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Nuruddin Farah: Links

This is the first in a trilogy by Farah. It is set in Somalia, primarily though not exclusively in Mogadishu, during the period of civil war, i.e. approximately at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Some of the same characters appear throughout the trilogy. However, the basic approach involves one or more Somali expatriates (usually from Canada) coming to Somalia during this period, to check out the situation or, with some other agenda, sometimes obvious, sometimes not (at least till later in the book). In all cases, these visitors make a difference, sometimes a considerable and perhaps improbable difference and, of course, they all survive the horrendous conditions in Somalia. In all cases, Farah shows glimmers of hope, i.e. individuals who are struggling to improve things in various ways, including, in particular, the positive role of women. At the same time, of course, he also shows the viciousness, cruelty and random brutality of the various warring groups and also the negative effects of Islamisation in a country which, while Muslim, was far from fundamentalist.

In this book, the first in the trilogy, Jeebleh arrives from Canada. He lands not at the usual Mogadishu airport, which is closed, but in a field away from the city. He is immediately faced with an unpleasant reality. It is not clear who the authorities are, if any, though some people, not in uniform, take on this role and naturally expect a bribe. There is a lot of unpleasantness. Then, without warning, some young men with guns arbitrarily shoot a child for fun. There are no repercussions for them. Jeebleh is met by a man whom he does not know who claims to be acting on behalf of Bile, an old friend of Jeebleh. He later learns that the man, nicknamed Marabou, is running a mysterious funeral business and may well have stolen four million dollars from the UN, though the gossip and rumours circulating in the city are all to be taken with a pinch of salt. He is then taken into town by a mysterious man known as the Major. We learn that Jeebleh and Bile had been close and had both been arrested by the Barre administration. After some years, Jeebleh had been released and sent into exile. Bile had remained in prison and only got out when the Barre administration collapsed and all prisoners were freed. Not surprisingly, throughout the trilogy, he has health (mental and physical) issues. However, he has also set up a refuge to help orphans and has done some fine work. However, there are rumours about him, not least where he got the money to set up the refuge. (We learn the details later.) Recently, his beloved niece, Raasta, has been abducted. No-one seems to know why or by whom. Because of her nature, Raasta was seen as a symbol of peace in war-torn Somalia, the stuff of myth, seen by the city’s residents as a conduit to a harmonious coexistence.

The country is currently in a civil war, with the two main participants, known in this book as StrongmanNorth and StrongmanSouth, fighting each other, though with several minor warlords involved, including, in particular, Caloosha, who is Bile’s half-brother. Bile and Caloosha were brought up by Jeebleh’s mother, so the three know each other well, though Caloosha was cruel from an early age and may well have murdered his stepfather when he was nine. We learn that Jeebleh, Bile and an Irishman called Seamus became friends when they were studying together in Italy (Somalia used to be an Italian colony). Bile and Seamus will appear throughout the trilogy. Jeebleh, we discover, is partially here to find his mother’s grave and honour her and also to find her housekeeper. He reluctantly elicits Caloosha’s help to do so.

The plot involves, from this point, Jeebleh’s efforts to find his mother’s grave and her housekeeper, his issues with Caloosha, background to what is going on, both in general terms but also as it relates to Jeebleh and Bile, the various issues Jeebleh faces in war-torn Mogadishu and how they get Raasta back. As mentioned above some of the plot elements seem a bit improbable. However, what makes this book so interesting is seeing generally ordinary and rational human beings in a war-torn city where all the rules have been thrown out of the window as regards normal life and how the people, both the residents and the visitors like Jeebleh, struggle to deal with the situation.

Farah is understandably very bitter about hat has happened to his country and we get considerable detail on what went wrong ,why and who was to blame. Somalis woke to being betrayed by the religious men and the clan elders who were in cahoots with a cabal of warlords to share the gain they could make out of ordinary people’s miseries. The clan elders got their reward in corrupt gifts of cash; the religious elders, turning themselves into cabaret artists, conned the rest of the populace, as they carved an earthly kingdom for themselves. The clans, the fundamentalist religious factions, Barre, qaat chewing, petty warlords, the US (The U.S. forces failed to define why they really came to Somalia in the first place, soon after the Gulf War. This was never made clear. The ‘good’ Americans, just back from defeating Bad Guy Saddam, were seen on TV holding a dozen starving babies at a feeding center—a picture of postcard quality. Later, after the trigger-happy U.S. soldiers massacred hundreds of innocent civilians and turned the life of the residents into hell, we asked ourselves how the Americans could reconcile the earlier gestures of mercy with the bombings of the city, in which many women and children were killed. And did you hear what one of the U.S. officials said when they pulled out after the October debacle? ‘We fed them, they got strong, and they killed us!’) and the UN are all examined in detail and condemned. It may be somewhat naive to assume that the good man and woman can somehow triumph over the evil, as tends to happen throughout the trilogy, but we cannot really blame Farah for looking for a ray of hope in this poor country and he does tell a good story of hope struggling against evil.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Riverhead