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.

Farah was known in his earlier books for the strong women he had at their center; indeed, the second book of the current trilogy, Knots, turns upon a woman—a six-foot-tall actress—who finds a community of solidarity and puts on a play in the middle of the rubble. The female characters in Crossbones are strident and strong, but they have been condemned to wearing “body tents” by the Islamic zealots and are always at the periphery of things in a world that is all testosterone and posturing. In his 1986 novel, Maps, Farah wrote, “The soul is a woman—victimized, sinned against, abused”; by now, there’s no talk of a soul, and concerns about the plight of women are as vanished as the elegant art-house cinemas where old men remember watching Vittorio de Sica’s humanist films in the days of their youth.

Farah’s gift in describing his country comes from his ability to register the intimate details of everyday life even as he suggests the outlines of a parable. Thus we see profiteers carrying around Body Shop bags and yet, in the trilogy’s first volume, we read of a saintly “miracle child” who has been abducted and whose name means “hope.” In that earlier book, the author even managed to knit his interest in family relationships together with his portrait of civil war, by showing how clan loyalties intensify and complicate the ever-shifting conflict. It was Bile’s villainous half-brother who once condemned Bile and Jeebleh to years in jail and further plunges the country into a Jacobean wasteland in which 1.5 million, by Farah’s account, wander around, trying to find a reason to keep going.

In Crossbones we see jihadists texting one another as they execute their missions; one former fighter now fixes computers. Malik, in fact, has hardly arrived—he’s still on the airport road—when his laptop is confiscated at gunpoint by BigBeard, who runs his jihadist activities out of a computer shop in the central market. Though the machine is returned a few hours later, the radical fringe has deleted all files critical of the Islamic courts, inserted a “vicious virus,” and erased “the photo of a nude girl serving as a screen saver” (a snapshot of Malik’s one-year-old daughter at a swimming pool).

Farah’s rage at such stupidities is hard to miss—one self-styled Islamic devotee claims that even to wear seat belts is to defy Allah’s will—but his larger point seems to be that of the central woman in the trilogy: “A plague on both their houses.” Where once he wrote out of an exile’s longing to recreate the land he’s lost, now he seems to be summoning the outrage of a witness. In one unsparing scene, Ahl goes to the little village of Guri-Maroodi to interview a human trafficker who transports Somalis and others from across East Africa to Yemen, from where they hope to steal into Europe or Saudi Arabia (where there are jobs). The man, who goes by “No-Name,” fills his empty boats on the way back with Yemeni and Pakistani jihadists eager to join the fight in Somalia.

The crime lord turns out to be “almost a midget,” sitting in a high chair in a villa by the sea once owned by a French company looking for oil; such traffickers throw three quarters of their passengers overboard, we’re told, so as not to have their boats confiscated. Anyone who’s been to southern Yemen—the most devastated area I’ve seen—can understand how desperate Africans must be if they are trying to flee into it.

Elsewhere we meet another “midget”-like character who wears many hats for the pirates, gathering intelligence from ship brokers, marine insurance brokers, and security officials, and communicating with London on secure satellite phones. The US is only a shadowy presence for most people in Somalia—the local word amerikaan means weird, we read in Links—but Farah tells us, in the corners of his narrative, about a woman who lost her hearing thanks to a US helicopter raid on her district when she was a baby. A Kurdish boy from Minneapolis, having seen an impatient Marine blow away his father, his uncle, and his grandparents at a roadblock in Iraq, has returned to that country as a suicide bomber.

At his best Farah, while taking us into Somali houses and minds not easily accessible to us, implies that the larger pattern of what he is describing could be happening in many parts of the developing world. The first of his trilogies was entitled “Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship,” and his bullet-line (and bulletin-like) one-word titles have always carried a suggestion of allegory, heightened here by the mythic names the thugs go by—TheSheikh, TheOtherSheikh, TruthTeller.

With the unillusioned eye of someone from the neighborhood, he sees that most of the fighting we witness is just a matter of petty personal rivalries, turf wars, or momentary impulses, as if an inner city were blown up to the size of a nation. The “skinny, hungry-looking” local boys who sign up with the pirates or the jihadists have no interest in nationalism or Islamic world domination; they’re just longing to eat. Like fighters in Afghanistan, they will join the army one day if it’s offering the best salary, the army’s enemies the next.

The artful structuring of the story intensifies this sense of being caught in a very small world. The woman whom YoungThing passes in the opening scene, for example, is the trilogy’s central female character; the boy’s older sister (a flight attendant) and his older brother (a former pirate) will play parts in this drama, too. For all our grandiloquent ideas about it, Somalia is just a small town, Farah suggests, riven with trifling, if deadly resentments.

Where Farah is weakest in this book is in the long scenes in which his more cosmopolitan characters either bemoan the anarchy around them or try to explain away what seems as senseless and arbitrary as a restless trigger finger. He is obliged, of course, to try to fill his reader in on an insanely intricate mess of petty differences, but the result is often that his characters sound as heavy-handed as people declaiming from an Associated Press report.

“Do you think then, Bile, that Cicero’s often repeated description of pirates as the ‘enemy of humanity’ does not necessarily tell the whole story, when it comes to the Somalis locally labeled as the nation’s coast guard?” Jeebleh suddenly says at one point. “Bosaso’s current disorderliness has as much to do with the beleaguered nature of a city in a siege,” a qaat addict helpfully volunteers, “as it does with the undeveloped state of the economy, the overwhelming poverty, and the dysfunctionality of the autonomous state.” This tendency toward textbook commentary is apparent throughout the trilogy—and the private nature of some of the references makes Crossbones most powerful if read after the other two books—but it is especially pronounced here, where the bifurcated plot makes for a narrative less single-pointed and more diffuse than in Links, the most riveting book in the series.

Immediately after meeting the human trafficker—and still anxiously looking for his stepson—Ahl starts reciting Eliot’s Four Quartets to himself, having already, in the previous ten pages, thought of a line from Thurber and one he thinks may come from Wallace Stevens. It’s not always clear how much Farah means to be satirizing his exiles for their abstract temporizing, but the effect is to underline their impotence in this violent mayhem. His main character here is really Somalia, and his main interest the consequences of a place so wrecked that most of its young people have never known a day of peace or school or settled home life.

Where the talk is most protracted, and sometimes repetitive, is when it comes to piracy, though that is also where Farah offers us the freshest perspective. To most Somalis, he tells us, their native “sea bandits” are not the agents of predation so much as its victims. More than one character maintains that as many as seven hundred illegal foreign vessels sailed into Somali waters—from Europe, Russia, Korea, Japan—plundering the country’s resources, leaving nuclear and chemical waste, and depriving as many as seven thousand fishermen of their jobs. In response (the argument runs), the locals formed an impromptu coast guard, in the absence of a central government, to try to repel the intruders and their guns.*

Most of the ransoms these vigilantes collect stay in London, a privateer complains, and 90 percent goes to intermediaries; that’s why the pirates are reduced to filching cell phones, watches, and food from their hostages. Many Somali men don’t even know how to swim. We meet one young character here whose unhappy fate it has been to join the pirates because of all the extravagant stories of riches and parties he’s heard on the BBC Somali Service; he soon gives up the trade because selling rugs seems a better way of supporting himself.

This may not be how everyone sees it, but it reminds us of what Farah most usefully provides: putting a human face on the dry reports we may read in the Times, and giving them poignancy and irony. One of the most sobering moments in his novel comes when a young Somali boy from Minneapolis, who’s flown over to be a liberator and ended up in “bomb-construction training,” suddenly recalls that one of his classmates was from “Jefferson High,” another from “Roosevelt.”

In 1993 I checked into the Ghion Hotel in Addis Ababa, just after Christmas, as a tourist, only to be told—everyone was talking about it—that the Somali warlord Mohamed Aidid was in the same second-tier hotel, not far from the swimming pool. Less than three months earlier, Aidid had apparently been behind the “Black Hawk Down” humiliation of US troops, and was known as “the most wanted man in the world”; yet no one seemed surprised that he had taken flight to Somalia’s neighbor, and a “spokesman” was now outside his room, ready to tell anyone who stopped by about the fugitive’s hopes and plans.

That moment was a bracing reminder of just what Farah suggests on every page of his visceral, often frustrated novel: that most of the events that we, far away, describe as “Islamicization” or “globalization” or a “clash of civilizations” come down, on the ground, to starving boys and ruthless warlords, many of them not five feet tall. Ideology can be the luxury of the privileged. All the locals want in Farah’s Somalia are food, shelter, and peace—and it seems a safe bet that they will be denied every one of them.