments in Somalia, some positive but many not. Indeed, the background on Somalia is perhaps more interesting than the plot itself.

Nuruddin Farah: Knots

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The latest addition to my website is Nuruddin Farah‘s Knots, the second in a trilogy of novels about expatriate Somalis visiting Somalia during the early part of this century, when the situation was really grim. This one follows Cambara, a Somali woman who is living in Canada. She married an expatriate Somali, Wardi, who married her both to get papers to live in Canada and to get hold of some her money. They have a son but he drowns when Wardi, who was meant to be watching him, is busy having sex with a colleague. This is one of the reasons for her visit to Somalia. Others are revealed during the course of the book, including an attempt to recover a property formerly owned by her parents and a guilty feeling that she had done nothing for her home country since she emigrated. She stays with Zaak, a cousin, who had been brought up with her by her mother and with whom she had contracted a false marriage (at her mother’s instigation) in order to get him into Canada. He has now returned to Mogadishu and the pair do not get on. She finds that the property is now occupied by a minor warlord but this does not deter Cambara, even though the role of women is now following a more fundamentalist model in Somalia. She gets involved with a women’s group and they, together with a couple of female Somalia friends back in Canada, try to make a difference, both as regards recovery of the property and helping the downtrodden in Somalia, mainly though certainly not only women. The idea that women are the only ones that can make a difference in that situation is attractive but the book overall seems somewhat unconvincing.

Nuruddin Farah: Links

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The latest addition to my website is Nuruddin Farah‘s Links, the first book in a trilogy about the disastrous situation in Somalia, at the beginning of the 21st century. The basic story line in all three books is the arrival in Mogadishu of one or more expatriate Somalis, who had been living in Canada, coming either to investigate the situation, or with some sort of agenda, which we gradually learn during the course of events. In this book, Jeebleh arrives in war-torn Mogadishu, from Canada. He had been brought up by his mother who, at the same time, helped bring up Bile and Caloosha, two half-brothers. Both Jeebleh and Bile had been imprisoned during the dictatorship, possibly at the instigation of Caloosha. Jeebleh had been unexpectedly released and sent into exile. Bile, a doctor, had remained in prison till the end of the dictatorship, when all prisoners had been freed. He has since opened a refuge for war orphans but continues to have health issues from his time in prison. Caloosha is now a minor warlord. Shortly before Jeebleh’s arrival, Raasta, Bile’s charismatic niece, had been kidnapped. Jeebleh, we learn, is in Mogadishu to locate his mother’s grave and to honour her, and to find her housekeeper, who seems to have disappeared. He reluctantly elicits Caloosha’s help. Inevitably, he gets involved in tracking down Raasta. Farah gives us a very detailed portrait of the chaos in Mogadishu, the background to the war and the ongoing civil war, happy to attribute blame to all the key players, while showing that the way out is positive action by ordinary people.

Nadifa Mohamed: Black Mamba Boy

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The latest addition to my website is Nadifa Mohamed‘s Black Mamba Boy. Mohamed is one of the Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, though she is Somali and this novel is very much a Somali novel. It tells the story of her grandfather, Jama Mohamed, and his difficult but adventurous life growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. Unable to find work, his father leaves what was then British Somaliland and goes to Sudan. When he does not return for a while, his mother takes him to Aden where she works long hours in a coffee factory and he roams the streets. He returns to Hargeisa but is not happy there and, one day, he leaves his relatives and sets out for Sudan to find his father, despite not knowing where Sudan is or how far and where exactly his father is. He has a difficult journey but is often aided by other Somalis who seems to be scattered all over East Africa. Things do not go well for him and he gets caught up in the Italian-British battles in World War II and is nearly killed. After the war, he seems to be doing well but things fall apart again and he is again off on his travels, heading to Palestine, Egypt and even England. He leads a very adventurous life and Mohamed tells her tale well of all his adventures and the political background to what is happening at that time.