Salman Rushdie (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Nuruddin Farah,” in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981–1991, Granta Books, 1991, pp. 201–02.

[Rushdie is the author of The Satanic Verses. In the following brief essay, written in 1986, he traces the divisions central to Farah's Maps.]

Here is a starving child, there is a mad dog;...

(The entire section contains 50972 words.)

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SOURCE: “Nuruddin Farah,” in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981–1991, Granta Books, 1991, pp. 201–02.

[Rushdie is the author of The Satanic Verses. In the following brief essay, written in 1986, he traces the divisions central to Farah's Maps.]

Here is a starving child, there is a mad dog; feed her, bomb him … information about Africa reaches us, most of the time, through a series of filters which, by reducing the vast continent to a cluster of emotive slogans, succeed in denying us any sense of complexity, context, truth. But then, as Nuruddin Farah reminds us in his new novel [, Maps,] (his sixth), the West was always rather arbitrary about the names it pinned to Africa: Nigeria was named for an imperialist's mistress, Ethiopia lazily derived from the Greek for ‘a person with a black face’.

For many years Farah, one of the finest of contemporary African novelists, has been bringing us a very different world. His Africa, most particularly his native Somalia, is in revolt against the long hegemony of cartographers and bestowers of names. To be a Somali is to be a people united by a language and divided by maps. Maps is a book about such political divisions, and the wars they cause (the conflict in the Ogaden is central to the story); but what makes it a true and rich work of art is Farah's knowledge that the deepest divisions are those between men and women, and the rifts within the self. Maps charts the chasms of the soul.

An orphaned Somali baby, Askar, is found and raised in the Ogaden village of Kallefo by a non-Somali woman, Misra. The book's first movement—the musical term seems necessary—is a meditation on their relationship. He is a preternaturally wise child, and his growing up is at once mythical and sensual, punctuated by such strange images as the discovery of a man violating a hen. The passion and intimacy of what develops between Askar and Misra culminates in a surreal rite of blood, when the boy, just once, and inexplicably, menstruates.

Later, as a young man in Mogadiscio (its local name, Xamark, the red city, echoes and underlines the importance in the novel of blood), he encounters Misra again. Now she is a woman under a dark cloud, accused of an act of treason that led to 600 people in Kallefo being executed by the Ethiopians. Askar, who is being drawn to the life of a Somali revolutionary fighter, is set at war with himself: will he find her guilty or not? She denies the treason; and, as Askar's uncle points out, ‘throughout history, men have blamed women for the ill luck they themselves have brought on their heads.’ The struggle inside Askar is that ancient struggle, and it is also an echo of the ‘real’ war, and of his own divisions and doubts. The resolution is ambiguous, but Askar does arrive at a certainty of sorts, a characterization of life as sacrifice, as blood.

Around the central narrative, Farah weaves a web of leitmotifs drawn from folk-tales and from dreams; and in the end it is this web in which the novel's strength is seen to reside, as the meaning of names, the remaking of history, meshes with nightmare and myth to form the basis of a new description of the world, and offers us new maps for old.

Simon Gikandi (essay date Autumn 1988)

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SOURCE: “Nuruddin Farah and Postcolonial Textuality,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 4, Autumn, 1988, pp. 753–58.

[Gikandi is a professor of English at the University of Michigan. In the following essay, he discusses how Somali oral tradition and modernism have both influenced Farah's work.]

Nuruddin Farah emerged as an important writer at a time when the African literary tradition had overcome the euphoria of the early days of independence (the late 1950s and early 1960s) but had not fully come to terms with the disenchantment of postcolonial politics in the 1970s. While the primary subject of his novels has consistently been the process by which nationalist euphoria became transformed into a discourse of loss and mourning, Farah's works have never been imprisoned either by the foundational moments of African literature, whose primary concern was the emergence of a form of writing that could will the new African nation into being, or by that fateful historic moment, often represented by events such as the Somali military coup of 1969, when writers and politicians seemed to have parted paths. Locating Farah's works on the cusp between the euphoria and disenchantment that has come to define postcolonial culture in Africa is important for two main reasons. First, while the nationalist generation of African writers was obsessed with the relation between writing and the national imagination, Farah's early novels seem to take this association for granted; his attraction to modernist forms of writing was one way of going beyond the discourse of cultural nationalism and identity. Second, while the literature of disenchantment saw its task as that of rescuing art from the corrupt institutions established and patronized by the state, Farah's early novels were predicated on the belief that whereas art could perhaps act as a form of resistance against political dictatorship, it could not be entirely liberated from the politics of everyday life.

If it has taken long for Farah to be recognized as an important modern writer, this is perhaps because his novels seem to want to perform an impossible task: that of bringing the tradition of nationalist literature into a productive confrontation with the art of postcolonial failure. While the careers of other major African novelists—most notably Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o—have been defined by an explicit movement away from the ideologies of cultural nationalism to a radical critique of the postcolonial state, Farah's works are unique in their contemporaneous representation of both positions. In Farah's early novels in particular, the mapping, endorsement, and critique of nationalism is represented against the background of postcolonial decay and the utopian possibilities held up both by the Somali poetic tradition and a modern culture. In these works, terms such as modern and tradition, which have been the central paradigms in some of the most powerful commentaries on African literature, are constantly blurred and deauthorized.

In an attempt to explain the politics of time in Farah's novels—the inscription of the foundational moments of African nationalism and its radical critique—scholars of African literature have often explained it in terms of the unique character of Somali nationalism and its unusual relation to the culture of colonialism. The complex history of the Somali nation—and its truncated nationalism—is, of course, a major concern in Farah's works; but the novelist is also troubled by his own (dis)location within the African tradition of letters, because what makes his country different, especially within an East African context, is the multiplicity of its cultural and historical influences. Somalia is connected to other East African countries through what one may call the experience and trope of Diaspora (a substantial portion of its people live in parts of Ethiopia and Kenya); but it is connected, through Islam and its geographic location at the Horn of Africa, to the Arabian peninsula and the Indian subcontinent. Both the British and the Italians colonized the country, and its elite culture reflects the influences of these imperial powers. Against this background, the sources of Farah's art and imagination are multiple and complex. Like many members of the second generation of postcolonial African writers, Farah, in his fiction, does not seem to be troubled by its identity: his artistic sources are an eclectic mixture of Somali oral traditions, Italian culture, and Anglo-Irish modernism; he is as much at home in Chinua Achebe's realistic and mythical narratives as he is in the high modernism of Wole Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo.

Still, there is no question that, in spite of his attempts to provide his readers with a realistic representation of Somalia under colonialism and the Siyad Barre military dictatorship, Farah is more comfortable with ostensibly high-modernist forms than he is with traditional realism. As I have already suggested, he started writing at a moment in African literary history when the realistic narrative of national restoration, discernible in the great novels of the 1950s and early 1960s, was at a point of crisis. It is precisely because of his awareness of the limits of realism in African writing that Farah turned to the esthetic of modernism. Except for his first novel, From a Crooked Rib (1970), which flirts with realistic forms, Farah's major works were written under the shadow of European and African modernism. Modernist writers such as Joyce, Beckett, and Yeats provide the epigraphs that frame his novels. His favorite African writers, whose works are constantly echoed in the early novels, are Soyinka and Ayi Kwei Armah, the great African modernists.

Yet, in spite the proliferation of the modernist style in Farah's works, and his intertextual relation to modernism, there is an unusual conjuncture of tradition and modernity (used here as both cultural and literary terms) in his oeuvre. Farah's early novels are notable for their affiliation with European modernists; at the same time, however, students of these works are constantly reminded of their imbrication in the world of Somali oral culture, especially “the legendary oral poets of his Ogaden childhood” (Wright, 68). The constant invocation of Somali oral poetry in Farah's very modernist novels is significant for two reasons. First, his constant appeal to the authority of oral culture calls attention to the limits of modernism itself in the representation of the labyrinthine world of African politics, a world in which distinctions between literacy and orality are not as clear-cut as they might first appear to be. Quite often, Farah values the oral tradition as a possible conduit to a world beyond colonialism and the politics of the postcolonial state. Second, because Farah seeks to use his novels to critique the world associated with the traditional values sustained by orality, especially where they have become complicitous with the culture of silence promoted by the postcolonial state, he invokes modernism as a counterpoint to tradition itself.

For these two reasons, Farah's novels seem to be located at an interesting caesura: they are loaded with the weight of Somali oral culture, but they seek to go beyond the temporality of tradition; they derive their force and their identity from a powerful intertextual relation with modernist texts, but they are also conscious of the exhaustion of modernity and modernism, of the inability of the modern esthetic to account for, or resist, the corrupt politics of the postcolonial state. For the rest of this essay, I want to argue that Farah's early works are attempts by the author to emplace himself within—and then transcend—the tradition of African modernism associated with some of his important precursors such as Wole Soyinka. I want to then argue that Farah's works can best be located at a point, often associated with the avant-garde, where the two political traditions represented in his works—the culture of the Somali state and the esthetic of African modernism—are pushed to their limits. In order to understand this breakdown, this function of tradition as a place of loss (Benjamin, 133), we need to recognize the significance of modernism in Farah's early works and then see how he turns to the politics of the avant-garde as a way of superseding the culture of modernity and the esthetic of modernism.


Farah turns to modernism in order to provide a critique of the idea of the Somali nation and the traditions associated with it. Given the fact that he began writing at a time when there was a general consensus that the ideals of nationalism had been betrayed by the postcolonial state, it is not surprising that Farah's first works sought to deconstruct the notion of tradition as the foundation of nationalism. Readers of his early novels are rarely surprised by the constant use of the technique of modernism to call into question the association between tradition and nation (see Benjamin, 135). In From a Crooked Rib, for example, Ebla's movement in time and space is essentially marked by her struggle to release herself from the worlds of both Somali tradition and postcolonial modernity. The novel opens with a powerful invocation of the world of Somali culture, represented through the consciousness of an elder man who seeks to be the custodian of “tribal” memory and the traditional weltanschauung. But the old man's attempts to recuperate the values of this world and to endow it with a teleology is almost immediately undermined by two ostensibly unrelated factors: a modernist style that privileges an interiorized private narrative over the collective myths of the Somali people, and the representation of Ebla as a subject alienated from the hearth, what the Somali call Jes (8–9). Although the novel is set on the eve of Somali independence, its primary occupation is not with new beginnings or historical continuity, but rather with Ebla's ressentiment. While the elderly man who opens the novel is defined by his attachment to old memories and places, and thus seeks to recuperate old Somali traditions so that they can be deployed in the name of the new nation, Ebla's narrative is generated by her uneasy relationship to this tradition, especially the imprisonment of women within it. Her ressentiment is most apparent in her desire to escape her female identity—“She wished she were not a woman” (11)—and to break out of “the ropes society had wrapped around her and to be free and be herself” (12).

In Farah's deployment of the figure of woman as the agent of disenchantment with the political culture of the emerging Somali nation, we have a compelling critique of one of the most powerful tropes of African nationalism: the association of woman with tradition, nation, and nature. Farah begins with the basic premise that the site of tradition, as it is represented in oral narratives and collective memories, is itself already colonized by men (14, 15). As she walks along the dusty road on her way to Mogadishu, Ebla appears to other travelers to be a figure of nature (“Ebla was nature, nature had become personified in her” [19]); but Farah undermines this association of woman and nature by surrounding it with images and figures of silence and death that question the notion of woman as the embodiment of nature. For when she is reduced to nature, Ebla is deprived of her subjectivity and is cut down to the objectified world around her (19, 20). Her search for a new identity and self-consciousness sometimes parallels Somalia's quest for a new identity, one located somewhere between tradition and modernity, but at no point in the novel is she represented as the symbol of the nation. Indeed, her story is often at odds with the narrative of Somali independence; to Ebla, the euphoria of this seminal moment—“We shall prosper and the Gentiles will perish”—does not “mean much” (111).

Farah's desire to valorize the new and modern in counterdistinction to tradition is complicated somewhat by the culture of the postcolonial state: the Somali state appropriates both tradition (in its claim to be the custodian of the Jes) and modernity (in its adoption of a rhetoric of progress and revolution). The state's dual appropriation of the sites of tradition and modernity is, however, paroled by the author's own ambivalent relation to Somali tradition. Farah may have begun his writing career with the explicit aim of deconstructing the state's claim to be the custodian of tradition and revolution (a claim that was most pronounced in the years of the military dictatorship), but he also valued the world of Somali oral culture both as an important source of formal materials for his works and as the possible basis of an identity. His dilemma, especially at the beginning of his career, was how to differentiate those aspects of tradition that had been used to justify divisive and destructive clan politics and those that could be used to resist the dictatorship.

The second and third parts of From a Crooked Rib represent this paradox powerfully. After running away from her family Jes, Ebla arrives in the city of Mogadishu determined to be an independent woman. Once in the city, however, she discovers that she cannot survive as an independent woman without entering into patriarchal social structures that replicate the Jes she left behind, structures built around ideas of family, kinship, marriage, and the dominance of men. Indeed, Ebla's tragedy arises from the fact that she left her village to escape from her imprisonment as a woman only to discover that, in spite of its modern façade, the city functions according to the same patriarchal rules. If she constantly “wished more than anything else that she was not a woman” (97), it is because she realizes that the practices that give “woman” value within traditional culture (childbirth and sexual intercourse, for example) are accompanied by unprecedented pain and violence (97–99). At the same time, however, it is only by being a woman and a wife that she can be recognized by her culture and be accorded the dignity and sense of identity she deserves. Her tragedy arises from the fact that once she conjoins life, love, and marriage as the only source of her identity, Ebla ends up reinforcing the fatalistic logic that she had set out to transcend when she left her family (125, 126).

As with many African writers of his generation, Farah's novels are located within one of the central paradoxes of the modern esthetic and its temporality: a concern, even obsession, with a present time that is held hostage to the past, a past often associated with either “tribal” tyranny or colonialism. As scholars of modernism have been arguing over the years, this paradox is represented in two closely related questions in the modern novel: is the representation of a new temporality only possible through the forgetting of the past, of history, and experience? And can art carry the passion for modernity without being overwhelmed and corrupted by the process of modernization? (see Compagnon, 31–32). The usual modernist response to these questions was either to develop “the rhetoric of rupture and the myth of an absolute beginning” (see Compagnon, 31) or to valorize the Nietzschean myth of homelessness (die Heimatlosen or “the homeless”; see Benjamin, 136).

The political context in which Farah's novels were produced, not to mention his own political project, was bound to complicate both these tactics: the military dictatorship had already appropriated the rhetoric of new beginnings and modernization, while intellectuals who promoted a culture of Heimatlosen were, in effect, dismissed as agents of European nihilism and decadence. In A Naked Needle (1976) and Sweet and Sour Milk (1979) Farah's challenge was to use his novels to rescue the rhetoric of new beginnings from the dictatorship, and he could only do so by representing the subject's Heimatlosen as an oppositional mode, what Andrew Benjamin has described as “a refusal that creates the frame for an understanding … of the modern” (137).

This process is most apparent in A Naked Needle, where the central character, Koschin, locates himself in a scatological world in which time itself has been “done in” (1). Koschin opens the novel by evacuating himself from temporality: “He feels he is hungered, deadened by and quarantined by time, which is an enemy not easy to conquer” (2). He identifies his location outside time and space both as the source of his identity and as a tragedy; it is by repressing memories and experiences from his past and “forfeiting” knowledge of the language which locates him in a specific time and place (45) that he acquires a transcendental position from which he can guide his readers through the complicated world of Somali politics. In other words, it is precisely because of his alienation from the world and the class he inhabits that Koschin is able to create a frame for understanding Somalia and a language for representing its political landscape: “I feel alone, and lonely in the midst of a large crowd of this nature, after my own fashion. … I feel lonely in midst of intellectuals of whom I am supposed to be one” (133). By adopting this transcendental position, Koschin is able to establish his identity—and authority as a writer—above and beyond both traditional Somali culture and the modernizing ideologies of the Somali state.

But if Farah is unique among African modernists for his refusal to seek a position of critique within traditional culture or to oppose the modernizing rhetoric of the state through the language of traditional culture, it is because he recognizes how indigenous traditions “have themselves been implicated in the new political tribulations and terrors of the independent state” (Wright, 68). The most obvious example of this collaboration between indigenous traditions and the instruments of postcolonial power is to be found in Sweet and Sour Milk, where the family patriarch is also a policeman and informer, one willing to be used by the state as an instrument of controlling dissidence in his own family. Unable to find value in the old world associated with the fathers, and threatened by the practices of a patria that replicates state authority (the dictator represents himself as the father of the nation), Farah's dissident characters often live in an existential or surreal world, frequently at odds with their own selves. My contention here is that Farah is attracted to modernism and modernist style because its unfinished and fragmented nature seems to parallel the narrative of the postcolonial state, while its reflexivity and circularity provide him with a language of social critique.


Farah's modernism is not in itself unique among African writers of the 1970s. Indeed, the persistent echoing of the works of African modernists (Soyinka, Armah, and Ouologuem) in Farah's early novels is the most obvious acknowledgment of his indebtedness to this aspect of the African literary tradition. What makes Farah different from his precursors is his attraction to the futuristic esthetic ideologies of the avant-garde, an attraction that is manifested in at least three aspects of his esthetic that demand closer scrutiny than they have so far received: his promotion of the innovative and revolutionary power of art against the culture of the state; the privileging of form over content; and the use of art to dissolve and hence pluralize the postcolonial experience. In dealing with all three aspects, Farah's novels are caught between the need to present art—and the ideologies it promotes—as simultaneously affirmative and autonomous (able to promote a world beyond the reified culture of modernity) and destructive and negative (imprisoned in the world it represents and thus unable to escape from the culture of the modern state).

Art, of course, occupies a special place in Farah's oeuvre. Its presence is marked by the constant use of epigraphs, especially from the works of modernist writers, which prefigure the author's major concern with the state of the individual in modern culture and establish his affiliation, in a self-conscious, self-referential manner, with the culture of modernism. Farah's use of epigraphs is not uniform, however: in From a Crooked Rib, for example, epigraphs are used as essentially decorative stylistic elements, whereas in A Naked Needle, Sweet and Sour Milk, and Sardines they are part of a more complex configuration of intertextual references which, when considered together, constitute an artistic or esthetic site of representation, one that is presented as an alternative to the culture of the postcolonial state. In other words, Farah uses intertextuality as part of a formal strategy through which readers are dissociated from dominant norms and values but are also presented with an affirmative program in which art promotes the utopian possibilities of society.

In the first instance, Farah's subjects, who are already alienated from social totality and themselves, turn to other texts to construct a point of reference and identity. This is especially the case in A Naked Needle, where Koschin, who has deliberately alienated himself from postcolonial politics and their notions of time and space, conceives the books he reads as both an anchor for his self and a more tangible frame of reference than Somalia. It is not by accident that Koschin turns to texts when he is most disconnected from the cultural and geographic spaces he would like to occupy but cannot because they have been colonized by the regime. On a visit to his native city of Kismayu, for example, Koschin realizes that he has forfeited the mode of knowledge and identity that is often derived from the Heimat—language, tradition, and experience. In compensation, he hunts down Wole Soyinka's 1965 classic The Interpreters, “his favorite novel of the year” (46), where he finds a character (Sekoni) with a worldview with which he can identify (144). It is through such texts that Koschin negotiates and inscribes some of his most important social and romantic relationships (52), and it is through an intertextual reference to other African writers that Koschin finds the language for representing his own society. Thus when he represents Somalia in terms of refuse, describing it as “a big sandy toilet,” and conceiving its capital as “the slaughter-house turned city” (21), readers of African literature will quickly recognize the reference to Ayi Kwei Armah's 1968 novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.

The second use of intertextuality—the citation and recitation of other writers to explore the utopian possibilities of postcolonial society—is perhaps not as apparent as the first but it is equally significant, for it is through the citation of other texts that Farah's subjects construct an artistic world which seeks to transcend the politics of everyday life in Somalia. If modernist style reinforces Koschin's sense of homelessness, as we saw in the previous section, art provides a stable home and refuge for what is described (in A Naked Needle) as his twisted and tormented mind (66). The novel contains many examples of art as the source of the connections and values the subject finds lacking in his society: a painting on a wall in Mogadishu is done in a style “reminding Koschin of an Antillean immigrant's drawing of Trimurti that he saw in a London exhibition” (60). Overwhelmed by everyday life in Somalia, he wishes he were the Mali emperor, Kankhan Musa, on his historic medieval pilgrimage to Mecca, obviously read in a Mande epic (49). And against the communicative mess created by the bureaucratic state, he seeks a knowable community in the library, often escaping from his friends to seek solace among writers (56).

The same pattern—the opposition between the state bureaucracy and the individual act of reading—is repeated in Sweet and Sour Milk and Sardines (1982). In the former novel, the struggle over the meaning of Soyaan's death, which pits his twin brother Loyaan against the Somali dictatorship, is presented essentially as a struggle over interpretation. In his death, the dissident has no value for either the dictatorship or its opponents, except in the meaning of the cabalistic texts he leaves behind and the symbolic use of his dead body (38, 53); forgotten in his corporeality, Soyaan is privileged as a text that both sides can deploy in their struggle to control the meaning of everyday politics. Indeed, the whole significance of Soyaan's death depends on the continual blurring of the dead body and the enigmatic texts it left behind. In the absence of a postmortem on the body (62), the texts seem to contain all the questions and answers sought by the two functions: “Why did the General's régime wish to recruit Soyaan, a man already dead? Why was it that they felt the need to fabricate the story about his last words being ‘Labour is Honour’—both key nouns in the affair?” (76).

On the surface, the response to these questions appears clear to Loyaan and his friends: by claiming Soyaan's words for his own pseudorevolution, the General wants to control the deceased's soul and use it as an instrument for legitimizing his own discredited regime (81). But the issue is complicated by the fact that what the regime seeks to claim is not Soyaan's soul but rather his words, not the resurrection of his body as an embodiment of its ideals but rather the precise meaning of a single phrase—“Labour is Honour”—left in his mass of writings. It is as if the legitimacy of the regime depends on its ability to colonize the words of its opponents. Why is this the case? Why does a regime presided over by an illiterate general seem to consider textuality so central to its hegemony?

We can respond to these questions by first calling attention to the significance of the “scene of reading” as a site of oppositionality (Chambers, xiv): for families and individuals threatened by the coercive mechanisms of the state, the act of reading mediates social intercourse; the exchange of fictional narratives becomes a means of creating a cultural space in which the threatened self and its enabling institutions (the family, the marriage, the filial relationship) can maintain their integrity. In Sweet and Sour Milk, for example, Loyaan spends the last hours of his life seeking sanctuary in Neruda's Machu Picchu (17). In Sardines the writing and narration of stories, their exchange between Medina and her daughter Ubax, is a private way of countering the public sphere colonized by dictatorship. Denied a public forum for airing her views, Medina uses texts not simply to express herself, but also to construct what she calls, echoing Virginia Woolf, a room of her own (33). The paradox here, of course, is that textuality is valued—and policed by the regime—because of its capacity to create an alternative Lebenswelt (life-world) to the culture promoted and sustained by the postcolonial state. Indeed, a central theme in Sardines is the confrontation that arises when the state tries to repress the utopian possibilities that texts represent.

And where does the project of the African avant-garde fit into this struggle over postcolonial textuality? Like other members of the African avant-garde, the dissidents in Farah's novel are products of what the main characters in Sardines call the “fabled year of '68” (89), a moment valued because it held the possibility that culture and theory—hence textuality—could be used to create a revolutionary space beyond the reach of the bureaucratic state. The utopian possibility of art or culture is implicit in those moments in Sardines when the narratives proffered by the Somali state are juxtaposed with avant-garde texts that are notorious for pushing tradition to its limits. Quite often in A Naked Needle, as in many of Farah's novels, the state orchestrates narratives that overwhelm both implied and real readers with what is aptly described as the “turbulence of terror” (119). There is the story Medina tells about Somali-American parents who commit suicide when their daughter is forcibly circumcised and married off to a “tribal chief” (91–93), and there is the terrible story about Amina's rape and the state's attempt to use it to repress dissent (116–18). But in spite of the terror they generate, these stories are told and retold—by and among the victims—against the background provided by the affirmative culture that binds them together: John Coltrane, Tagore, and Ginsberg. In retelling the stories of their torture and mutilation, the victims seek to control the terms in which their life stories are told and to proffer texts that provide them with security and identity above the mechanics of state power and oppressive traditions.

Yet it is always difficult to argue for a radical separation between the oppressive traditions patronized by the state and avant-garde art, because, as Derek Wright has observed, even in their most modernist form, Farah's works also seem to recuperate certain aspects of Somali culture (especially poetry) as a site of freedom. One cannot hence make the argument, often made about the modernist tradition, that Farah turns to modernism in search of an esthetic authority that is inherent in art's autonomy from the politics of the everyday. It is perhaps easier to advance the claim that what makes Farah an important part of the African avant-garde is the fact that his art seeks to deconstruct tradition in order to go beyond the terms established by nationalism, which often saw traditionalism as its own condition of possibility. If it is true, as Andrew Benjamin has argued, that the avant-garde is to be situated “beyond a mere negative response to tradition” (134), then Farah's works need to be read as attempts to reset the terms by which tradition has been understood in African literature by extending it to include not only the obvious aspects of Somali oral tradition that are so important to him, but also the canon of African literature, the art forms of the African diaspora, Asian poetry and religion, and European high culture. Farah's political referent is local (his novels rarely go beyond the politics of his native Somalia); but in his intertextual relation to other traditions, he is perhaps the most cosmopolitan African writer. It is through intertextuality that he extends his literary and philosophical referents to make postcolonial Somali culture part of a cosmopolitan discourse that is a crucial ingredient of what it means to be African in the modern world.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Andrew. Art, Mimesis and Avant-garde. London. Routledge, 1991.

Chambers, Ross. Room for Maneuver: Reading Oppositional Narrative. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. 1991.

Compagnon, Antoine. The Five Paradoxes of Modernity. New York. Columbia University Press. 1994.

Farah, Nuruddin. From a Crooked Rib. London. Heinemann. 1970.

———. A Naked Needle. London. Heinemann. 1976.

———. Sardines. London. Heinemann. 1982.

———. Sweet and Sour Milk. London. Heinemann. 1980.

Wright, Derek. New Directions in African Fiction. New York. Twayne. 1997.

J. I. Okonkwo (essay date Spring 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4746

SOURCE: “The Novelist as Artist: The Case of Nuruddin Farah,” in Commonwealth Novel in English, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 46–58.

[In the following essay, Okonkwo compares Farah's work to that of other African writers and asserts that Farah is unique in his artistry.]

The novels of Nuruddin Farah have been difficult to absorb into the recognized categories of African fiction. They exhibit none of the nostalgia for Africa's traditional past which characterizes the first set of novels of the Cultural Nationalism school. The exultation of the past, which has persisted in the novels of the 1970's, particularly in Armah's Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers, Soyinka's Season of Anomy and Ngugi's Petals of Blood where African traditional culture is recommended as a foundation for regenerative development of African societies has no place in Farah's novels. “He finds no virtue in traditional Somali social organization: indeed his two pet-hatreds seem to be the patriarch in the traditional Somali Muslim family and the concomitant subjection of women” (Peterson 98). Thus, Farah's perspective differs radically from the thematic constant of the African novel. Not only is he more concerned with contemporary society, he is also critical of traditional culture in almost all its manifestations. Farah has developed an individual vision and techniques. Consequently, his work stands apart from the mainstream of African fictional development. When his specific individual approach has been taken into account, his novels can be conveniently categorized with those of post-independence critical realism and disillusionment, which anatomize the shortcomings of post-independence African social, political, and economic order.

The early writers' retrospective fixation with the past, and the over-idealization of African culture and traditions had earned an unequivocal condemnation in Soyinka's celebrated key-note address at the African-Scandinavian Writers' Conference of 1967 in Stockholm where he had exhorted that “The African writer needs an urgent release from the fascination of the past” (“The Writer” 19). Rather than turn to the past, the critical realists fixed their gaze steadily on the contemporary scene. Their works manifest a clear insight into the needs of African society and literature, and therefore spearheaded a literary revolution. The writer as “the visionary of his people” had the duty to anticipate the future and warn his society of the chaos ahead; if need be, he should partake “in direct physical struggle” (Soyinka The Man Died 156–7) in a bid to reform society. In so far as Farah is concerned with the present, and an objective appraisal of its institutions, and overall state of its society and its peoples, he belongs to this class. But Farah is essentially an individualist with an individual vision and approach to his art. This may derive from a national characteristic, for “The Somali are intelligent, sophisticated, subtle, inordinately proud and extremely individualistic” (Lewis 150). Although Farah's novels are essentially African, they are thematically relevant not only to the realities of African societies, but also to universal human conditions, in a manner which transcends the contemporary settings of his works.

The rarity of the Anglophone Somali writer has further placed Farah in a position where he cannot be examined alongside other Somali writers, because there have not emerged, as yet, other known Somali novelists. Farah's novels are distinctive for being set in a clearly nomadic and Islamic environment. The first three novels, From A Crooked Rib, A Naked Needle and Sweet and Sour Milk provide an insight into this hitherto unexplored culture.

An assiduous artistic craftsmanship further distinguishes Farah's novels. This, in addition to their other qualities, has contributed to his recognition by Western critics. Farah explores his themes of the individual and society, political corruption and revolution against a backdrop of a highly textured style. Some critics have compared him to James Joyce, adducing an affinity between Joyce's Ulysses and A Naked Needle. To this, the writer has replied:

“The people who influenced me range from reading the Koran, A Thousand and One Nights, and to my great grandfather, to anything that I could get my hands on, and they're actually different from time to time. So I don't remember my reading Joyce with a view to writing A Naked Needle, let me say. …”


Farah who has won the English Speaking Union Prize has also been compared with Solzhenitsyn and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Other critics have described his work as “too complex for the ordinary African,” to which the writer has quipped with bristling defiance as he recounts a similar incident with the BBC Bush House, who commissioned him to write a play which will be comprehensible to an average African: “What do they mean by an average African? I am African” (Kitchner 61).

Another set of critics have eulogized him for his style and narrative techniques. They are fascinated by the ornate assemblage of metaphors, similes, and his general verbal dexterity which make his prose sparkle like the scintillating stars which are frequently evoked in his writing:

At times he strains after effect, piling up descriptive conceits, but at others he slips so naturally into simile or metaphor that he suggests a primitive view of reality which distinguishes less rigidly between objective and subjective worlds. … The flavor this gives his writing, as well as its authentic background, makes him one of the more interesting new African writers.


This is not difficult to understand for the Somali are a nation of bards, their poetry being one of their principal cultural achievements. They are essentially a people who still depend on the oral tradition. Farah's powerful and incisive novels, full of esoteric imagery, exotic symbolism and conveyed in a richly flavored language, owe their style to this rich poetic heritage. Farah's style has inevitably projected him to the forefront of African literary history alongside such writers as Achebe, Soyinka, Armah and Ngugi.

Farah's novels present an appraisal of Somali society, traditional and modern. They bring up for examination Islamic and traditional customs as they affect the life of women, like female circumcision, Islamic marriage laws, polygamous marriage, peremptory divorce (an exclusively male prerogative), the subordination of the individual's life to community demands as well as the extreme materialism and corruption of the modern elite, and the modern fascist society. They expose the evils responsible for the present state of anomie in the African body politic. The writer sees the decadence of society, the unstable dictatorial and inhuman governments as the consequences of unbridled lust for power by a few megalomaniacs. Farah records and spotlights the nature of present day politics, thereby offering the reader an analytical insight into the lives and politics of his people. He deals with an age in which national politics have become progressively complex on the African continent and many people have become more politically conscious. He leaves one in no doubt about his attitude to the Jomo Kenyattas, the Idi Amins, and the Siyad Barres of Africa.

Farah's interest centers around the individual and his quest for personal and political freedom in the traditional and Revolutionary State. His first novel, From a Crooked Rib (1968), discusses the feminine plight, and the general odds against the female in a traditional, Islamic cultural environment. His second, A Naked Needle (1976), explores the search by a number of individual characters for self-fulfillment within the societal and political set-up of Somalia. The two books of his (proposed) trilogy, Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), and Sardines (1981), highlight the repressive and horrifying aspects of the Somalian Military Regime. These novels are vitally relevant because their themes transcend their narrow sociological and historical confines. Farah triumphs as the “voice of the visioner,” as a critic of society because of the dialectical relation of his artistic creativity to social values. Although his novels manifest a deep political consciousness, he is careful not to adopt an ideological stance, as Soyinka, Ngugi, Armah, and Ousmane have done. He has avoided the conflict which often arises in the novel as an art form when it is made to carry the weight of political ideology. Rather than manipulate the techniques of the novel for the benefit of politics (in spite of his declared intention to provide counter propaganda to that of the repressive Somalian Regime) he has lived up to the ideals of the fictive artist “selectively taking the facts of existence and imposing order and form upon them in an aesthetic pattern” (Farah 11). Artistically, Farah's novels manifest a degree of stylistic complexity and show signs of moving in the direction of such twentieth-century artists as James Joyce, whose works exhibit a more hermetic and convoluted style.

From A Crooked Rib takes its cue from the fact that in the society of its setting, a woman is the property of the man on whom she depends for livelihood and protection—father, brother, husband, or a relation. She has no individual rights. From A Crooked Rib questions the validity of such an arrangement, from a humanistic point of view. Its chief protagonist, Ebla, has been nurtured entirely in a traditional nomadic pastoral community. Farah endows her with innate intelligence, courage, resilience and perseverance, and through her raises numerous sensitive questions about women in this type of society—questions about female circumcision, choice of a marriage partner, divorce, attitude to polygamous marriage, husband and wife relationships, marital infidelity. The metamorphosis of this intelligent village girl underscores vividly her extreme individualistic spirit. Quite early in her development, Ebla exhibits a tremendous consciousness of her individual rights. The entire story is a delineation of her experiences as she attempts to emancipate herself from circumscribing traditional and Muslim social obligations. Ebla's intelligence and individualism are at complete variance with the prescribed confinements of her cultural and religious environment. Her rebelliousness induces her to escape from the narrow and restrictive confines of her jes in a bid to assert her individuality and be appreciated as a human being “to break away the ropes society had wrapped around her and to be free and be herself” (Crooked Rib 12). The novel has been acclaimed as manifesting a feminist viewpoint. Charles Larson described it as “one of the most complete pictures of a woman we have seen in African fiction,” which may be an over-statement. Male and female writers have variously featured women as their central characters. Flora Nwapa's Efuru and Idu, Elechi Amadi's The Concubine, John Munonye's The Only Son, Sembene Ousmane's “Her Three Days” and Xala, or Buchi Emecheta's Bride Price, Slave Girl and The Joys of Motherhood have all explored the life of women in both the modern and traditional African society, but none of them had championed the cause of women against social restrictions as Farah has done. What is significant is that “Farah has lifted the veil customarily drawn across women's struggles in the face of larger revolutionary causes and revealed the fallacy of partial freedom” (Bryce). The writers whose works come near Farah's viewpoint are Sembene Ousmane, Buchi Emecheta, and Mariama Ba (So Long A Letter).

From A Crooked Rib has been able, in spite of its simple linear plot, to achieve a commendable thematic impression, through style and structure. The story of Ebla's quest for freedom and self-fulfillment and her journey towards discovery is told in a narrative style that is almost out of fashion. An adroitly manipulated naive narrator communicates the story. The focus is on Ebla as she unveils the deep recesses of her mind in this picaresque adventure. The innocent ingenuity of Ebla is conveyed not only in her own thoughts and utterances, which predominate in the novel, but in the naiveté which pervades the narrative voice itself:

The lives of these people depend upon that of their herds. The lives of the herds depended upon the plentiness or the scarcity of green grass. But would one be justified in saying that their existence depended upon green pastures directly or indirectly? Yes: life depended on green pastures.

Crooked Rib 7)

This narrative technique is reminiscent of Mongo Beti's The Poor Christ of Bomba whose central feature is Father Drumont's tour of Tala and the sexual growth of Dennis, the naive narrator, told in the picaresque mode, as Beti delineates the moral development of the participants. Oyono's Houseboy succeeds also through the employment of the inexperienced, naive Toundi as narrator. The straightforward story line progresses without resort to the flashback technique, although the novel is introduced by a prologue. The major ideas are illuminated through a physical and psychological exploration of the protagonists. The novel is divided into four parts, each opened by a proverbial epigraph, each a dramatization of a major movement in the overall action. The action itself takes its cue from the major epigraph which introduces the novel. It is a Somali proverb: “God created woman from a Crooked Rib; and anyone who trieth to straighten it, breaketh it,” which the chief protagonist, Ebla, sets out to disprove and succeeds up to a point. Ebla's vision was clear to her. She rebels, not at the idea of being a woman, but at the unfair distribution of duties which demoted the status of women.

Farah employs a deep ironic device in the exploration of his theme, and achieves a detachment through the use of his naive narrator which is an advantage, for “The observing novelist is detached and through his detachment, he is able to make each statement of his narrative to have double meaning” (Cook 96). Although he does not overtly project his views, Farah's voice can be heard in many passages, as in:

She desired more than anything, to shy away, like a cock, which has unknotted itself from the string tying its leg to the wall. She wanted to go away from the duty of women. … She loathed this discrimination between sexes.

[Crooked Rib n.p.]

Like the ironic title of Emecheta's Joys of Motherhood, From A Crooked Rib is ironic, for Ebla succeeds in demonstrating the feminine capability for self-assertion, independence, and achievement. Thus Farah intimates a cultural revolution which is inevitable in the changing circumstances of Africa.

By contrast, the plot of the second novel, A Naked Needle (1976) is complicated. Koschin, its chief protagonist is an urbanized, westernized young teacher who has studied in England. The complexity of A Naked Needle's structure is designed to match his sophistication. Like Ebla, Koschin is passionately committed to the preservation of his freedom which at the beginning of the novel is being threatened by the evolving events in his country, and by the imminent arrival of his English girlfriend whom he has promised to marry in the event of both of them remaining single after two years of their parting. Farah's formal experiments here are radical. The novel opens with a prelude, while the rest of the plot is unfolded in six movements. In a lengthy interior monologue, Koschin states his obsession with issues which remorselessly impinge on his individual freedom.

When A Naked Needle was published in 1976, the Somalian Revolution was still fresh in its impetus before experience reveals the world of difference between “the theory and practice of an ideology which was meant to convert the country into a truly independent socialist state” (Sanders). Farah directs the readers' attention to the enervating state of existence of the country's elite, painting kaleidoscopic pictures of the country's decadence and political, socio-economic malaise. Like Soyinka, Ousmane, Ngugi, and Armah, he compels the readers' perceptive sensibility to react critically to the uglier aspects of contemporary African life. Like Armah and Ouologuem, Farah is undeterred by negative arguments that his posture of disillusionment, almost pathologically morbid in its conception of society's malaise, is likely to dishonor the image and psyche of the African. His preoccupation is with the individual and his right to a meaningful existence; and this presupposes a just and well-ordered society.

A Naked Needle presents a crucial day in the life of its chief protagonist, Koschin Qoudham, who from all indications is a zealous patriot, transparently loyal to the Revolution just ushered in by a bloodless coup. He is first introduced as he muses in his squalid apartment like Teacher in Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Later his engagements, actions, thoughts, and involvements during the day are enacted. Using the first person narrative technique, Farah reveals Koschin and his pronouncements of his views regarding many aspects of life, the problems of his close acquaintances, and the Revolution which he considers “a pill that tastes bitter, the benefits of which are felt only when one has gone through the preliminary pain and pestilence” (Naked Needle 4). On a more personal level, Koschin's obsession with his freedom is manifested in his attempts to extricate himself from religious and familial obligations. He refrains from close involvement in the marriage problems of his friends, like Barbara and Mohammed, Mildred and Barre; and contrives to keep himself as distant as possible from the newly-arrived Nancy. Koschin succeeds in depriving himself of any real, meaningful relationship with individuals around him. To a clansman who approaches him for a solidarity levy, he brusquely announces: “I am afraid I do not owe any loyalty to any tribe. … [T]ell the other members of your tribe that I owe no loyalty to any tribe, and never have” (Naked Needle 14–15). In the course of the day, Koschin resigns his teaching appointment to demonstrate his condemnation of the Headmaster's misdemeanor with a female student. This break with the school authorities signals his complete alienation from all the restraining elements of society, like the family, social and cultural ties necessary for the proper functioning of the individual in society.

The narrative technique of From A Crooked Rib relies heavily on the shifting point of view. Farah had already started interspersing dialogue with monologue as he constantly moves between what Ebla thinks and what she says. In A Naked Needle, the device of the interior monologue becomes the author's dominant mode of narration. Through this device, the reader perceives the inner consciousness of Koschin. The opening chapters, for instance, abound in monologues addressed to Nancy even before her arrival to Somalia. In his nervous dilemma, Koschin addresses Nancy whom he has not seen for two years, revealing his hope and dread that her arrival will not force him to alter his Bohemian life style:

With patience, we may be able to come to some sort of agreement, Nancy. Some sort, I say. You and I. Between ourselves.

An epilogue that spoils the strong point of a novel, that is what you are to me, Nancy. However, I do hope that I am wrong in my judgment: that you have changed since last we met.

Naked Needle 2)

A significant aspect of style which Farah employs is the dialogue. Like the protagonists of Soyinka's The Interpreters, Koschin likes to get to the root of facts and events. Therefore he constantly discusses with Barbara, Barre, Mohammed, Nancy and others with whom he interacts. His tour around Mogadiscio with Nancy provides priceless opportunity to demonstrate his capacity for commentary in monologues interspersed with dialogue (with Nancy). This aspect of Farah's novel has been compared to James Joyce's art in Ulysses. The peregrinations around the splendors, slums, treasures, as well as the hidden infirmities of this ancient settlement recall Bloom's pilgrimage around Dublin. From Koschin's detached, humorous, and mockingly ironic commentary emerges a sharp picture of the glory and squalor that is Mogadiscio. It is a picture of a desperately poor society, with only one real city and a few thousand meters of metaled roads, full of poverty, prostitutes, donkeys, and tea-shops. The narrow streets of Mogadiscio in movement five become the battlegrounds between the Donkeymen with their donkey waters, the donkeymen having become denaturalized, and what is more, as obstinate as their beasts (Naked Needle 96).

Farah is able to expose the abdication of the corruptly rich bureaucrats and elite from their responsibilities to the generality of the populace. He brings these together in a fatuously artificial and sumptuous party at Dulmar's where they reveal their affections, vulgarity, and insensitivity to the real urgent issues of their country and its people. Rather they habitually “warm themselves up with wine, and women, while the age-old poverty, ignorance, and idiocy hang over them like shadows” (135).

From the largely social, introspective form of A Naked Needle, Farah moves on to his essentially political novels, Sweet and Sour Milk, 1979, and Sardines (1981). Farah once claimed:

I see my writing as an alternative to the propaganda that the state machinery in Somalia produces and puts on the shelves. An alternative and true record of history. I do not know if I am saying the truth, but I'm simply describing the truth as I see it, the truth as I know it, and I feel absolutely responsible for every word I have written.


Sweet and Sour Milk and Sardines reflect the terror and the inhumanity which are the hallmarks of a tyrannical and dictatorial fascist state. They register with suffocating intimacy, the brutality, suspicion, mental and physical degradation, which are consequent upon the apparatus of terror being literally in the family. The General has turned the family Patriarchs into his instruments of suppression. There is no longer the tragi-comedy of revolutionary rhetoric in the midst of gross underdevelopment found in A Naked Needle. Perfected systems of power manipulation, dawn disappearances of citizens, detention, exile, torture and death, are what the novels present in intimate and minute details. The Koschin of A Naked Needle is now in detention and obviously in grave danger of his life. The situation in the novel is such that

One cannot disguise the fact that our people have been made suspicious of one another, that this regime has given a two-handled sword, sharp at both ends to each of us. … Nothing escapes the close scrutiny of the security system whose planted ears have sprouted in every homestead.

Naked Needle 138–9)

The country having been “sold” to the Soviets, is backed by its example and “technical assistance.” Inevitably, a resistant group has been formed to spread counter information against the false revolutionary government. Driven underground, it operates clandestinely. Most committed and sensitive individuals in the state have gravitated around this movement. From there emanates such anti-government literature as the memorandum found hidden under Soyaan's pillow, or those bills posted on the “walls of dawn.”

The novels exhibit Farah's masterly control of his subject-matter. Artistic economy is largely attained through the exploitation of symbols that depict the modern political chaos. All over the country, the militia men in their green uniform, symbolize the General's repressive tool. They beat the drum and sing the sycophancies of the revolution's successes: “The Marxist-Leninist Islamic Revolution. … Long live the General, the Father of this nation” (Naked Needle 187). Another symbol of oppression is the Security Services which recruit their main corps from illiterate men and women to eavesdrop on conversation and report verbatim what they think they heard when they enter a shop or a house. They have power to arrest without warrants. Prisons are overpopulated and no records are kept about most of the prisoners. As a result a good percentage of the country's intellectuals and professionals languish in prisons, while in their place, Soviet technocrats and “Cuban sugar-cane experts” are employed.

Farah's political novels are anatomizations of a system of protected disorder, immediate and actual, “a dismantling of the organic elements of an old society family, religion, affections, passions, neighborhood, customs, re-assembled in a bogus structure” (Ewen). Against the ethics of political violence, the weak have no other means of survival other than either to collaborate with the authorities or face elimination. Thus it is easy for Keynaan, the patriarch in Sweet and Sour Milk to blatantly desecrate the memory of his dead son, by acquiescing in the shameful lie that Soyaan's last words were in praise of the General. On the contrary, Soyaan had considered the General “a usurper, a tribalist, a fascist of the first grade, a Dionysius.” With Soyaan eliminated by the agents of the repressive government, his twin brother, Loyaan, is left to discover the culprits.

In this novel, Farah once again uses the naive narrator in the person of Loyaan who is not as politically volatile as his brother, Soyaan. The novel depends on flashbacks and the stream of consciousness technique for the evocation of past events and the psychological exploration of its major characters. As in Ngugi's A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood (which it resembles by the manipulation of the techniques of the detective novel) reminiscences and recreations of past events help Loyaan to piece together information gathered from close associates of Soyaan. Sometimes Loyaan steps too close on the hidden enemies' toes. Loyaan is made to come in contact with characters like Margaritta (Soyaan's mistress), Dr. Ahmed-Wellie, Mulki, the Minister (Soyaan's rival for Margaritta's affections) who is also an agent of the General. Farah allows the reader to form opinions and respond to each of the characters as they are exposed. When the novel closes, Loyaan is silenced by being forcibly sent on a diplomatic mission abroad. As in A Naked Needle, the conflicts in the novel are unresolved, for Loyaan's investigations yield no positive conclusive result.

Sardines continues the bitter attack on the sinister activities of the fascist state. Parallel to the political theme is the novel's remarkable focus on a group of Somalian women and their struggle for freedom from religious, social, political and conventional thralldom. The novel opens with a long interior monologue by the chief protagonist, Medina, as she builds her imaginative architectural structures which she peoples with fantasy occupants. Her compartmentalized mansion is a physical reaction to a basic psychological need for self-realization. The narrative technique depends largely on the exploration of the minds of the principal characters, and thus to determine the hidden motives for their actions. A good illustration of this device is in the exposition of Medina's inner conflict as she debates and contemplates her proposal to abandon her home to Idil, her mother-in-law, and Samater, her husband. In a cinemato-graphic manner, Medina's mental state is focused upon as she compares Idil's tyranny with the General's:

The General's power and I are like two lizards engaged in a vararian dance of death—the emphasis on power as a system, power as a function. … Was Idil part and parcel of that power? The sky would fall on anyone who upset a pillar of society—in this case Idil.

Sardines 52)

Farah's style and narrative technique seem designed to give the widest scope for understanding the processes through which his characters arrive at their decisions and actions. He attempts to give a naturalistic expression to the idea of his characters' untrammeled freedom, to reflect the flexibility with which they approach the challenges of life. He therefore exposes their introspections and self-questionings, making them indulge in “interminable self-analysis of behavior, politics, and motivation” (Pilling). When he employs the omniscient narrator, it is to give a sharper edge to his point of view, by assuming omniscience and describing his characters from his inner perceptions of them. All through the novels, interior monologue is interspersed with dialogue. The total effect is a masterly control of his themes and point of view, even if the plot wavers from action to action which often gives a sense of indecision and incompleteness. Farah's works, viewed alongside other African writers, are refreshing because of his determination to write “like a novelist rather than a preacher.”

Works Cited

Bryce, Jane. “Sardines by Nuruddin Farah,” The Leveller, January 22, 1982.

Cook, Albert. The Meaning of Fiction, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1960.

Ewen, D. R. “Nuruddin Farah, Sweet and Sour Milk,World Literature Written in English, [n.v., n.d., n.p.]

Farah, Nuruddin. “The Creative Writer and the Politician,” The Guardian, Wednesday, September 7, 1983, p. 11.

Hinde, Thomas. “The Walls of Dawn,” Sunday Telegraph, 29th November, 1981, n.p.

Kitchner, Julie. “Author in Search of an Identity,” New Africa, No. 171, December 1981, [n.p.].

Lampley, James. “A View of Home from Outside,” Interview in Africa No. 124, December 1981, [n.p.].

Larson, Charles. “From A Crooked Rib” Books Abroad. [n.p.: n.d].

Lewis, I. M. Peoples of the Horns of Africa, London: International African Institute, 1955, p. 150.

Peterson, Karen Holst. “The Personal and The Political: The Case of Nuruddin Farah,” Ariel Vol. 12, No. 3, July 1981, [n.p.].

Pilling, Jane. Time Out, 4th December, 1981, [n.p.].

Reinhard, W. Sander. “Nuruddin Farah, A Naked Needle,World Literature Today, Winter, 1979, [n.p.].

Sharpnel, Norman. “In a hell of a state,” The Guardian, December, 1981, [n.p.]

Soyinka, Wole. “The Writer in a Modern African State,” The Writer in Modern Africa, ed. Per Wastberg, New York, Africana Publishing Corporation, 1969.

———. The Man Died, Hammondsworth, Penguin Books, 1975.

Derek Wright (essay date October 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5020

SOURCE: “Parenting the Nation: Some Observations on Nuruddin Farah's Maps,” in College Literature, Vol. 19, No. 3, October, 1992, pp. 176–84.

[Wright is a senior lecturer in English at Northern Territory University, Darwin, Australia. In the following essay, he analyzes the cultural and ethnic implications of Farah's Maps.]

Perhaps the most startling and unforeseen consequences of the recent breakup of Central and Eastern Europe have been the release of resurgent micronationalisms and a reversion to absolutist ideas of the “ethnic nation”: ideas that have habitually taken uncharitable views of “migrant” or “minority” cultures. No doubt, as the whole concept of “Soviet Literature” is gradually displaced, questions of national identity—Ukrainian, Kazakhstani, Azerbaijani—will be drawn up along exclusive ethnic, cultural, and religious lines as alternatives to those framed by political ideology and legated by Soviet imperialism. In fact, something much like this has already happened in another part of the world—on the African continent, where tribal nationalisms have long overridden the constructs of political geography, and African literature has recorded the process in some spectacular examples. The fiction of the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah is a nomadic fiction, drawing upon many cultural and religious sources and upon readings in many of the world's literatures. It is a living testament to the cultural mongrelization which has become a standard feature of the colonial and postcolonial world, and his strange novel of the 1976 war in the Ogaden, Maps, dramatizes the resistance to this phenomenon by resurrected ethnocentrisms. In this short article I propose to review Farah's treatment of the latter resistive process and the implications of cultural exclusiveness for his handling of personal, national, and sexual identity.

Maps is the story of Askar, an orphaned Somali child of the disputed Ogaden, and his shifting relationship with his adoptive mother Misra, an Oromo woman from the Ethiopian Highlands who is doubtfully accused of betraying the Somali army to the forces of her homeland during Ethiopia's reconquest of the Ogaden and is murdered by the Western Somali Liberation Front, of which Askar is a member. Indeed, on the last page of the novel Askar is arrested by the Mogadiscio police, presumably on suspicion of having had a hand in her murder. Askar's retrospective narrative, which is told by turns in the first, third, and speculative second person (“You are a question to yourself … You doubt, at times, if you exist outside your own thoughts”), recounts the traumas and triumphs of his Ogadenese childhood spent with Misra and, more briefly, his adolescence in Mogadiscio with an adoptive uncle and aunt. The narrative is haunted throughout by memories and intuitions of his foster mother's physical presence and of a sometimes excruciating intimacy with her, dating from the crucial early years. This bodily closeness, which allows the motherless male child and the childless surrogate mother to live, complementarily, inside each other, later resists the abstract intellectual hatreds of creed and country that are awakened by the Somali-Ethiopian War in the Ogaden.

In this novel—not surprisingly in Farah's fiction, where domestic and political patriarchies are mutually reinforcing—the relations between a nation and its members are expressed through the roles of parents, or guardians, and children. The postcolonial nation is parented or, more precisely, foster-parented. Nationality categories are most accurately read through the positions assumed by the novel's various surrogate parents towards their charges. Conversely, the destabilization of these categories is perceived through a series of pseudoincestuous role-reversals that subvert these positions. The postcolonial territory of Askar's birth is, like Askar himself, without natural parentage. Neither is it self-creating, as Askar fancies himself to be—“I had made myself, as though I was my own creation” (23)—though it may have the opportunity to take charge of its own destiny. Such territories are, in reality, the imaginative constructs of colonial and postcolonial cartographers (British, Italian, Ethiopian, Somali), conceived not biologically but intellectually: Askar, who is the human analogue of the Somali Ogaden, describes himself as “a creature given birth to by notions formulated in heads, a creature brought into being by ideas” (3). Such creatures are adopted beings with adopted identities defined by adoptive parents, and Farah sustains the analogues between the child's ties with the family and the individual's more artificial ties with the nation only by replacing Askar's real parents with a range of surrogates and guardians. These are his foster-mother Misra who, albeit in a purely nominal way, represents the Ethiopian occupier; the childless Mogadiscio intellectuals Hilaal and Salaado, who represent the modern Somali Republic, seeking to complete itself by the addition of the motherless child of the Ogaden; the Koranic teacher Aw-Adan, who represents the unifying power of Islam; and the brutal Ogadenese Somali Uncle Qorrax. At the end of the book each of Askar/Ogaden's five guardians has had parts of him/herself chopped away. Misra undergoes a mastectomy (and is then murdered and mutilated, her heart torn out); Hilaal has had a vasectomy, his wife Salaado a hysterectomy; Aw-Adan has had a leg amputated; and Qorrax has had blood exacted. These truncations seem to signify, allegorically, the further dismemberment and fragmentation of the Ogaden.

In the book's allegoric scheme Askar, representing the Ogaden, is born to two patriotic martyrs who give their lives for the cause of its liberation from Ethiopian occupation: his father dies on the day of his birth and his mother soon afterwards. He is thus the posthumous mythic offspring of Somali nationalist aspiration and the mother-Republic, and he signifies what is salvaged by his country from the colonial carve-up of the Horn of Africa (his mother's unread journal, predating Somali orthography, is written in Italian). Askar-Ogaden is then, strangely, entrusted by her to the “enemy” in the form of the Oromo-Amhara woman Misra, who cannot be said to be of the same blood as the child, either in the matrilineal or ethnic sense. The child's budding nationalist aspirations are subsequently grounded in the special stifling, suffocating intimacy generated by the one-parent-one-child family, in which the gender-confused male child first identifies with and then seeks to exorcise the oppressively close maternal presence. As he grows up Askar feels a natural need to live a life independent of Misra and expresses the desire of each man to kill the “mother” in him: “To live, I will have to kill you” (57). But these emotions get mixed up with a felt imperative to shoulder the burden of his biological inheritance, left him by his natural mother, by defending his country from the people of his nurturing mother, even though he has only the most theoretical sense of the former, compared with the intensely felt proximity of the latter. Askar has a strange obsession with the idea that there is “a woman living inside him,” but this has curiously little to do with Misra, the woman who is most physically present in his life. It seems rather to be tied up with an abstract guilt complex over the spectral figure of his biological mother, “she who claimed she ‘lived’ in him who had survived her” (105), and whom he accuses himself of killing at his own birth: “I feel as if my mother's death was my birth, or, if you prefer, her death gave birth to me” (151). The feeling is thus more filial than sexual: it is specifically the mother, rather than the woman in him, whom Askar desires to preserve.

At his circumcision, which is his first lesson in frontiers, Askar is ritually separated from Misra and begins to define his “specific” Somali adult maleness against his “generic” Ethiopian mother-figure (the terms are those of his uncle Hilaal, who argues that Somalis have their own unique and exclusive language, culture, and destiny, while “Ethiopia” is a “generic notion, expansive, inclusive,” being merely “the generic name of an unclassified mass of different peoples” [148]). After his painful separation from his adoptive mother, he is given his first maps and calendars and these become the “mental charts” on which he measures, in time and space, both “the uncoverable distance between Misra and himself” (97) and the Somali advances and retreats in the Ogaden. Significantly, as the war in the Ogaden escalates, the seven-year-old Askar is physically removed to Mogadiscio and his childhood dependence on Misra comes to an end. Askar's first steps towards psychological independence have thus initiated, quite fortuitously, an involvement with his homeland's political independence, and from the moment of his arrival in the Somali capital, national military progress in the Ogaden is measured, symbolically, by the distance that has grown between the Somali child and the adoptive “Ethiopian” mother whose foreign presence within him he feels he must rid himself of. This physical distance between “your anatomy and mine” (18) becomes, increasingly, a perceptual distance between her physical reality and his mental image of her. When he meets her again in the capital years later, he feels “totally detached” and “weaned” from his “mother-figure,” for “in the process of looking for a substitute, he had found another—Somalia, his mother country” (96). He now feels that he can espouse one of his rival adoptive mothers only by denying the other, and the earlier ominous words of his childhood, “To live, I will have to kill you,” now take on, in the quite different context of her suspected betrayal of the Somali army, the tone of patriotic duty. Yet his sense of his separate identity is continually undermined by his long and deep intimacy with Misra and, when placed beside this, his claims for the primacy within himself of his unknown biological mother are less than persuasive. Indeed, Askar is culturally formed and molded by Misra in his upbringing. For example, his fantasy that he is one of the race of epic miracle children who kill their mothers at birth is implanted in his mind by Misra's Oromo oral tales and folklore: thus, even the idea of his natural mother's special moral claim upon him derives, ironically, from the culture of his adoptive mother.

In the historical period covered by the novel Askar, like his beloved Ogaden, is separated from both his mothers—from his Somali motherland at his birth and from his Ethiopian stepmother at her death—and the latter separation, in the lives of both individual and nation, is the costlier affair. During the “tragic weekend” in which Russian-backed Ethiopian forces retake the Ogaden, six hundred Somali patriots are betrayed to the enemy and massacred, and among the refugees flooding into Mogadiscio is Misra, the one accused of the betrayal. Embarrassed by her arrival in the capital and by reports of her reputed treachery, Askar is then further traumatized by her final abduction and death at the hands of the Liberation Front (her mutilated corpse is fished out of the bay) and he falls mysteriously and evasively ill at each of these crisis points. It later transpires that one of the things he has been evading may be his own ill-defined complicity with Misra's murder, for which he is, apparently, detained and interrogated by the police at the end of the novel. In this respect Maps might be compared with Graham Swift's novel Waterland, in which the protagonist also tries to hide from himself (and from the reader) his involvement in a murder. The difference is that whereas Swift, a late modernist-realist, is concerned with the ultimate meaning of the deed performed by the guilty party and with the gradual revelation of his hidden traumas, Farah, in more postmodernist fashion, poses the ontological question of what it is that the narrator has done and is now concealing from himself or, indeed, whether he has done anything (which things are clear neither to the reader nor to the character himself). There are, for example, two passages in Maps—where Askar pictures a soldier standing over a wounded woman with a blood-stained knife and then imagines himself a fish feeding from Misra's blood (211, 214)—which could be construed to mean that Askar, if not the initiator, was at least an accomplice in Misra's murder and dismemberment. But as both of these passages are presented in the form of dream sequences, it is difficult to say exactly what is happening or when, or at what level the images are meant to be read.

To return to the fable of national identity: the association of Misra with the foreign occupation of the Ogaden is ultimately a spurious one. She is, after all, an Amharic-speaking Oromo, not a full-blooded Ethiopian, and she has more natural affinity with the occupied zone than with the occupier. She is herself an occupied possession on Somali as on Ethiopian territory, a slave-girl sexually colonized by a host of “uncles”: the Ogaden's symbolic guardian is herself the guarded property, violated by various occupying patriarchal wardens. Also Misra, like Askar, is an uprooted orphan and her Oromo culture, like the Somali one, has been historically marginalized by its orality and oppressed by a literate Ethiopia. She is, in fact, doubly displaced: first as an Oromo living in Ethiopia and forced to speak the language of the dominant Amharic culture, and then as an “Ethiopian” reviled by Somali ethnocentrism. Ironically, Misra is, much more precisely than Askar, a fitting image of the Ogaden that she is accused of betraying. Like the Ogaden, she is brutally abused by Somali patriarchy, is raped by her supposed defenders (by a vengeful pack of Liberation Front patriots), and is finally mutilated and dismembered, her heart torn out by war. For the bigoted members of the Liberation Front, who are convinced they need no proof of Misra's guilt, she is the diseased part of the Somali heritage, to be surgically removed (such is their perverse reading of her mastectomy). But those who live fragmentarily, through a number of cultures as Misra does, always have missing parts of themselves elsewhere, on the other side of some border, whether in Mogadiscio or in Ethiopia. Misra is not a unitary being who can be comprehensively enclosed and defined by maps but represents the various parts of cultures and countries—Oromo, Ethiopian, Somali—which are to be found in mongrelized, migration-prone areas like the Ogaden. Farah has said that the Kallafo of his Ogaden childhood “boasted a Somali-speaking civilian population, a large Arab community engaged in business, as well as Amharic-speaking soldiers … recruited from all the ethnic groups of the Ethiopian empire” (“Childhood” 1264). Askar likes to think of Ethiopia as a “patchwork country,” but it is really the Ogaden—crossed, as a veteran soldier remarks, by different waves of migrants twenty, fifty, or a hundred years apart over a period of centuries—which best expresses the hybridization of cultural reality. This irretrievable hybridization is most keenly represented in the novel by Misra.

Misra is the daughter of an Amhara nobleman and an Oromo servant. She lives with a Somali family, and has Qotto and Ethiopian lovers. Accordingly, she has access to and concourse with all of the fertile neighboring microcultures and tribal nationalisms by which the Ogaden is hedged around and diversified, in spite of its narrowly ethnocentric efforts to resist them. Creative energy, it seems, lives, liminally, along these borders: Askar notes that two-thirds of Somalia's major poets come from its marginal territories and that one such peripheral people, the Boran, provide the Mogadiscio mingis with its ceremonial language. Appropriately, the Ogaden, which is a collection of border territories, is symbolically entrusted by Askar's natural mother to a border person, to one of mixed descent and therefore with a choice of identities. This entrustment by a Somali woman to an Oromo servant-girl, reaching across artificial boundaries erected by male nationalistic obsessions, is done, it seems, in recognition of their common Cushitic heritage and interpenetrating cultures. The reputedly “specific” Somali culture which uncle Hilaal theorizes at length about is seen, in reality, to participate in a broader generic group and it is surely no accident that, for all his talk of Somali specificity, there are actually few “pure” Somalis in the novel and those who exist are surrounded by people of Oromo, Qotto, Boran, Adenese, Arab, and Ethiopian extraction. Misra's name exists in three of these languages and in its Somali form is an incomplete version of the Ethiopian “Misrat,” meaning “foundation of the earth.” Referring as it does to the elemental and non-partisan, unmapped and unfrontiered earth, it is an appropriately loose signifier for an area as diverse as the Ogaden.

Two key motifs in the novel contest this linguistic and cultural hybridization and play contrapuntally against them in the text: the first is incest, the second maps. Askar says quite early in the novel that Misra regards the fabric of Somali society as “basically incestuous.” In the course of his narrative incest becomes an expressive image of the narrow, inward-looking ethnocentrism of Somali culture, its failure to diversify itself by recognizing its kinship with neighboring peoples in a broader generic family. It is also used to demonstrate the way in which the patriarchal abuse of power in the Ogaden shores up micronational divisions among its chequered subjects. The region's paternal guardians seem to make a habit of abusing the foreign wards entrusted to their care and protection, thus committing a figurative incest and identifying the national or ethnic “other” as a mere object of degradation. The Somali boys are abused by the Adenese; the Ogadenese foster-child by the Islamic schoolteacher and lover of his adoptive mother; and the abducted Oromo girl Misra by the Somali patriarchs and the wealthy Muslim Abdullah who forces her to switch roles from adopted daughter to wife. In each case the child looks to its false foster-parent, as the Ogaden to its latest political guardian, for self-definition, moral example, and leadership. Instead he or she finds paternal and avuncular responsibilities betrayed and traditional relationships inverted: “uncles” become rapists, fathers husbands, daughters wives. Askar is himself complicit with this incestuous abuse of power. When Misra's nocturnal male visitors force themselves upon her in the Ogadenese household, the child's rage is clearly colored by an incestuous Oedipal envy of her violators. And it is significant that Misra allows herself to be blackmailed into sleeping with uncle Qorrax because only by so doing is she able to sleep with Askar, thus implicating the child in her own quasi-incestuous humiliation. Askar specifically likens himself to a “third leg” lying “somewhere between her [Misra's] opened legs” (24); the image identifies him explicitly with the wooden leg that the crippled Aw-Adan removes before intercourse with Misra and thence, vicariously, with Aw-Adan's penis; and during her sexual climax Misra sighs the same endearments to her lover as the ones she uses to the child Askar (“my man!”). Not surprisingly, the adolescent Askar is plagued by subconscious guilt over his physical attachment to his stepmother, and his elected psychological ruse for escaping this guilt is to externalize his incestuous desires and alienate them to Misra herself, thus turning the victim into the aggressor. To this end, he falsifies Misra's past, accusing her of murdering her adoptive father/husband “during an excessive orgy of copulation,” whereas the truth is that her guardian forced himself upon her and a likelier cause of death was the old man's sexual over-enthusiasm. The role of incestuous murderer is clearly more convenient for Askar's newly-adopted image of Misra as “enemy-barbarian.” More incredibly, he recasts an Ethiopian army captain with whom she enters into a sexual liaison during the invasion of the Ogaden as a half-brother, thus transferring his own incestuous desires to the lover and substituting for him in his own fantasies.

On the narrative level, Misra's relations with Askar are not entirely normal, being full of incestuous echoes like the ones mentioned above. But the Ogaden is symbolically entrusted to her because, in the Brechtian phrase, she is good for it, and its paternal guardians—be they Somali, Qotto or Amhara—clearly are not. “We're in each other's life now. No more wars. We're a family,” says uncle Hilaal as he hugs Askar to him, and in this he speaks, unconsciously, for the multicultural, mongrel spirit of the Ogaden, which desires only that its various guardians live at peace with its occupants and they with one another. Misra is the good guardian because, unlike her shifting political counterparts, she is sufficiently conversant with and tolerant of all her people's cultures to make allowance for their different partisan relevancies and myopias. She is the true mother who sees all the blind spots on her child's body and “soaps them all and, in the end, washes them clean” (110–11). When she admits to buying milk for the Ethiopian soldiers, she protests that “she was doing something for ‘her people,’” and then adds the comment, “the problem is, who are ‘my people’?” (184). The phrase is, of course, deliberately ambiguous. Both sides are “her people” and she provides both with what they most need: milk for the Ethiopians, money for the Somalis. Misra serves all members of her larger, generic Ogaden “family,” giving to each what is good for them and overriding the incestuous inwardness of Somali ethnicity.

The second and stronger bastion of resistance to cultural and linguistic diversification is Askar's maps. Farah has said of the colonial maps of Africa that “we should redraw [them] according to our economic and psychological and social needs, and not accept the nonsensical frontiers carved out of our regions” (“Wretched” 54). And yet it is no accident that Askar has a nostalgic hankering for the time, during World War Two, when all of the Somali territories except for Djibouti were united under a single, colonial administration: his own politico-linguistic map of Greater Somalia is, in reality, as much a fiction of cultural geography as the colonial maps were figments of political geography. History, Hilaal reminds us, is made by those who have access to sign-systems (168) and is imposed upon those who have not, and the coercive cartographic enclosures enforced by the newly-literate Somalis override sociopolitical (and, increasingly, cultural) divisions as the old Western imperial ones overrode ethnic and linguistic barriers. Their ethnocentric organization of political space is, arguably, as distortive of reality as the Mercator projection's Eurocentric organization of geographical space. The Somalis of the WSLF regard their people as united by language, divided by maps, and the independent nation-state of the Somali Republic imagines that its cultural-linguistic “specificity” gives it a unique claim on those territories where Somali, in one fashion or another, is still spoken. The chief objection to this new cartographic hegemony, after noting the shakiness of its political propositions, is that it claims to unite people who, both linguistically and in other respects, are becoming more and more diverse—who have in fact become irredeemably mongrelized—while it artificially sets apart other groups of people who, in reality, are much more closely bonded. In the former category are the Somalis scattered through Kenya and Tanzania, like the tutor of Cusmaan, Askar's intellectual mentor in Mogadiscio. These, when they are not speaking Swahili, use a bastardized, ungrammatical form of Somali similar to that spoken by the Ogadenese Somalis, and their subscription to Somali cultural values is as adulterated and compromised by the dominant host-cultures as is that of the Ogadenese marginal groups, the Oromo and Qotto, by the Somali one. Much closer to home, the Westernized urbanites of Mogadiscio, at the hub of the nation-state, do not identify closely with their Ogadenese brethren but snobbishly regard them not only as linguistically incompetent but also as lacking in self-sufficiency and wholeness. No sooner has Hilaal declared categorically that “you are either a Somali or you aren't” (148) than he proceeds to postulate a halfway classification of extraterritorial “unpersons” who cannot be admitted to a full Somali identity. All the indicators suggest that the linguistic homogeneity and cultural exclusiveness of Greater Somalia, if they ever existed, are rapidly disintegrating. Conversely, in the second category there is Misra, a non-ethnic Somali speaker who, though fully acculturated, is automatically mistrusted and is denied a place on her ward's identity papers that she has done more than enough to earn. Misra fosters a Somali child and teaches it its national language and folklore, slaves in a Somali-Ogaden household where she is sexually abused by Somali men, and is, at last, doubtfully accused of treachery by them and murdered. Meanwhile, in the same Greater Somalia where children are made to learn their genealogies by heart as proof of ethnicity (Lewis 10–11), honorary citizenship is granted to another non-ethnic Somali, the sullen Qotto schoolteacher Aw-Adan, for no other reason than that his Arabic input into Somali culture is, politically, more acceptable than Misra's Amharic one (significantly it is Aw-Adan, whose loyalty is never questioned, who accuses Misra of treachery, thus, perhaps, making his own insecure position a little safer by denouncing another foreigner.

What is a Somali and what does it mean to be one? The question opens up a Pandora's box of political, ethnic, and moral quandaries. Is it to speak or to read the language, or to be born in the homeland or in one of its territories? (in fact, few of the novel's Somali speakers are Somalis by birth). Is it to be a patriot in the cause of the Ogaden?—in which case what right has Qorrax, who openly collaborates with the Ethiopian conquerors, to his Somali identity? Who, if anyone, is fit to be political guardian of the disputed Ogaden territory to which Somalia lays claim? Who can claim to have “authored” it parentally? Certainly, the criteria for nationhood postulated by Askar, Hilaal and the WSLF patriots are as erratic and capricious as the Somali map of the Ogaden, which ignores its multilingual character and fifty per cent Amharic-speaking population. Little ground is left for belief in anything that could be described as a “pure,” “authentic,” or “natural” Somali identity. In one way or another, each of the novel's characters stands, like a girl-apparition in one of Askar's many dreams, “in a borrowed skin,” and the Somali map, in its peculiarly monolithic contours and fine disregard of multiculturalism, provides an inexact, inadequate model of reality. Maps, like the wars fought over them to redraw national terrains, distort and destroy, and they are, appropriately, attended by funeral images throughout the book. The “notional truths” expressed by the Somali maps correspond to the political actuality of the Horn of Africa as little as Askar's moral conception of Misra coincides with the real woman (Misra, significantly, has no understanding of maps). Misra, like the political map of the territory of which she is the figurative custodian, is in his consciousness a suitably floating signifier, zoned into many stereotyped figures and rival fantasy embodiments: on one side, mother-martyr and victimized nation; on the other, wicked stepmother, betrayer, and national enemy. A nominal sense of reality so prevails over the actual, and the signifier over its referent, that at one point Askar even thinks of her as “a creature of his own invention” (107), and it is difficult to say exactly what does constitute her reality, since she seems (like the Ogaden) to have her being solely through the guardians and wards who control her existence in one way or another.

Askar, the girl in his dream tells him, is “almost always satisfied with the surface of things … a mirror in which your features … may be reflected” (130). For him Misra is an image of the Ogaden insofar as both are mirrors in which the beholder sees his own desires reflected, and maps, like mirrors, reflect the dispositions of their makers. “There is truth in maps,” Hilaal concedes but, aware of the dangers of ethnocentric myths, adds the rider: “The question is, does truth change? … The Ogaden, as Somali, is truth. To the Ethiopian map-maker, the Ogaden, as Somali, is untruth” (217–18). In the novel's allegoric scheme Askar comes to represent a chauvinistic Somali concept of the Ogaden, as his real mother represents the dead dream of an ethnic nation, of “Mother Somalia” as the Ogaden's natural parent, “getting together” with “the Ogaden/child separated from her” (97). Misra signifies a broader, hybrid, generic concept of the Ogaden as a place of mixed ethnicity, and her hybridization signifies everything that Askar must resist and destroy to realize his sectarian Somali dreams. “One day, you will identify yourself with your people and identify me out of your community,” she prophesies, “you might even kill me to make your people's dreams become a tangible reality” (95). What Askar does is tantamount to these things. Together with his uncles, he “others” Misra, misogynistically and xenophobically, as woman and foreigner, as a sexual and political territory to be invaded and colonized; and this separative process, even as it destabilizes roles in the parent-child relationship, reaffirms divisive gender and nationality categories. Meanwhile, like Misra, the neutral ground of the disputed strip of land (“the foundation of the earth”) does not discriminate between its diverse occupying nationalities and the rival maps that overlay it like the layers of a palimpsest. The “truth” of maps is, finally, a highly subjective, ethnocentric kind of truth, and the stable identity presupposed by the idealistic vision of the map-maker non-existent.

Some recent writing from the postcolonial world, particularly that from the white Commonwealth of Australia and Canada (Malouf, Atwood, Kroetsch) has challenged the homogeneity of ethnocentric colonial discourses by projecting spaces other than those inscribed on the prevailing hegemonic map. These resistive readings celebrate the diversity and mixed ethnicity of formerly colonized cultures, previously ignored or stigmatized by the dominant colonial one, and indicate a shift away from cultural homogeneity. In the contemporary Africa of Maps, however, the new dominant discourse is itself insularly and oppressively ethnic. Ethnicity is here the hegemonic and reterritorializing power, not the revisioning agent or counterdiscourse: the regional map is the instrument of new, postcolonial ethnocentrisms and false cultural homogeneities forced upon a hybrid, mongrelized reality. Africa's internal imperialisms have taken over from where the alien, external ones left off. Farah's novel offers us new maps for old.

Works Cited

Farah, Nuruddin. “Childhood of My Schizophrenia.” The Times Literary Supplement 23 Nov. 1990: 1264.

———. Maps. London: Picador, 1986.

———. Interview with Patricia Morris. “Wretched Life.” Africa Events Sept. 1986: 54.

Lewis, I. M. A Modern History of Somalia: A Nation and State in the Horn of Africa. London: Longman, 1980.

Grace Sullivan (review date January-February 1993)

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SOURCE: “Variations on the Theme of Somalia,” in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. 18, No. 1, January–February, 1993, p. 39.

[In the following review, Sullivan discusses the disparity between the images of Somalis presented in the media and the characters fleshed out in Farah's latest trilogy of novels, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship.]

First published more than a decade ago in Great Britain, Somali writer Nuruddin Farah's Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship has recently appeared in print for the first time in the United States. Meanwhile, the American media indicates connections between the West's former lack of attention to Somalia and its catastrophic condition today. Recognitions of past inattentiveness ironically coincide. As do present appearances: The news feeds us images of the Somali as the anonymous victim of starvation; the Variations depict Somali intellectuals—financially comfortable, well fed, and living in fear of death by torture rather than famine.

Farah's subtle and persistent use of the theme of spoiled nourishment as a metaphor for the corruption of the state is disturbingly prescient in this regard. All three of his titles refer to food. The wasteful slaughtering of cattle by Italian colonialists as a kind of punishment is a memory of landmark symbolic significance in Close Sesame. And the first novel in the series begins with a poisoning.

When Sweet and Sour Milk opens, Soyaan, a former economic advisor to the General, has been given something to eat that doesn't agree with him. He is soon pronounced dead of “complications.” The euphemism is telling. His twin brother Loyaan, sure that Soyaan has been killed for political reasons, attempts to investigate the circumstances of his death. As he discovers the degree to which his brother opposed the General's regime, he watches that regime mythologize his brother's memory, transforming a political liability into a figure of national heroism.

Soyaan is one of ten undercover activists who form a core group of characters in the trilogy. Not entirely known even to each other, all are involved in an apparent plot to take down the dictator. True to his characters' vow of secrecy, Farah never reveals the details of this plot; nor do his stories pay much attention to exactly how and why his characters would institute reform if it were to succeed. Farah's omissions point to the double binds of suppression in an environment where information is a liability. A document disappears from a safe deposit box along with the former owner of the key. The key, the box, and the disappearance overwhelm the words that were locked up. These peripheral factors generate more illicit information. The subject of the politics in question is overwhelmed by the issue of how it will be constructed.


Farah effectively treats this problematic interplay between necessary strategies of self-protective silence and critical disclosure in Sardines. The novel centers around Medina, a prominent journalist who is barred from her profession after a short-lived stint as editor of the nation's only newspaper, during which she prints unprintably factual news. Her response is to retire into voluntary reclusion. While this decision alienates her, it also frees her to work on translating world literature into Somalian and her muted experience into thought. Medina's thwarted reportage re-emerges in an altered form, as a poetic stream of fantasy and memory.

The main character of Close Sesame has also left a public life for a private one. A respected tribal leader and former political prisoner, the aging Deeriye now lives almost solely for his dreamlike sessions with Allah and with his dead wife, and receives premonitions of future trauma while napping in his room. Close Sesame plays with the notion of madness as sanity, blurring boundaries between Deeriye's political astuteness and his visionary dreams. The two finally merge in the culminating scene, which is all the more effective for being notably outside the omniscient narrator's scope; abruptly recounted after the fact according to unreliable hearsay. At the point where Deeriye finally and violently confronts the Dictator, we are denied access to his thoughts and feelings; reminded, instead, that we're consuming a reconstructed and gap-ridden version of events. The reader is led to confront the dictatorship's pernicious erasures through the effects of an indeterminate narrative.

Farah writes with an acute sense of poetry and a faithfulness to the visceral quality of mundane detail. His characters are fully fleshed out as individuals, while the Somalis who waste away before our eyes remain nameless, engraved in silence on the same paper we use to line litter boxes and start fires. Burned into memory or not, the severity of these images of suffering makes them hard to digest as anything but symbols, representations of the mute inescapability of body when it has lost all the weight of character and history. The absence of a bridge between this apparently empty shell of devastation and the rich culture Farah describes may mark another notable inattention.

Derek Wright (review date Winter 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of Gifts, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 195–96.

[In the following review, Wright lauds Farah's Gifts as “a poetically evocative as well as (politically) a mildly provocative work.”]

The Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah announced the imminent arrival of his novel Gifts in 1986, shortly after the publication of his extraordinary novel of the Ogaden War, Maps (1986). However, readers then had to wait (surprisingly, for this prolific novelist who had published six novels in fifteen years) until 1992 for the book's African publication, by a Zimbabwean press, and until 1993 for its European distribution.

Gifts appears to have had an indecisive gestation, its final version having shifted somewhat from its original conception. In the 1986 interview and in a 1988 essay the novelist spoke of the book as being part of a new sequence of novels with Maps, presumably, as the first volume and a novel variously titled Motives and Letters as the third. It comes as some surprise, therefore, when the new book starts afresh with a completely new cast of characters who, subsequently, do not have the “transworld” identities, reappearing in novel after novel, of the characters in the earlier Dictatorship trilogy, comprising Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), Sardines (1981), and Close Sesame (1983). Gifts, moreover, appears to have no obvious thematic, historical, or stylistic connection with Maps, and there is little evidence that it is part of a second trilogy of novels.

Farah's new novel is, first and foremost, a love story. Duniya, a twice-married thirty-five-year-old single parent, slowly succumbs to the loving gift offerings of the once-married Bosaaso, recently returned from America. Duniya is that familiar figure in Farah's fiction: the Somali woman imprisoned by patriarchal Islamic tradition, her position negotiated by men. At the outset of her marital career she is herself a “gifted” property, given by her father in a customary marriage to a man three times her age, and one of the subsequent “givens” of her destiny is to be controlled by the uncles, half-brothers, and husbands whose charge she is and in whose houses she is temporarily accommodated. Woman, as she says, is a “homeless person.” Duniya moves from her father's house into her aging husband's and from there into a tenancy to the journalist-landlord Taariq, who makes her his live-in companion and then his wife, and who turns out to be a drunken and demanding husband. After the divorce from Taariq, she takes a tenancy to her petulant half-brother Shiriye, but she quarrels with his wife and moves out to live with Bosaaso. Even the alternative pied-à- terre provided by her expatriated brother Abshir at the end of the book to help her preserve her independence is but another male gift; and as gifts have conditions and built-in dependencies, Duniya has grown wary and distrustful of them and has cultivated a habit of looking them in the mouth.

The personal story is foregrounded, however, against a larger social and political canvas and opens out into the wider perspective of international gifts from First to Third World countries, each chapter ending with a newspaper snippet about American and United Nations aid to famine-stricken nations in the Horn and other parts of Africa. Political gifts to nations, like personal gifts to people, bind together donor and recipient in ways which change their relationship. Either may be given with the best or worst of motives and results. They may express affection, compassion, loyalty, or penance; meet contractual obligations; assert superiority and dominance or create dependency; or angle to get something in return, in the hope (though hardly in the case of Africa) that yesterday's recipients will become tomorrow's donors. And since shortages both of food at the national level and of love at the domestic one are man-made (famine, the result of maladministration, “is a trick up the powerful man's sleeve”), one effect of outside aid to remedy them may be to bolster corrupt power and influence, whether of an Ethiopian emperor or a domestic patriarch. Furthermore, as Taariq writes in a newspaper article titled “Giving and Receiving,” “Every gift has a personality—that of its giver. … Every foreign-donated sack of rice is stamped with the characteristics and mentality of its donor.”

In this exquisitely patterned novel Farah moves deftly from microcosm to macrocosm, from the innermost recesses of the individual human heart to public catastrophe. Each chapter begins with a dream in which Duniya does unspecified damage to herself by spurning some gift-bringing bird, insect, or animal. It then proceeds inexorably to the media spectacle of international aid but does so through a series of personal and social “giftings”: these include lifts to work and restaurant meals provided by Bosaaso, blood donations, rent-free tenancies, food parcels, coins to beggars, and, at the center of the book, a symbolic present from Allah in the form of an illegitimate child purportedly found by Duniya's daughter Nasiiba in a rubbish bin (this later turns out to belong to Nasiiba's friend). Bridging the gap between the extremities, and personalizing the public dimension, are strategically placed scenes: for example, the one in which Bosaaso's late wife questions the motives of the Danish aid worker, and the scene in which Duniya quarrels with her half-brother's wife Muraayo. The point of the pivotal episode of the illegitimate foundling child—Allah's gift—is to bring to Duniya's house a host of people who express a wide range of attitudes toward the donation and reception of gifts at all levels in their reactions to the child and their advice as regards what to do with it. Ironically, none of this is very helpful and the child dies—presumably because none of the hosts or visitors are capable of receiving the gift in the way it is intended.

This death notwithstanding, Gifts is a sunny and radiant novel, its gentle, teasing humor a welcome relief after the dark menace and shrill psychological agonies of the Dictatorship trilogy, and its disciplined clarity of style refreshing after the somewhat mannered esoterics of Maps. This is Farah's first African-published book, and it is clearly aimed at a broader and more African-based readership; thus the learned epigraphic allusions to Western literature which open the chapters in the earlier books have been replaced by captions briefly summarizing the events that follow. This is a new, different Farah, interspersing his narrative with the familiar poetic dream literature and oral folklore of Somali tradition but in a much more accessible form than before. Gifts is a poetically evocative as well as (politically) a mildly provocative work, and is full of unexpected echoes, startling insights, and subtle quirks of characterization that will continue to delight Farah's readers. Though not the most profound of his books, it will not disappoint; though not quite what was promised or expected, it was worth the long wait.

Alamin Mazrui (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5483

SOURCE: “Mapping Islam in Farah's Maps,” in The Marabout and the Muse: New Approaches to Islam in African Literature, edited by Kenneth W. Harrow, Heinemann, 1996, pp. 205–19.

[In the following essay, Mazrui uses Farah's Maps to trace the author's attitude toward Islam.]

If Africa were to produce its own Salman Rushdie—the writer who became the subject of Ayatollah Khomeini's death fatwa after the publication of his controversial novel, The Satanic Verses (1988)1—it is likely to be the Somali novelist, Nuruddin Farah. It may be mere coincidence that Rushdie is one of the critics who praised Farah's Maps (1986), describing it, on the back cover, as “the unforgettable story of one man's coming of age in the turmoil of modern Africa by one of the finest contemporary African novelists”; and indeed, Rushdie may have been referring specifically to Farah's artistic achievements. But one cannot help notice in Maps the seeds of Rushdian sentiments which ended up provoking the rage of many Muslims all over the world.

Most sub-Saharan Muslim African writers have generally been guarded in their criticism of Islam. Their tendency has been to condemn the abuses of Islam by certain powerful interest groups, rather than the doctrine of Islam itself. The writer who may have gone farthest in this regard is perhaps Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese novelist and film-maker.2 As a Marxist, Sembène has sometimes tried to show how the religion is used as a legitimizing ideology of the ruling class in their quest for politico-economic hegemony. This, too, seems to be the position of some other Muslim writers like Tayeb Salih and Nawal el-Saadawi.

To Farah, however, it is not the misuse of Islam by any particular dominant group that is the overriding problem in Afro-Islamic societies. It is, rather, the inherent moral bankruptcy of the religion itself whose manifestations are equally visible among members of less privileged groups. In this regard, Farah seems to be informed by a brand of Eurocentric ideology that has considered Islam as retrograde in its cultural dispensation, and as socially and historically decadent in its doctrines.

Farah's peculiar projection of Islam in his Maps takes place along four different parameters: the identitarian, the spiritual, the moral and the canonical. What is the relationship between Islam and African identity? If Islam is averse to materialism, is it a fulfilling experience in its spiritual provisions? Can Islam serve as a bulwark of morality against human weakness and social decay in a crumbling political order? Does the Qur'an encapsulate the word of God, or does it merely mask the spirit of Satan? It is to these questions, as addressed in Maps, that we must now turn.


There are certain societies in Africa in which Islam as a cultural expression is virtually an indispensable attribute of their ethnic identity. The Hausa of West Africa and the Swahili of East Africa are cases in point. It is perhaps possible to have a Hausa or Swahili person who is not a Muslim in religious faith, but it is far less conceivable to have a Hausa/Swahili individual who is not Islamic in cultural practice.

The Somali, whose identity constitutes a central theme of Farah's Maps, are like the Hausa and the Swahili in regard to the identitarian role of Islam. In the words of David Laitin and Said Samatar,

Although traces of pre-Islamic traditional religions are clearly visible in Somali folk spirituality … Islam today is deeply and widely entrenched not only as the principal faith of the Somalis, but also as one of the vital wellsprings of their culture. A pervasive sense of a common Islamic cultural community contributes vitally to Somali consciousness of a shared national identity.

(1987, 44)

This pervasiveness of Islam and the massive infusion, into Somali society, of the Arab culture that came with it, has supposedly generated such an attachment to the religion that, in the opinion of Laitin and Samatar, an elaborate genealogical myth has been “fabricated,” tracing Somali origins to the Arabian peninsula, the cradle of Islam (1987, 44).

Farah clearly recognizes Islam as an integral part of Somali society. The novel itself is virtually saturated with Islamic cultural practices, from the employment of clichés like “Ma-sha-a-llah,” to actual performance of the Islamic salat [prayer]. At the mythical level, the boundary between what is Islamic and what is Somali in the story of Adam and Eve, with its obvious Biblical and Qur'anic roots, has become blurred in the minds of some characters like Hilaal (1986, 229). And at the more symbolic level of identity, conversion to Islam, together with infabulation rights, were essential processes towards the Somalization of the Ethiopian immigrant girl, Misra (1986, 69).

At the same time, however, Farah's position about Islam betrays some ambivalence. In spite of all the suggestions in the novel about the interconnection between Islam and Somaliness, there are definite counter-allusions that the religion is, in fact, foreign to Somalia's body politic.

As regions, East Africa (which includes Somalia) and West Africa naturally differ in the cultural orientations towards Islam. In West Africa, Islamization followed a quiet process fostered by trade and other contacts with Berbers, rather than by an encounter with Arabs. As a result, Islam in West Africa became gradually indigenized, manifesting a dynamic interplay of tensions and accommodations between the religion and other indigenous traditions.

In East Africa, on the other hand, partly because of the proximity of the Arabian peninsula, the Arabic influence has been more pronounced. The arrival and expansion of Islam in this region was coupled with visits and settlements by Arabs from the earliest days down into the twentieth-century. Culturally, therefore, East African Islam probably retained an Arabic character to a greater extent than did West African Islam. And this, in turn, may have promoted the perception, alluded to in Maps, that Islam is essentially a foreign religion.

But, for Farah, this seeming “foreignness” of Islam in Somali society appears to be an issue only to the extent that it is linked to imperialism, to alien cultural impositions that have supposedly confounded Somali identity. This thesis, that Islam in Somalia is a form of cultural imperialism, becomes clearer when one looks at Farah's views on writing (using the Arabic script), in particular, and the Arabic language, in general—two foundational, historical imperatives of the religion of Islam.

Much of sub-Saharan Africa was characterized by the oral tradition prior to its encounter with the Arab-Islamic world. For a number of African societies, therefore, Islamization also brought an induction into the art of reading and writing. While Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad could neither read nor write, Islam itself holds the written word in the highest esteem. Partly as a result of this religious influence, therefore, African versions of the Arabic script, like the ajami of West Africa, emerged and, in time, contributed to the creation of a new literary tradition.

But the process also involved the acquisition of Arabic as the language of Islamic ritual, and the language in which the Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. And this intrinsic religiosity of the Arabic language has been important in forging a collective consciousness of the Muslim umma all over the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, its impact was felt in the formation of Afro-Islamic languages, like Hausa and Kiswahili, indigenous languages of predominantly Muslim communities which became highly infused with Islamic idiom.

In Muslim Africa, therefore, writing in Arabic characters and the Arabic language are two dimensions of Arab culture which have always been part and parcel of the legacy of Islam. Southern Sudan is perhaps the only region in sub-Saharan Africa in which Arabization, i.e., the spread of Arab culture, seems to be proceeding faster than, or independently of, conversion to Islam. But in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, Islamization and Arabization were twin and, often, fused processes. Literacy and the Arabic language, therefore, are among the aspects of Arab culture which clearly contribute to the construction of a new African Islamic identity.

Within Muslim Africa, however, Somalia presents a rather anomalous case. Despite their geographical proximity to the Arab world, and centuries of exposure to the Arabo-Islamic culture of literacy, the Somali people have remained passionately attached to the oral heritage. The greatest poetry in Somali literature has been primarily in the oral mode. Orality has sometimes been invoked in the quest for cultural authenticity in the attempt to construct an identity that could be considered truly African. But, for Somalis, the orality-identity dialectic is not merely a quest. It is a living reality.

Perhaps partly as a result of this patriotic embrace of orality, Farah seems totally unaffected by the unique veneration and virtual divinity that Islam accords to the written word. Farah recognizes, of course, that the “miracle” of the written word is canonized in the Qur'an itself. When Askar was receiving his first lesson in written English, he remembered reading in the Qur'an in his childhood how Allah swore “By the pen and that which it writes,” and how He ordered the Prophet Muhammad to “Read” in the name of the Most Bountiful “who taught by the Pen!” (1986, 169). Despite this sacralization of the written word, however, Farah would seem to regard all writing as merely a question of power and domination as far as Somalia was concerned. It is in this regard that Hilaal asks his nephew, Askar:

Are we in any manner to see a link between “This is a book” and the Koranic command “Read in the name of God,” addressed to a people who were, until that day, an illiterate people? In other words, what are the ideas behind “pen” and “book?” It is my feeling that, plainly speaking, both suggest the notion of “power.” The Arabs legitimized their empire by imposing “the word that was read” on those whom they conquered; the European God of technology was supported, to a great extent, by the power of the written word, be it man's or God's.

(1986, 169–170)

Somalis, then, are supposed to have come under colonial domination of the neighboring Amharas, Muslim Arabs, the Christian Europeans, partly through the instrumentality of the written word of man or of God.

Does this mean that writing should be rejected because of its presumed imperialist role and connections? No. Rather like the Most Royal Lady of Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure (1963) who advocated the pursuit of the secular education introduced by colonial invaders, Farah's Hilaal encouraged the acquisition of literacy as a key to the kind of knowledge that would eventually lead to the liberation of the African people (1986, 168). Writing as part of the Arabo-Islamic legacy, then, is not seen as making a constructive contribution towards a new identity—as it is in many Afro-Islamic societies—but as a weapon of subversion against foreign domination.

With regard to the Arabic language, Farah assumes a quasi-Whorfian position—the relativist position that language influences perception in a culturally specific manner. Benjamin Lee Whorf claimed that a person's basic ontology or worldview is structured or determined by language. Each language is supposedly encoded with a particular mode of thought, a metaphysics, that affects the speaker's experiences at the level of perception. As a “foreign language,” therefore, Arabic is regarded by Farah as a reservoir of “alien concepts and thoughts” which are imposed forcefully on the minds of Somali children, presumably as part of the process of cultural colonization (1986, 84). Of course, the “alien concepts and thoughts” which are supposedly inherent in the Arabic language must include Islamic thoughts and concepts, for it is in the Arabic language that the Qur'an itself was revealed. In the words of the Muslim Holy Book, “We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur'an, in order that you may learn wisdom” (Qur'an 12:2).

Should the Somalis, then, reject Arabic together with the Arabo-Islamic worldview it necessarily implies, or as with writing and literacy, should they seek to acquire it with the eventual aim of subverting Arabo-Islamic hegemony? Farah's position on this matter is not explicitly articulated in the novel.


The binary opposition between the spiritual and the material, between the Word and the world, has been a central theme in Islamic thought. There are sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad to the effect that a pious Muslim is one who strives for this world as much as for the hereafter (al-Suhrawardy 1980, 91). Despite the unambiguous supremacy of the Word in Islamic doctrine, therefore, the religion is interpreted by some as urging its followers to maintain a rather delicate balance between their spiritual and material worlds, between the quest for spiritual salvation and the striving for material welfare.

There are versions of Islam, however, in which the veneration of the spiritual entails, at the same time, the debasement of the material. Ultimate salvation is measured in part by the extent to which a person has managed to shun the material in pursuit of the spiritual. Human labor is to be expended in the service of God even if it means relying exclusively on charity for one's subsistence. Some sects of Sufist (mystical) Islam clearly belong to this religious legacy.

Ch. Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure (1963), for example, is partly informed by this Sufist ideology. The disciples are expected to demonstrate their anti-materialism not only by devoting their labors entirely to the service of Allah and living in the most deprived of material conditions, but also by bringing the body under spiritual control. Bodily senses which interfere with the development of a complete communion between the person and the Word, between the spirit and Allah, must be subdued. And Samba Diallo's excruciating experiences under Thierno's tutelage demonstrate that the quest for the spiritual “ultimate” makes physical pain not only bearable, but almost desirable and, certainly, purifying. Thierno subjects Samba Diallo to extreme physical torture when it appears to him that his bodily senses interfere with his pronunciation and mastery of the Word.

Samba Diallo's reaction stands in marked contrast to that of Askar in Farah's Maps. Like Senegal, Somalia, the setting of Maps, has a mystical brand of Islam with Sufi orders which include the Qaadiriyya, Ahmadiyya and Saahiliyya. In the opinion of Laitin and Samatar, the vast majority of Somalis belong to some mystical order and their Islam “is characterized by saint veneration, enthusiastic belief in the mystical powers of charismatic roving holy men, and a tenuous measure of allegiance to Sufi brotherhoods” (1987, 45). But what this ideology spiritually provided for Samba Diallo, it completely failed to provide for Askar.

As in Senegalese society, in Somalia there is the belief that a disciple may have to undergo physical suffering in the process of acquiring the Word. When Askar was first taken by his uncle to Aw-Adan, the “priest,” for Qur'anic instruction, the uncle reminds the teacher that:

Askar is part bone and part flesh. The flesh is yours and you may punish it to the extent of it letting or losing a bit of blood. Teach him the Word … show him the light which you've seen when he is still young.

(1986, 81)

Inflicting pain on the body for purposes of inculcating the Word of God is seen as a natural part of the process of training the spirit.

Unlike Samba Diallo, however, Askar does not quite accept this religious connection between physical mutilation and spiritual salvation. Of course, as a child, societal and familial pressures led him to pretend that he did espouse this ideology. In Askar's words:

I behaved as though I were convinced that being caned by Aw-Adan was part of the ritual of growing up, that in a way, it was for my own good—didn't learning the Koran form part of the ritual of growing up spiritually?

(Farah 1986, 85)

In reality, however, he could not come to terms with this painful path towards Islamic spirituality. Physical pain led Kane's Samba Diallo to perfect his Qur'anic recitation; but with Askar it had the reverse effect. “The letter alif,” said Askar, “because I was hit by Aw-Adan and I bit my tongue, became balif; and ba when struck again sounded like fa; whereas the letter ta, now that my mouth was a pool of blood, was turned by my tongue into sha” (1986, 82).

To Askar, then, Islam and the Qur'an lacked the spiritual substance that could prepare him to endure bodily pain. He believed that “no verse in the Koran could've reduced the pain or even eliminated it altogether” (1986, 89). While Muslims are generally urged to read the Qur'an in moments of psychological and emotional stress, Askar felt that he could not depend on the Word to fill his own void: “The Word, I said to myself, was not a womb; the Word, I convinced myself, wouldn't receive me as might a mother, a woman, a Misra” (1986, 86–87). Far from being touched by the Word and deriving strength from it, therefore, Askar actually felt deserted by it.

Partly because of the Word's “failure,” then, Askar's physical suffering turned into a compulsive hate against Aw-Adan, the priest. According to Askar:

I hated him more when he caned me, because I thought that each stroke struck a blow, rending a hole in the wall of my being. When with him, when at school that is, I uttered every sound so it was inlaid with the contemptuous flames meant for him. Which was why I shouted loudest, hoping he would burn in the noises—ablaze with hate.

(Farah 1986, 77)

The priest, then, became the target of the very pain he inflicted on Askar, partly because the Word and the Islamic doctrine had failed to grip Askar and uplift him spiritually.


But there was another, somewhat Freudian, reason why Askar hated Aw-Adan so intensely; and this had to do with the nature of the priest's relationship with Askar's adoptive mother, Misra. Islam is not only a spiritual path; it is also a way of life. It encompasses certain values and mores which help guide the social conduct of the believers. If Islam has failed as a spiritual guide—in Farah's conception—has it fared any better as a moral code? Are the custodians of the Word, like Aw-Adan, also the moral conscience of society?

In this regard, Kane's Ambiguous Adventure and Farah's Maps again offer contrasting perspectives. Thierno, the teacher in Kane's novel, is a model of morality and social uprightness. In his society he is regarded with utmost honor and veneration. Apart from devoting the most minimum amount of time in the field to procure his extremely frugal nourishment, the “rest of his days and nights he consecrated to study, to meditation, to prayer, and to the education and molding of the young people who had been confided to his care” (1963, 7). The custodian of the Word in Ambiguous Adventure, then, is unambiguously the epitome of Islamic morality.

The priest, Aw—Adan, in Farah's Maps, however, presents a dramatically different picture. In spite of his thorough knowledge of Qur'anic law and the trust that the community has placed in him to serve as a spiritual and moral guide for their young, Aw-Adan engages in one of the few crimes against Islamic morality, adultery, that is punishable by death. Jealously, Askar explains to us how he saw Misra, his adoptive mother, and the Islamic priest lying naked in bed, and how Aw-Adan's artificial, wooden leg

was dropped and how fast another between his legs came to raise its head, jerkily, slowly and how the whole place drowned in the sighing endearments of Misra who called him … yes him of all people … “my man, my man, my man!”

(1986, 32)

This seemingly prolonged illicit relationship between Aw-Adan and Misra started when he was teaching her the Qur'an.

Aw-Adan's moral standing had become so low that Askar wondered if, in fact, he, the “master,” had not once acted altogether sacrilegiously in his affair with Misra. Was Aw-Adan not guilty of violating the very Word for which he served as custodian by making love to her as she was reading the Holy Book? “Did Aw-Adan make her read the Koran,” wondered Askar, “and, while she was busy deciphering the mysteries of the Word, did he insert his in?” (1986, 52). The Muslim priest's reputation was so negative, then, that one could think the unthinkable of his moral conduct—committing adultery in the very process of imparting the Word.

This negative portrayal of the priest as essentially immoral and hypocritical is, in fact, extended to other characters who espouse an Islamic ideology and who are still attached to the more non-westernized dimension of Somali traditions. Qorrax, Askar's paternal uncle who sent him to the priest to receive the Word and to be shown the light while still young, engages in the same kind of adulterous affair with the same woman, Misra, as Aw-Adan. Again, Askar tells us how Qorrax “came after nightfall and made his claims on Misra,” how he threatened to hire another woman to take care of Askar and dispense with her services unless she offered herself to him, and how “Misra suffered the humiliation of sleeping with him” so she could continue being with Askar (1986, 28). The uncle who is so concerned about Askar's Islamic and moral upbringing, then, is himself so morally decadent as to force Misra into an illicit affair through sheer coercion.

On the other extreme of the morality continuum are Askar's maternal uncle, Hilaal, and his wife, Salaado. Though intensely nationalistic towards Somalia, these two are anything but Somali in their socio-cultural disposition. As intellectuals who are highly educated in the Western tradition, they have become completely alienated from their “cultural Somaliness” in the process. They have, in fact, become highly Westernized and, in their attitudes and behavior, seem to espouse an “extreme” brand of Western liberalism that even questions the boundaries of gender.

But precisely because they have become more liberal in the Western tradition, Hilaal and Salaado have become less Islamic in social orientation. It is perhaps possible to be a Westernized liberal in political and economic terms without being less Islamic in politico-economic ideology. It is, however, less possible to be a Westernized liberal in cultural terms without violating some of the basic canons of Islam. Western media has created the impression that all politically active Islamic groups are “fundamentalist” with overall aims and objectives that are incompatible with liberalism and democracy. But, the polysemy of the term “Islamic fundamentalism” notwithstanding, it is in fact possible to have Islamic-oriented politico-economic action that is not antidemocratic or antiliberal, and which advances the political aims of liberal democracy.

Perhaps less compatible with Islam is a cultural liberalism in the Western mold. Some of the most basic values of Western liberalism are diametrically opposed to Islamic doctrine. The cultural values of Western liberalism would accommodate, for example, a multiplicity of religious views and beliefs—from fundamentalism to agnosticism to atheism. In Islam, however, such a wide range of liberal opinion in religious affairs is likely to enter into the realm of apostasy. It is perhaps for this reason that some followers of Islam who reject what is seen as excessive Westernization3 often react more violently towards cultural symbols than towards political and economic symbols of the West. They are more likely to target a Western theater showing western-style films than a Western-style legislative assembly following Western-derived procedures of deliberation, or a Western factory producing Coca Cola.

The cultural dimension of Hilaal and Salaado's Western liberalism thus implies a certain degree of cultural divergence from Islam. Their behavior has ceased to reflect anything Islamic, and the Islamic learning that they grew up with has been all but forgotten. During Misra's funeral, for example, where verses from the Qur'an were recited in chorus by those present, Salaado reports that she could not remember a single verse from the Holy Book, not even from such a basic chapter as the “Faatihah.” Salaado acknowledges that this may have been due, in part, to her mental state precipitated by the shock of Misra's death; but she then goes on to add that “even now” she doubts if she could remember anything from the Qur'an (1986, 241).

Yet, it is precisely these two characters, who have apparently been de-Somalized and de—Islamized through a process of cultural Westernization, that are projected extremely positively in terms of their conduct. The two are morally upright and deeply sensitive people who have transcended the parochial confines of “tradition” in their humanism. What Islamic ideology failed to provide to the likes of Aw-Adan and Qorrax, then, Western liberal ideology succeeded in providing for Hilaal and Salaado.


Historically the most widely read book in its original language, used at least five times daily in formal worship by millions of people, the Qur'an is regarded by Muslims as Allah's direct revelation to His Prophet Muhammad. There are, in fact, many Muslims who believe that the Qur'an is so sacred that one must be in a state of ablution before handling it, and that it must always be stored in a place that is compatible with its supreme honor. Contrary to these beliefs held by a wide section of the Muslim population, however, Farah's views on the Qur'an are, at best, ambiguous, betraying a mixture of seeming reverence and what borders on sacrilege.

Many of the Muslim beliefs about the Qur'an are, in fact, contained in the Qur'an itself, and some of these are articulated in Maps. To Muslims the Qur'an is the ultimate miracle from Allah, and there are several verses which point to its inimitability. But equally important among God's miracles is nature, and the Qur'an repeatedly calls on the unbelievers to look at the various aspects of nature—the mountains and the seas, the moon and its “accompanying” stars, the sun and its orderly movement, and so forth—as miracles of God's creation in their own right. And this is perhaps the essence of Askar's suggestion that

in Islam, Nature … is conceived of as a book, comparable, in a lot of ways, to the Holy Koran: a genus for a sura, a species for a verse, and every subspecies shares a twinship with the alif, ba, and ta of mother nature—maa shaa Allahu kaana!

(1986, 128).

In Maps, therefore, as in popular Muslim beliefs, the Qur'an and nature join to serve as a testament of the existence and boundless power of God.

Equally important to Islam is the idea that, despite its great clarity on all fundamental issues, the Qur'an is also a reservoir of hidden meanings known only to the Almighty. Following the bizarre murder of Misra, Askar suggests that the priest supervising the burial should have recited, among others, verse sixteen of Sura Luqmaan (1986, 242) which reads: “O my son! if there is but the weight of a mustard-seed hidden in a rock or anywhere in the heavens or on earth, God will bring it forth: for God understands the finest of mysteries and is well acquainted with them.” Like a good Muslim, therefore, Askar seems to turn to the mysterious aspect of the Word of God in the quest for a resolution to his own inner conflicts and for some light on his enigmatic past and the direction of his destiny.

Muslims also regard the Qur'an as a form of healing. Verse 82 of Surat Banii-Isra-il proclaims to the world: “We sent down in the Qur'an that which is a healing and a mercy to those who believe. …” Of course, the Qur'an regards itself as a healing for broken spirits; but there are many Muslims who regard it as a cure for physical ailments as well. And it is this popular belief rather than the doctrinal position of Islam which is invoked when Askar falls sick and Aw-Adan offers “to read selected verses of the Qur'an over Askar's body astraddle the bed in satanic pain” (1986, 102).

Is the appearance of the words “verses” and “satanic” in the above quotation a mere coincidence, or, like Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, is it, in fact, intended to have an allusive significance that pits God, on one side, and Satan, on the other? Askar promptly and categorically rejected Aw-Adan's offer to recite the Qur'an over his body. He feared that the priest may read the “wrong” passages from the Holy Book, “passages, say, which could turn him into an epileptic” (1986, 103). The idea that one could maliciously or inadvertently invoke the “wrong” verses from the Qur'an that could end up harming an innocent person is alien indeed to the belief system of the Muslim umma, and would amount to an attack upon the Book for possessing an evil dimension that is incompatible with its Godliness. But, to Askar, the Qur'an does seem to encapsulate both Godly power that could heal the sick and “satanic” power that could harm the innocent.

Farah further explores this interplay between the Word and the world of Askar through two symbols, one sexual and one unsanitary. The prospects of circumcision and the fear of being separated from Misra thereafter lead Askar to sleep with the slate containing Qur'anic verses between his legs to serve as a much needed extension of his body—a penis perhaps?—as he “chanted selected verses of the Koran whenever Aw-Adan called on Misra, as he was accustomed to doing after dusk, verses which promised heaven for the pious and a hellish reward for the adulterous and the wicked” (1986, 86).

Later, when Askar was being given a bath by Misra, the Word moved from its position between his legs to intermingle with the filth from his body. As Misra lovingly splashed water on his face, Askar tells us, “I jumped up and down in glee, oblivious of the fact that the Koranic writings had ended up in the same baaf as the dirt between my toes. I decided I wouldn't hold the slate between my legs that night, and the following night too. Misra and I slept in each other's embrace and the slate was left in a corner until after I was made a man” (1986, 88).

With a somewhat Freudian twist, the Qur'an reassures Askar about his sexual existence when there is some distance between himself and Misra; but when the two are joined again, the Word becomes peripheral to his life and even meaningless, as it is cast aside in a neglected corner or allowed to wallow in the same water as the filth from his feet. At least until Askar became a man!

And what happens when Askar is initiated into adulthood? In his sojourn in the land of pain immediately after his circumcision, he tells us: “The waters of the rain washed the slate on which I had written my prayers and the thunder drowned my chanting of the verses which praised the traditions of Islam” (1986, 92). As Askar enters a new psychosexual stage of his life and becomes his own man, so to speak, after belatedly outgrowing his oedipal inclinations he realizes that he no longer needs Misra. Nor, indeed, does he any longer need the Word. The Word gets washed away and drowned like any material thing on the ground, as he himself physically moves away from Misra to his new home, Mogadisho.


Farah's Maps portrays a complex social web that is heavily intertwined with Islamic symbols and idioms. This has arisen, in part, because his fictional world of the Somali people is, after all, predominantly Islamic in faith and culture. However, this is a culture and a worldview that Farah seems to reject in quite explicit terms. But Farah goes beyond rejecting Islam. He satirizes it. And it is in this respect that one can draw a parallel between him and Salman Rushdie. He does not, for example, go to the extent of describing the Prophet Muhammad as Mahound and his wives as prostitutes. But, in addition to debasing the religion and its Book, through the metaphoric and symbolic strategies discussed above, he does make sex a primary feature of the relationship between the Prophet and his wives. Even the Prophet, then, is “sooner or later” expected to engage in sex partly as a way of subduing his wives (1986, 223–24). In his satirical projection of Islam, therefore, Nuruddin Farah has clearly taken the path of a cultural apostate.


  1. Like Rushdie, but to a lesser extent, Farah's novel raises once again the problematic question of the conflict between faith and fiction, between the freedom of the writer and the integrity of the community of believers. For a more extensive coverage of these issues, see The Rushdie File, edited by Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland (1990).

  2. Mbye B. Cham describes Ousmane Sembène as an apostate, and seemingly the only one among Senegalese Muslim writers (1990, 178–83).

  3. In the words of Ali Mazrui, “there is a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of Islam as the one culture that clearly produces rebels against western hegemony. … It is the vanguard against western cultural hegemony. Whenever we complain about Muslim fundamentalists, let us remember that that is a term which describes a rebellious mood against being assimilated by the majority culture in the world” (1990, 225).

John C. Hawley (essay date September 1996)

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SOURCE: “Nuruddin Farah—Tribalism, Orality, and Postcolonial Ultimate Reality and Meaning in Contemporary Somalia,” in Ultimate Reality and Meaning, Vol. 19, No. 3, September, 1996, pp. 189–205.

[In the following essay, Hawley discusses the roles of politics, tribalism, and religion in Farah's novels and traces how the author portrays the search for an ultimate reality.]

‘Everybody had turned the foundling into what they thought they wanted, or lacked.’

—Nuruddin Farah, Gifts, 128.


Few would contest the observation of Matthew Horsman and Andrew Marshall that ‘fragmentation within existing nation-states—along ethnic, linguistic and religious lines—is occurring in eastern Europe, in Africa and in the states of the former Soviet Union’; that even in the ‘traditional nation-states’, as the authors describe them, ‘tribalism is growing. Scots in the United Kingdom, Catalans and the Basques in Spain, and Lombards in Italy are increasingly vigorous in their demands for an even greater measure of self-administration’. Some would perhaps wish to qualify the reasons that Horsman and Marshall offer to explain this phenomenon but, again, most would agree that those who participate in this resurgence of tribal consciousness ‘seek a level of comfort in their communities to withstand the complexity and atomization that modern capitalism has wrought on their lives and to free themselves from domination by “alien” elites’ (Horsman, 1994, p. 185). But if this search for ‘comfort’—which one might interpret as a search for meaning—is a regressive and relatively recent event in some countries, in many parts of the world where nation-states have been arbitrarily carved out of a map by colonizing powers, such tribalism continues less as a vehicle for personal liberation and more as the very mechanism for domination by native elites. This is especially true in a country like Somalia, where factional battles resist national coalescence. The question citizens of such an inchoate country must ask themselves, in terms of their personal and national search for meaning, is how to find a voice, how to find an audience, how to begin a dialogue from which a consensus may emerge. Must each citizen remain a foundling, seeking an individual and national identity that has not been imposed by others?

While granting that it would be simplistic to propose that all ‘postcolonial’ peoples are seeking the same ultimate reality, it will be the purpose of this paper to suggest that in Nuruddin Farah of Somalia, roadblocks to the search for ultimate meaning dominate his fiction in a way typical of many third-world novelists. As Barbara Harlow points out, for writers such as Amilcar Cabral (the leader of the Guinea-Bissau liberation movement and a major theoretician of African resistance and liberation struggles) and Ghassan Kanafani (author of Literature of Resistance in Occupied Palestine 1948–1966), the resistance movement and the armed struggle for national liberation were to accomplish the political and economic liberation of the people from the thrall of imperialism. But they were also expected to bring about, in that process, a revolutionary transformation of existing social structures. Whether in liberating women from traditional tasks, organizing democratic processes of decision-making and counsel, building schools or training cadres of peasants and workers, the ‘armed liberation struggle’, as Cabral says [in 1973, p. 55], ‘is not only a product of culture, but a determinant of culture’ (Harlow, 1987, pp. 11–12).

This suggests that belief in a particular ultimate reality (whether sacred or, in Marxist-inspired revolutions, profane—or, perhaps, so deferred as to become at least ethereal) that might be construed as a product of culture inspires in many of these politically-committed writers a revolt against the more rarified aesthetic concerns of western novelists in favor of a decision to reshape society and, in the process, to unearth the foundation of that culture's ultimate meaning. I will argue that this project defines Nuruddin Farah's corpus, most obviously in his trilogy jointly entitled Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship. At the heart of his interrogation of Somali culture is his examination of the tectonic friction between self-definition and tribal loyalty, between nation-building and diurnal obligations. He is especially noteworthy because of his interest in his country's transition from an oral to a written culture. The place of the word, and principally the revealed word of Allah, in such an age of change, directs the reader to the central questions of meaning that preoccupy both the author and his characters. Who can speak in such countries, and to what effect?


Nuruddin Farah was born in Baidoa in 1945, in what was then Italian Somaliland. The British and Italian territories were united in 1960 to form Somalia. Farah grew up, therefore, understanding Italian (he now lives principally in Italy) and English, the language in which he writes his novels. He worked for the Department of Education and then went to India and attended the University of Chandigarh to study literature and philosophy. While there he wrote plays and his first novel, From a Crooked Rib, which was one of the earliest African novels written by a male that clearly portrayed the inequities that women endured in Somalia and, by implication, throughout most of Africa. His interest in women's rights continued, as seen especially in Sardines, the second novel of his political trilogy. But his focus was to broaden a bit when he returned to Somalia in 1969, for this was the year that Major-General Siyad Barre staged a bloodless coup and, with Soviet assistance, imposed a system of ‘scientific socialism’ on the country.

Farah quickly grew to hate this regime, with its near deification of Siyad Barre; it produced, as he describes it in Sweet and Sour Milk,

a nation regimented, militarised. A nation disciplined and forced to obey the iron-hand directing the orchestra of moans and groans. … The politics of mystification kept everybody at bay. People were kept in their separate compartments of ignorance about what happened to other people and what became of other things.

(Farah, 1992C, pp. 190, 198–99)

The regime became symbolic in Farah's mind for all such rulers throughout Africa—men who played one faction against another to maintain personal power, and who encouraged narrow tribal interests in opposition to the broader national concerns. When Farah wrote the novel in Somali, the views he embodied sufficiently alarmed the new government that the serialization of Sweet and Sour Milk was suppressed. He next wrote A Naked Needle, a novel with autobiographical overtones about a disaffected teacher. Before it was published in 1976 he had moved to Britain to study theater. Upon the publication of the novel he was warned that if he were to return to Somalia he would be imprisoned for thirty years.


It became clear to Farah that a generational crisis faced his homeland: those who were his parents' age who had stronger faith in traditional Islam were being pushed aside; those of his own generation, who were now assuming important positions in society, found themselves disaffected from the religion of their parents; those of his children's generation were the least rooted of all, and found themselves metaphorically set adrift in an increasingly secular society—almost like spiritual orphans.


It was at this point that he turned his attention more pointedly upon the Siyad Barre regime, producing three novels (Sweet and Sour Milk, Sardines, and Close Sesame) whose characters become enmeshed in ‘the General's’ political machinery. The General is the unifying focus of the three books and it is clear he would like to be the ground of ultimate meaning for the people whose lives he dominates. Running throughout the first book of the series, Sweet and Sour Milk, is the sacrilegious phrase ‘Labour is honour and there is no General but our General’ (Farah, 1992C, p. 97)—Farah's none-too-subtle suggestion that military might has sought to take the place of the power of Allah. Throughout Farah's writing there is a cynical suspicion of political action, since in a tribal context it is so quickly corrupted.

The trilogy traces the fates of eleven members of a resistance movement who have vowed to do whatever they can to overthrow the General's regime: Ahmed-Wellie (he apparently betrays the group), Jibriil (dies in an assassination attempt), Koschin (imprisoned and reduced by torture to an automaton), Mahad (imprisoned), Medina (silenced and portrayed as a scandalous woman), Mukhtaar (killed), Mursal (killed in an unsuccessful suicide bombing), Samater (co-opted by being made a minister in the General's government), Siciliano (imprisoned), Soyaan (apparently poisoned by Soviet agents) and his twin brother Loyaan, who attempts to take his place in the movement (exiled to Belgrade as an ambassador). Although their plotting proves to be ineffective in overthrowing the General, their resistance to his presentation of himself as the center of meaning for Somalis offers readers something of a negative theology: though they do not assert an alternative ‘god’, they at least can say what their god is not.

The novels center around the personal struggle that faces each member of the group, and show how their decisions effect members of their families. The books give no sense that these decisions have any effect on the larger society, or any significant effect on the General himself, who maintains control as easily under the Soviets in the first two novels as he does under the Americans in the third. Similarly condemned by Farah is the General's version of socialism and of democracy, since both are manipulated to serve the ends of totalitarianism. The General never personally appears in the novels—his is an absence around which all the characters must define themselves. Again, a kind of negative theology seems to play into this theme of absence, since Allah's enduring presence in the lives of Farah's powerless characters seems to indict the form of power that a secular regime embraces. The activities of the revolutionary Movement never fully materialize in the narrative. These remain shady happenings as if taking place in an alternative universe that somehow influences the real world that Farah describes. We hear about it all secondhand, off the cuff, muffled by sobs, interrupted, misinterpreted. The reader, like the characters themselves, is victimized by that offstage world of history and finds in the narratological world of Farah's creation whatever meaning may be possible. In other words, Farah's characters learn (and teach) the lesson that imagination, while ineffective against the political powers that control one's environment, is powerful in providing a shape for one's vision of self. As will be seen, religion in such a context offers much the same paradoxical hope as do other forms of imagination.

Emphasizing Farah's implied suggestion that ‘movements’ and tribal loyalties neither significantly ameliorate the conditions in which we must function nor, perhaps ironically, protect us from the necessity of individual choice, the novelist devotes the bulk of the first and third novel in the series to characters who do not belong to the Movement itself and who do not draw their power from the machinations around them.


Sweet and Sour Milk begins with the death of Soyaan, one of the revolutionaries, who dies in the arms of his twin brother. Loyaan then seeks to discern the cause of his brother's death, the ideological purposes to which the General is putting that death, and the consequent responsibilities that he has to counter the official rewriting of his brother's ‘meaning’ in the eyes of the common people. Whereas Soyaan went to his death defying the General, his dead body has been confiscated by the state and he has been posthumously honoured as a national hero who respected the regime. The novel focuses on Loyaan's struggle to understand the cause of his brother's death, and the meaning of his life. Farah's purpose in the novel seems to be to show the conscientization of an individual: Loyaan ultimately decides to take his brother's place in the struggle. The fact that the choice is rendered ‘meaningless’ by the General's decision to exile Loyaan as an ambassador to Belgrade does not significantly diminish the importance of the process whereby Loyaan moved into the struggle itself. The book, therefore, has the existentialist overtones informing Camus' Myth of Sisyphus: once the character has become enlightened, the burden of choice becomes heavier, inescapable, self-defining. There is no one to lift it from the character's shoulders. But with the enlightenment comes the transformation of the absurd into the tragic.


The third book in the series, Close Sesame, emerges principally through the consciousness of Deeriye, an elderly and devout Muslim whose son, Mursal, is one of the members of the Movement. In an interview Farah noted that ‘I think that Close Sesame is probably the one novel that will outlive all my other novels. … It is difficult to explain why it is that I am more attached to [it] than to the others’ (Pajalich, 1993, p. 69). Deeriye was once a ‘player’ in the political game, having defied the Italians during their occupation. But his defiance was akin to conscientious objection, a Gandhian non-violent resistance and refusal to cooperate with the imposing power. As chieftain he bore full responsibility for this decision, and he was imprisoned for twelve years. At the same time, his decision resulted in the Italians slaughtering the tribe's cattle and causing starvation among his family—while he ate well in jail. Again, as with Loyaan's exile, the power of the institution seems to have been to render the personal choice meaningless or destructive of innocents (and innocence).


The middle book in the series, Sardines, orchestrates more members of the Movement itself, focusing principally on Medina, one of the few politically-active women, and on her husband, Samater. The story allows Farah to show a woman revolutionary behaving something like the women of Aristophanes' Lysistrata: she separates from her husband until he lives up to his responsibilities as a man, resigns from his cushy and corrupting position as a member of the regime, and silences his reactionary mother. Her decision does, therefore, have a desired effect and weakens the General's power in one very small area. But this is a minuscule grain of sand compared to what the General has done to her: she is a very well-educated woman and had been one of the few involved in publishing in the country; her punishment for spreading incendiary ideas has been a type of silencing—she is forbidden to publish anything other than children's literature.


The role of Islam in this world of institutionalized frustration is significant and Farah's approach is respectful. Nuruddin Farah's own understanding of ultimate reality and meaning does not necessarily squarely coincide with that of conservative Islam. He does note that ‘Islam is most peculiarly more tolerant of Christianity than Christianity is of Islam. … I would accuse Christians of being intolerant when it comes to other religions and of accusing Muslims of being fundamentalists’, but he admits, as well, that ‘there are many varieties of Islam too, and there is more enmity between Muslims than there is between Christians’ (Pajalich, 1993, p. 65). Of those in the trilogy who call themselves Muslims there seem to be three categories: (1) the cynical politicians, (2) the self-enslaved fanatics, (3) and the devout. There are those characters who use the trappings of religion for political ends, and they are roundly condemned; the General, of course, heads this list. In fact, in Sweet and Sour Milk Loyaan eventually discerns that his brother was killed because he answered honestly when the General asked if his rule was supported by the Koran. There are those characters who use their religion to absolve themselves from involvement in the world around them, or who use their interpretation of its precepts to discipline the more creative and more daring among their family members. The most conspicuous member of this group is Idil, Samater's mother in Sardines. She attempts to enforce the discipline that has been imposed on her daughter-in-law, Medina, and plays to the hilt the stereotype of a vindictive mother-in-law. But the characters in the final category (the devout) abound, and one plays the foil to Idil: Fatima, Medina's mother, is actually far more religiously observant than Idil, more conservative in her daily life, and completely genuine in her attempt to live the teachings of her religion without condemning those around her. Of similar simplicity and religious honesty is Ebla, the central character in From a Crooked Rib, who travels from the countryside to Mogadiscio and meets with a good deal of sorrow. In Sardines she attempts to transfer all her love, which is grounded in her religious sense, to her troubled and worldly daughter, Sagal. But Farah's most striking portrayal of the results of a long life of sincere devotion to Allah and to the teachings of Muhammed is the central character of Close Sesame, Deeriye. Sixty-nine years of age, asthmatic and nearsighted, his faith remains unshaken.

He bent double, murmuring a series of sanative phrases, breathed with lungs of gratitude and meant for the ears of his Creator. … The beads again. A litany of Koranic verses. As he counted and re-counted the ninety-nine names of Allah, as he multiplied and subtracted the number of times he had said them, he realized that the world outside had begun to wake up. … And then he prayed: ‘O Allah who art just, give us true peace, bless us with the inner tranquillity that Thou art, make us apprehend the enemy within us, deliver us, help us, O Allah, descend from the greater heights of selfishness, help us reach and be content with what we have or who we are: weak and helpless without thy guidance. … Help us, O Allah, help us find peace in ourselves, in our friends, in our families and in our neighbours.’ He held out his hands, rubbed them together, brought them closer to his face and spat a salivaless emission of breath and (with the prayer beads still in the grip of the index and middle fingers) rinsed his face in his dry but blessed open palms. Then he recited a mumbled Faatixa. With all this done, his features cast in worshipful mould, silent, reverent, he got up, caught the prayer rug by the corner and hung it on the nail on the wall above his bed.

(Farah, 1992A, pp. 4–5)

In the course of this novel Deeriye's son, the last of the revolutionaries, is killed in his attempt to assassinate the General. Apparently unshaken in his faith by this loss, Deeriye nonetheless seems to take on the younger generation's philosophy of violence—where necessary. He borrows a military uniform and a handgun, goes to see the General, and is himself killed when he attempts to withdraw the gun from his pocket: he has, instead, pulled out his prayer beads. Even in death he willy-nilly embodies the Gandhian principles that had ruled his life. His out-thrust symbol of Islamic devotion, Farah seems to suggest, is what will ultimately overthrow the General. At any rate, in the closing pages of the novel the populace recognizes his greatness and his spiritual strength—a power that means more than the brute force that controls the profane world around them. If the General's approach seems to hold them variously in his sway, ultimately even the General and his minions must answer to one more powerful than they. In the meantime, whether devout or cynical, the people of Somalia live under the reign of a tyrant.

Such a repressive regime, coupled to the wider world's profane philosophy, quickly exhausts the idealism of its citizens. The response of the younger generation to religion is embodied in the exchange between Zeinab, Deeriye's daughter, and her father: ‘Excuse me’, said Deeriye, ‘I'll see you later’. ‘The muezzin calls’, said Zeinab, ‘and you cannot not answer’. ‘Earnest praying is a vocation, my father used to say’, Deeriye said. ‘And is that what my father says?’ she said. He did not rise to her challenge. He said, ‘I will see you later’ (Farah, 1992A, pp. 186–87). He goes off to pray; she does not.


Throughout the trilogy Farah portrays the younger (that is, thirty-something) generation as action-minded, well-educated, generally well-travelled and cosmopolitan, but sadly lacking in a moral center or clear sense of what might be called ultimate reality and meaning. They have become politicized at the expense of their moral grounding. Deeriye and those of his children's generation come to much the same end, but Deeriye does so with the sense that, in the larger scheme, his life has been meaningful. Zeinab and her generation do not share that assurance. Farah is interested in charting the effects of modernity and neocolonialism on the members of his own generation (Zeinab's generation)—those who have been faced with an increasingly secularized world, a national oppressive government, and few roadmaps that would suggest a direction in which to take oneself and, by extension, one's ‘emerging’ nation. Though the details of the Movement that plays itself out in the background of this trilogy are sketchy, the reader will recognize in the various deaths and career collapses of its members a bravery that should have produced more impressive results: these, after all, are some of the best-educated and highest-placed members of the younger generation. Instead, the only hope for mobilization of a larger percentage of the population comes (and only paradoxically and somewhere off in the future) through Deeriye's almost ludicrous assassination (or suicide?) attempt. He, of course, is a member of the older generation whose time, one would have though, had passed.

The trilogy targets those aspects of the historical Somalian modus vivendi that perpetuate patriarchal dominance. ‘The reason why I have always fought against authoritarianism’, he writes,

even when it comes from Somalian traditional society, is that if we accept authoritarian rule within our own societies, then we must also per force accept authoritarian rule coming from outside. Democracy suggests equality, and there must be equality, we mustn't say we (men) would rule women ruthlessly, unkindly, undemocratically but we would not want the Italians to come and colonize us. We shouldn't colonize other peoples. There is a hierarchy of injustice, and the weaker the person the more likely for that weaker person to do more harm to those persons who are weaker than he. For example, in societies where there is political terrorism, the weakest animal is the one who suffers most. In Somalia, for example, we usually chase children who have always been hit. If you have a small child who is about eight and who comes home and his parents hit him, and he goes out and another person who is more powerful hits him, and they go about doing nothing because they can't come home for fear of being hit … well, they are more likely to be tempted to chase a dog. This is the spiral of violence, a product of this hierarchy of injustice.

(Pajalich, 1993, pp. 63–64)

Farah thus returns again and again to his despair over the Balkanising effects of tribal patriotism within a new nation like Somalia. Farah's trilogy has overtones of a Kafkaesque subterranean web of interconnecting, inscrutable happenings, wheels within wheels, that move without apparent causality or purpose. The members of Farah's generation, many of whom would naturally be the strongest leaders of their society, eventually fill the role of beaten children so eloquently described by the author: they are beaten by the evacuation of meaning from their most idealistic actions. The reader ultimately shares the debilitating confusion and malaise of the characters who begin with determination, and who end as demoralized isolates cut off from whatever trans-tribal hopes might enlist their energies in a national Movement. If one is not a member of the General's tribe, there is little possibility of ‘networking’ in an effective way to change society. On the other hand, if one is a member of the General's tribe the suasive charms of wallowing in one's potential dominance of others, of playing along with one's own family preeminence, are practically irresistible.


Coupled to this tradition of tribal loyalty is Farah's ambivalence toward his country's oral traditions, which record the highest aspirations of its people but which also serve as the most effective agent for social control. Somalia has a long and vibrant history of oral literature, and its poetry fills the pages of the trilogy. Deeriye, especially, quotes from Sayyid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan, a legendary warrior poet, and Sultan Wiil Waal, ruler of Jigjigga. This tendency to ‘live’ the poetry of an earlier age, however, and to find sustenance and a meaningful thread of continuity in memorized verses seems, much like the tenets of Islam, to belong to Deeriye's passing generation and not so obviously to that of the members of the Movement. The Somali language had no accepted script and was, therefore, only oral until the early 1970s. In an interesting parallel to the observation that the fascists at least kept the trains running on time, the imposition of a script came very shortly after the imposition of Siyad Barre's regime. Thus, from a novelist's point of view, the movement from a fluid, personal, performance-based culture that may be suggested by orature, to a regimented, standardized, and anonymous culture that may be suggested by written ‘literature’ almost inevitably suggests a devolution rather than the liberating modernization that most westerners would immediately champion.

It is good to recall that the Koran was transmitted to the illiterate Mohammed without the aid of the written word. Nonetheless, a romanticized version of oral culture raised to its highest literary form, (and regardless of its obvious value in the lives of characters like Deeriye), overlooks the negative aspects of word-of-mouth communication in a tribal and/or tyrannical culture. Farah expends a great deal of energy in demonstrating the consequences of the horrible power of the spoken word to distort, obfuscate, disempower.

In his excellent analysis of this aspect of the trilogy, Derek Wright notes that

reality in the oral society is unwritten, unwritable and, ultimately, unknowable … The indeterminacy of oral modes of interpretation make it difficult to distinguish between the true and the imaginary, between what does and does not exist. … The political-criminal plot launched against Soyaan [in Sweet and Sour Milk] by an oral-based dictatorship and hunted down by Loyaan is, in the last analysis, unwritable and never materializes. Accordingly, the narrative plot eventually runs out unresolvedly in loose ends or, rather, unstitches itself deconstructively in the penultimate chapter and unravels in a welter of conflicting oral testimony.

(Wright, 1989, pp. 188, 190)

‘What I like to do, in telling a story’, Farah writes,

is to study the numerous facets of a tale and to allow very many different competing views to be heard … coexisting with the contradictions. … I don't imagine that there is any single voice, so this is why my novels are multi-voiced.

(Pajalich, 1993, pp. 63–64)

But, like life itself, his books written in this polyphony generally enact the confusion that their characters endure at the hands of a regime that manipulates the truth by misspeaking, lying, telling half-truths, using a variety of speakers to broadcast conflicting interpretations of events that did or did not happen. And, as Barbara Turfan points out, ‘the feeling of an omnipresent uncertainty and tension is deftly evoked also in conversations, conversations which leave out more than they include but form, with the speaker's unspoken thoughts, a continuous stream to which the reader, but not the other participants, has access’ (Turfan, 1989, p. 174). The result among the people is frustration, suspicion of each other, and paralysis. The misuse of speech, and the consequences of this manipulation, begin early: in Close Sesame a little boy is sent with a message that has a dubious source. Can it be believed? ‘The little boy's voice grew faint the moment he realized all these eyes were focused on him: for eyes which could hear frightened him; eyes which could register the movement of lips; eyes which could betray; sell information they deciphered. A young boy of eight carrying an important message: a history to be relived through … politics again’ (Farah, 1992A, p. 105).

By manipulating the powerful forces of social control inherent in an oral culture the General's regime undermines another of the strengths of the people. But this is not as it could be. As M. M. G. Mugo, Kavetsa Adagala and others have shown, true orature traditionally works as a reminder of the demands for human rights—demands that would challenge any totalitarian system. Adagala notes that there are two types of orature in Africa, each reflecting the era and political system from which it arises: the first is feudal-oriented, in which there exists not only division of labour, but also division of society into classes (Adagala, 1985, p. xiii). In these narratives the focus is on the struggle between these social classes. The second form of orature is communal-oriented, and in these ‘the social relationships depicted show the communal nature of society: people work together to overcome the difficulties in life and to fulfil their material needs’ (Ibid, p. xii). In this latter form, the group, the family and the community feature prominently. Mugo points out that in these stories the narrator

would view reality as constituting layers upon layers of interrelated co-existence. There is the individual, the corporate personality and the collective group. There is the family unit, the extended family, the clan and the community. There is the inner ‘world’ of the personality—the sound, the heart, the intellect, the imagination, etc. There is also the outer ‘world’ of being—the physical human appearance. Then there is the outside world—the environment, the natural world and the physical features that define it. The utmost circle of the outer world defines the world ‘up there’—the sun, the moon, the stars, the sky and the rest of the elements.

(Mugo, 1991, pp. 12–13)

Considering the remarkable lack of harmony in the lives of most of Farah's characters, and their ultimate isolation from one another, it is significant to note that, in Mugo's view of traditional communal-oriented orature, ‘all the layers of the “human onion structure” must harmonize or the world will step out of measured rhythm and cause chaos. An individual can only fully be if he or she is a part of the collective group’ (Ibid, p. 13).

Such traditions are easily corrupted by a regime interested only in preservation of its own tribe in opposition to all others in the nation, since, in the world of orature, one becomes one's brother's keeper. The emphasis on collectivity and interdependence can be transformed into spying. But, at its best, orature is, in Mugo's words, ‘antithetical to individualism, egocentricity, isolationism, alienation, cutthroat competition and so on’ (Ibid, p. 14). The artist assumes a special interactive role in society, giving voice to community concerns and also reminding the community of their dreams and responsibilities. Again, Mugo:

Over and above the responsibility of exposing, satirizing and denouncing antisocial behaviour and the abuse of human rights, he or she was also expected to inspire those struggling against injustice to change the oppressive conditions facing them. He or she was expected to point out alternatives and options that would help the oppressed to eradicate an oppressive system and create a more humane world in which they could reach a full realization of themselves as whole, dignified human beings.

Ibid, p. 22)

If the tales were sometimes sexist, pro-patriarchal, and warlike (Mugo, 1991, p. 38), they were also used to castigate society and bring it to its senses. It is against this cultural background that Farah valorizes such characters as Khaliif in Close Sesame.

Lest there be any misunderstanding of Farah's true target—all misuse of the word whether spoken or written—the novels demonstrate that in a totalitarian state print can be similarly manipulated—rendered, in fact, a more enduring form of ‘gossip’ that constructs a totalitarian hermeneutic. In Sweet and Sour Milk, even though Soyaan has been a member of the Movement that opposed the regime, and even though it appears that he has been killed by the General's agents (or by the Soviets who support the General at this time), following his death he is declared a national hero—an artifact like the type moved about the page by a printer telling the ‘history’ of his country:

‘Soyaan is from this day onwards state property and will be treated as such. They've come for and have taken his file. I worked on the file last night. Soyaan: a property of the state.’

‘Property of the state?’

‘Yes. He is the property of the General.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘They are rewriting your family's history, Soyaan's and the whole lot. Like the Russians rewrote Lenin's, Stalin's or that of any of the heroes their system created to survive subversion from within or without. They will need your cooperation, I am sure.’

‘That they won't get.’

‘I wouldn't be so certain.’

(Farah, 1992C, pp. 106–107)

Consequently, if the written word can be as deceitful as the spoken, Farah must find new avenues for ‘truth’ to break through in his pressurized society. This he finds in the ongoing tradition of the revealed words of the religious prophet—seen to be living, effective, and motivating in the lives of Deeriye and several of the other characters—and in the ‘crazed’ words of a political ‘prophet’, who is similarly motivated by religion.

Running throughout Close Sesame, and acting much like the crazed and blinded confidantes in King Lear, is Khaliif, a former highly-placed civil servant who one night simply becomes a madman. Such a member of the totalitarian regime can say the forbidden because he is not taken seriously by the powerful. He is nonetheless recognized by Deeriye and principal characters in the novel as a reliable source of truth—even if that truth remains the inscrutable aphorisms of a Delphic oracle:

Now, sitting in the sun's brightness, Deeriye started: he could hear Khaliif's magical voice, complemented by some welcoming remarks, like a chorus, from a small crowd that had already gathered to listen. Deeriye craned forward. Khaliif did not suggest a broken man on the fringes of society; nor an alienated man whose mind buzzed with mysterious messages so far undeciphered; nor a man invalidated by or overburdened with guilt. No; his demeanour forestalled everyone's fear, prediction or worry: he sold to everybody the very thing no one was prepared to buy, and bought from everybody the very thing no one was ready to sell. His discourse was clear, grammatical and logical:

‘There are wicked houses in which live wicked men and wicked women. Truth must be owned up. We are God's children; the wicked of whom I speak are Satan's offspring. And night plots conspiracies daylight never reveals.’ And he held his hands together in a namastee, clowned a bit, entertained the younger members of the audience by doing a somersault, a karate ghost-dance, and then returned to his peaceful corner and fell quiet. Applause. He curtsied; grinning, grateful and graceful.

(Farah, 1992A, pp. 16–17)

Khaliif's untrumpeted appearance is always remarkable, providing a focal point for the creation of a possible Somali society that remains free to hear the truth about itself from a sincere Islamic point of view. Surrounded by children as well as by thoughtful adults, Khaliif's undisputed personal marginalization allows his message to cut through the devious plots by a government intent on dissipating the disturbing idealism of the younger generation. It is the content rather than the form that is of importance, as Fiona Sparrow suggests: ‘His authority as prophet cannot be attributed to a return to oral traditions after fruitless years spent relying on written forms’ (Sparrow, 1989, p. 170). The power comes from a word that is neither written nor spoken—but revealed.

Khaliif remains on the margin, however. Farah does not hold out easy optimism; he constantly counters hope with a heavy dose of realism. He begins the concluding section of Sardines with this ominous quotation from Franz Kafka: ‘The crow maintains that a single crow could destroy the heavens. Doubtless that is so, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for the heavens signify simply: the impossibility of crows’ (Farah, 1992B, p. 202). Perhaps in a totalitarian regime, one that is in transition from a far simpler age to one of multicultural confusion and challenge, the most that an artist can offer is inscrutability, a holding in abeyance of finality. Ever-suspended in the air, perhaps one's characters and oneself must simply try to negotiate a personal integrity that respects the traditions in which one was raised. In that context, Farah concludes his trilogy with questions, simple questions of a mother with simple hopes in the face of a violent world:

Would his body be given to her for burial? she wondered to herself, as she cringed, for she now heard Natasha and Samawade crying to each other in another room. Would Mursal's corpse be handed over too so she could have them buried side by side in the same tomb—so they could continue uninterrupted the dialogue they had begun? At least, she thought, looking up and seeing Natasha and Samawade in the doorway, sobbing in chorus, at least neither died an anonymous death—and that was heroic.

(Farah, 1992A, p. 237)


Thus, in his trilogy, Farah shows the crippling effect of totalitarianism and the devastating impact of secularization on his own cosmopolitan ‘second’ generation of citizens of the new state. His characters, even when they somehow gain access to the reins of power, have little sense of common purpose and, therefore, little occasion to display a commitment to any ultimate reality or meaning. It is little wonder that a mother would find solace in the fantasy that her child's death, at least, was not anonymous: increasingly, the child's life had been emptied of defining characteristics. What Farah's fictionalized older generation might lament as the passing of tribal affiliations that had provided, however narrowly, a sense of identity and purpose, the author's own generation might simply recognize as, on the one hand, the gratefully-welcomed but long-delayed collapse of the tribal structure and, on the other hand, its replacement by a sense of drift away from traditional moorings: the meaningless freedom to enter into the larger modern world of massive international business conglomerates, intolerance of the powerless, and avoidance of eccentric self-definition.


In the works that followed Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, at any rate, Farah focuses his attention less obsessively on ‘the General’ and the imposition of this man's tribal defensiveness on the entire nation, and instead makes a foundling child the center of his attention. The child becomes symbolic at once of the new nation in search of a parent who will be neither a colonizing foster father nor a neocolonial patriarch, and symbolic as well of Farah's own generation of deracinated Somalis. Maps (1986) and Gifts (1993) move in these new directions, and they seem to have brought to a close, at least for awhile, Farah's work in the novel form. He is reportedly at work now on a journalistic account of Somalis living abroad, having apparently concluded that the Somali that he has been describing all these years while in exile himself has been increasingly a world of his imagination—increasingly the projection of his inner world of turmoil over the implications of the life forced upon his generation of writers from postcolonial countries (Pajalich, 1993, p. 71).

Maps is Farah's most complex novel, in which an orphan named Askar from the disputed Ogaden region ultimately betrays his adopted mother, Misra, who is Ethiopian. It is, therefore, literally a novel dealing with ‘border’ identities, where one's nationality changes from one war to the next. The novel demonstrates this increasing mongrelization of national identity; as Askar notes, speaking to himself,

You doubt, at times, if you exist outside your own thoughts, outside your own head, Misra's or your own. It appears as though you were a creature given birth to by notions formulated in heads, a creature brought into being by ideas. … you wonder if your existence is readily differentiable from creatures of fiction whom habit has taught one to talk of as if they were one's closest friends.

(Farah, 1986, p. 3)

As Derek Wright observes,

In the book's parabolic scheme Askar, representing the Ogaden, is born to two patriotic martyrs who give their lives for the cause of its liberation from Ethiopian liberation: his father dies on the day of his birth and his mother soon afterwards. He is thus the posthumous mythic offspring of Somali nationalist aspiration and the motherland of the Republic.

(Wright, 1994, p. 110)

But this identity must shift as the world ‘re-maps’ him. The question that seems to haunt the novel is one which exiled writers like Farah must frequently ponder: whose geometry plots one's identity? Whose values outline one's perimeter?

In its multiple layers of complexity the book ridicules the patriarchy that is everywhere attacked by Farah's novels. There is, in Wright's view,

a habitual erosion of the public into the personal, and of topographical into physiological space, which allows Askar to view the political destiny and military fortunes of the nation, analogically, through his adoptive mother's biological rhythms.

Ibid, p. 108)

How this is achieved is ingenious, resulting in ‘the first African novel of the body’ (Ibid, p. 118). But it is important to note that the body in question is Misra's. Typical of Farah, the woman is portrayed as victimized by the males—and betrayed by her adopted son for his own misguided ethnic dreams. In fact, Askar assumes the reigns of heuristic control, becoming a mapmaker. In this role he asserts an oppressive ethnicity and suppresses his own hybridized identity in favor of an imposed national uniformity. No longer truly identifiable with his natural parents and their traditions, Askar escapes the discomfort of a complex existential situation by embracing a new hegemony. Like several of the plotters in Farah's earlier trilogy, this member of the younger generation sacrifices his integrity along with his ambiguity.

The novel opens with a telling quotation from Socrates: ‘Living begins when you start doubting everything that came before you’, followed immediately by one from Charles Dickens: ‘No children for me. Give me grown-ups’. One suspects that the latter is tongue-in-cheek; the former, completely sincere. In Dickens, after all, adults prey on children, and in Farah one sees a similar pattern: his adults seem frequently enough to be those who cannot stand the unsettling demands of Socrates' injunction. The challenge is presented to Askar late in the book by his uncle: ‘He said, “Tell me, Askar. Do you find truth in the maps you draw? … Do you carve out of your soul the invented truth of the maps you draw? Or does the daily truth match, for you, the reality you draw and the maps others draw? … The question is, does truth change?”’ (Farah, 1986, pp. 216–217). To illustrate the implications of his rhetorical question the uncle points to a map of Somalia and concludes, ‘“There is truth in maps. The Ogaden, as Somali, is truth. To the Ethiopian map-maker, the Ogaden, as Somali, is untruth”’ (Ibid, p. 218). As Derek Wright concludes from this passage, ‘the stable identity presupposed by the idealistic vision of the map-maker [is] non-existent’ (Wright, 1994, p. 120). But few are able to live with the openness demanded by a resistance to such ‘maps’.

Gifts is a cautionary tale that appears to be a meditation on the demands placed by First World countries when they offer ‘gifts’ of financial aid to Third World countries—but ends as an indictment of those who implicitly reject the gifts of Allah by acting on their fears and their petty bickering rather than on their ideals. At the center of the story is another apparent orphan, around whom all the characters project a meaning. Who is he, and from where does he come? Should he be welcomed or shunned? And to whom is he ‘offered’ as gift; who has the right to claim him? Almost as if the bickering of the adults convinces Allah to take back the gift he had offered, the foundling child dies halfway through the novel. In this first of his books to be published in Africa for an African audience, this ‘truncation’ of the plot stylistically has the same effect on his readers as it does on the characters themselves: as in Dickens's Dombey and Son, with the death of young Paul, we are offered a figure who appears to be the center of meaning in the novel, and then, after we begin to invest our imaginations in a projection of what that meaning might, in fact, be, the center does not hold. Things fall apart. We are left without a central focus, and our sense that we understand is suddenly confused.

The sense of closure that Western rationality so desires is, in fact, represented as premature, falsely static in the human context. Duniya, the child's temporary guardian, knows this at story's end—which, emphatically, does not end. ‘As the others engaged in polite talk’, Farah writes,

Duniya thought to herself that little is revealed to oneself directly. Revelations are received from out of a mist of doubts, in caves, in the dark, out of a child's mouth, or via the wise utterances of an elderly or mad person. She decided that her own epiphanic instant had occurred at a moment, on a morning, when a story chose to tell itself to her, through her, a story whose clarity was contained in the creative utterance, Let there be a man, and there was a story.

(Farah, 1993, pp. 240–241)

The notion that truth—the truth of one's identity, the truths of history—cannot remain fixed, this is an idea that runs through Farah's novels as the converse of the notion that the fascistic imposition of one tribe over another is unnatural, untrue. Deeriye, in Close Sesame, had pondered the role of the individual in what one might call the narrative of history. ‘Time was the travel’, he imagines,

the journey each undertook so that another arrived, because each would eventually reach his or her destination having become another. … Time was also the abyss with the open door. … Time was history: and history was a shy little thing hiding in the folds of its robe a giant: i.e. a little boy … burdened with a message heavier than his years. …

(Farah, 1992A, pp. 94–95)


But if that message is to be anything more than a profane political plan to supplant one unjust ruler with another, if it is to transform its hearers by revealing a sacred truth that somehow steps outside time, there seems little appreciation of such a possibility in the world of Farah's generation. On the other hand, Farah seems to offer Deeriye as an alternative to the General. This character maintains his patriarchal role without becoming a dictator in his household. As Maggi Philips notes,

though one part of his life is devoted to Allah, he is also a benign and monogamous patriarch who, after his dear wife's death and toward the end of his own days, is still genuinely interested and concerned in family and social matters. Moreover, Deeriye's family brings different points of view together into a unit that advocates equality between generations, sexes and different ethnic roots: there is the religious Deeriye, the legal Mursal, the scientific Zeinab, the celestial Nadiifa, the Jewish daughter-in-law Natasha, and Samawade, the young and innocent translator. On a metaphorical level, Deeriye's storytelling places the family cluster within the traditional continuum that carries oral wisdom through generations, while Nadiifa's spiritual leadership provides a channel for sacred wisdom to illuminate the family's secular state.

(Philips, 1996, p. 5)

Deeriye has enough trust in Allah that he can allow his family to enter the abyss, knowing that time is but one more creation. Those who cannot share this sacred covenant have less peaceful lives. Many readers will conclude that Nuruddin Farah, and many other exiled intellectuals like him, write because they are still seeking an ultimate meaning to explain this bricolage that is their hybridized reality.


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Bardolph, Jacqueline. 1989. ‘Time and History in Close Sesame’. Journal of Commonwealth Literature 224.1: 193–203.

Cabral, Amilcar. 1973. Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral. New York: African Information Service.

Colmer, Rosemary. 1991. ‘Nuruddin Farah’. In International Literature in English: Essays on the Major Writers, ed. Robert L. Ross. New York: Garland.

Farah, Nuruddin. 1970. From a Crooked Rib. London: Heinemann.

——— 1976. A Naked Needle. London: Heinemann.

——— 1992A. Close Sesame. St. Paul, MN: Greywolf. [Allison and Busby, 1983].

——— 1992B. Sardines. St. Paul, MN: Greywolf, [Allison and Busby, 1981; Heinemann, 1982].

——— 1992C. Sweet and Sour Milk. St. Paul, MN: Greywolf, [Allison and Busby, 1979; Heinemann, 1980].

——— 1988. ‘Why I Write’. Third World Quarterly. 10.4: 1591–99.

——— 1990. ‘Childhood of My Schizophrenia’. The Times Literary Supplement, 23–29 November 1990: 1264.

——— 1986. Maps. New York: Pantheon [London: Pan, 1986].

——— 1993. Gifts. London: Serif.

Harlow, Barbara. 1987. Resistance Literature. New York and London: Methuen.

Horsman, Mathew and Andrew Marshall. 1994. After the Nation-State: Citizens, Tribalism and the New World Order. London: Harper Collins.

Jaggi, Maya. 1989. ‘A Combining of Gifts: An Interview’. Third World Quarterly 3: 171–87.

Mugo, M. M. G. 1991. African Orature and Human Rights: Human and Peoples' Rights Monograph Series No. 13. Roma, Lesotho: Institute of Southern African Studies, National University of Lesotho.

Pajalich, Armando. 1993. ‘Nuruddin Farah Interviewed by Armando Pajalich’. Kunapipi 15.1: 61–71.

Petersen, Kirsten Holst. 1981. ‘The Personal and the Political: The Case of Nuruddin Farah’. ARIEL 12.3: 93–101.

Philips, Maggi. 1996. ‘The View from a Mosque of Words: Nuruddin Farah's Close Sesame and The Holy Qur'an’. The Marabout and the Mystic: Further Aspects of Islam in African Literature. ed. Kenneth Harrow. Heinemann, 1996.

Sparrow, Fiona. 1989. ‘Telling the Story Yet Again: Oral Traditions in Nuruddin Farah's Fiction.’ Journal of Commonwealth Literature 24.1: 164–72.

Turfan, Barbara. 1989. ‘Opposing Dictatorship: a Comment on Nuruddin Farah's Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship’. Journal of Commonwealth Literature 24.1: 173–84.

Wright, Derek. 1989. ‘Unwritable Realities: The Orality of Power in Nuruddin Farah's Sweet and Sour Milk’. Journal of Commonwealth Literature 24.1: 185–92.

——— 1994. The Novels of Nuruddin Farah. Bayreuth: Bayreuth African Studies.

Scott L. Malcomson (review date 15 June 1998)

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SOURCE: “Family Plot,” in New Yorker, June 15, 1998, pp. 78–9.

[In the following review, Malcomson discusses how Secrets shows Farah's changing style and Somalia's changing political situation.]

The Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah specializes in strange and difficult births. Sholoongo, for example, in Farah's new novel, Secrets, is said to have been a duugan, a baby born to be buried. (Farah writes in English, but he seizes words from Somali, Italian, or Arabic when he needs them.) Abandoned by her mother, Sholoongo purportedly finds comfort in the maternal paws of a lioness. As a child, she is returned to her people; her mother responds with suicide. Farah presents the story as if it were lively material from a deeply disturbing talk show. “You might think this far-fetched,” one character says of Sholoongo's saga, “but this is the stuff of which some people's misfortune is made, myth galore!”

Secrets is an inquiry into the origins of a young man named Kalaman, who has long entertained doubts about his ancestry. When Sholoongo returns to Somalia, after a long absence, intending to become pregnant by Kalaman, her demand plunges him into self-examination. His penis is small, his father's and grandfather's are famously large. Sholoongo pointed this out to him long ago, but only in manhood has the incongruity hit him with full force. He wants to know the family secrets. He interrogates his parents, his grandfather, and Sholoongo about the truth of who he is. Understandably, this makes everyone uncomfortable, and increasingly so, for the more Kalaman knows, the more his family's myths collide and collapse. Is his father truly his father? And why does his mother have four breasts? Kalaman's line of questioning uncovers the brutal circumstances of both his own origins and his country's.

Farah sets Secrets in the moments before Somalia's breakup into warring clans. The dictator Mohamed Siad Barre is about to leave the capital, Mogadishu, after twenty-one grotesque years in power. Soon it will become a matter of critical importance whether you are from the Dulbahante or the Warsangeli subclan or are an Ogaadeen or a Marehan, or something else. If you don't know, you had better find out, or you might die without understanding why. In Secrets Farah reminds his readers that they will die anyway, that origins are a messy business, and that the truth of who one is may not be found in legends of birth.

Nuruddin Farah was awarded this year's Neustadt Prize; previous winners have been Octavio Paz, Gabriel García Márquez, and Czeslaw Milosz, each of whom went on to win the Nobel. Farah has become something of a spokesman for his African generation, but as a political novelist he is noticeably oblique. He overwhelms the ideological and historical premises of his books with a fabulist's imaginings—ambitious insects, hustling characters, opaque folktales, bits of song. Birds distract his characters in mid-argument, alighting on the page with charming disregard and pecking here and there, only to fly away; other animals, too, tend to visit unannounced—notably, crocodiles, though also, in Secrets, a determinedly vengeful elephant.

This sort of narrative trampling has increased in the course of Farah's career. He wrote the trilogy that made his reputation, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, in the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties, when he was in his thirties. Volume I, Sweet and Sour Milk, sealed an exile begun several years before—Siad Barre cannot have enjoyed epithets like “the Grand Jailer of Somalia's Grand Prison”—and the three novels retain a certain clarity of political vision. But nature's importuning herd was already there, eager to block traffic, as when, in Sweet and Sour Milk, two men having an urgent political conversation in a speeding car have to stop for “a camel right in the middle of the road licking the grass-remains.”

As Farah's country has lurched through every conceivable form of governance short of stable democracy, and as he himself has aged, his stories have become more desperately fertile. He has also made them more comic. In Secrets, poor, inquisitive Kalaman witnesses a bounty of copulations, all more spectacular than his own. They drive him to distraction. Crows, locusts, whiffs of sandalwood, tastes of tamarind juice and blood—all these interrupt his earnest efforts to determine his parentage. Especially blood, which is made to carry so many metaphorical meanings that it loses all sense as it spills across the pages. Kalaman's grandfather assaults him with talk of blood, his voice “like water seeping in,” Farah writes. “It found space in Kalaman's empty skull, in which it formed puddles. Now as Kalaman touched his forehead, he thought: My God, I'm leaking.” His grandfather floats dark thoughts in Kalaman's head, thoughts “as immense as the corpse of a hippo.” The image is both nutty and apt—not so much comic as hysterical.

When Kalaman finally tracks down his origins, he finds a multiplicity of potential parents, impossible to trace. Farah links this to Somalia's fate. Kalaman stammers, “Yes, an epoch has resolved itself to a finale!” Farah has said that his ambition is “to keep my country alive by writing about it,” and that may explain why his novels have so often concerned births. But in Secrets the investigation of a birth ends in violence, dissolution, and death. “Our country,” Kalaman's once indomitable grandfather tells him, “is as good as gone.” Even the novelist, try as he may, cannot keep it alive.

Jacqueline Bardolph (essay date Autumn 1998)

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SOURCE: “Brothers and Sisters in Nuruddin Farah's Two Trilogies,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 4, Autumn, 1998, pp. 727–32.

[Bardolph is Professor Emerita of postcolonial literatures at the University of Nice, France, and the editor of several collective studies. In the following essay, she analyzes Farah's use of family relationships in his novels.]

Nuruddin Farah's two trilogies are organized on the basis of political and historical themes. The title of the first set of novels, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, follows the gradual disillusionment with the regime of General Siyad Barre on the part of those who had set their hopes on the new Somalia. More generally, it reflects the hopelessness a nation feels in fighting against a tyranny it has helped create, and the questions raised are broad enough to apply to other times and places. After all, at the time he was composing the opening installment of the first trilogy, Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), the author also had in mind the Greece of the Colonels. The titles of the three novels that constitute the second trilogy—Maps, Gifts, and Secrets—refer to abstract topics, which are explored on various levels, in poetic images, and in intimate human relationships, as well as in contemporary history. Here again, the issues examined—identity through blood or language or territory (Maps), the receiving of aid (Gifts), and ties of kinship and clan (Secrets)—have direct relevance to the more recent events in Somalia, yet they are also echoed in many conflicts both within and outside Africa. The lack of any precise dating and of any readily identifiable incidents helps universalize the reflection. As in many other postcolonial works of fiction, one can see here the difficult birth of the modern nation-state, the rapid changes in a pastoral and rural society, and the growing gap between an educated elite and the new generations who have no contact with either traditional wisdom or modern schooling.

As is true in the works of other novelists concerned with history and society, here the family is the stage whereupon these issues are dramatized. Most of the time, the reader knows about events in the country through conversations that take place in the homes of a few characters, where rumors, reports, and arguments are exchanged. These characters are not mere passive victims or observers. Farah never resorts to simple binary oppositions between, say, colonizer and colonized, or dictator and oppressed citizens. Each member of the community has a share of responsibility in the way his country is faring. In Sweet and Sour Milk the text refers explicitly to the theories of Wilhelm Reich, according to which the structure of the family is reproduced in the national structure: “In the figure of the father the authoritarian state has its representative in every family, so that the family becomes its most important instrument of power” (SSM, 97). Farah is a moralist who asks his reader not to blame an individual for his tyrannical excesses or a foreign power for its domination without first asking himself whether the dealings at the highest state level are not just a replica on a larger scale of his or her own individual behavior. In this demonstration, the power relationships between generations offer a good model. Like other African writers who explore the handing down of tradition and the weight of authority—the Nigerian Chinua Achebe or the Moroccan Driss Chraïbi, for instance—Farah presents vertical plots spanning three or four generations. Harsh fathers and rebellious sons figure frequently in his works, as patriarchy is examined in both the home and the state, as has already been well analyzed (Wright, 1994).

Another aspect of Farah's family histories which deserves attention is the fact that his stories rarely focus on a simple nuclear family, the Oedipal triangle of much Western literature. Brothers and sisters, horizontal relationships within a single generation, play the most important part, as they do in such traditional tales as King Lear or in the novels of Virginia Woolf. As in Antigone, the opposition to patriarchal power is complicated and made richer by the presence of this group of siblings, with all their differences in gender, in age, and eventually, within a specifically African situation, their different mothers. In what follows, I shall examine the part played by such characters in each trilogy in order to determine what they show regarding the evolution of the novelist's vision and political thinking, and also how they provide patterns, images, and emotions that enrich the range of these original novels, at once poetic and political, susceptible to allegorical readings as well as anchored in warm, recognizable humanness.

The first trilogy, comprising Sweet and Sour Milk, Sardines (1981), and Close Sesame (1983), is concerned with dictatorial power. The first two novels revolve around conflictual situations: they question the authority of fathers over sons in Sweet and Sour Milk, of matriarchs over daughters or daughters-in-law or granddaughters—and especially over excision—in Sardines. The third novel reexamines the vertical line within a family—grandfather, sons and daughters, grandchildren—as all try to find ethical and practical guidelines for resisting a tyrant. Each book privileges one type of consciousness in its narrative: sons in Sweet and Sour Milk, daughters in Sardines, and the grandfather's perspective in Close Sesame. (The same sequence of young hero-woman-grandfather is to be found in the main characters of the second trilogy.) Keynaan, the father in Sweet and Sour Milk, is the archetype of the patriarch, as he slices the ball with which his two sons are playing and refuses the impious notion that the earth is round rather than flat, as established in the Koran (SSM, 21). And the matriarch Idil in Sardines is also seen wielding a knife, here in the nightmares of the granddaughter whom she wants to subject to clitoral excision. Absolute power gone mad is both male and female: it is the ogress of legend, the whale that devours men. As individuals suffer more and more from the harsh effects of the arbitrary power of the “socialist Islamic” regime, we witness the efforts of the various members of the family to cope with the situation, either by trying to adapt to the ruling group or by joining the underground opposition. Most of the chapters relate conversations in the home, a refuge where rumors and propaganda are assessed and where ethical and practical modes of survival are contemplated.

Within this closed space, brothers and sisters enjoy a privileged mode of communication, exchanging secrets in complete trust, much more freely than with their spouses or parents. We see them sharing meals and sharing dreams, in an everyday relationship which is a comfort against a dangerous outside world. For instance, here is a moment of pure fusional joy, as brothers and sister are reunited: “What do I see? It was Loyaan. Loyaan in person. For a good five minutes, no one would recall who did what, who said what, who hugged or kissed whom” (SSM, 18). The siblings are set in patterns which, as in folktales, help underline a general meaning. In Sweet and Sour Milk the similarly named twins Loyaan and Soyaan represent two options for opposing patriarchal power. Soyaan chooses rebellion when he writes a text that will prick the ear of the president, who, like the tyrant Dionysius, listens through a network of informers for signs of subversion. Soyaan soon dies, perhaps poisoned with a glass of milk, and Loyaan, inquiring into the possible murder, discovers a group of underground opponents to the regime: will he join them, or will he be exiled or even killed like his brother? The parallel between the twins illustrates the plot's hesitation on the whole issue of commitment or detachment. In Sardines the symmetrical pattern is provided by Nasser and his sister Medina, who also hesitate between acceding to the demands of authority—whether parental or presidential—and acting against them. The book focuses principally on the predicament of women, seen as hemmed in by a tradition with which they feel extremely uneasy. The opposition between brother and sister in this instance underlines how educated women—Medina is a journalist—are beginning to find a freedom of judgment and behavior which unsettles the men, here shown as more ready to compromise.

In Close Sesame the atmosphere is more oppressive still. There is no ambiguity this time as to the lethal power of the head of state. Zeinab, a widow, and her brother Mursal care for their aged father, the tolerant and pious Deeriye. The two siblings here are more divided in their opinions than was the case in the two preceding novels. Their heated arguments represent two options: either to play safe or to join an underground movement (CS, 118). Their complicity ends when Mursal refuses to share his secrets, acts in conspiracy with several friends, and disappears, probably executed. The father, at the end, tries to accomplish what the young cannot do, but he fails in his attempt to shoot the tyrant and instead is himself gunned down ignominiously. In this pessimistic conclusion to the trilogy, brotherly bonds are no solace. In Deeriye's nightly visions his children are powerless: “In these visions, these dreams, Mursal and Zeinab remained small, innocent as their infant days, toothless” (CS, 160).

In contrast with most of their parents' generation, the groups of brothers and sisters are shown as united in their refusal to compromise, but still they are no match for the tyrant. The pathos of the families' doomed fight in the three books is relieved by the human warmth found within the confines of the home. With Farah, however, human emotions are ambivalent blessings. “Do not throttle me with your love,” Loyaan implores his sister (SSM, 191). Those who would like to take more decisive steps against an unjust order feel hampered by the concern of their kin. The bonds are strong, and conversely, any and every initiative might well involve the safety of siblings: one is reminded of the danger when Mulki is tortured by the security police who are trying to charge her brother Ibrahim. Yet emotional comfort may have a price, the novels imply; it may paralyze action and ultimately greatly curtail individual freedom. The novelist goes even further in exploring the deep attachment of brother and sister. In Sweet and Sour Milk intimacy comes close to breaking taboos, as when Ladan awakens her brother Loyaan: “As his concentrated look zoomed in on her, he noticed that she averted her eyes. What was wrong? His sheet had fallen off. He was naked. / ‘Sorry.’ He covered his indecency” (SSM, 63). In Sardines, during a relaxed moment, Nasser massages his half-sister Medina, reading her back like a well-known text, and wonders if the scene could be seen by an external observer as incestuous.

He oiled his hands and, with tremendous care and tenderness, massaged, thumbed and squeezed the hard joints. His expert fingers, at times, descended like a hawk hunting on the wing and, at others, crawled like a many-legged insect on a plateau of uneven smoothness. He touched, he pressed, he tickled. He helped orchestrate the rise and fall of her body's temperature. With equal facility, he conducted his hands through a series of annotations: a scar here, a cut too low or too deep there, a burn which his memory couldn't date, another which marked where the blade met the shoulder, then a medicinal burn near the spine. Nasser knew his notes well enough, he hardly needed to improvise a move.

S, 82)

As in Maps, with its account of Askar's love for his foster mother Misra, the evocation of incest is made more acceptable by being set within an indirect relationship. In Sardines the author is not out to shock, but instead to hint at the density of family ties, at once a source of strength and a limitation. Once more the home is the core image and accurate reflection of what takes place in society at large. The ruling elite are described as “an incestuous circle” (S, 87) incapable of opening up. Medina and Nasser, Loyaan and Ladan are not allegorical figures of a ruling class which is too inward-looking, but rather individualized instances of the way intimate modes of feeling can be reproduced from family to community to the nation at large. Patriarchal authority eventually destroys the fabric of society, but fraternity, or brotherhood, does not offer an alternative utopia. It makes life more bearable in times of crisis, but paradoxically underlines how vulnerable the younger generations are.

The second trilogy moves away from the theme of dictatorship. Farah implies that a continuation of such a focus would do too much honor to tyrants, who are after all mediocre: Siyad Barre, for example, is contemptuously described in Secrets as “the mayor of Mogadiscio.” He is one of the symptoms of a dysfunctional community, not just an evil accident in the life of a people who do not deserve such a bad leader. The three books Maps (1986), Gifts (1992), and Secrets (1998) deal primarily with identity, and each weaves a complex network of images, myths, philosophical reflections, and historical examples that induce the reader to think again about accepted wisdom: for instance, what is national identity if it does not lie in territorial borders, in language, in the blood (Maps)? The first trilogy's explicit debates and arguments between brothers and sisters in the shelter of their homes now give way to a more complex system of cross-references among fables, press cuttings, and dreams. From one book to the next, the juxtapositioning of such diverse clues and paradoxical questions adopts more and more the mode of the riddle, which is one of the established African ways of engaging the listener's or reader's moral thinking. The first installment, Maps, like Sweet and Sour Milk, has a young man as protagonist. Askar, however, is no epic hero in spite of his name—it means “the soldier” in Somali—and despite the omens he believes were present at his birth. The fantasies of self-creation and of power in his early days in the Ogaden give way to the realities of a difficult world in his move to Mogadiscio. The novel leaves him on the threshold of adulthood, irresolute and no match for the complexities of a fast-changing world. He embraces a doubtful nationalist creed, yet his isolation seems complete; in contrast with the previous texts, there are no warm family scenes, and Askar has no siblings in whom he can confide. His father, the real soldier-hero, died before Askar was born. The absence of such a direct, accessible parental figure represents a marked change from the first trilogy.

Brothers do exist here, however, though now in the characters of uncles. These are important figures of authority in African society but are not often given space in African novels. In Maps the pattern is simple. First, we have the “bad” uncle, Qorrax, the paternal uncle who extends his protection to the young orphan but has also possibly exerted his masculine power by “having his way” with Misra, Askar's foster mother. Once, the young man even wonders whether Qorrax similarly used this power to enforce levirate tradition on his real mother: “‘Did Uncle Qorrax abuse my mother's trust?’ … ‘Did he rape my mother?’ you asked. ‘Did he want to marry her when news about my father's death came?’” (M, 140). The ambivalent, paternalistic character of the father's brother is contrasted in a neat symmetry with Hilaal, the urbane, intellectual maternal uncle who lives up to his theories of gender in an egalitarian marriage with Salaado. Where one uncle is an image of the patriarchal power of the father's line,

It was no secret that you didn't like Uncle Qorrax or his numerous wives: numerous because he divorced and married such a number of them that you lost count of how many there were at any given time, and at times you weren't sure to whom he was married.

M, 12)

the other uncle connects the young boy with emotion and intelligence, the mother's side, which in Somali culture, however, does not bestow identity.

On the other hand, you loved Uncle Hilaal and his wife, Salaado, directly you met them. The flow of their warmth was comforting—sweet as spring water. And everything either of them did or said, once you gave it a thought, appeared as necessary as the blood of life.

M, 17)

It is as if each brother were an extension of the absent parent. The two uncles are secondary elements in a plot that revolves around the relationship between Askar and Misra, his Oromo foster mother. Yet the contrasting descriptions of the brothers-in-law create a subplot that echoes the topic of the first trilogy in its indictment of the misuse of the patriarchal order, although now the theme has receded into a fictional world where the real figures of parents are absent.

Gifts, the middle novel in the second trilogy, is, like Sardines, centered on a woman who is at the core of a family. After the intricate narrative design of Maps, it seems to propose a mere linear romance, as Duniya, in her thirties and twice married, falls in love for the first time. The simplicity of the plot is deceptive, for, once more, family bonds are examined as clues illuminating wider political and ethical concerns. The balance between giving and receiving, the moral issues in helping others and thus curtailing their freedom, are part of an ongoing argument which is woven into the narrative along with instances ranging from folktales about lending pots to articles about U.S. aid to developing countries. Like Medina in Sardines and in contrast to Askar in Maps, Duniya has a rich network of friends and relatives. Brothers and sisters figure prominently in the novel, contributing to the lively domestic atmosphere yet also providing food for thought—for example, about the way the traditional and modern codes of behavior interact. The cast is numerous, and the reader must memorize the connections among a host of secondary characters who all seem related in one way or another. We feel we are getting acquainted with an extended family in Africa, disentangling the network of assigned roles, jealousies, and affectionate ties.

Duniya has three children, among whom the teenage twins, another fictional boy-girl pair, provide symmetry and gender comparison. Seven-year-old Yarey is the third and youngest of the heroine's offspring. Within Duniya's own generation we have Abshir and Shiriye, two of her brothers. The novelist seems hesitant in attributing totally negative aspects to direct kin. Thus Abshir is the good brother in the story—“my full brother … my mother's son” (G, 79)—the one who cares for Duniya and her family by sending gifts from Italy while making sure his generosity contributes to her freedom. His love for her has a motherly quality, as he reminds her: “As you refused to breast-feed and our mother was too unwell to take care of you, it was I who fed you the first drop of milk, a gift you wouldn't take from anyone else, including our father, the midwife or other women of the neighbourhood” (G, 236). She even muses on the fantasy that her daughter Nasiiba looks so much like her beloved Abshir that she may have been sired by him: “(Once, albeit in a lighthearted manner, Duniya asked Dr Mire if it were possible for a woman to carry in her womb two-egg twins emanating from two different sources, when one of the men had never made love to the woman in question.)” (G, 37). With his help, she chooses to have a flat of her own, her first independent home.

The bad brother, Shiriye, is not so welcome: “Now what in your elder half-brother's wisdom had you in mind to do for me when you decided to pay me a visit?” (G, 79). His authority is an important feature in traditional society. When Qasim asks Farida for the hand of her younger sister Miski, we are reminded that power is not only exerted by fathers. Shiriye exercised his prerogative when Duniya was a child in giving her away to an old man in a transaction that included a thoroughbred horse as well as money. As with the character of Uncle Qorrax in Maps, Farah insists on the reverse side of the often idealized African solidarities: sometimes family solidarity just means domination and exploitation. Duniya has nothing but hatred and fear for a brother who even “appeared in her nightmares to whip her for disobedience” (G, 78). He is the obtuse leader of the clan: “Shiriye does not give reasons. He spouts opinions, crude prejudices and unlearned pontifications” (G, 121).

Another negative image is projected by the character of Waberi, not a direct sister but rather the sister-in-law of Duniya's lover Bosaaso through his late wife. She is a predator of another kind, the female counterpart to Shiriye's pompous military authority. Her style is to wheedle money and gifts out of the man she deems to be richer than she is and thus duty-bound to provide for her. Her insistent visits are little else than euphemistically disguised begging: “‘You used to give us a hand in settling some of the bills.’ / ‘Did I give you a hand or did I settle them all, every cent of your bills?’” (G, 219). This contrasts with the attitude of Duniya, who is always at pains not to be in anyone's debt and who inculcates the same attitude in her children. Her daughter Nasiiba makes sure that her younger sister Yarey is not overly attracted by the material goods in her uncle's home. The example of Muraayo, sister-in-law to Duniya's ex-husband Taariq, is a variation on the theme of sisterly excess: being very well off, the childless woman thinks she can buy the affections of the young girl with videos and modern gadgetry, possessiveness being the reverse side of protection.

As we can see, the novelist keeps the pattern clear, as is done in folktales the world over, by ascribing negative values to sibling relationships in the case of in-laws and half-brothers only. The satire in the physical descriptions of Shiriye and Muraayo, fat and pretentious, or in the whining demands of Waberi balances the harmonious warmth in Duniya's young family, a family also open to strangers. The contrast underlines the risk run by those who rely only on blood ties and refuse to see beyond their clan, as when Shiriye comes across Bosaaso: “Entering, he shouted Duniya's name angrily, not a greeting. Fat-bellied, he met their hostile stare with indifference. He stared back longest at Bosaaso, whose face he couldn't place, a man who, as far as Shiriye was concerned, was not family” (G, 76).

The end of the novel is a move away from the ties of blood. Mire's friendship with Bosaaso is compared with the love between Duniya and Bosaaso and with Duniya's affection for her brother; the three types of love are shown as complementary but also as similar. Gifts establishes how brothers, lovers, and friends are careful to construct “symmetrical relationships” without possessiveness and authority. The happy end of the romance is fused with the joy of the brother's return as he gives “an elder brother's love and blessing to a younger sister getting married” (G, 242). The book is Farah's first with such a warm atmosphere and so many generous characters. It is as if tenderness between brother and sister, even in the ironic exchanges between the teenage twins, radiates around and throughout Duniya's house. Her bond with Abshir is the real source of the confidence that will allow her to risk a new commitment without losing herself, as in her previous marriages.

The mood could not be more different in the third novel of the later trilogy, Secrets, just as the old man Nonno with his paradoxes, his lust for life, and his wicked humor could not be more different from the pious Deeriye of Close Sesame. The protagonist, Kalaman, like Askar in Maps, is a solitary figure who tries to decipher his destiny by closely examining the moment of origin. Askar's fascination is with the moment of self- creation at birth; Kalaman's search, in a novel abounding with primal scenes, is connected with the moment of his conception. It is fitting that such a character should be an only son; part of the mystery of his family and origin is included in his repeated childhood request to his parents: “Please, give me a sibling.” He cannot have one, however, since his mother is now infertile as the result of the gang rape from which he himself issued (a possible reading of the nation figure, once more an abused woman?). In contrast to Kalaman's status as an only child stand his two awful childhood companions Sholoongo and her half-brother Timir, the negative counterparts of the fusional brothers and sisters we have seen in other novels. Their incestuous relationship is repeatedly consummated during their childhood. They grow up promiscuous, and Timir eventually turns out to be gay yet comes back to Somalia in order to acquire a wife as a helpmate at home and bearer of offspring. They are both made even more cynical and manipulative by their settling in the USA.

The characters of Sholoongo and Timir closely resemble some of the grotesques in Gifts, but with a more deliberate and sinister capacity to do harm. Their presence in the story here leads to a reading that goes further than the previous novel. Secrets states most forcefully that blood ties are not necessarily the best way to organize human relationships. Kalaman's father and grandfather are revealed to be biologically not his kin, yet they are his by choice, in a love that binds him just as strongly as does his mother's love. The violence and the satiric gusto of the narrative in the depiction of the brother-sister couple express the rejection of a system that puts family and blood lineage on the father's side—that is, clan—before all other allegiances. The anger and sadness permeating the novel is that of a writer who sees the damage done to his country and many others by such inward-turned loyalties (Farah, 1996). One must remember that in Maps, Misra, the Oromo foster mother of Askar, is raped and then condemned as a traitor because she is not a direct relative: “Those who were looking for a traitor and found one in me, rationalize that because I wasn't born one of them, I must be the one who betrayed. Besides, it is easier to suspect the foreigner amongst a community than one's cousin or brother” (M, 184).

The family bonds which in the first novels are shown to provide comfort, complicity, and loyalty in a secure nest, as opposed to destructive tyranny, are now represented as a destructive force for society, even if they provide a haven, at a cost, to the individual. The dominance of the father's line is a destructive source of clannish self-centeredness. Secrets, finished ten years after the writing of Gifts, is the work of a man who has seen his country devastated by lineage feuds: “A land where reason does not reign, a conditional rage.” All taboos have been broken when “brothers are getting deadly weapons to kill brothers” (Secrets, 293). The power of brother over sister-in-law—that is, of the father's lineage over the despised stranger—is now expressed in the harsh image of “a man raping his sister-in-law and emptying her of her fetus just because the woman belonged to a different bloodline from his” (192). At one point, Kalaman, unable to sort out his complicated emotions, exclaims, “Curse the blood that binds!” (200). Nonno, close to death, embodies a vanishing kind of wisdom and generosity, in that he refuses the abstraction of blood ties into “civil strife”: “I can't bear the thought of generalizing. I am a person, a clan is a mob. Talk to me, sell things to me, I am reasonable. Clans are not” (296).

The novelist is at once concerned with individuals and with generalities, and also with the representation of individuals with their ambivalent feelings. He has always been fascinated by the relationships between siblings. Two of his books are dedicated to brothers, and his play Yussuf and His Brothers is about a Joseph character in exile, looking after his sometimes jealous kin. The theme lends itself to sociological and political reflection, as we have seen, and it also enriches the human dimension of Farah's stories. In Gifts Taariq acknowledges there is “sustenance in myth,” but his bonds with his elder brother are also part of an individual, idiosyncratic reality: “For this was closer to home, this was not a Judaic, Christian, Islamic or Mendik myth, this was more real, touching on fraternal realities and truths, on the relationship between elder and younger brother. And Taariq knew it, and he knew that Duniya knew it too” (G, 122). And this reality is the flesh and blood of the novels. The relationship allows for a wide range of emotions, from tenderness to jealousy to hatred.

Farah is unique among African novelists in giving so much fictional space to the intimacies of domestic life, a refuge and a forum where outside events reverberate. The presence of brothers and sisters enriches the scene with the calm sensuality of daily life, a warmth which in most cases is at one remove from the passions of desire and power. The characters share meals, they sleep not far from one another, they narrate their dreams in a relaxed mood absent from other types of family encounters. They argue, they show their concern with small gestures and companionable moments of silence. They also touch and hug in a bodily proximity close to the fusion of childhood. Here is Loyaan comforting Ladan after the death of Soyaan:

Hush. A sob. Quiet again, like a bundle in a corner: that was Ladan. He went to her. He helped her stand. He held her in his embrace as she shook, as she trembled, as she choked on her phlegm of tears. He took out a handkerchief. He wiped her face clean and dry. “Come on.”

SSM, 32)

The sensuality of such moments connects the characters with the natural elements always present in the descriptions, tales, and narrative images. The emotions thus embodied establish a link with the poetry of microcosm and macrocosm, which itself cannot be separated from the philosophical reflection.

Together with the remembered stories of oral tradition, the warm relation which has its source in childhood is a source of confidence for the adult as he faces the harsh world outside. It is also a part of his or her identity, as important as being a friend, spouse, parent, or child. African novelists have often been criticized for limiting their women characters to roles as mothers or prostitutes and, even worse, for dehumanizing them into allegories of the nation-state or of long-suffering Africa. Farah's women, from his first novel onward, are complex individuals and full subjects in their lives: Ladan, Medina, Duniya remain distinctive and real in the reader's memory. Part of this is due to the way they are portrayed in relationships with their brothers, a bond which is an experience of freedom and exchange, and this may in turn be helped by the level of education attained within the comparatively privileged families represented. Medina has supported Nasser from childhood, in a special bond: “Medina who had known him longer and who loved him more than anybody else” (S, 106). In his turn, Nasser helps her find the unity she seeks, just as Abshir contributes to Duniya's shaping of her own life.

The six books making up the two trilogies show a distinct evolution, as the novelist changes generations and as the history of Somalia and Africa offers new developments. In their variety, the novels reveal a remarkable coherence in the way the brother-and-sister pattern explores the links between protection and freedom, between duties and emotions, and the exchanges between genders within a rapidly changing society. The topic has been neglected in many Western novels of post-Freudian times, works frequently preoccupied with desire and individual destinies. African fiction often centers on genealogy, its structure given by a vertical pattern establishing continuities and ruptures in the line that connects ancestors to children yet to come. Farah has enriched both the philosophical questioning and the human and poetic texture of his novels by giving fictional life to a wide range of brothers and sisters.

Works Cited

Farah, Nuruddin. Sweet and Sour Milk. London. Heinemann. 1980. Originally published by Allison & Busby in 1979. (SSM

———. Sardines. London. Heinemann. 1982. Originally published by Allison & Busby in 1981. (S

———. Close Sesame. London. Allison & Busby. 1983. (CS

———. Maps. London. Picador. 1986. (M

———. Gifts. London. Serif. 1992. (G

———. Secrets. New York. Arcade. 1998.

———. “The Women of Kismayo.” Times Literary Supplement, 15 November 1996.

Wright, Derek. The Novels of Nuruddin Farah. Bayreuth, Ger. Bayreuth University. 1994.

Claudio Gorlier (essay date Autumn 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4408

SOURCE: “Nuruddin Farah's Italian Domain,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 4, Autumn, 1998, pp. 781–85.

[Gorlier is Professor of Literature of the English-Speaking Countries at the University of Turin, Italy, and is the author of numerous critical essays. In the following essay, he traces the use of Italian in several of Farah's novels.]

At one climactic point in Nuruddin Farah's novel Sardines, Medina asks her little daughter Ubax to read a note. Ubax picks it up and squints at an arrangement of the alphabet which makes her feel illiterate: “‘It's foreign.’ ‘It is not. It's Italian.’ ‘But that is foreign.’”1 The exchange brings out a confrontation which goes beyond the circumstantial episode of a mother-child argument, in that it discloses a recurrent paradigm in this novel, as well as in A Naked Needle in Sweet and Sour Milk, and in Close Sesame: Italian is being systematically telescoped into a fundamentally English linguistic structure. When Medina retorts that Italian is not a foreign language, she almost instinctively touches on one aspect of her identity, which derives from her education in Italy, a legacy she seems reluctant to renounce. We already know that “she had taken a degree in literature, then applied her talent to writing for the press; she freelanced while still a student in Italy” (S, 3). Yet Medina professes a firm awareness of her Somali—or, more extensively, African—identity, no less than a resolute vindication of her role as a woman in a country where women find themselves relegated to a subaltern condition peculiar to a tribal society hardly modified by a socialist revolution which she has come to consider the mere travesty of a ruthless dictatorship. It should also be stressed that Medina draws largely on an African yardstick in teaching her daughter, to the effect that “her [the girl's] favourite story had been a folktale Medina adapted from Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart” (3).

Another and even more intriguing example which reflects the relevance of the Italian linguistic pattern comes out in Close Sesame. Natasha, an American Jew from New York, speaks with her Somali father-in-law Deeriye in Italian: “And why did Natasha not learn Somali? Her answer was very simple: ‘Somalis have not as yet developed the sensitivity to suffer, tolerate, listen to or take seriously a foreigner whose untrained tongue stumbles on the triquetral gurgles of their language.’”2 Vis-à-vis the defensive irony of Natasha's option, Deeriye's linguistic performance seems perfectly consistent, though it sanctions a double paradox: “He spoke perfect Italian and impeccable (standard) Arabic, having learnt both while in detention” (CS, 47). The paradox does not merely bear on the sheer fact that two people communicate with each other in a tongue that is foreign to them both; there is the further point that, in spite of being an undaunted fighter for the independence of his country against Italy, a reader of the Koran imbued with an unshaken loyalty to the Islamic tradition, and a national hero who will eventually sacrifice his own life in a desperate attempt to reassert his ideals and to avenge his son, Deeriye does not hesitate to use a linguistic medium forced upon the Somalis by the Italian dominators and representing the last vestige of colonialism. The paradox is inherent in Farah's novels, and it transcends the issue of language, if we just consider the cultural and political medley tartly described by Koschin in A Naked Needle:

This road leads you to Radio Mogadiscio, the Noise of the Somali Democratic Republic. Then near the Radio there is … that Green God of a school run under the auspices of the UAR cultural mission. The Saudis, incidentally, have also constructed a school. … When the schools were nationalized to give a ‘boost’ to the Somali script, the Arabs threatened they would leave. Besides, the Russians have built a school, … and the Americans, to balance that, have built the College of Education. The European Economic Community has erected a fancy school. … And the teachers in these schools … should, in my opinion, be the taught.3

Many and often antagonistic factors combine in the medley, and in this respect the graphic blend of Arabic words, the Somali white star, and the Italian tricolor flag featured on the dustjacket of Close Sesame is quite in keeping with the metaphor. A writer born and brought up in a country whose language attained its full status as late as 1972, where Italian holds on at least idiomatically and was taught in schools until a few years ago, Farah has chosen English (which has now superseded Italian in schools but which obviously remains a foreign language) as his literary medium. Nevertheless, he has to come to terms with the palpable reality of the medley. Consequently, Somali and to a larger extent Italian intersperse the English linguistic continuum, into which they are made to fit and at the same time kept distinct by the device of the italic. The synergistic process enables Farah to preserve the different verbal levels in their interaction and avoid the contrivance of translation into a unified pattern that would fatally neutralize the significant linguistic variance. Farah's unique narrative strategy eliminates the need for any artificial mediation, as is often the case with those writers having to cope with the hindrance of characters who possess different mother tongues. I will begin with a careful examination of the Italian linguistic dimension in Farah's novels and attempt a comprehensive survey, from A Naked Needle to Close Sesame, since Italian is employed in From a Crooked Rib in only a peripheral and cursory way. For practical reasons, I have arranged the Italian words and phrases in two groups.


In A Naked Needle we find: Per favore! (Please; 15), Lasciapassare (Permit; 26), Butana (a distortion of puttana, rendered by Koschin as “—what? A slut”; 27), carta bollata di cinque scilini (the final word is grossly misspelled and should be scellini; the phrase means “stamped paper for five shillings”), in chiaro (implausible, how wrong!; 49), Comitato di Disciplina (Disciplinary Commission [in roman type]; 55), piccolo (child; 69), benedetta (blessed; 90), benevolenza (benevolence; 90), sottosviluppati (underdeveloped; 101), Milite Ignoto (The Unknown Soldier; 106), Dio mio! (My God!; 110), caramella (sweet, toffee, candy; 112), Farmacia (chemist's shop, drugstore; 120), Tavola calda (snack bar [in roman type]; 120), agenzia (branch of a bank; 124), Stella (Star, the name of a newspaper; 133), tribu (tribe [should have an accent grave, tribù; 133), Buona sera! (Good evening!; 137 and elsewhere), Piacere! (How do you do! Pleased to meet you!; 140), Corriere della Somalia (Somali Courier, the name of a newspaper; 140), armadio (cupboard; 141), sacco-cinese (quite implausible [literally, “Chinese sack”]; 142), per se, in tutto (per se, in all; 143), Cara/caro (My dear, honey [feminine and masculine]; 157), Con piacere (With pleasure; 161), fiduciario shirt (shirt typical of an official, originally of the Fascist Party; 161), and bell'uome (a handsome man [the second word is misspelled and should be uomo]; 164).

Sweet and Sour Milk4 contains the following: Ciao! (Hello, Hi, So long; 102 and passim), Autunno of Prague (Prague Autumn [a reference to the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia]; 103), Prego! (Don't mention it, You're welcome; 106), suggeritore (prompter; 106), liscio (straight or neat [in reference to whiskey]; 115), un dito (a drop [again in reference to wine or whiskey]; 117 and elsewhere), dibattito (debate, roundtable; 119), Marxismo e il continente nero (Marxism and the Dark Continent [the title of the debate]), zuppa di pesce (fish soup; 120), scaloppina alla Milanese (veal Milanese style; 120), vino sciolto (wine not by the bottle; 120), Capocetto Nero (Little Black Riding Hood [the first word is misspelled and should be Cappuccetto], obviously a pun, indicating the name of a restaurant in Mogadiscio; 120), femminista (feminist; 123), prudenza paga (caution pays; 136), prudenza! (caution! beware!; 137), dolfino (heir apparent, probable successor [should be spelled delfino]; 179); buttafuoris ([with anglicized plural] chucker-outs, bouncers; 217), and pudore (modesty; 230).

In Sardines we have: Basta! (Enough! Cut it out!; 37), barzelletta (joke; 57), matrimoniale bedspread (double bedspread; 72), bandiera rosa (red flag [the second word is misspelled as rosa instead of rossa, which results in an involuntary but politically substantial error, in that rosa means “pink”]; 89), commizzi (political meetings or rallies [should be spelled comizi]; 89), socialimperialismo, egemonismo (social imperialism, hegemonism [words that belong to the current jargon of the Marxist-Leninist Left]; 89), titolari (in this context, political officials or dignitaries; 96), compagni (comrades [referring to members of the Italian Communist Party]; 211), l'ideologo (the ideologue; 218), appunto! (precisely, exactly; 236), and sfida (parade; 237).

And from Close Sesame come the following: Residente (resident minister or governor; 32), soldato (soldier; 32), Pronto! (Hello! [answering a phone call]; 61), Grazie! (Thank you! [coupled with the Somali Mahadsanid]; 88), and localissimo (super swanky place [with the superlative form being deftly applied to a noun]; 90).


A Naked Needle contains: Fiammiferi, macchina da barba (partly meaningless: Fiammiferi is correct for “matches,” but the second part literally means “shaving machine” and should be rasoio da barba, (safety razor; 3); Non ce ne importa! (We don't care!; 3); Cortesia non costa niente, ma paga molto in ritorno (quite implausible and largely anglicized, this vaguely makes sense and could mean “Courtesy costs nothing but pays much in return”; 22); Bronto, Istruzione Bubblica? (a remarkable phonetic joke, rendering the phrase “Hello, Ministry of Education?” in either a southern Italian accent or a local accent or both [keeping in mind that most Italian bureaucrats are southern], with initial p's distorted into b's; the joke is completed in the course of the phone conversation: “Istruzione Bubblica? Istruzione Pubblica?”; 23); Mi deludi (You disappoint me; 38); Nome e cognome, l'ultimo indirizzo, et cetera (name and surname, most recent address, et cetera [Koschin is registering at the Enrico Hotel, “the only decent hotel in Kismayo,” run by Italians]; 45–46); Come mai ammiri questo uomo ([question mark missing] Why do you admire this man?; 46); Troppo en gamba e un grande politicante del secoloen is a misspelling of in, the disparaging politicante is used instead of politico, and the whole phrase somehow limps. Too smart a man, and a great politician of the [or this] century; 46); “Italian bastard! / Cosa hai detto? / Eh? / Cosa hai detto? Ti ho fatto male? / Niente. Koschin cut it short. And with niente still on his tongue, Koschin swayed into the restaurant” ([Here, in an argument between Koschin and an Italian, we come across a sizable passage of dialogue wherein Italian and English are equally compounded] What did you say? What did you say? Did I hurt you? Nothing; 46); Il maestro di coloro che non sanno niente! Oppure che sanno tutto (The master of those who know nothing! Or who know everything [Koschin's ironic remark]; 50); Tutti si sonno seduti alla mia sinistra (Everyone has sat on my left [sonno is a misspelling of sono, leading to a misunderstanding, as sonno means sleep in Italian]; 101); Le vie del signore sono infinite! (The ways of the Lord are infinite!; 140); Non ho mai sentito nominare (Never heard of him [the Italian renders the English phrase with one slight omission, l'ho]; 154); “He is the poet in residence, the Homer, for un gruppo di vigliacchi, di scelti intimi amiei che hanne il loro mondo nel campo di battaglia e pace” (this contains two misspellings or possible misprints—amiei instead of amici and hanne instead of hanno—plus one infelicity, nel instead of sul; the end makes virtually no sense: “a bunch of cowards, of chosen intimate friends who have their world on the battlefield and peace”; 160).

In Sardines we find: Come gli ho fottuti tutti quanti! ([one slight inaccuracy, as gli is used instead of li] How well I fucked every last one of them! [the General's scornful remark]; 22); “Love at first sight, un colpo di fulmine” (an exact rendition of the English expression; 59); “I called her faccia tosta!” (ruddy cheek; 89); Guarda caso (Just look [but the Italian idiom is almost untranslatable]; 102); Uomo bruciato (burnt-out man; 247).

From Sweet and Sour Milk comes: Morale della storia (The moral of the story; 116), and in Close Sesame we have: Faccio del te per te? ([Natasha asks] “Shall I make some tea for you?” which is grammatically correct, but in current usage an Italian speaker would say, “Ti faccio del te?”; 46); Si, grazie. Grazie tanto ([Deeriye's reply, with the first and last words slightly misspelled: si should have an accent grave, and tanto should be tante] Yes, thank you. Thank you very much; 46); Non ti serve niente altro? ([Natasha again] Do you need anything else?; 46); No, grazie (No, thank you; 46); Grazie, grazie infinito ([Deeriye again, with the last word misspelled as infinito instead of infinite] Thank you, a thousand thanks; 50); Non c'è di che, non c'è di che (Don't mention it, don't mention it; 50); No, mi dispiacce, Zeinad dovrebbe venire ([Natasha, with the third word misspelled as dispiacce instead of dispiace] No, sorry. Zeinad should be coming; 50); Tre buoni ristoranti e tre alberghi cosi cosi; tre circoli con ampie sala da ballo ([Cosi should have an accent grave, and sala should be sale] Three good restaurants and three hotels so-so. Three clubs with large ballrooms; 86); Mursal mi ha detto che verra lui a prendarti. Va bene? ([Verra should have an accent grave, and prendarti is a misspelling of prenderti] Mursal told me that he is coming to pick you up himself. Is that all right?; 87); Agli ordini, Signore ([a line from a spaghetti western] Yessir!; 145); Alla cena dei poveri vengono senza invito i potenti (To the dinner of the poor the powerful come uninvited [proverb]; 157).

Although systematizing Farah's use of Italian or defining its rationale on the basis of our survey would sound rather hazardous, some conclusions seem legitimate. First, we notice the coexistence of words and phrases which are absolutely impeccable or of idioms such as only an accomplished knowledge of that language can produce, alongside ungrammatical or occasionally even meaningless expressions. Second, misspellings are frequent, but we do not know whether the printer and/or the proofreader are to be blamed for this. Third, one should never forget that Farah is working out a linguistic mechanism stemming from oral transmission, from an actual siphoning out. His Somali characters may speak a secondhand Italian absorbed in the family or taught by unprofessional instructors. Hence the uneven skills of the Somali speakers, which are transferred onto the written page and are expedient to a Joycean patchwork engineered by the writer. Finally, it should be recalled that Farah is depicting a transitional scene which is now disappearing: Somalia's linguistic links with Italian are being severed.

The synergistic process evolved by Farah does not simply resolve itself in a series of linguistic gestures. Two further elements deserve detailed scrutiny: a) the impact of Italy on Somali characters and their association with Italy; and b) the presence of Italian characters and their relationship to their Somali counterparts.

Throughout the colonial period, Somalis were purposely denied access to any record or memory of the history of their own country: “How could they make him understand that at school they were told they had no history? Garibaldi. The Tower of Pisa. The Duomo of Milan. Crispi. Il Duce” (SSM, 131; Duomo means cathedral; Crispi was a jingoistic prime minister of the 1890s; Il Duce is of course Mussolini). The passage testifies to a similar plight recounted in other postcolonial works, for instance In the Castle of My Skin by George Lamming, one of Farah's favorite authors. But a number of Farah's Somali characters have been educated in Italy after World War II, as was pointed out in relation to Medina in Sardines. Farah encompasses the various and contradictory aspects of the almost inevitable link between Somalia and Italy, which usher in a peculiar love-hate relationship. For one thing, he bitterly satirizes the “so called intellectuals of Somalia, speaking impeccable English and Italian” (NN, 135), as well as the members of upper bourgeoisie: “Halima doesn't speak English, Daud says. Italian. She is from Baidea, the daughter of a one-time member of parliament. You may know him—you also coming from Basso Giuba. / Alto. / Sorry” (NN, 154; Basso [lower] and Alto [upper] evidence the persistence of Italian words in topography).

Here is young Warsawe, a total fraud: “His mother was terribly apathetic: her son, a Dottore, the most intelligent of his generation, the only Somali who spoke and wrote English and Italian like a native, her jewel of a son as jobless as an ‘unfallen’ angel” (NN, 172). Koschin, the man without qualities, the disenchanted yet passionately critical intellectual educated in England, so unbelievably vital in spite of his final, tragic ordeal, looks at the phenomenon from a special vantage point. The picture acquires greater complexity in the subsequent novels, where the Italian imprint distinguishes numerous members of the Somali intelligentsia. In Sweet and Sour Milk we are supplied with further evidence of Italy's becoming a true springboard for the careers of young intellectuals or petits bourgeoises. Soyaan had won a scholarship to Italy to study economics at the University of Rome. Loyaan had won as well, but would go to the University of Bologna to study dentistry: “Dottor Soyaan! A title before his name—titles, in this part of the world, being a legacy of the Italian love for pomp and flattery. Dottor Soyaan. Dottore! Dottor Loyaan!” (74). Soyaan's mistress, Margaritta, is “a tall, beautiful woman, with large breasts, half-Italian, half-Somali” (112), herself an Italian citizen, working for ANSA, the Italian press agency; this will not prevent her from making a firm commitment to the cause that Soyaan has hopelessly striven to uphold. Quite significantly, a Somali character, Ibrahim Musse, a future victim of the General's iron hand, “the one who was extremely courteous and who bowed as he took leave,” is nicknamed Il Siciliano (The Sicilian), as if to corroborate the pervasiveness of the Italian frame of reference.

Sardines enhances this dimension to a degree of considerable complexity. Medina graduates and free-lances in Italy; she gives birth to her daughter Ubax in Rome, a traumatic experience, as she is infibulated; and her husband Samater is “one of the best architects ever to have graduated from his university in Italy” (79). In Milan, Medina, her brother Nasser, and Samater witness the outbreak of the student revolt, with its combination of vocal protests and violent uprisings, led by the so-called extraparliamentary leftist fringes, hostile to both the political establishment and the Communist Party, which was branded as an accessory to capitalism. It is the Italian Sessantotto (Sixty-eight), a battle fought in the name of the working class and under the wing of Marxist-Leninist ideology paradoxically by an aggressive minority of young people mostly of middle- or upper-class extraction. Farah treats this incandescent phase of recent Italian history with penetrating insight:

A cloister of red flags. A column of student resistance. A pillar of raised fists. … And a sea of youthful faces. … And the shuttle would spin a curtain of chorus-singers: Giap/Giap/Giap Ho/Chi/Minh. A private grievance made public. … The confronto-scontro. The avan-guardia degli operai e dei braccianti. Il Maggio Francese. [The confrontation-clash. The avant-garde of the factory workers and of the farm laborers. The French May.] … Medina, Sandra and Nasser sang and participated like everybody else whereas Samater would hold back.

S, 199).

A kind of mirror relationship is established, in that the Somali students respond to the loud, would-be revolutionary ritual performed by their Italian mates with a sense of belonging, although they cannot fully grasp a chaotic and fragmented reality which strangely reverberates on them. Sandra, their Italian friend, preaches her political gospel to Medina and flatly accuses her of not understanding Italy. However, Medina and Nasser write a poem “to indicate that their idea of '68 was different from Sandra's and their European counterparts: ‘In Europe and the USA / it is / question-time in the halls / of learning: / in Southeast Asia / one listens to the lecture on Ethos of Resistance …’” (201). They are still unaware of the fact that, back in Somalia, they will have to face a tragic challenge and take a stand which will deeply affect their private selves and will ultimately shatter their lives.

Human relationships and the existential stance, as we observe them in Close Sesame, are haunted by an individual and collective madness whose definition Farah admittedly borrows from David Cooper and which symbolizes the general downgrading brought about by the dictatorial regime. The old patriarch Deeriye represents a link between the past and the present. Farah, born in 1945, possesses no memory of that past, and he avails himself of a sourcebook written by a radical Italian scholar, Angelo Del Boca, Gli Italiani in Africa Orientale: La conquista dell'Impero (The Italians in East Africa: The Conquest of the Empire), acknowledged in the “Author's Note” at the end of the novel. The paradox referred to above materializes in Deeriye quite clearly. He received his education while in detention, imprisoned by the Italians for resisting their authority as colonial masters: “Were it not for that period of detention, I might never have known what it was like being a Sayyidist, a Somali nationalist and a Pan-Africanist all at the same time. I am not saying that the Italians did me a favour by imprisoning me because that taught me who I was—although that's true too” (CS, 201). But his ideals are being thwarted by the regime. No wonder that Deeriye makes a point of ruling out the General's book Collected Wisdom (“I knew what the General thought and, as Somalis might say, one couldn't read about a goat that bleats only to the tune of its own boastful cry”), whereas he recollects reading “every line Mussolini had written. … I pored over the Duce for two main reasons. One: I wanted to know what he thought about his own people and about Somalia; I also needed something to practise my reading on” (187). Italian has so permeated linguistic communication that Deeriye's son Mursal jots a note in Italian on the cover of the secret memorandum written by Soyaan, the political dissenter mysteriously dispatched: “Per un'eventuale distribuzione/pubblicazione” (For possible distribution/publication; SSM, 178). The supreme, ironic paradox is reached in Somalia's national anthem: “How could anyone call that thing Somalia's national anthem? Perhaps not many people knew that it was composed by an Italian and that there were no words which could be sung to the piano music of the man's composition” (S, 129–30).

Nevertheless, there is no trace whatsoever of any Italian literary influence. The literary models can be found in English literature (Joyce, Flann O'Brien, Yeats, Dylan Thomas), in German literature (Hermann Hesse), in South American literature (Pablo Neruda), in Russian literature (Goncharov), in West Indian literature (George Lamming), and quite naturally in African literature (Achebe, Soyinka) and in the Arabian Nights, from which the title of Close Sesame is drawn. Dante, curiously quoted in English translation by Koschin (“Dante, the wise of the old as well the modern, Amen!” NN, 139), is not necessarily a case in point; Alberto Moravia is casually hinted at, along with Pontecorvo's film Queimada and the liberal weekly magazine L'Espresso.

As for Italian characters, in Close Sesame Farah digs up, by means of Deeriye's recollections, a few scattered pieces of the history of Somalia in the colonial period. We come across various stereotypes of Italian soldiers and officers: arrogant, obtuse, the appropriate caricature of a latter-day, ragged imperialism, aptly embodied in the figure of Governor De Vecchi, one of the founding fathers of Fascism, the grotesque, self-proclaimed Gran Pacificatore (Great Pacifier), with a reputation even in Italy, it should be added, of being rather dense. Neither are the survivors of the colonial era spared: shopkeepers, farmers, restaurant owners who try to cash in on the tinsel grandeur of the past. But the nadir is reached in the devastating portrayal of the Casa d'Italia (Italia House)—“The litter-bin of a deglorified idea, and the Italians have it exclusively for themselves. … The Italians therein lubricate their physical agonies and relax” (NN, 107)—or of the “Italian hipsters,” or finally of the academics from Padua University sent for short terms to teach at the National University, the aftermath of “the days the Italians ran the country like a brothel” (NN, 97). Conversely, Italy is liable to conform to widespread commonplaces, seen through the eyes of Somali visitors as a strike-ridden country (S, 172) where you may still meet people stupidly nostalgic for Fascism, an age when “trains arrived exactly on time” (SSM, 223).

The crucial Italian character is undoubtedly Sandra in Sardines, the young woman met by Medina, Nasser, and Samater in Milan, and a recognized leader of the Sessantotto. A dogmatic Marxist-Leninist, Sandra is the granddaughter of the former Vice-Governor-General of Italian Somaliland, De Felice. Farah provides an extraordinarily subtle and cogent portrait of the scion of an upper-class or possibly aristocratic dynasty in her haughty and supercilious effort to exercise a concealed guilty conscience by professing a simplistic allegiance to revolution: “My grandfather was a colonialist. Your grandfather dealt in slaves. We're different. We may disagree ideologically, you and I. The question may be reduced to whether you are extreme left or I am” (206). When officially invited to Somalia to report on the socialist revolution for an Italian leftist newspaper, Sandra, “who had never set foot in Africa before,” pretends she can understand Africa “in a week” (208), and she lectures Medina as she used to do in Milan. She obstinately clings to her ideological fetish, to her unmitigated self-indulgence, to her self-satisfaction, becoming almost a harsh, sarcastic caricature. In the eyes of Medina, who is painstakingly trying to readjust to the distressful state of affairs in Somalia and to rethink the notion of truth itself, Sandra seems to entertain an unshakable belief that she alone “can say how things are, write the truth.” The mirror relationship is being reversed, and actually Sandra looks down on Somalia moving “in this hall of mirrors, … talking narcissistically on and on and on and on, whereas Africa was the ghost which never cast back an image” (208). Hers is the updated version of colonialism, and she becomes the harbinger of an abusive truth consciously or unconsciously aimed at repossessing the heart of darkness.


  1. Nuruddin Farah, Sardines, London, Allison & Busby, 1981 (reprinted London, Heinemann, 1982), p. 199. All subsequent references are to the Heinemann edition and are cited in the text using the abbreviation S.

  2. Nuruddin Farah, Close Sesame, London, Allison & Busby, 1983, p. 47. All subsequent references are to this edition and are cited in the text using the abbreviation CS.

  3. Nuruddin Farah, A Naked Needle, London, Heinemann, 1976, p. 10. All subsequent references are to this edition and are cited in the text using the abbreviation NN.

  4. Nuruddin Farah, Sweet and Sour Milk, London, Allison & Busby, 1979 (reprinted London, Heinemann, 1980). All subsequent references are to the Heinemann edition and are cited in the text using the abbreviation SSM.

Itala Vivan (essay date Autumn 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4198

SOURCE: “Nuruddin Farah's Beautiful Mat and Its Italian Plot,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 4, Autumn, 1998, pp. 786–90.

[Vivan is Professor of Language, Culture, and Institutions of English-Speaking Countries at the University of Milan. In the following essay, she discusses the role of Italy and its relationship with Somalia in Farah's trilogy Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship.]

“I want to engrave the name of Somalia on the skin of the world,” announced Nuruddin Farah in the early eighties, while still working at his narrative trilogy Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship.1 In fact, the three novels of the trilogy may read as a macrotext, an organic whole governed by a consistent homogeneity of style, an imaginative and rhetorical design whose purpose is to write the nation. This paper addresses the question “What is Italy's role in this design?”—meaning, by Italy, whatever is and appears Italian: the Italian language first of all, but also Italian culture and politics, and especially the colonial “encounter” (historical memory) and the postcolonial link (present relationship). In the puzzle plotted by Farah and aimed at conjuring up an image of nationhood, I am asking why the Italian factor is present, and what function it performs.2 The Italian element is not a naturalistic and therefore mimetic device used in order to “reproduce” a given cultural and/or linguistic entity. Neither is it the result of chance, or an ornamental or inverted “exotic” detail.

When referring to a nation, one thinks of a territory. But in the case of Somalia, the common denominator that gave support to its becoming a nation at the end of the Italian protectorate in 1950 was its colonial past as well as the unifying Somali language. And in the early seventies, soon after overthrowing the young democracy with the 1969 revolution, General Siyad Barre, whose aim was to create a visible body out of an oral reality, undertook the task of transcribing Somali and making it a written reality—a real and visible territory according to the Western canon. Language was therefore the territory where the destiny of the country was decided.

Writing Somalia, writing the nation, implies an ambivalent task for this Somali writer born under colonial rule in the Ogaden and, at the time of writing his trilogy, witnessing his newly independent country being strangled by an African dictatorship. The dictator himself is never mentioned as Siyad Barre, as if the very fact of pronouncing his name might conjure him up in the fictional texture, which he never enters as a flesh-and-blood actor. He is called “the General,” or the Generalissimo, an interesting combination of an invented Italian word (meaning, by analogy, “the super-general” or, in Orwellian terms, “the general of all generals”) with the title for the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (Generalísimo). He is often equated with Mussolini, the Italian Duce. In Sweet and Sour Milk Loyaan quotes his brother Soyaan as writing:

Dictators, like our General, like Mussolini, love to be remembered by history, … but forget that they will be remembered for the least banal of things and also for their cruelties. When I was last in Rome … I talked to an elderly man and asked him if people still remembered Mussolini and if so what it was that the mention of his name reminded them of. Do you know what the man's answer was? “When Mussolini was here,” the man said, “trains arrived exactly on time.” Africa. Malaria. Humiliation. Never mind the comments.


The evil present—Siyad Barre's version of socialism—seems to merge with the old evil, the actual fascist colonial domination, into a common root: power, and tyrannical imposition. Writing the nation is in more ways than one an impossible task for Farah. He therefore adopts a peculiar set of strategies. Instead of identification, he plots variations on the theme of identification; and he chooses language as a construct based on the principle of exclusion. English, Somali, Italian, Arabic are organized in an elaborate pattern which visibly and audibly appears as English, but which at a deeper level—in the imagination—is multidimensional and perversely structured, taking one-way directions.

The three novels are consistently built along these lines. Let us offer some examples to prove our case. In Sardines Nasser surprises Medina and Sandra at a critical moment, then talks to Medina:

He [Nasser] lapsed into Somali so as to exclude Sandra. He said … the worst that could happen was some sort of political scandal. … Medina said she had thought the same. Then she told him the identical words in which the messengers had delivered their news. She added that she knew the source of the message. Who? She used the Italian word “ideologo” to make Sandra curious, make her strain her ears and ask a question.


Here we have a speaker, Nasser, who lapses into Somali from we do not know which language (English? Italian? or maybe even French?). Somali is used to exclude Sandra. Then Medina drops an Italian word to make Sandra realize she is being excluded. Again in Sardines, the child Ubax, interrupting the conversation in Italian between Nasser and Medina with her sobbing, which is “like a deliberate alteration of speech technique,” denounces “the plot”: “Medina and Samater always talk in a foreign language when they don't want me or Idil to listen. … They speak Somali when they want to shut Sandra or Atta out. Now you are doing the same thing, Uncle Nasser, and I don't like it” (97).

In another instance, Ubax, playing with her mother Medina, who is teaching her the alphabet, “squinted at an arrangement of the alphabet which made her feel illiterate. ‘It's foreign.’ ‘It is not. It's Italian.’ ‘But that is foreign’” (199). In Close Sesame the American Jew Natasha speaks Italian with her father-in-law Deeriye: “And why did Natasha not learn Somali? Her answer was very simple: ‘… What annoys me is that no word [in Somali] ever means the same thing to two different persons, let alone two different regions of the country’” (47). Both Ubax and Natasha reveal the abstract character of language, its value as a cultural construct, and its deeply ambivalent nature as something which is a limit and a boundary from both inside and outside.

In Sweet and Sour Milk Loyaan's first encounter with Margaritta ends up in a restaurant in Mogadiscio. Their minds are tuned to an Italian cultural key; Margaritta recalls her youth in Italy, while the waiter arrives carrying zuppa di pesce, scaloppina alla Milanese, and other Italian dishes, and asks them whether they want vino sciolto, Chianti, or Barbera. “One would think one was in a province of Italy,” suggests the narrator, and indicates how both Loyaan and Margaritta's minds “travel back to Italy for a moment. Each was in a different world. Each kept different company. They lived in different cities as well” (120). Here, as elsewhere, Italian is used not to connect, but to disconnect; not to communicate, but to declare communication impossible; not to identify, but to offer variants of or variations on identification. The fact of describing Italian eating and drinking habits is a disguise to cover up the distance separating the two characters while keeping up the metaphoric pattern common to the whole novel, based on food and drink. The milk of Somalia is both nourishment and poison (for Soyaan), while traditional medicine (Qumman's) is refused, and so-called scientific drugs turn out to be deadly. What is good for Africa, then—the traditionally African, or the modernity of Western “progress”? No answer is offered in the narrative.

The fact that Italian was the colonial and is now the neocolonial language is only one of the reasons why it is present in the novel: it brings back the historical memory of the colonial past, with its edge of suffering and humiliation. One additional reason is that Italian is partly foreign, as Ubax intelligently remarks. Italian is one more foreign language in the trilogy, where each language is foreign to one or more of the characters—or to the reader, for that matter.

Language is not a means to decode the puzzle and solve the enigma but, rather, a key element in the enigma itself. If such is the function of Italian, the foreign and colonial language, one wonders what happens to the other languages present in the three novels and manifested in quite different ways. The novels are written in English, but as they are all set in Somalia and have Somali characters, it is obvious that the English used here is a sham to cover up an underlying and secret language. Somali itself does emerge from time to time, as actual Somali or in portmanteau words.3 Yet, at a fictional level, Somali appears in the disguise of a foreign language, or, rather, as a language capable of being foreign to somebody and so excluding him or her. This is the case of Somali for the English-speaking readers whom the novels probably address. On the other hand, English is foreign to potential Somali readers as well as being highly improbable as a vehicular language in Somalia.4 It turns out, in fact, that all of the languages are foreign and contribute to the novels' being construed as a huge enigma of reciprocal exclusions. Homi Bhabha's observations on the theme of nation and narration seem useful here for analyzing the role of Italian in Farah's trilogy: “It is ‘the enigma of language,’ at once internal and external to the speaking subject, that provides the most apt analogue for imagining the structure of ambivalence that constitutes modern social authority.”5

Nuruddin Farah's trilogy amounts to a complex meditation on social authority, the nation, and the Somali exemplum (an African dictatorship). Such authority is ambivalent, aimed at fragmenting rather than uniting. Hence the tragic enigma of Somalia, and the foreboding of future disasters clearly visible two decades or so before the actual splitting of the nation into chaos, with a total dissolution of social structures. At least, thanks to the novels, our heroes have not “died an anonymous death—and that was heroic” (Close Sesame, 207).

It is not the place here to offer a linguistic analysis of the Italian lexicon employed by Farah, not least because this aspect has already been treated elsewhere, with findings that do not contradict our interpretation.6 A point of further interest lies, indeed, in the ways Italian material has been intertextualized in the trilogy to signify the final enigma. Such material falls under three main headings, which will be referred to in the context of one novel each: in Close Sesame, elements concerning the colonial encounter; in Sardines, facts and reflections linked to contemporary Italian politics; finally, in Sweet and Sour Milk, deeper cultural influences and visible presences.

The colonial past, the action of the Gran Pacificatore (General De Vecchi) in the early wars, and the long detention suffered under Italian rule are repeatedly reenacted and relived by Deeriye in Close Sesame. But these elements are constantly intertwined with a gradually deeper analysis of the African “weak” elements or “traitors” in the process of colonial conquest. Deeriye discusses this point at great length and focuses on the concept of an “African” reality in the face of a “colonial” and foreign invasion. This connects with the present and leads him to see what it means to be a traitor now, in contemporary Somalia. Where does loyalty lie now? And is betrayal possible when things happen in public? All this amounts to wondering whether secrecy (i.e., real knowledge) has become a negative element or whether it can still contribute to the cause of the nation.

Farah combines a knowledge of Italian colonial history with memories of Somali oral traditions.7 When he proceeds to take a closer look at colonial power, a vein of sardonic indignation prevents him from analyzing Italian imperialism or, even more so, Italian fascism. Italy is represented at its interface with Somalia. Colonialism is present in Somalia as foreign, but there are ambiguous implications here—just as occurs with the language. The ambivalent relationship of the colonized with the colonizers is subtly hinted at, mainly through cultural elements. In this respect, the discussion between Sandra and Medina in Sardines is quite relevant. The alienation caused by colonialism is scorned in Sweet and Sour Milk, when Loyaan recalls how his father forced the twins to attend Italian schools during the colonial period.

How could they make him understand that at school they were told they had no history? Garibaldi. The Tower of Pisa. The Duomo of Milano. Crispi. Il Duce. … What irreverent condescensions! What lies! Merca had no documented history. Mogadiscio had none. Well, … not until the Arabs came. … What indiscretions!


Again, Italy as a colonial power is just another example of foreign domination by imperial Europe. The internal contradictions of Italian imperialism, so clearly discernible in the African campaigns and later in the rise of fascism, are not revealed in the colonial encounter enacted by Farah.

Cultural differences between the invaders and their Somali victims are exemplified in Close Sesame when the Italian officers who are preparing to retaliate in 1934 (stating instead that they come “to offer peace”) unfold before Deeriye, sitting “on the beautiful mat his wife had brought out”—the mat a symbol of nomadic civilization—“a portable seat while their Somali retainers [stand] rigid like wood, tense and frightened-looking” (35–36). Here the white man is the Other who, just like the archetypal Western explorer Robinson Crusoe, needs a “proper” chair to sit down. Deeriye, on the other hand, is exalted in his royal majesty by the beauty of the traditional carpet taken out of a tent. Italian, British, German—any European might be acting in such a scene, which ends with the Italian officer having a dangerous fit of hysteria and threatening to kill Deeriye. People do not know each other, and everybody is afraid of everybody else. In fact, in his old age Deeriye equates his contacts with the Italians (conflict, imprisonment) with those he had later on with the British (detention and confinement). These experiences generate a fundamental uncertainty in the face of a political predicament: action must be taken, but what action? The reader can only deduce that the doubt preventing any decision has deep epistemological roots.

Colonial history and present-day policies are approached in an original way in Sardines, where politics is a mise en abyme for the fictional life of the main characters, who are all women. Sandra, an Italian who has been invited to Somalia by the regime, is an old acquaintance of Medina, her husband Samater, and her brother Nasser. They all went to university together in Italy during the time of the 1968 student revolution. But their perceptions of society keep them apart, creating a dividing line rather than a common ground: “My grandfather was a colonialist. Your grandfather dealt in slaves. We are different [says Sandra to Medina]. The question may be reduced to whether you are extreme left or I am.” But Medina replies by linking the past to the present: “Your grandfather came carrying the light of the civilized mission of the crucifix. … When its flame waned, Marx lit another. You've come carrying that. You are the spokesperson of a continent just as your grandfather was when here.” Medina, the Somali, feels she was a “guest in Milano” in her youth, as she is now “a guest in Mogadiscio”: “She was a guest in the Marxist ideology which she couldn't twist. … She needed the approval of the European intellectual left.” Here Marxism is equated with any other imperialist attitude and seen as an instrument of intellectual colonization. So Sandra is obviously a blind instrument in the hands of the Somali regime and unable to understand it, just as Medina was unable to understand the Italian situation when living in Italy.

Straight from student politics she had inadvertently walked into the intricate, clannish, tribalistic polemics and politics of Somalia, a country rife with internal intrigues, international conspiracies and local mafiadom. There were the crowned clowns, the tribal upstarts, the “genuine socialists,” the befogged persons. … and Sandra had walked right into the middle of a scene.


The ensuing picture is one in which nobody knows anything: there is no common knowledge. The clash between the two women, each accusing the other of being unable to understand a national reality (Italy and Somalia), results in an epistemological dead end.

Sweet and Sour Milk is an intricate charade wherein the imagery of Italian colonialism is frequent, as well as numerous traces of the Italian language. Loyaan looks at a poster with “the closed fist of a black man's protest against oppression, a fist raised as high as the Roman eagle of power” (26). The ancient imperial symbol—which was to become Mussolini's insignie when he bragged he was Rome's inheritor—is taken here as a positive element and applied in an inverted way; but the marks of a more recent colonial past, “an army tank and accessories abandoned by the Italians during the Second World War,” are labeled “the wreck of history” (58). Ambiguity rules the novel, with Loyaan taking his identical twin's place and searching for a memorandum—never to be found—entitled “Dionysius's Ear.” The document allegedly describes the ear-service system of tyranny created in Somalia; its name illuminatingly refers to the cave where Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, kept his prisoners. The cave, still extant in the Sicilian city, is shaped like a huge human ear and echoes loudly when one whispers inside it. The legend goes that the tyrant used it to spy on the prisoners and find out their secrets, even if whispered. Dionysius's Ear fits neatly into the pattern of orality pervading the whole novel, while the shape of the human ear (and Dionysius's cave), resembling a question mark, reinforces the atmosphere of interrogation and doubt.

The nature and finality of the memo are explained to Loyaan by Ibrahim, called Il Siciliano—yet another reference to Sicily. These Sicilian elements, together with the general pattern of the novel—a thriller embedded in mystery and leading nowhere—represent a clear homage to Leonardo Sciascia, the Sicilian writer whom Farah liked and was reading at that time. Sciascia's stories contain well-canvased plots focused on Sicilian society, mafia crimes, useless quests for truth in enigmatic labyrinths. Intertextuality is adopted in a subtle way by Farah: “other texts” are obliquely referred to, and seldom if ever acknowledged or explicitly quoted. In Sweet and Sour Milk the whole fictional organization closely resembles Sciascia's narratives, where lonely characters search for some kind of truth, or at least information, and wander along “corridors of power” in a society which excludes them. The culprit is never to be found in Sciascia, because the faceless nature of “mafiadom”—Farah's attractive neologism—creates detours and byways and defies the naïve searcher with secret codes and cryptographies, just as happens in Sweet and Sour Milk. Sicily, of course, is the mafia's homeland, where those who oppose it disappear without a trace, like Soyaan in Mogadiscio. What did Soyaan die of? “Complications,” everybody repeats (35, 37, passim).

The presence of Italian terms in Sweet and Sour Milk is linked to the narrative pattern, emphasizes doubt, obscurity, and the final dilemma, and is occasionally oracular (prudenza, the Latin mens sana in corpore sano, et cetera). In fact, Farah wrote part of the novel and revised the finished manuscript while living in Sicily, and probably absorbed cultural and political elements which he adapted to his own figural purpose.

In Sweet and Sour Milk there are also structural and external allusions to myths and tragedies of Greek antiquity, especially to Antigone (the compassion shown by brother and sister: here, Loyaan and Ladan), to Oedipus Rex (the enigma, the riddle, and the struggle against the father), and, explicitly, to Agamemnon, with a direct quotation concerning “the red carpets of power” (219) where the color of blood (murder) is also, ironically, the color of the sovietophile allegiance proclaimed by Barre's regime in those years.

The novel, set in 1975—the year of the execution of the ten sheikhs in Mogadiscio—is the only work by Farah to be organized according to the Aristotelian unities of time, space, and action. It lasts seven days, from Soyaan's death to the end of the wake and the seventh day's ritual celebration, and culminates at seven o'clock on the seventh day, when “somebody” knocks at the door. The unities are thus almost respected. What is more, no one dies onstage: Soyaan dies in the prologue (in the best tragic tradition), while Beydan dies offstage.

Intertextuality is used as an expressive need, to create a sense of awe and irony. Sicily is the land both of the mafia and of ancient Greek civilization; Syracuse hosts both Dionysius' ear and one of the most perfect open-air theaters of classical antiquity, where orality is worshipped in ancient poetry; Sicily stands as an area of political intrigue and corruption, but also as the cultural home of Euclid and Archimedes. Finally, among Dionysius' prisoner-slaves there was once Plato, a captive from Athens and later a philosopher at Dionysius' court. Farah's riddles and charades echo the formulaic system of ancient geometry and philosophy and thus hint at a hidden, esoteric level of knowledge where general epistemological doubt might be absolved.

In Sweet and Sour Milk everybody suspects everybody else, while news and events are suspended in a grim labyrinth which the reader threads as though in a Kafkaesque castle. Nobody knows; one may only suspect, and conjecture. An opaque, sickly shroud lies everywhere, veiling the sun and the moon during the terrible seven days of mourning encompassed by the tale. It is a world of transition, where ghosts may appear and signs of malaise spread like a plague; the world of Hamlet's visions, with a touch of that pastoral life which used to characterize traditional Somalia. But it is not a world aloof from human action. Soyaan proudly states: “When they finally come, having broken the pride of dawn, they will find me prepared. No, I don't belong to the class of the humiliated. I shall have readied myself like a woman who awaits her lover” (14). Soyaan seems to speak for the author here. Both proudly state that, if the nation is impossible and the country has been kidnapped by dictatorship, the individual Somali will jump on his or her beautiful mat and use it as the only possible territory. The mat which marks the difference of the nomad's tent and makes it beautiful and meaningful is woven by human hands. Italian culture, with its language and literary examples, and the memories of the colonial past, are contiguous colors in the woven plot of that mat. They introduce a further element of complexity, contribute to the signification of secrecy, and form an essential part of the final enigma.

The reader may wonder why enigma should form the basic pattern of the trilogy. Apart from its reference to an impossible nation, the metaphor also stands for art, the only language which can conceal and reveal at the same time and where concealment is an integral part of communication.


  1. Nuruddin Farah's trilogy Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship includes the novels Sweet and Sour Milk (London, Heinemann, 1979), Sardines (London, Allison & Busby, 1981), and Close Sesame (London, Allison & Busby, 1983). Page references to these editions are given in the text. That his purpose was “to engrave the name of Somalia on the skin of the world” was revealed in the course of an interview: see Itala Vivan, Tessere per un mosaico africano: Cinque scrittori neri dall'esilio (Verona, Morelli, 1984), p. 48.

  2. In exploring the corpus of Nuruddin Farah's fiction, one encounters Italian “territory” only in the narrative project of the trilogy, and in the earlier novel A Naked Needle (London, Heinemann, 1976), which leads to it and represents a sort of prologue. Farah's later works have definitely walked out of Italian territory and abandoned it.

  3. An interesting example is the word sardines, on the surface indicating a kind of edible fish, but at a deeper level the name of the Somali children's game dhundhunmashaw, a sort of hide-and-seek. Nor is it surprising that Farah gives this novel a title suggesting hide-and-seek.

  4. Of course, the problem is common to many postcolonial writers who chose to use English (or French, et cetera). As to Arabic, it is worth noticing that in the trilogy little of it is visible to the reader who is not familiar with that language; but in fact it plays an important role in absconding meanings and creating complex, multilayered, polysemous puzzles where the language interplays with the Islamic literary tradition and religious imagery.

  5. Homi K. Bhabha, “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation,” in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha, London, Routledge, 1990, p. 297.

  6. See Claudio Gorlier, “The Italian Dimension in Nuruddin Farah's Fiction,” in Africa America Asia Australia, 1986:2, pp. 7–16; and Claudio Gozzi, “Variazioni sul tema di una dittatura africana: La trilogia di Nuruddin Farah,” unpublished dissertation, University of Verona (Italy), 1986.

  7. The picture thus obtained is not dissimilar to Chinua Achebe's conclusions in Things Fall Apart, where the colonial “adventure” or “enterprise” ends with Lord Lugard imposing British “pacification” on the Niger Delta region.

Abdourahman A. Waberi (essay date Autumn 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4889

SOURCE: “Organic Metaphor in Two Novels by Nuruddin Farah,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 4, Autumn, 1998, pp. 775–80.

[Waberi is Professor of English at Caen, France, author, and recipient of the Grand Prix de l'Afrique Noire in 1996. In the following essay, he studies Farah's use of the organic metaphor in Close Sesame and Sweet and Sour Milk.]

Splintered into multiple possibles, Somalia—the Farah reference par excellence—is difficult to recount in its unity or totality at the present time.1 The narrator or singer, the scholar, and even the reader find themselves compelled to cut up their object of study and to opt for certain modalities of writing and/or reading. One possible reading is the study of the processes of fictionalization of Somalia's referential history. (By history I mean current events as much as the long-term History of the region.) The reader is endlessly impressed by a perpetual metaphorization of everything that stems from abstraction, to such an extent that one could establish a physiognomy of Nuruddin Farah's fiction. This physiognomy, which some would call the narrative's physique, strikes me as having a double function: it is at once a means of knowledge and a narrative form.

One can, of course, point out that Farah is not the only writer to use organic metaphors. The practice runs throughout the new postcolonial literatures. One could mention in passing that Season of Anomy by Wole Soyinka, Le pacte de sang (The Blood Pact) by the ex-Zairean Pius Ngandu Nkashama, L'odeur du père (The Father's Scent) by the Zairean novelist and philosopher V. Y. Mudimbe, or still yet La blessure du nom propre (The Wound of the Proper Name) by the Moroccan Abdelkébir Khatibi all evoke clearly enough this figure of style. The theme of bodily or psychic maladies—a theme dear to the colonial imagination, one must recall—has sustained a good number of postcolonial works characterized by their mimeticism. Léopold Sédar Senghor, Léon-Gontran Damas, Jacques-Stephan Alexis, and Cheikh Hamidou Kane have all taken up the theme of illness both as a mimetic reaction and as a humanist affirmation, a theme which some members of the newer generations of writers seem to hold in great contempt at the moment, in order to proclaim loudly their aspirations to autonomy, their right to “opacity,” as Edouard Glissant would say. For the Antillean writers (francophone and anglophone, for example), it was and still is a matter of expressing one's revolt, one's refusal of assimilation. It has been noted, at least in the instance of the first generation of writers, that there is a tendency to regurgitate what one had forcibly or willingly ingested. Aimé Césaire declared that “Martinican poetry will be cannibalistic or will not be at all.” In the case of this great poet, the organic metaphor of rejection, of vomiting up the poison that the French language represented, is doubled by another metaphor, a telluric one: that of volcanic eruption.

The most interesting approach, however, will be to analyze how Farah appropriates, reinterprets, and extends this resolutely classic metaphor. Moreover, the organic metaphor is, quite significantly, the paradigm chosen by Africanist political scientists like Jean-François Bayart (1989) or the editorial team of the journal Politique Africaine.2 This latter group has set up an entire theoretical edifice inspired by the organic metaphor and which emphasizes the notion of predation. The historian of the French Revolution and film critic Antoine de Baecque has also opted for this metaphor as a theoretical paradigm, all the while reminding us of the great developments in clinical anatomy at the end of the eighteenth century.3 It is the organic metaphor that enables the expression, through an extremely rich cluster of analogical correspondences, of the transfers of power and wealth. The organic metaphor is thus a thematic grid or, to use an old rhetorical term, a topic.

In addition, the body is a very rich concept (perhaps too rich) that is used with great frequency. Consequently, the term's polysemia and the density of the metaphorical network that results from it force us to weave an interpretive web as tight as possible in order not to sweep up the entire ocean of bodily representations in our wicker trap. To this end, we will choose an object or an organ, however insignificant it may be, which will allow a commentary or, better still, a wealth of interpretations. I hope that by diving in in this way, we will avoid the “horizontal” quest for unified meaning; my intention, in other words, is to renounce any pretense to a totality.

Elsewhere, I have already examined the subject of spatial metaphors, which form the sacred core of Farah's fourth novel, Sardines.4 I am therefore proposing a multipart analysis here, beginning with a reading of Close Sesame focused on an organ (the eye) and a metaphor (ocular effraction or intrusion: an unfocused lens, the darkroom). The final movement of a trilogy orchestrated by Farah, this work corresponds manifestly to the novelistic discourse's retreat into private scenes and stages. Certainly, the other two novels in the trilogy (Sweet and Sour Milk and Sardines) take place to a large extent within familial and private space, but Close Sesame displays introspective space (in all senses of the term) more extensively, as both the chapter divisions and the title itself seem to suggest. The twelve years spent in colonial prisons (“A Door in the Darkness”), the years of postcolonial exclusion and foreclosure (“With the Portcullis Down”), the asthma, absence, depression, and, finally, impotence due to Deeriye's old age all participate in the discursive retreat to private space—the protagonist's most personal refuge.

The first page of the novel introduces the reader into the old man's consciousness as he wakes up one morning, and the opening chapter allows us to read his first prayer, the details of his ablutions, and the substance of his intimate and pious reveries. This ocular effraction combines with another effraction, that of pulmonary occlusion. Deeriye's lungs contract and narrow, impeding his respiration; they diminish in volume, and without recourse to a product that dilates his windpipe, he will suffocate. This pulmonary occlusion affects his entire body, which in turn contracts as well (“His face: his lungs”; 80). Deeriye sinks into depression and catatonia, a total retreat into himself. He curls up into a ball and no longer speaks or moves. There is no more corporal expression. Fortunately, the narrator has prepared a very personal and spiritual place for him where only his wife Nadiifa-the-Pure can reach him. Blessed are the characters who, like Deeriye, can take refuge in faith and draw from it true comfort, real dignity, and a coherent system of meaning!

This retreat is rendered by sensory images, most often visual ones. While it is true that Close Sesame is less abundant in metaphors and images than Farah's two preceding novels, there is a crepuscular light (“the light of the setting sun”; 15) that gives it the feel of the end of the world. This dusky light runs throughout the novel, from the moment Deeriye wakes up until his death. It continues even then, and we find it again in the prison cell's dreary light and the room itself, as well as in the sepia tone of the old photographs. Deeriye's heroic symphony at the end of the novel is not an attempt to reconquer space (the social arena which his reputation could open for him), but rather the leaving of “The Key under the Mat by the Door,” the last move of a permanent retreat. The recurrent theme of old age sends us back to Deeriye's final breath and concomitantly to the last hurrah of the dictatorship, as well as, on another level, to the last word—“One last word” (CS, 208)—of the trilogy.

If the voice (here, the words proffered whose meaning is not immediately grasped) is the materialization of the body of Khaliif-the-Mad, a likable though somewhat redundant character, the eye is the medium of predilection for Deeriye. As proof, on the very few occasions when he leaves his room, it is only to go stroll about Mogadishu as a photographer (“he would have liked to be … either an urbanist or a photographer”; 87). The mayor compares his city to a body (“The Mayor talked of Mogadiscio metaphorically as a body”) that only, Deeriye adds, children and the elderly cannot manage to master: “Only children or the very old could not reach all parts of their bodies.” Let it be added in passing that the city of Mogadiscio always functions as an “actant” in its own right, with its own life, genealogy, personality, feelings, worries, et cetera.

If we take up where the narrator leaves off and continue to draw out these organic metaphors which run through the human body as through the city, we will be tempted to replace “young upstarts” with “young upstairs,” since these parvenus are now among the upper crust. The visual presence of Deeriye is surrounded by materialized or dream voices, such as Khaliif-the-Mad (hardly in the Shakespearean tradition of fools), Deeriye's deceased wife Nadiifa, and his grandson Samawade, as well as the voice of the Prophet Mohammed by way of the Koran, or, just as significantly, that of Sayyid Mohammed Abdulle Hassan, whose poem “Death of Corfield” Deeriye frequently listens to on cassette. The discursive retreat to private spaces in the case of Deeriye coincides with the opening or inauguration of another stage, that of spiritual coherence. Yet another example of ocular effraction, the twilight colors are not exclusively (and profoundly) the colors of apocalypse or death but belong rather to a serene climate as well, a world where Islamic values are the principal vectors, where the lyrical beauty of the prayers coincides with each action inhabited and motivated by the sacred, and where death, far from being absent, is accepted and even tranquilly received. However, with the death of Deeriye, who fails to reconcile the two antinomic elements of the gun and the rosary, an entire world, with its way of living, of being, and of dying, is extinguished.5 I am tempted to call crepuscular light the color of nostalgia—in part the author's nostalgia in exile (like Deeriye in prison) but especially “the nostalgia of a totalizing vision impossible to recover.”6

If eyes can guide the reader in Close Sesame and open the door to possible interpretations, then breasts and corporal secretions can offer an interpretive grid for Sweet and Sour Milk. In both instances, it is a question of seeking out parts of the body and then attempting to fit Farah's text into a preestablished speculative frame. I have followed the lead of his titles, which are, in a certain sense, signifiers par excellence. (Roland Barthes deems the proper name the prince of signifiers.)7 I plan to pursue this avenue in a future study devoted to the place of onomastics in Farah's work, but until then, I have taken the liberty of shifting the problematic and designating the title as the prince of signifiers, at least within the metaphorical field established by Farah.

It is well known that for the ancient Greeks, physical well-being depended on a proper equilibrium among the body's four humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood). Women were classified as “cold” beings, except during certain “hot” periods in which, to put it another way, they were considered as dangerous creatures or in danger themselves. A full-fledged economy of fluids was born of these reflections, with the bodily humors related by analogy to the elements of the cosmos with which they shared such attributes as heat and cold, dryness and humidity. These prior beliefs are deeply rooted in today's cultures, and the novels coming out of multicultural regions carry forward such beliefs (beliefs which, to be brief, originated in the Greco-Roman imagination) and wed them to other, equally ancient tenets. Examining Farah's texts can be of considerable interest for those working on the marriage (or parataxis) of different imaginations, which is why it seems useful to us to go so far back in time.

Among bodily secretions, milk holds an important place in human beliefs and cultures. It is the most frequently mentioned in the nomenclature of secretions, followed by menstrual blood and sperm: “First beverage and first food, a substance in which all others exist in a potential state, milk is naturally a symbol of abundance and of fertility, as well as of knowledge.”8 Milk is the only substance which is both food and drink, but it is also—especially, even—one of the most ambiguous symbols. This ambiguity is not a problem for the author of Maps; quite the contrary, in fact.

By analogy and successive juxtapositions, Farah builds his metaphorical network around the symbol of milk and, by extension, the organ that produces it, the breast. At times discursive and dialectic, at others nondiscursive and poetic, his thinking is not always easy to follow. I will try to flush out the invariables. The title Sweet and Sour Milk is not an idiosyncratic expression revealing an ambivalent, personal obsession. Rather, I believe that it is rooted at the intersection of several literary traditions and merits several readings, some concomitant, some divergent. The title could easily be a reference to a proverb, words of Somali wisdom. I should also point out the harmless fact that camel's milk is bittersweet. Moreover, there are numerous sayings, children's rhymes, and proverbial phrases sprinkled throughout Farah's texts. These expressions are part of an initiatory, cognitive process, a logos where contraries are united in a single term. Somali poets prefer to play on variations of a limited number of poetic elements to constrain their metaphors rather than indulging in an administration of their resources that increases them exponentially. The images are customarily derived from the given context: “Imagery in the miniature poem is usually universally understood in Somalia (like rain and milk) or can be determined from context.”9 In the case of the titles that interest us here, Farah, like any good Somali poet, plays on the ambiguities of the esthetic units: “An image can carry a double or hidden message. … This device is common enough in Somali poetry” (Johnson, 37). Milk is an important and recurrent symbol in Somali poetry, an emanation of a pastoral and nomadic society. The first wish one makes for an individual who is undertaking a trip into the hostile spaces of the hinterland is “Nabad iyo caano” (May you come upon peace and milk!). Caano (milk) is an indispensable element for nomads, as the following fragment suggests: “Xadday Dhudi caano ii dhibtooy / Intaan dhamo sow ma dhaafeen?” Johnson's translation renders this phrase as “If Dhudi gives me milk, and / I drink [therefore], how can I leave her?” (Johnson, 34). I should point out that Dhudi, a panegyric name for a young woman which translates as “The Tall-and-Slender-Tree,” is the incarnation of physical beauty. Somalis have taken to defining themselves as the “people of milk”; moreover, the name Somali comes from the injunction “So Maal” (Go milk!). One begins to see that Sweet and Sour Milk refers to an imagery that is doubtless simple but not simplistic. This title is a double-faced medallion, Eros and Thanatos united. This melding works by the grace of an organ: the breast. Sigmund Freud illustrated this mammary relation with a concise formulation, calling it “the place where love and hunger meet.”10

Symbol of protection and measure, the breast is the feminine attribute par excellence. In Farah's novel we find another variation in the symbolism of the breast: the breast of Abraham, where Soyaan comes seeking the peace and rest of the righteous. The figures of Qumman and Ladan are angels entrusted with easing Soyaan's agony. This agony is provoked by his having absorbed a mysterious substance, poisoned yogurt perhaps. Once again, in maintaining the mystery of the substance—is it an aliment, a beverage, or an injection?—Farah plays on the symbolic ambiguity of milk: lait-miel (honey-milk) can turn out to be lait-fiel (bile-milk). With this, a whole string of images suddenly pop up to support the “bile-milk” thesis. The unsettling bivalence of milk culminates with the extremely subtle transformation of the protective mother into the castrating mother. The arrival of Soyaan's suckling brother, his twin Loyaan, does not cure his agony. Honey-milk and bile-milk are fused and confused in the gustatory palette established by Farah to such an extent that the perverted milk tastes like blood, with a dry foretaste: “She [Qumman] wet her mouth, she let her lips receive the caress of the breeze, and then moistened them again … this conversation would help snap the umbilicus of their link faster” (79). This passage is not without an echo of the terrible deflowering of Ebla in From a Crooked Rib: “She closed her eyes … and tasted the sour sweat which dripped into her mouth. She bled a great deal” (99). At the end of Sweet and Sour Milk nothing is known with any certainty, and the reader must, like Ladan (“To Ladan, Soyaan was the braille of her otherwise unguided vision”; 17), seek a hypersensory guide.

Before concluding this study, I would like to turn to a poet—an extralucid guide, perhaps?—who sums up beautifully all the ambiguity of milky secretions and productions in a single phrase: “Ambrosia and poison, sweet honey, a bitter liqueur made to nourish the child or kill the mother” (Victor Hugo). Farah shows us, by means of a dialectical reversal or metaphorical transfer, that milk can also kill the child, whether it nourish the mother or not. It would not be overstating our case to say that metaphors are often ahead of their era's critical attempts to grasp literary history. Metaphors are in constant movement and thus avoid becoming grounded on the perilous reefs of reification.

Let us turn briefly once again to the title of Farah's second novel, A Naked Needle, which will provide us with both the organ and the metaphor for this section of our study. The body part selected here is the skin or epidermis, with the appropriate metaphorical equivalent being tissue. This metaphor can be drawn upon in individual and collective modes, and thus the tissue in question will be individual or, more often, that of the community. After all, is not Koschin an isolated needle trying vainly to gather up the already fraying national fabric? Though some critics are no doubt seduced by a sort of psychoanalytic reductionism in which the title is seen as determined by the insignificant phallus of a Koschin, this needle is the inverse of a Wilson Harris spider, for example, completely absorbed by its spinning and the figure of the spiral. Koschin is most definitely not an arachnoid figure; on the contrary, he is a cerebral one, a weaver of abstract notions and a fencer of words. From this perspective, he is paradoxically enough a typically Somali character for whom everything is a pretext to discussions, digressions, and verbal libations. A Naked Needle displays a single day's worth of meandering promenades through Mogadiscio, like a Somali Stephen Dedalus. Koschin is also the weaver Penelope, awaiting the return of Nancy-Ulysses. I am not just pulling this weaving metaphor out of thin air, since it originates in an explicit statement (in the book's epigraph) of the author's own intentions: “The needle that stitches the clothes of people remains naked itself. (An Arabic proverb).” The novelistic project itself takes into consideration this weaving to the extent that the novel is a superimposition, an interweaving, of many languages, references, and styles. The six movements which make up the plot of this novel are fragments intertwined with more or less ease. The translator and critic Françoise Balogun has also noted this metaphor, comparing the writing of A Naked Needle to the process of weaving: “The action unfolds around a character who grows richer as the narrative thread develops.”11 This work contains several pages that draw on the days when the author still lived in his native country, as the following declaration of his identity shows: “There is my country, there are my people, my values. There is the Revolution to which I am loyal. There is ME” (prologue). This introduction belies the initial warning contained in the statement “No real characters where none is intended. No true incidents where none is mentioned.”

On the level of the Somali cultural substratum, the polysemic notion of toll has a primary signifier which can be translated without difficulty as “tissue” and, by extension, as “family, clan, or even tribe.” The underlying signified refers to the body, the bodily envelope bound up with its blood relatives. Moreover, this is the same term Farah used in the title of his only novel written in Somali, Tollow Waa Talee Ma. The image of the notion of toll which shows through most typically is that of a group confined to a hostile space and huddling together.12 Ali Moussa Iyé speaks of a “closing of ranks” (158), which, though it presupposes an exemplary solidarity, also implies a promiscuity impeding the full radiance of individual bodies through their skin's sensitivity.13 The motto exemplifying this sociopolitical reality is a model of succinctness: Toll waa tollan, “the community forms an indestructible fabric” (Iyé). Here the metaphor is in fact an exemplification: the expression “communal fabric” passes from English to French and Somali with neither alteration nor loss of meaning. One should recall that the Greek term metaphor, the Latin translatis, and the French transfert (transfer, transference) or transport (transport, transportation) are equivalent. The Somali term toll was without doubt a very powerful affective image prior to its demise, its reduction to a mere verbal cliché.

Once can thus read space within the novel as a canvas, a tissue, a most sensitive epidermis. In a text on the intimate geography of cities intended as an introduction to his book La forme d'une ville (Paris, José Corti, 1985), Julien Gracq writes: “The shape of a city changes faster than the hearts of mortals.” Koschin, geographer and poet, has his finger on the pulse of Mogadiscio: “Come, Nancy, please come, and let us together discover the calamity, the er … eternity of this city that has a divinity of its own kind” (90). In so doing, Farah, through Koschin, undertakes an essay on the remanence of the traits of the Somali capital. Farah's only novel written in Somalia, A Naked Needle owed it to itself to describe the city, section by section, building by building. Each portion of the city has its wrinkles and its distinctive texture, and Koschin's commentaries allow him to put his two cents in. The novel is a tissue of commentaries: at times it is love that has the upper hand (“I love it, I adore it [Somalia]”; 167); at others, revolt wins out (“Everything is a mess. I can't bring myself to participate in a mess such as this”; 39). At still other moments, irony and sarcasm come to the fore: “Somalia is the Elysian field where even the dead demand their dividends” (65–66).

British critics have often established a tie between Koschin and Stephen Dedalus, but few have revealed the ineffable influence Joyce has exerted on Farah. The baroque tendency of Farah's writing doubtless finds its source, at least in part, in Joyce's work. Along the same lines, one expects the African writer to be moving, feverish, or impassioned, and one does not anticipate finding in his works the cold, detached humor to which Koschin and some of Mongo Beti's young heroes have accustomed us. It is as if humor were the privilege of a few latitudes alone. To hear certain critics or scholars tell it, the humor present in the Euro-American heritage (from the comedies of the later Shakespeare up to … a given New York Jewish writer, by way of Georges Courteline or Milan Kundera) would be a luxury item for those coming from the tristes tropiques.

If Somali authoritarianism is a text—and one can read it as such without straying too far from the thinking of its author, who compares it on some occasions to poorly worked farces and on others to theater in adoration of an omnipotent satyr—then this text is the narrative of a body, a thousand bodies, a still-victimized “population-body” (un peuple-corps) and a still-colossal “State-body” (Etat-corps).14 Farah's text is indisputably a tale of bruises, with the author keeping tally of the wounds.15 The bodies have been put to sleep or chloroformed by fear and the absence of a doxa, or sliced up by the dictator's thugs. Exile and extraterritoriality remain the only ways out for many.

The conception of the novel as closure, as a finished product and expression of a reality given or known in advance, is completely foreign to Farah's way of thinking. Farah weaves an extremely intricate, multiform web, in the tradition of the best postcolonial writers: “The post-colonial text is always a complex and hybridized formation.”16 Ultimately, I hope that this brief analysis has provided an occasion to combine an extracultural critical eye with the intracultural eye of a critical insider.


  1. As the ironies of politics would have it, Somalia in 1991 officially broke up into two states (perhaps more?). The schema of unity imported from Europe—it would be more accurate to speak of a “graft”—has failed miserably in Somalia and in many other African states (Ethiopia, Zaire, Sudan, Angola, Liberia, et cetera), a failure which African writers have described ad nauseam. The model that one could sketch of the Somali horizon (at the very least) would be an aggregate of small states, relatively independent, hostile, and/or complementary. Is it the coming of the age of rhizome politics? It would take a genius to know for certain! In any case, future generations of scholars will need to reformulate their orientations, since the monolithic model, misguided in its unitary vision and the product of nationalist paradigms, is no longer operative. It will perhaps be more judicious to no longer consider “Somalia” as a national entity but rather as a cultural area consisting of “Somalias,” of Somaliphone groups and still others as well.

  2. Jean-François Bayart, L'état en Afrique: La politique du ventre, Paris, Fayard, 1989.

  3. Antoine de Baecque, Le corps et l'histoire: Les métaphores face à l'événement politique 1770–1880, Paris, Calmann-Lévy, 1993.

  4. Abdourahman A. Waberi, “Poétique de l'Espace et Politique dans la fiction de Nuruddin Farah,” memoir of DEA (3d cycle), Université de Dijon, 1993, 180 pages.

  5. I would first like to point out that these two attributes, emblems in the strict sense of insignia, belong to two quite distinct social groups in the larger cultural and political tradition: the wadaad (men of religion) and the waranleh (men of war or, literally, spear-bearers). The distinction between these groups is still meaningful enough that oral literature attests to it. I. M. Lewis comments, “This dichotomy reflects the political and social realities of a traditionally strife-ridden society, with religious specialists mediating between feuding warrior clans, as well as, of course, between men and God” (I. M. Lewis, “Islam in Somalia,” in Somalia in Word and Image, ed. Katherine Loughran, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1974, p. 139). Why call attention to these remarks? Deeriye is, on the one hand, a living example of this tradition, and a good part of Close Sesame exemplifies the content of the above citation, whereas, on the other hand, Farah has made use, consciously or unconsciously, of this dichotomy in adapting and enriching it a great deal, a bit like Wole Soyinka revisiting the orisha of the Yoruba pantheon. The small child Yaacin is the paradigm of the gunmen, warlords, and other Mad Max figures of today. Once again Farah shows himself to be a true visionary. Cf. Ali A. Juimale, “Of Poets and Sheikhs.”

  6. Jacqueline Bardolph, “L'évolution de l'écriture dans la trilogie de Nuruddin Farah: Variations sur le thème d'une dictature africaine,” Nouvelles du Sud, 6–7 (1987), p. 90.

  7. Roland Barthes, “Analyse textuelle d'un conte d'Edgar Poe,” in Sémiotique narrative et textuelle, Paris, Larousse, 1974.

  8. Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionnaire des symboles, Paris, Laffont, 1982, p. 556.

  9. John W. Johnson, Heellooy Heelleellooy: The Development of the Genre Heello in Modern Somali Poetry, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1974, pp. 36–37. Waberi notes that the miniature poem is a traditional Somali genre.

  10. Cited in Angela Carter, La femme sadienne, tr. Françoise Cartano, Paris, Veyrier, 1979, p. 246.

  11. Françoise Balogun, “Promenade à travers les romans de Nuruddin Farah,” Présence Africaine, 145 (1988), p. 160.

  12. “The reason why there is this clannishness in Somali politics is because traditional nomadic hamlets in Somalia are physically separated by great distances” (Nuruddin Farah, “Why I Write,” Third World Quarterly, 10:4 [1988], p. 177).

  13. Ali Moussa Iyé, Le verdict de l'arbre: Le Xeer Issa. Etude d'une démocratie pastorale, Dubai, n.p., 1990, p. 158.

  14. From a scientific point of view, the concept of authoritarianism seems more appropriate than that of totalitarianism.

  15. Jean-Pierre Durix demonstrates this quite convincingly in one of the very first studies on Farah's work in French: “Nuruddin Farah ou l'énigme de la liberté,” Afrique Littéraire, 67 (1983), pp. 69–77.

  16. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds., The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature, London, Routledge, 1989, p. 110.

Additional coverage of Farah's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 2; Black Writers, Vols. 2, 3; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 106; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 81; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 125; and DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural.

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