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Nuruddin Farah: Close Sesame

Deeriye is now an old man. He was first living with his daughter. Zeinab, but is now living with his son, Mursal, as Zeinab demolished half her house. His son and daughter-in-law, Natasha, both take good care of him, though he can hear them whispering about him. His time is taken up by reminiscing, talking to various people – his son, his grandson, Samawade, his best friend, Rooble, and by reflecting on his life. He also has visions – hearing and seeing things that happened elsewhere, as well as seeing into the future. (He later admits that is a form of madness.) He watches life go on, on the street below. He had become head of his clan at quite a young age, when his father suddenly died. His first big test came when an incident occurred with the Italian occupiers, in 1934, when Deeriye was twenty-two and his father had only just died. There was a dispute between the Italians and the neighbouring sultan. An altercation took place and, allegedly in self-defence, an Italian was killed by one of the sultan’s men. The Italians naturally came to look for the man. They learned that he was hiding with Deeriye’s clan. When they came to him, he declined to assist them and they vowed revenge. First, they slaughtered the cattle of the clan and then he was arrested and thrown into prison. It was there that he met Rooble. All together he spent twelve years in prison, both under the colonial occupiers and after independence. As a result, he was not much involved in bringing up his children and only came out of prison for the last time, just before his beloved wife, Nadiifa, died.

He had always been something of a rebel, supporting Mohammed Abdullah Hassan during the colonial period and now declaring that he was a pan-Somalist and a pan-Africanist, supporting all African liberation movements. Now, however, he has grown old and he is worried about his son. Mursal, and three others, including Mahad, son of the man who killed the Italian back in 1934 and also nephew of Rooble, seem to be plotting something. They go off together every day in a car. The fourth man, whom neither Deeriye nor Rooble know, has a military bearing and always carries a briefcase when they go off together. Where are they going and what are they doing? When Rooble challenges Mahad, he says that they are merely going off to play football but both Deeriye and Rooble suspect that this is not the case, particularly when Rooble finds hidden revolvers.

One day, he answers a strange phone call, intended for Mursal. It is from Mukhtar, one of the group of four, who urges Deeriye to urge Mursal to listen to the news. It turns out that Mahad has, apparently on his own initiative, attended an event at which the president was present. Mahad seized a gun from a guard and tried to assassinate the president. He was not successful and the president was whisked away unharmed. Deeriye is naturally concerned as to whether Mursal was in some way implicated. When he is struck on the forehead by the neighbourhood hooligan, the eleven-year old Yassin, things get worse.

Farah uses these events to damn various people and institutions. He is highly critical of the media, including BBC Somalia, for kow-towing to the government and not reporting the assassination attempt or, indeed, anything else that the president might not want reported. He is not too enthusiastic about the Western democracies. Democracy is the instrument with which the elites whip the masses anywhere; it enables the ruling elite to detain some,impoverish others, and makes them the sole proprietor of power. Meanwhile, things are getting worse, with apparent arbitrary arrests, fighting within families and various deaths. As Zeinab says, we are witnessing a world gone mad. The general cleverly tries to make the whole affair a tribal affair, rather than a political affair, with consequences for tribes having to police their own.

We have seen this theme many times before in Farah’s work, namely the opposition to the general by the intellectuals. This one is slightly different as, in many of his other works, the main character or one of the main characters, is an expatriate Somali who returns to Somalia and tries to make a difference, not always successfully, while, in this book, apart from one oblique reference, the Somalis are all resident in Somalia and the one expatriate is Natasha, an American Jew married to Mursal. Opposition to the general is usually shown as futile but nowhere more than in this one where several of the main characters, instead of banding together, go off on their own on what are essentially suicide attacks on the general. It is almost as if Farah is becoming increasingly frustrated with organised opposition, which he appears to consider feckless, and can only consider brave but ultimately foolish direct attacks by individuals. The other key theme is Deeriye’s move from a position of non-violence to a gradual acceptance of violence as an alternative to wholesale support of violence. Indeed, it is this intellectual and religious struggle that Deeriye has with himself that makes this book one of Farah’s more interesting ones. There is an alternative – Nadiifa had said to him All life is not politics, Deeriye – but it is not an alternative Deeriye is ready to support. The history worth studying is one of resistance, not capitulation and all great men have one thing in common: the shaping force of their lives has been resistance.

Publishing history

First published 1983 by Allison & Busby