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Somalia: Diving into the Wreck


by Nuruddin Farah
Penguin, 385 pp., $16.00 (paper)
Jehad Nga/The New York Times/Redux
Pirate militiamen at a port in Hobyo, Somalia, August 2010

Nuruddin Farah’s eleventh novel begins with what quickly comes to seem a grimly comic scene. A hungry teenager, four and a half feet tall, but with “the face of an old man”—we know him only as “YoungThing”—is walking through a rundown district in Somalia’s capital, “hoisting a carryall bigger and heavier than he is” and trying to find the house that his jihadist bosses have told him to “consecrate” (or confiscate, as we would put it). Already having failed to make the grade as a suicide bomber, the luckless boy has now been deputed to stock a safe house with arms.

He passes a woman along the dirt road and, getting the words wrong, asks her where north is; sensing he’s up to no good, she sends him south. He passes two men whom he mistakenly believes to be informants, and one craftily directs him to the house of a business rival. When finally the boy does come into a building he’s meant to prepare as a militants’ stronghold, he walks into an old man, who mistakes him for one of his grandchildren.

Even the most vicious covert missions in a country like Somalia are in the hands, we realize, of blunderers and pathetic ne’er-do-wells who don’t, quite literally, know where they’re going. Yet in Somalia, Farah suggests, absurdist comedy seldom has a happy ending; when the murderers who have sent the boy on his errand find out about his blunders, they’re not inclined to laugh.

Not many novelists have made themselves over to describe their country’s changing conditions as radically as Farah has; only twenty years ago, in the trilogy entitled “Blood in the Sun”—containing the novels Maps, Gifts, and Secrets—he was still writing almost as an anthropologist might, stitching together memories of his childhood in what is now Somalia. Through portraits of family life and mystical dreamscapes he offered us a largely private vision of a land very much rooted in the past (Farah had gone into exile in the mid-1970s, after an early novel antagonized the dictatorship of the time).

Yet after his country began to descend into an unending series of civil wars in 1991, Farah started to return and to give us vivid works of reportage in which an insider’s access to intimate knowledge was placed inside the frame of an outsider’s global perspective. Gone were the leisurely, incantatory paragraphs of the earlier fiction, the mango trees and magical spells, the highly literary evocations of an almost timeless world; in their place came tense, genuinely exciting political thrillers a little in the manner of Robert Stone (though without the metaphysics).

Farah’s recent novels, never more so than the latest, are harrowing reports from a fractured country that looks suicidal when it isn’t murderous. Writing in English, his fifth language, he gives us the kind of informed and grieving accounting of Somalia’s impossibly complex tangle of interests that it’s hard to find in any newspaper. Yet underneath its journalistic urgency, Crossbones is really about the limitations of journalism and of our ideas of progress: few of its characters can see beyond their own small orbits, every identity is slippery, and all explanations seem beside the point.

The calm overviews and confident predictions we might expect from an expert are precisely what two decades of warfare have destroyed: most of the boys we see along Farah’s streets, carrying gas-operated AK-47s, have no clear sense of what or whom they’re fighting for. At one point Farah cites a UN annual report noting that twelve foreign nations are involved in the conflict in this nation of fewer than ten million. The dispiriting import of his most recent novel is that everything even Somalis think about their country is partial, provisional, and probably wrong.

Crossbones begins, just as Links, the first novel in the “Past Imperfect” trilogy, did, with Jeebleh, a Somali expert on Italian literature now teaching in the US, returning to what is always spelled here as “Mogadiscio.” It’s late 2006 now, and the US-sponsored warlords who stepped into the void left by a fugitive government have been routed by other warlords, the Transitional Federal Government is under siege northwest of the capital, and the Union of Islamic Courts is effectively in charge of things, largely through its military wing, Shabaab. These zealots have extended sharia law and paint “Allahu Akbar” on the bazookas they fire into the most populous parts of the city, but the book’s assumption is that their motives are no more God-haunted than were those of earlier militias; their talk of “Allah’s will” is much like the shiny white robes under which they conceal Magnum 55s.

Into this chaos comes Jeebleh, a decade after his previous trip, to visit an old friend, Bile, with whom he studied in Padua (the former’s studies of Dante, we’re made to suspect, prove a far better preparation for these many circles of hell than Bile’s medical training has been). This time, though, Jeebleh is accompanied by his son-in-law Malik, a freelance journalist from New York who, half-Somali (and half Malay-Chinese), has never seen his father’s country before. A few days later, Malik’s older brother, Ahl, a Ph.D. from London now living in Minneapolis, researching all things Somali, flies into the neighboring autonomous state of Puntland to try to find his stepson, one of twenty or so Somali boys from the Twin Cities who have suddenly disappeared and are believed to be working with the “religionists” in the Horn of Africa. As ever, it’s those in the diaspora, with only the faintest knowledge of the motherland, who are the most blindly partisan.

All the books in the 1,100-page trilogy are about exiles returning to be confounded by the savagery and lawlessness of a world in which Dante’s Beatrice would likely be abducted and his Virgil shot. Yet Malik and Ahl are especially at a loss in this realm of shadowy middlemen and shape-shifting profiteers. Strangers approach them, claiming to be journalists or spokesmen for one criminal party or another; even the innocent assume disguises; and everyone’s allegiances are uncertain and shifting at every turn. Every night, unmanned American predator drones fly above the ruins of the city, gathering intelligence (local gossip is convinced) to give to the country’s age-old neighbor and enemy, Ethiopia.

Crossbones is set just as Ethiopian soldiers, in response to reckless provocation from the Islamic courts, move into Somalia right after Christmas, making violence more brutal and random than ever (and allowing both sides to talk opportunistically of a new front in the war between Islam and Christianity). The US hovers behind the scenes, aware that Shabaab claims links with al-Qaeda. Old men send other men’s sons off to their deaths, talking of glorious martyrdom.

Farah is at his strongest here when it comes to action and atmosphere, and as Malik and Ahl conduct interviews with pirates and jihadists, it’s not hard to feel that we’re reading the fruits of the author’s own recent forays into Puntland and Somalia. Now dividing his life between a professorship in Minnesota—home to the largest Somali population in the US—and Cape Town, Farah might be dividing his own experience between the novel’s various protagonists.

The dominant feature of his Somalia is that everything is broken, and everyone is on alert, waiting for the next bomb or rumor to explode; men patrol the streets wielding bullwhips and guns, and remote-controlled roadside devices make every drive to the market even more treacherous. When Ahl flies into Puntland, it’s on a plane with no seat belts—a flight attendant is sobbing beside him—and onto an airstrip with no buildings, and not even a runway. In the background are scenes of constant dispossession and flight: “Everywhere he looks,” Jeebleh sees in a dream,

destitute men, women, and children in near rags wearily trudge by, many of them emaciated, their bellies swollen with undiagnosed illnesses, their eyes hosts to swarms of roaming flies.

Even more than the earlier books in the trilogy, Crossbones is split between the qaat-addicted boys with guns on the streets and the cosmopolitans in their barricaded homes, talking about Dutch piracy in the sixteenth century and thinking of Günter Grass; the desolate impression is that talk and action belong to entirely different realms, and the ones with the guns will always win. Quite a few of the characters we meet have chosen to stay in Somalia though they could live comfortably in Canada or the US; yet the gentle philanthropy of Bile, say, who has set up a place called the Refuge to try to wean Somali boys off guns, has left him almost suicidal. Where dreams in Farah’s earlier books were often of angels or prophecies, here they are of leveled neighborhoods littered with corpses.

The overwhelming impression is of boys taking on parts they’ve seen in Clint Eastwood movies, and dressed in “ill-matched uniforms” many sizes too big for them. The trilogy began with a character called Af-Laawe who “reminded Jeebleh of an actor in a hand-me-down role for which he was ill-suited” and who “has many aliases,” which he changes as others change shirts; here, the Islamic commander we meet most often is one BigBeard, who has “something of the actor about him” and, according to a local, is “a man with more pseudonyms than anyone else I’ve ever known.” The noms de guerre the warlords take on only heighten this sense of borrowed gestures. As soon as the Ethiopians arrive, BigBeard, who had assumed the thick beard and immaculate robes of a devout Muslim, reappears beardless and in a suit.

At its heart this is a story of identity crises large and small; YoungThing speaks for—and anticipates—many of the characters we’ll meet, whether the “rudderless” kids of Somalia or the young men of Minneapolis who dream of “religious heroism” and end up training to become suicide bombers. Malik is presented, not very convincingly, as a veteran of journalistic campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Congo, but he seems a babe in the woods in a country where factions are almost as numerous as people; at one point, the older Somali we come to respect as the great protective spirit of the trilogy is shot, on his way to the mosque, as Malik sleeps. He’s been buried by the time Malik wakes up.

Farah observes all these horrors with a dry and disenchanted eye that has grown more angry and despairing as the trilogy has gone on. “Somalis are in a rich form when holding forth,” we read; “they are in their element when they are spilling blood.” Later, Jeebleh reflects, “Somalis are incestuous by nature, inseparable by temperament, and murderous by inclination.” This vision spreads across the diaspora: even as we read here of a woman raped in a mosque while three imams look on, we also hear of a Somali in the Twin Cities raping a baby-sitter.

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