To novelist Nuruddin Farah, his homeland city is not the ‘most dangerous in the world;’ it’s the prettiest and most colourful — once you’ve tasted its waters, you will always go back.
"Once you have tasted the water of Mogadishu, you will always go back,” the Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah told me during his recent visit to Nairobi en route to Somalia’s war-torn capital.
Mogadishu has often been described as the most dangerous city in the world — “the world capital of things-gone-completely-to-hell,” as author Mark Bowden put it.
But I knew what Farah meant. Since I visited Mogadishu last year, I have yearned to go back.
The city never quite leaves you; I suppose because it is impossible for those who have lived there, or even visited briefly, to reconcile the horror and devastation of its recent history with its glorious past.
When former residents speak of Mogadishu, one can hear a longing in their voices for a city that once held so much promise.
In a recent essay, Farah described the city of his youth as being “the prettiest and most colourful” in the world, “a living metropolis with cosmopolitan values.”
Today, once-magnificent buildings that used to house government offices, museums, cinemas and hotels have become shells hosting internally displaced people.
Guttted cathedrals and ancient mosques stand stubbornly in the most desolate and devastated parts of the city.
It is difficult to understand why one of Africa’s most beautiful cities allowed itself to implode. But even amid the rubble, there is a sense of hope — and sometimes even flickers of joy — in the faces of the women, men and children who struggle to survive in the city against all odds.
Farah has been going back to Mogadishu every two years since 1996.
Forced into exile by the Siad Barre regime in 1976 after the publication of his novel ‘A Naked Needle’, the 66-year-old novelist has lived and taught in Uganda, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Sudan, India, Nigeria, the Gambia and the US.
He blames Barre, the military dictator who ruled from 1969 to 1991, for much of the havoc that was unleashed in his country.
“Somalia was a badly written play, and Barre was its author,” he once wrote.
The novelist divides his time between Minneapolis, US, where he holds the Winton chair in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota, and Cape Town, South Africa.
In 1998, he became the first African to win the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, a biennial award that is considered by some to be second only to the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In a 2004 interview with the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, Farah said that he tries to view Mogadishu as the principal character in his novels, and the people living in it or visiting it as secondary characters.
His latest book ‘Crossbones’, which was published last year, has been described as “a tense and moving portrait of people struggling to sustain their individuality and fragile connections in the face of zealotry, corruption and civil war.”
Farah has often said that his writing is an attempt to “keep my country alive by writing about it.”
Unlike many famous authors, Farah does not carry around him an air of arrogance or self-importance.
When I contacted him, he appeared surprised that I would even want to interview him, but promptly agreed to meet me at the Serena Hotel in Nairobi, where he was meeting friends.
He appeared older and frailer than I had imagined, and was carrying with him Michael Ondaatje’s book ‘Running in the Family’, which he said keeps him company when he is “sitting in Nairobi’s dreadful traffic.”
(The other authors he likes to read are William Faulkner and Samuel Becket.) He also has a wry sense of humour.
When asked if he was a Muslim, he said: “I don’t know which heaven is better, the Muslim one or the Christian one — once I know that, I’ll decide.”
Appiah describes Farah as a “feminist novelist in a part of the world where that’s almost unknown among male writers.”
Indeed, the female characters in his novels are both strong and independent.
Gifts for example, tells the story of a Somali nurse struggling to care for her family in the face of a famine.
His first novel, ‘From a Crooked Rib’, is about a nomad girl who flees an arranged marriage to a much older man.
Farah, who has been married twice and has three children, believes that his nation’s salvation lies in women and that the prevalence of violence against women in Somali society is just a symptom of the violence that grips his homeland.
He, however, has no time for the writings of the other famous “feminist” Somali author, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has gained notoriety in the West for denouncing Islam and her Somali roots.
He thinks that Ali is not just ill-informed about Somalia and Islam, but about Africa as a whole. “She has no understanding of the complexities that make up Somali society,” he says.
He is convinced that inter-clan fighting in Somalia is not so much about blood ties, but about gaining access to economic resources.
The warlords who took control of Mogadishu in the early 1990s were not defending their clans, he says, but were trying to profit from the chaos, a situation that has continued for the past 20 years.
“You cannot analyse Somali politics through the prism of blood,” he says. “The warlords were not representing their clans. They were fighting for economic power.”
Farah believes that Mogadishu’s demise began with the arrival of pillaging pastoralists who invaded the city at the start of the civil war and proceeded to demolish it.
He has described pastoralist Somalis as being “urbophobics” by nature, who view urban dwellers with hostility, and who have little appreciation for city life.
“Many Somalis are not comfortable with being urban,” he says. “They are not cosmopolitan.”
His views could be refuted by the many Somalis who now live in large cosmopolitan cities such as London, Toronto and even Nairobi.
Somalis — even those who come from nomadic cultures — adapt quickly to urban life, as anyone who has visited Nairobi’s Eastleigh area will attest.
But even in Eastleigh there are traces of nomadic yearnings. One of Eastleigh’s most famous hotels is called Nomad and camel milk and meat are served in many restaurants in the area.
The novelist, who speaks fluent Somali, Amharic, Italian, Arabic and English, is also an ardent critic of the aid industry, which he says has created a culture of dependency in Somalia and inhibited local initiatives.
His novel Gifts is about a woman who is determined to be independent and self-reliant, even as the world around her crumbles.
“A gift, which can also be interpreted as aid, is in a sense a type of poison, says Farah. “It destroys the receiver.”
Farah says he learnt about the debilitating and dehumanising impact of food aid when he was living in the Gambia in the late 1970s.
US aid in the form of long-grain rice was not just used by the president to buy votes, but also suppressed local rice production.
It is the same story in Somalia. What’s worse, he says, much of the aid in Somalia is controlled by a “mafia” that has little contact with the people who are supposed to be its beneficiaries.
He also thinks that the international community’s recent attempts to bring about stability in his war-torn nation may not be as altruistic as they appear.
The British, he feels, are more interested in Somalia’s untapped oil reserves than its prosperity.
Other countries such as Kenya have benefited from the chaos in Somalia by hosting most of the aid agencies that have projects in that country.
“But Kenya is now realising that lack of peace in Somalia is in the long run harmful to its and the region’s economy,” says Farah.
Farah has in the past questioned the disastrous US intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s that culminated in the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident — the name used to describe the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu between forces of the US, supported by the United Nation’s Operation in Somalia and Somali militia fighters loyal to the self-proclaimed president-to-be Mohamed Farrah Aidid — and abhors the media spectacle that his country’s people have become, especially when famine is declared.
His novels could be considered an antidote to the predominant images of “faces empty of everything but the pains of starvation,” that are aired and published in the Western media.
He once said that he writes “in order to provide an alternative to the propaganda put out by the Somali state and to the clichés offered in the Western media.”
But Farah remains misunderstood both in the West and in his homeland.
Many Americans have accused him of ingratitude and some Somalis have criticised him for portraying Somali society as one that oppresses women.
But Farah insists that his novels show the side of Somalia that few want to admit exists. The characters in many of his novels are full of contradictions, often oscillating between being both powerful and vulnerable, rebellious and submissive.
Many of the characters are psychologically fragmented, with several identities which they display when the situation demands it.
The author says this schizophrenic existence is a neo-colonial condition and a survival strategy prevalent among once-colonised people in Africa and elsewhere who are unsure of who they are because they are trapped in a cultural narrative that does not belong to them.
Neo-colonial subjects cannot tell their own stories because they have been repeatedly told that these stories are not worth telling or remembering.
“They do not believe in their own truth so they adopt other personas,” he says. “And because they have not fully owned their own truth, they become self-destructive.”
Farah’s stories try to resurrect this truth, a truth that may ultimately liberate and heal his wounded homeland.
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* Rasna Warah is a writer and columnist with the Daily Nation. She is also the organiser of a photo exhibition on Mogadishu’s past and present that will be shown in June at the Alliance Française in Nairobi. E-mail: [email protected]. This article was first published by The EastAfrican.
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