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The first time someone attempted to ban Nuruddin Farah from writing he was nine years old. It happened again, twice, when he was 18 and 28. Then at 31, he was threatened with 30 years in jail over his written words, and later with death.
But the epic chronicler of Somalia, now 69 and working on his 13th novel, has never allowed himself to be cowed.
“I believe in the rightness of what I’m doing, and in the wrongness of being stopped,” says Farah, who was kidnapped on his first visit to Somalia in 1996, after more than three decades abroad. He believes hit squads were sent to kill him on two separate occasions when he was living in exile. “There must be a reason why my life has been spared: it is to write.”
Farah has devoted that life of writing to capturing Somalia, by turn his beloved homeland and a place that appals him.
“I write about it to keep it alive,” he explains, in a long conversation down the line from his home in Cape Town. Although he has not lived in Somalia for decades, he returns regularly. “I live Somalia, I eat it, smell the death of it, the dust, daily,” he says.
It is a tortured relationship. In his works, Farah repeatedly takes up the fate and feelings of the vulnerable. A sometime enemy of the state — with which he is obsessed — he reserves special opprobrium not only for Somalia’s politics but also for elements of its culture, especially how it treats women. “Somali society is dictatorial,” he says of the country he has described as “the neurosis from which I write”.
Born in the western Somali town of Baidoa in 1945, the country then combined traditional nomadic living with the modern influence of glamorous Italian colonialists based in the capital, Mogadishu. His father worked as a translator, and was transferred to Ethiopia’s Somali-speaking Ogaden region, where the literate young Farah experienced preferential treatment first-hand. He was sent to school; his immediate younger sister was not: “She became a servant.”
“We had the delicacies of life on a plate,” says Farah of the unearned privileges that were meted out to Somali men. “My mother was a minor poet. If she had not delivered 10 children and raised them, she might have become a great poet. Our clothes would be washed and ironed by women; we were given the best parts of the food, the meat; women ate the leftovers; the list is endless. And yet in a country like Somalia the ruin is caused by men. As a generic male I am part of the problem. I’ve written about it so very often.”
Farah and his brothers left for Mogadishu in 1963. In 1966, he left to study in India, returning three years later, only to leave again for the UK, again to study, in 1974.
His first novel, From a Crooked Rib, written in 1968, criticised that culture he remembered from his early life, in which women were “sold like cattle”. It adopted a female perspective to tell the story of a teenage nomad who flees her family to avoid forced marriage but encounters brutal male control at every turn.
After independence, Somalia began to come apart under socialist dictator Siad Barre, who came to power in 1969 and ruled for 22 years. While the socialist regime banned allusions to “cousin” in favour of “comrade” — an attempt to overturn the importance of clan links that had become central to life in Somalia — it also became increasingly dogmatic and dictatorial.
Initially Farah was supportive, becoming the first author to write a story in the Somali script newly ordained by Siad Barre in 1972.
It was the first time in centuries of oral and written traditions that the Somali language had gained a single alphabet of its own. Farah’s 1973 tale was serialised in a local newspaper until it was banned for being lewd and pointing to social and political hypocrisies that he argued would eventually lay waste to the country. “I was turned into a non-person; my name was no longer publishable,” he tells me.
Farah’s continued criticism of the regime from abroad, such as his 1976 book A Naked Needle, in which he satirised misogynists, earned him his death sentence. Uncowed, over the next few years he unleashed a trilogy dedicated to the pervasive and paranoid security state that developed under the Siad Barre dictatorship.
By 1991, Barre was deposed, but clan warfare, famine and warlords quickly destroyed the country. In the mid-2000s, as civil war raged, jihadis, later allied to al-Qaeda, took over much of Somalia, including the capital. Although they were pushed out of Mogadishu in 2011, they still control much of the countryside and launch regular suicide attacks on the capital.
Farah’s books chart all this horror. In his most recent novel, Hiding in Plain Sight, the apparent hero of the book is blown up before the opening chapter, in a breakneck prologue. “Death in Somalia seldom bothers to announce its arrival,” says a line early on. “In fact, death calls with the arrogance of a guest confident of receiving a warm welcome at any time.”
Instead Farah yearns for his country’s “cosmopolitan” past, when a multitude of ethnic and cultural influences flourished. “My theory is, the greatest casualty of the civil war is that the idea of cosmopolitanism is the one that has died,” he says, adding that most people today belong to “the 13th-century mentality”. “What destroyed Somalia is this clan business.”
Farah argues that in a country otherwise united by the same language and ethnic make-up, clan has become “a trump card” where political representation is allocated according to the “4.5 system”, which divvies up influential and often lucrative roles according to four key clans and a multitude of smaller ones that fall under the “point five”.
“You are dealing with something absolutely non-functional, inoperational. Mogadishu is now a clan family enclave — a den of corruption,” he says. “We are bigger than the 4.5 — it is concretising discrimination and privileging second-rate loudmouths who wouldn’t be able to get a job in any office in anywhere in the world.”
His lead characters have long been bold and articulate intellectuals — regularly women — who lay out Farah’s anguish at the failings of his country. His prodigious output, and this effort to give voice to the voiceless in a land few write about and still fewer understand, has regularly seen him touted as a Nobel literature prize contender.
His next novel will explore Somalis contending with right-wing politics and attitudes as immigrants to Norway, his latest work in a life-long effort to explain Somalia, “a country that is inexplicable”.