How to Survive in Somalia

How ironic that just as the famine has continued to worsen in Somalia and the West has responded in its usual tepid way, Nuruddin Farah has published a new novel, perhaps the major work of his impressive career.  During his early years as a writer, Farah had to live in exile.  The country’s thuggish president, Mohammed Siad Barre (1969-1991), didn’t appreciate any criticism.  Only after Barre was no longer in power could the writer return to his beloved country, though ever since then Somalia has generally been called a failed state because of a continual state of civil war.  The Islamist Al-Shabaab and the Transitional Federal Government, known as the Courts, fight it out, with periodic threats of war with its neighbor, Ethiopia.

Crossbones is set to events of the last few years, well after the botched American invasion of Mogadiscio (1992).  For further context, it is worth quoting two paragraphs from an op-ed piece (“A New Famine, Born of the Old”) Farah published in The Washington Post (July 31st):  “After the United States left Somalia, the rest of the world stood by, leaving the warlords to profit from their criminality.  Al-Qaeda strengthened its presence in the country.  Foreign vessels entered Somalia waters and engaged in illegal fishing, which caused piracy to balloon into an ugly reality.  Somalia lived on mortgaged time, leased out to criminals of one sort or another, an ideal world for terrorists to flourish.

“If we had had foresight and acted upon it; if the Marines had disarmed the warlords; if the U.N. Security Council had issued arrest warrants for the warlords early on, stopping them from prolonging the failure of the state; if the Security Council had dealt with the warlords—who had denied millions of starving people access to food—decisively, in the same way it dealt with the genocidal regimes in Serbia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan, then al-Qaeda would not have established a secure base from which to plan terrorist attacks.  Our country would not have been hamstrung by the enormity of our problem, nor would it have become the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.”

If—that mysterious, unfathomable, word for most Americans.

Interestingly, the major characters in Crossbones are Somali Americans, who—in spite of the menacing issues of safety—return to the country of their birth to visit family and friends. Malik has an added reason, since he is a successful journalist who has covered numerous troubled spots around in world.  He is accompanied by his father-in-law, Jeebleh, at the time of the recent Ethiopian invasion. The two of them fly into Mogadiscio, fully aware of the risk Malik is making as a practicing journalist.  Then there’s Malik’s brother, Ahl, who flies into Puntland, theoretically the safest part of the “country,” in search of his stepson, Taxliil.  Still a teenager, the boy was recruited in Minnesota by a radical imam and is suspected of undergoing training as a suicide bomber.

Those are the American characters, all of Somalia background, who Farah convincingly employs to explore day-to-day issues of survival in a failed state: no central government but groups fighting one another and—for too many of his Somali  characters—content with the dicey situation because they are free to do what they want, without paying taxes, or beholden to anyone.  There are also the riff-raff who have fled a number countries because of their unsavory pasts.  Safety is, obviously, a major issue, and it is Farah’s description of the menacing environment that is so spooky and unsettling in what quickly becomes a very tense story.  Here, for example, the airport in Mogadiscio, as Malik and Jeebleh arrive: “A rope is strung across the middle of the hall, separating arrivals and departures.  In the departures area, some fifty or so cheap plastic chairs are clustered in the corner, presumably for the use of passengers waiting to board their flights.  In the arrivals area, a disorderly queue is forming as the first passengers scramble to clear the formalities.  With no luggage carousels or carts, no trained personnel at Immigration and Customs, there is no knowing how things might pan out, no knowing what these robed, bearded men might or might not do.” Or whom to trust about entering the country.

Leaving the airport, Jeebleh thinks, “One loses one’s sense of direction in a city that has suffered civil war savageries….” At night, there are the eerie sounds of American drones overhead, of explosions in the distance.  As one of his friends tells him, “The city has undergone many changes, in the residents it attracts and in the services it renders or doesn’t render anymore.” The narrator observes, “Here, a set of dirt alleys leading in a maze of dead ends.  There, hummocks of rubble accumulated over the years through the neglect and lack of civic maintenance; kiosks, mere shacks, built bang in the center of what was once a main thoroughfare, now totally blocked.  ‘How this city could do with the return of law and order in the shape of a functioning state!’”

Mysterious “repair” men appear in hotel rooms, though they seem to have no connection to the people managing the hotels.  Much of the city closes down each afternoon as men take off for a few hours to chew qaat.  The people Jeebleh, Malik, and Ahl need to interact with appear to live double lives, professing to be one thing yet hinting at another.  There are shades of Kafka’s world in much of the story, particularly for Ahl, who has to work with pirate funders in order to track down his step-son.  Suddenly, the novel segues into a thriller, and the reader begins to wonder if any of Farah’s characters will be able to return safely to the United States.  Malik’s situation is particularly fearful once he learns that there is a concerted effort to kill foreign journalists, though it is unclear if the threat is from Shabaab, the Courts, or both.  All at once, you discover that you are reading faster and faster to discover which characters are going to escape such a frightful environment.

I have purposely avoided a summary of the plot.  This is appropriate, in part, because of Farah’s many observations about the tensions between Islam and the West, as well as his own pride in a country that much of the world has written off.  Here, for example, one brief observation by a character identified as a professor at Puntland State University about suicide bombers and the men who train them: “”No priest is prepared to pay the ultimate price for Islam through self-sacrifice himself.  Nor do any of them put forward their own children to die for the cause for which they claim to be fighting; only other people’s sons and brothers.”

Crossbones is a treasure trove of wisdom by one of Africa’s greatest writers.  The novel engages simultaneously on several levels, including the stories of those who have never left the country but developed inventive coping skills for dealing with constant turmoil.  Although the setting is Somalia, Nuruddin Farah’s novel is a disturbing slice-of-life about day-to-today living conditions in any number of North African and Middle Eastern countries.  The story has been ripped out of the pages of current news and the lives of real people caught in the cross fires of tribalism, factionalism, fundamentalism and modernity.  Is Farah’s Somalia a picture of the past or the future?

By Nuruddin Farah
Riverhead, 400 pages, $27.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.