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Nuruddin Farah: Maps

Askar had something of a traumatic childhood. His mother died – alone – giving birth to him. Askar and his deceased mother were found by a servant, Misra, who rescued Askar. His father had died a few months previously, in prison, in mysterious circumstances. Askar and Misra live on a compound. The upbringing of Askar and Misra’s expenses in looking after him were paid for a by a community of relations. Two men were involved somewhat in his early life. Aw-Adan, who called himself a priest and Askar’s uncle (his father’s brother), Uncle Qorrax. Both tried to ingratiate themselves with the young Askar and both slept with Misra. They were far more successful with the latter than the former, as the young Askar showed his dislike for both men at an early age.

Much of the early part of the book is about Askar’s close relationship with Misra. Their relationship is very close, as she is a mother substitute for him and, she adores him, as she had lost her own (illegitimate) child some eighteen months before Askar’s birth. Indeed, their relationship can be seen as quasi-sexual. Askar, writing when he is much older, clearly obsessed over Misra but now, as a young adult, despises her (It pained him to remember that he had once shared his life with her, it made him feel embarrassed to recall that he had been so close to her once, that he had been proud of her). He has since been living in Mogadishu with his Uncle Hilaal and Hillal’s wife Salaado. As a child it was not all Misra. Karin, an elderly neighbour, sometimes helped, particularly when Misra was having her period, which caused a certain amount of suffering and also when Misra did not have her period because she was pregnant. Karin’s husband had fought against the Ethiopians. Indeed, he often disappeared for long periods. Eventually, he was captured and imprisoned for a long time. When he returned he was a wreck, took to his bed and eventually died. However, he did leave a picture of British politician Ernest Bevin to Askar. Bevin had pushed for a Greater Somaliland and was accordingly revered by many Somalis. It is this that helps Askar want to fight for his country, as we shall later see.

Askar remains attached – often physically – to Misra till a few things changed. Firstly, his uncle insisted that he went off to the Koranic school run by Aw-Adan. He did not like it, not least because Aw-Adan was brutal, beating the boys, including Askar. Indeed, the first time, he beat Askar so hard that he wet himself, to the amusement of the other boys. Eventually, he got used to the beatings and his refusal to show any pain made him something of a hero to the other boys, though a little devil to Aw-Adan. He did, however, vow that one day he would kill Aw-Adan. The other key event was, not surprisingly, his circumcision. It was naturally agonising but, once the pain had worn off, it made him feel he was a man (though still only six) and he became more independent from Misra, to her chagrin.

The other key event is the Ogaden War. Askar lives in Kelafo (this book calls it Kallafo) which is now in Ethiopia but was a Somali town. Askar sees the consequences of the war – the women and children leaving for Mogadishu or other safe havens, the men going off to fight and the shelling. He becomes very nationalistic and vows to help the Somalis when he can. Misra, meanwhile, is concerned, because she is of Ethiopian origin. (We have had what may be something of a fanciful account of her background.) Askar suggests that the pair of them flee to Ethiopia but she tells him he would be killed instantly by the Ethiopians.

But, as we know, he is off to Mogadishu to stay with Uncle Hillal. Hillal and Salaado do not have children of their own, as Salaado had an operation which means that she cannot have children. As a result, they are not used to children and, to some extent, Askar has to fend for himself. He seems to miss Misra to some degree. He writes to her but never finishes the letters. Meanwhile, the war is going on and Askar is getting involved in it, by making a detailed study of the maps of the region. There is considerable discussion of the history of Somalia and Ethiopia. Hillal is keen to point out that the Somalis are a united nationality, unlike other nationalities such as the Ethiopians. Ethiopia, he points out, is merely a Greek word that means a person with a black face. He goes on to say Ethiopia is the generic name of an unclassified mass of different peoples, professing different religions, claiming to have descended from different ancestors. Therefore, ‘Ethiopia’ becomes that generic notion, expansive, inclusive. Somali, if we come to it, is specific. That is, you are either a Somali or you aren’t. Not so with ‘Ethiopian’, or for that matter not so with ‘Nigerian’, ‘Kenyan’, ‘Sudanese’ or ‘Zaïroise’. The name ‘Ethiopia’ means the land of the dark race. This idea of identity, specifically national identity, is one of the key themes of this book and is a key issue regarding Misra, whose national and personal identity is an issue throughout the book.

The loss of Ogaden is also key and Askar/Farah are highly critical of those involved, which means not just the Europeans but also the Soviet Union and Cuba and, indirectly, the other superpowers who did nothing to help Somalia. The refugees come streaming into Mogadishu, with many desperate, as there is no-one to help them. One of the refugees is Misra and her arrival is also key to the latter part of the book.

This book is somewhat different from his other books. There is no dictator and there are no warring factions. The enemy is clear and it is Ethiopia and Ethiopia’s supporters. The issue is also clear. Greater Somalia, incorporating the former British Somaliland, Italian Somaliland, Ogaden and the Somali part of Kenya, is a desirable aim and Ethiopia has no right to Ogaden. However, at the same time, we have the story of Askar, struggling with his identity and his role in life. Should he go to university or should he join the liberation fighters? It is not a decision that he finds easy to reach.

Publishing history

First published 1986 by Arcade