The Voice of Somalia
Nuruddin Farah considers himself the voice of Somalia. The second volume of his trilogy, "Knots" has just been published in Germany. Farah sits relaxed and focused in a huge armchair in his hotel room overlooking the Spree in Berlin."Somalis," he says, "tend to notice and know each other physically." "Somaliness" is what he calls the common language and culture and the nearly incestuous feeling of togetherness which defies decades of civil war. "Somalis are so close to each other … the closest to each other are the tongue and the teeth and even they fight." Farah speaks emphatically. He is a man with a mission. Regarded as a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, he invokes his country, writes it into being.
Given this kaleidoscopically failed and politically splintered country, these are images of unity: Somalia is a mistress in a coma. Somalia is a sick country. It suffers from a kind of pubescent confusion, according to Farah it is not a mature nation, it is a country experiencing a ritual of growing up. "If we’ve had a civil war in the last 18 or 20 years, there is nothing unique about it. We’ ve gone through it so that the end of this rite de passage you would expect to come to a situation where people would live tolerating one another." He is not worried about the nascent growth of Islamism in his country; in fact, he considers the threat overcome. He compares the process in the war-ridden country to the history of Europe and its religious wars. Ultimately: the French, Italians and Brits, according to Farah, had forced their Christian culture upon the Somalis: "For 100 years therefore, Islam was pushed aside, Somali culture was pushed aside and the day was bound to come when people would say that we want to try and have a harmony between our culture and our politics. In Somali we used to say: One sick person, a hundred doctors. Now – Somali society was sick, sick after secularism, sick after Italian colonialism, sick you know – so they needed some medicine." People have had enough of the Islamists now, he says. Just like the people of Iran have had enough: "The religious fanatics are not interested in building, they want power and destruction. How are the Islamists going to build a state if they have no structure? What Somalia needs is quite simple: electricity, schools, running water, banks that are open, insurance – everything has to work. And ultimately, only the Somalis themselves are able to resolve their crisis."
In "Links" and "Knots", the first two novels of his trilogy, Farah strikingly describes what life looks like in a civil war-torn country where even the most basic civil structures don’t work. The historical developments serve as a foil for the country sickened by civil war. While "Links" depicts the situation before 1996, during which two warlords ruled Somalia, "Knots" focuses on the ravaged country after 1996. Countless warlords have divided Somalia between them. The Union of Islamic Courts emerges and begins to take hold of the people. Farah puts his finger into the wounds. Jebleeh, the protagonist of his first novel, has a keen sense of the situation after having lived for years in exile before returning to Somalia. Through his eyes, Farah achieves a journalist’s objective view. Not only of a country deprived of infrastructure and the devastation it has caused, but of the war profiteers and the machinery that keeps it going: "In Links for example you are actually told that the fighting literally starts at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. It used to start at 4 o clock in the afternoon when the shopping is closed. The shopkeepers would close their shops and then they would say: ‘Ok, you can go on with your business of fighting.’ The businessmen who close their shops to allow the warlords and their militias to fight against each other were the very ones who were funding the fighting. When you think about drug dealing and drug fighting – it’s also economics."
Farah slips a bit awkwardly into a woman’s skin in "Knots." Much like Jebleeh, the protagonist of Farah’s earlier novel, affluent Cambara returns to Somalia after years of living in exile. Like him, she also experiences an existential moment while living abroad which toughens her and throws her into the middle of the civil war. Cambara’s 10-year-old son drowns in a swimming pool while her husband enjoys a "tumble" with his mistress. Cambara, says Farah, "comes back to Somalia probably wanting to train herself so that she would go back and take revenge." She is a strong woman, almost too strong. But unlike Jebleeh, her gaze is internalized. Images of the country recede to the background, Cambara drifts from the center of action into inner exile, and into her personal history. In Somalia she turns out to be a woman of action who declares war on squalor and neglect. She cleans houses, feeds or converts the militiamen and adopts war orphans. Like a spider, she begins to track down kindred spirits and creates a web of contacts in the foreign land. A women´s network eventually helps her realize her plan, which is as courageous as it is insane, to wrest her family’s villa from the hands of a small warlord. But that´s not all. She brings a piece of culture back to the country with a stage play. It’s small steps that change the country, steps taken by single unflinching individuals.
"Both, Jebleeh and Cambara," says Farah, "are successful in their own ways. Now success or failure in a civil war context depends very much on the help that you get from others. In war situations, people build networks and help each other. If you don’t have somebody to help you, you can’t survive even a day. And the reason is the way civil wars work is that you have something, I have something. We need each other to protect each other, you have the food I have the oil. You have something I don’t have and we continue supporting each other. The women help Cambara because they see her committed to peace. Women want to take the gun out of politics, whereas men tend to glorify the gun. Jebleeh, on the other hand, slowly gets used to carrying a weapon. It is in the blood of men," he muses, "to take revenge. … Slowly, slowly, slowly Jebleeh accepts to hold the gun. Whereas Cambara in terms of violence is absolutely naïve. So naïve that she thinks that a pen knife you know a Swiss knife would help her." His soft voice resonates. He is totally in his element. "You know, women’s attempt at peace is not always credible. You have to be able to protect yourself with a gun and yet sue for peace." Indeed, Jebleeh hires a contract killer to get rid of a warlord, while the woman Cambara has a group of militias behind her who protect her newly recaptured property.
It is the networks that make it possible for the exiles in their home country to realize their personal ambitions. There are no easy solutions. Quite naturally, they use the structures that they find. The structures of the civil war. Healing comes from within. "Links" and "Knots" are part of the game called "Links, Knots and Crosses”, reveals Farah.
Farah is writing the last volume of his trilogy. The man who exiled Somalis have described as their "god" is the literary creator of a country that would exist just a bit less without him. But the author allows his country time, above all. If we believe him it’s stuck in post-colonial puberty. Still.
From an interview of the author with Nuruddin Farah in December 2009.
Born in 1945 in Baidoa, Somalia, Nuruddin Farah was sentenced to death in absentia for political reasons in 1976. After spending many years in exile in Africa, Europe and the USA, he now lives in Cape Town. He views himself as a world citizen forced into a nomadic life yet, despite the boundaries he has crossed, his work remains focused on Somalia, his politically fragmented homeland. His diverse oeuvre tells the world stories about Somalia and Somalia stories about the world. Farah’s writing always explores pressing social issues in powerful prose, fantasies and narratives, motivated by profound insights which, in a masterful and inspiring way, gradually reveal themselves between the worlds and the texts. As a global thinker in a post-modern world, he addresses controversial and painful topics.
Farah has written numerous novels and plays, including the trilogies “Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship” and “Blood in the Sun”. His works have been translated into 17 languages. “Knots”, his latest novel, is due out in German in November. Nuruddin Farah has received many international awards for his works including the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
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