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Nuruddin Farah: Crossbones

This is the third in Farah’s trilogy of novels set in Somalia in the period at the beginning of the current century, with expatriate Somalis visiting the country and making a difference. In this one we find Cambara settled in Mogadishu and living with Bile, who has poor health, both physical and mental. This time we have three visitors. Jeebleh, whom we met in the first novel in the series is returning for the first time in ten years. This time he is accompanied by Malik, his son-in-law, who is a journalist. Malik has never visited Somalia before but has a loose journalistic assignment to report on what is going on in the country. Another visitor is Ahl, Malik’s older brother, who has come to Somalia to find Taxliil, his stepson, who has become a jihadist, along with other Somali-American youths. Things have changed since the last two novels. The Islamic Courts Union has taken over and imposed strict Sharia law. Women are expected to be veiled and, if they appear in public in inappropriate dress, they are punished. At the same time, the Shabaab, the youth wing of the Courts, is also very active and quite vicious. The country is also expecting to be invaded by Ethiopia, something that happens during the course of the book. Another development is the increasing use of IEDs (roadside mines), though there are far fewer roaming, armed gangs of youths..

While we follow the stories of Jeebleh, Malik and Ahl, we also see the Shabaab in action, as the story starts with a young jihadist (his identity will become clear to us later) who has been sent to secure an empty house for use by the Shabaab, to attack other buildings and for defence if and when the Ethiopians arrive. We also see what the Courts are like, as Malik’s computer is confiscated. When it is returned, it has a nasty virus, a pornographic picture (a photo of his naked, one-year old daughter) has been removed and various articles critical of the courts have also been removed.

Ahl has the most difficult task as he must go to the fairly remote Puntland, the area where the pirates are active – Taxliil is allegedly acting as a liaison for them – and first find Taxliil and then persuade him to return. He manages during the course of the book and with the help of Malik and the contacts he make, to meet some decidedly unsavoury characters who try to help him find Taxliil. However, all the time he is aware that is relying on people who have committed a host of unpleasant deeds. As in the previous novels, his actions, which are often naive, seem to eventually bear some fruit, but in a way which is not always convincing.

One aspect for me of the story which was really interesting and which both Malik and Ahl came across was the issue of piracy. In the West, we are naturally given to assume that the Somali pirates are inherently bad and should be stopped at any cost. However, both Malik and Ahl learn of another side to the story. The coast off Somalia is a rich fishing ground. When the trouble started in Somalia foreign fishermen took advantage of lax enforcement and plundered the coasts off Somalia for fish to the detriment of the local fishermen. They also dumped chemical and nuclear waste in the waters. Initially, the Somali fishermen banded together and tried to stop the foreigners from their predatory behaviour. However the foreign fisherman shot at the Somalia fishermen when they were fishing in their own waters. Accordingly, the Somalis took to capturing fishing boats and imposing fines on them. This had only partial success. When an appeal to the United Nations and the international community to assist them fell on deaf ears, they took to capturing these fishing boats and demanding a ransom of only a few thousand dollars. Stories of large ransoms are, according to the people in this book, generally untrue. In addition, when large ransoms seem to have been levied, it is clear that the Somalis have not been beneficiaries but, rather, the middlemen and even the banks, including major Western banks. The Western media have also exaggerated stories of large ransoms for their own ends. How true this is, I am unable to tell but it is clear that there is some truth in it. It is, according to this novel, discussed in this book.

Malik is an enthusiastic journalist and, like Ahl, takes considerable risks, particularly considering that he does not know the country. The Shabaab have been targeting western journalists and quite a few have been killed by IEDs or by direct assassination. Malik, however, is determined to find the truth about the Courts, the Ethiopian invasion, Shabaab, piracy and the role of foreign jihadists. This does not endear him to Shabaab, not least because they feel that Westerners are interfering in their country. For example, it is strongly maintained that US drones are operative and that the US, suspecting an al-Qaeda link, is more involved than it lets on. The Ethiopian invasion does not help. The Courts vow to defeat the Ethiopians but have few resources to do so.

As a novel this is certainly not a bad one but its strength is what it tells us about Somalia – the issue of piracy, the Islamisation of what had been, by Muslim standards, a generally liberal country, the role of business which is happy to not have a government that will levy taxes on them, the brutality and cruelty and the struggles of people to survive in such circumstances. Indeed, I have increasingly felt in reading this trilogy that Farah has moved somewhat away from writing a novel and moved more towards writing about the situation in Somalia, what is wrong with it and what might be done. Given what he describes, you can hardly blame him.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Riverhead