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Igiaba Scego: Oltre Babilonia (Beyond Babylon)

It may not be as well-known as it once was but the country that is now Somalia was once British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland. If you have read the works of the great Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah, you will have noted frequent references to Italy, the Italian language and Italian in his work, reflecting Somalia’s Italian past.

Immigrants come to other countries for many reasons, but three of the important ones are to avoid political (and religious) persecution, for economic reasons and because of a connection to a (former) colonial power. These reasons are not, of course, mutually exclusive. Scego’s family presumably originally came because of the connection with Italy as the former colonial power, though they may have had other reasons. The same applies to the two main characters in this book.

Zuhra’s parents are both Somali while Mar has a Somali father and an Argentinian mother. Both mothers are bringing up their children on their own, as the father has disappeared.

Zuhra has various issues, apart from the lack of a father. Like other dark-skinned people in Europe, she faces racism. The first instance we see of this, however, is not in Italy, but when she goes to Spain as an exchange student. She goes to the police station to get a permit to allow her to open a bank account and is immediately arrested as an illegal immigrant, the Spanish police assuming that, because of her colour, she cannot possibly be Italian. Throughout the book, we will see examples of racism.

The second issue is sexual abuse. She was abused sexually over a long period when a young girl by the janitor at her school. As with other bodily functions, Scego does not spare us the details.

Finally, she cannot see colours. There is a medical condition called achromatopsia which may or may not be relevant but, in Zuhra’s case, this seems more of a psychological than physical condition. Initially, her condition applied to all colours but, by the time this book starts, it seems only to apply to red.

Her friend Alice tells her that this condition may be because she is still a virgin, something she admits to. She rejects that hypothesis but feels that, if she finds the right man, she will be cured. This red colour blindness causes problems. Again, going into the bodily functions, it means she is unable to recognise the colour of blood when she menstruates.

Mar has different issues. She is bisexual and had had an affair with Patricia. (She will later have an affair with a man). This went wrong for all sorts of reasons.

Her mother, Miranda, describes in some detail the repression in Argentina in the 1970s-1980s, in which she lost her son, Ernesto who was “disappeared”. Again, we will follow the events in Argentina in some detail throughout the book. Miranda also plans on sending Mar to study classical Arabic in Tunisia and, indeed, of going herself

We follow the lives of the main characters, particularly Mar, Zuhra and their respective mothers, Miranda and Maryam. Miranda, who is a published poet, grew up in Argentina, as did Mar and we get considerable details of the repression in that country. Maryam grew up in Somalia and came to Italy to follow her husband, Elias who had gone there to earn his living. We learn about Elias’ parents and the hard life under Italian occupation.

We also learn about life in Somalia before Siad Barre and how life took a turn for the worse once he became President and has not recovered. No one imagined that after twenty years a war would break out between brothers, between Somalis, to divide that blood-soaked power the tyrant Barre left behind.

However, the book is mainly about Mar and Zuhra and their respective mothers, Miranda and Maryam. Miranda grew up in Argentina and, like many Argentinians, was football-mad. She even managed to play goalkeeper for a boys’ team. However, as she points out, every one of the boys was arrested during the Argentinian repression. She had to leave on short notice. Mar has grown up with a relatively famous mother (Miranda is a published poet) but has grown up in Italy with an Argentinian mother. Moreover, she is black and her mother white, which, inevitably, attracts comments.

For Zuhra, growing up in Italy, things were a bit easier, though there were the racism, sexual abuse and absent father. However, she has ended up working in a megastore, selling books, music and film. She likes book and films but not music so she is put in the music department. She hates the job.

We also meet Elias, the absent father, now back in Mogadishu and recording a taped message for his daughters, one he knows – Zuhra – and one he does not know. Zuhra, we learn, does not even know his name.

A good novel should have an element of a chaos in it and this novel certainly has that but it is well-managed chaos. The main plot follows the story of the three women (Zuhra, Mar and Miranda) in Tunisia, who they meet, how they about each other and their struggles with Arabic. While following their stories, we are also learning all the various, highly colourful back stories, from the independence of Somalia to the return of Perón in Argentina, from Miranda’s affair with an Argentinian torturer to 1960, Africa’s Year of Independence and why it didn’t work out, from female genital mutilation to bulimia.

The novel switches backwards and forwards in both time and place. Miranda says to her daughter You represent Venice and also Genoa, Lisbon, Buenos Aires, Mogadishu, Rome and those are only some of the places we visit.

Above all, what really makes this novel is that the main characters are not afraid to speak their mind on all and sundry whether it is racism or menstruation, employment or language and, above all, about themselves, their families and their friends. Many of the topics they raise are deadly serious but they are mixed in with others where a light-hearted and, at times, somewhat cynical approach is used. Accordingly, the novel, which could be thoroughly depressing, is not in any way. Indeed, the motto, which she uses at the end of the book is My Somali women can change their own futures with their own two hands.

Scego is brilliant at her use of imagery, from the pigeons (they were something to fear. Their feathered uniforms were worn and their steps uncertain. Everything about them pointed to negligence. Tattered, slovenly, wasting time being nothing) to the celebrations in Somalia on Independence Day, from Elias’ travels round Africa to Mar’s obsessions with Peter Sellers and his films. Little is as you expect, even the punch-line, as Scego shows that she is a first-class, original story-teller.

And the title?

I went beyond Babylon, do you understand? Beyond everything, to a place where my vagina is happy and in love. Babylon was everything bad that could exist in the world. White trash, vomit, disgust, pain. I suppose that in my mind’s silence I thought, I’d really like to live beyond Babylon.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Donzelli
First English translation by Two Lines Press in 2019
Translated by Aaron Robertson