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Nuruddin Farah: Sardines

Medina was young and beautiful. She had a degree in literature and was very well-read. She had become a journalist and was then promoted to assistant editor of the only daily newspaper in Somalia. However, she clashed with the editorial board and was fired and a presidential decree forbade her from publishing her writings anywhere in Somalia. So she decided to translate twenty world classics from six foreign languages, four of which she knew well and the other two quite well, into Somali, in order to read them to her eight-year old daughter, Ubax. One or two of them she adapted to Somalia, for example the snow of the Icelandic sagas became sand.

Medina was married to Samater, a weak man. However, when he became Minister of Construction, things became difficult and they became more estranged. They lived in her house – his family had no money – with his very old-fashioned and domineering mother, Idil. Eventually, Medina packed her bags and the bags for Ubax and they moved out to a house, owned by her brother, who was living abroad. (We later learn that one of the reasons for this is that Idil wanted Ubax circumcised, though the reason given was that she wanted to write a book critical of the government, which would have been embarrassing for Samater.) The situation was naturally not happy. Ubax missed her friends and her toys and Medina refused to return, even for a visit.

Medina’s best friend was Sagal. Sagal was a first-class swimmer who had won several competitions. If she won the next one, she would be able to go to Budapest for an international competition. While there, she planned to defect. If she did not win, she would rebel and be imprisoned. Sagal has had a brief fling with a man called Wentworth George, a black Caribbean, and is worried that she might be pregnant. Sagal lives with her mother, Ebla, and the two have not always had an easy relationship, not least because of her mother’s relationship with Bile, whom we will meet in later books by Farah.

Meanwhile, things are not going well back chez Samater. His mother has brought in a cousin, nominally to help as a maid but also, as she quite clearly states, to be a wife for Samater. Eventually, he throws both of the women out and starts an affair with Atta, a very anti-white African-American woman. He plans, as he says, to detribalise, i.e. have nothing to do with member of his clan. Medina’s brother, Nasser, has also returned from abroad to help out, though he seems to have some sort of business in selling underground tapes, with an actress who has fallen on hard times.

Anyone who has read other books of Farah will see a familiar tale here. We have a brave person, often a woman, who wants to stand up to the oppressive regime, the tribal system and the old-fashioned Islamic law, which, amongst other things, is very oppressive to women. We get some fairly horrific accounts of the nasty things that happen to people, both the generally innocent as well as those opposing in any way the three forces mentioned in the previous sentence. People are arrested, often for no reason, and disappear. People are tortured. Women are oppressed, including female genital mutilation and rape. Justice is arbitrary and very very slow. In short, life in Somalia is not pleasant. While, in this book, there is something of a plot – Sagal’s swimming and the Medina-Samater relationship, it is not as lively as in some of his other books. Indeed, at times, it just seems to drift as we suddenly get a new character – Atta and Sandra, the Italian journalist, for example – who are suddenly parachuted in, having been very peripheral up to that point. Something of a bitty novel but there is no doubting Farah’s committed opposition to the three main forces dragging Somalia down.

Publishing history

First published 1981 by Allison & Busby