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Nuruddin Farah: Knots

This book follows on from Links, the second in Farah’s trilogy. This one starts two years after Links and follows Cambara who, like Jeebleh in Links, is a Somali who has emigrated to Canada and is now returning to Somalia for her own reasons. What those reasons are even she is not sure about, though she gradually reveals some possibilities during the course of the book. However, there is one main reason. Cambara had been brought up with Zaak, her cousin, whom her mother, Arda, a very forceful woman, had adopted. Cambara and Zaak got on reasonably well, though his bad breath, caused by persistent gum disease, did put her off. Zaak is seven years older than Cambara. What really out her off was that one day, when she was eight, she saw him masturbating (he did not know that she had seen him). When the family emigrated to Canada. Zaak did not come. Some time later, Arda decides, because of the worsening political situation in Somalia, she would like him to come to Canada. The easiest way to do this is for him to be married to Cambara. Cambara is very opposed to this, even though it is made clear that she need have no sexual relationship with him. However, she finds it hard to resist her mother and reluctantly accepts. She has to go to Nairobi, where he is currently staying (at Arda’s expense) and, a Canadian Embassy official, suitably suborned by Arda, arranges for his papers. However, to prove that they are married (though, in fact, they do not marry) they have to live together. While Zaak more or less behaves himself, it is not a pleasant experience for Cambara. Eventually, Zaak gets his full papers and leaves Cambara’s flat. To everyone’s surprise, he almost immediately marries a poor Somali woman and is very cruel towards her. Eventually he goes too far and is sent to prison for brutality. After his release, he manages to get a job with a Somali NGO and is subsequently sent to Mogadishu for the NGO. It is in his flat in Mogadishu that Cambara stays when she arrives there.

Meanwhile, Cambara has met another Somali while in Nairobi. He is called Wardi and is quite dashing. Cambara falls for him at once. She agrees to marry him so he can get his papers (against her mother’s advice) and even puts his name on her flat, so that he owns half. They have a son, whom Cambara adores though Wardi is cruel towards him. However, one day, while she is out, the son drowns in the swimming pool. Wardi was meant to be looking after the boy but is, in fact, having sex with a colleague and neglects the child. The marriage struggles on for a bit but cannot survive. Wardi demands that the flat be sold so he can get his half share. They have a fight and he hits her. She has done martial arts and proceeds to beat him up. A few days later, she is on her way to Mogadishu.

Things have changed in Mogadishu since Links. The warlords are in some degree of retreat but the Islamic fundamentalists are taking over. Women are expected to dress very conservatively, wearing a veil. (Cambara has reluctantly purchased one.) Cambara’s relationship with Zaak is not good. He spends much of his time chewing qaat. He is also very bitter towards her, not least because, as a child, he felt very much as though he were treated as the poor relation. Moreover, he expects her to conform to the current norms regarding women, something she is determined to resist, at least to a degree. However, we also learn one other reason for her visit. She wishes to reclaim a family property that her parents had owned. Zaak tells her that it is currently occupied by a minor warlord, Gudcur, and that there is absolutely no way that she will be able to recover it.

It is soon clear that, with the help of Bile, Seamus and others whom we met in Links, that she will endeavour to do just that. However, when she goes to the property – Gudcur is out fighting – she meets a very pregnant woman – Jiijo – who is Gudcur’s lover. However, she is also his victim as he has abducted her and treats her very badly. It is also clear that Cambara is going to make her a cause. The book is about these struggles but also with her involvement with a women’s group with whom she comes into contact. The role of these women, as well as of Cambara and her two Somali women friends back in Canada, Raxma, a doctor, and Maimouna, a lawyer, is also key to this book, as Farah aims to show that Somali women, despite the veil, are the ones that can make a difference. As Kiin, a friend of Raxma who runs a hotel in Mogadishu says It is times like these and stories like yours and the many tragedies of other women that are disheartening to listen to, the terrible things men have always done to women and gotten away with.

Cambara gets involved and this seems to be another motive for her coming to Somalia – the belief that mourning her loss will make a clement sense only if she involves herself at the same time in repairing her relationship with the country, to whose well-being she has never contributed in any direct way. She helps put on a play for the women’s group to raise funds and seems to pick up causes left, right and centre. It all seems a bit far-fetched, with the warlords melting away at opposition from the women, though the women are not afraid of occasional violence with Cambara beating up a group of men harassing her, with her karate and the women’s group admitting to some occasional poisoning to help a woman in distress. This, and the fact that Cambara is a far less sympathetic character than Jeebleh, makes this book less interesting than Links but it is still worthwhile reading about the situation in Somalia and how, at least in Farah’s eyes, women may be able to make a difference.

Publishing history

First published 2007 by Riverhead