Copyright 1993 Guardian Publication, Ltd. Manchester Guardian Weekly April 18, 1993
Bitter crumbs and sour milk -- a nation betrayed
In his new novel, the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah looks the gift horse of foreign aid in the mouth. He talks to Maya Jaggi
SEVENTEEN years ago, while in Rome, the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah rang his brother in Mogadishu. He was planning to return home and asked to be picked up at the airport. Over the telephone, he heard the news that it would be unsafe to do so. His latest novel had fallen foul of Mohammed Siad Barre, the country's dictator. Farah remembers feeling displaced and incredulous at his brother's prophetic words: "Forget Somalia. Consider it dead, buried. Think of it as if it no longer exists for you."
Farah has never been back -- prevented first by a despot whose rule lasted 21 years, and then by a grim inevitability, the ensuing vacuum. He has lived what he calls (with a wistful nod to his cultural origins) a "nomadic existence", taking up residence in a succession of African countries -- with frequent trips outside, to Europe and the United States. But he has refused to forget the country which has inspired and been recreated in all seven of his novels.
Somalia's sole internationally-known novelist, Farah writes in English, yet his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. His first novel, From a Crooked Rib (1970), was written when he was a philosophy student in India. It offers a startingly sympathetic view of the constraints on women in traditional Somali society, seen through the eyes of a young, circumcised nomadic girl. It won him rare approbation as a male "feminist" writer. Letters sometimes arrive addressed to "Ms Farah", asking for first-hand accounts of female infibulation.
Acknowledged as one of Africa's foremost writers, Farah also has a reputation as a "novelist's novelist". His fiction's intricate language of symbols and metaphors, its cosmopolitanism -- most of his characters are as at home in Rome or New York as in Mogadishu or Dakar -- and its bold melding of intimacy and political breadth, have drawn praise from many other writers -- Nadine Godimer, Chinua Achebe, Salman Rushdie, Doris Lessing and Angela Carter.
His new novel, Gifts, is published in Britain this month. Its timely theme is foreign aid, though it was drafted -- and published in Swedish, Finnish and Dutch -- before the latest famine in Somalia, and long before the US marines launched Operation Restore Hope in front of the world's cameras last December.
Set in pre-civil war Mogadishu -- with food and petrol shortages, and power cuts -- it tells the story of Duniya, a nurse in her mid-30s. She is a woman determined to guard her own, and her children's, independence from the proffered gifts of men. Her resistance seems particularly perverse, given the difficulties of finding food, shelter and transport in a country itself begging for its basic needs. Through snatches of radio broadcasts and newspaper columns, the novel hints at the complex and debilitating collusion of donor governments, multinational companies and local ruling elites in sabotaging the continent's autonomy.
Farah's concern is with the dehumanising effects of enforced dependency, its erosion of Africans' dignity and pride. The germ of the story grew -- as he explained to me on a recent stopover in London -- when he was living in Gambia in the late 1970s. A US ship had docked in Banjul harbour, carrying 10,000 tonnes of long-grain rice. The American government had suggested that the president should use it to buy votes in the forthcoming election. But the "gift" did more than bribe the electorate. It was yet more subversive. "The Gambians stopped taking an interest in their own locally-grown broken rice, and began to demand quality rice from abroad. It took away their self-confidence and self-reliance, making Gambia wholly dependent on aid. The same story is true elsewhere in Africa."
In Farah's novel, Duniya is herself first "gifted" in marriage by her father to an elderly blind man. She becomes, says Farah, "naturally suspicious of exchanges between the powerful and the powerless in which she remains a victim". Her wish to remain free from the "domination" of others' generosity, as she is courted by a well-off admirer, illuminates how imbalances of power -- whether between men and women, or between North and South -- can corrupt even the most well-meant of gifts.
Farah is indignant at the ineptitude of rulers who return repeatedly with begging bowls to Western donors. He explains the Somali custom of Qaaraan -- a kind of passing round of the hat for someone in dire need. "The point is that emergencies are strictly one-off affairs; you don't keep coming back for more, like African governments." His fiercest charge against foreign aid is that it helps to prop up dictatorship: "These gifts create a buffer zone between rulers and ruled. They block the confrontations needed to place the people in command of their nations. The 1974 famine in Ethiopia helped topple Haile Selassie, because the West stopped aid to the regime when news of it broke; Siad Barre wouldn't have stayed in power so long if outsiders hadn't helped."
When the US marines were sent in to Somalia last year, Farah lent the emergency operation an ambivalent approval, edged with an anger that other African states had looked on with indifference when the country began to spiral into self-destruction two years earlier.
But he looked the gift horse firmly in the mouth. In an article in the New York Times, he questioned the purity of the "humanitarian" motives allegedly behind the American intervention. (Other interests range from US oil companies' stake in what may shape up as the world's next supply zone, to fear of a "fundamentalist" takeover among the 100 per cent Muslim population.) Farah also wrote of his disgust at the media spectacle -- well-fed Americans ministering to an Africa once again rendered mute and passive, "faces empty of everything but the pains of starvation".
The response to his article shocked him. "I was accused of ingratitude. American friends I'd known from 25 years wouldn't talk to me, because I'd pointed out the obscenity of that photo-opportunity." Yet his scepticism is rooted in an awareness of the bitter legacy of decades of outside intervention in the Horn of Africa.
Born in 1945 in Baidoa, then in Italian Somaliland, Farah went to school in Kallafo, in Somali-populated Ogaden -- the angle tucked in the elbow-shaped boundary between Somalia and Ethiopia. When the British quit, they left Ethiopia -- "the world's poorest empire" -- to "run the imperial show". During the war of attrition over a border with Ethiopia that the Somalis refused to recognise, Farah's family fled as refugees to Mogadishu. He grew up there speaking five languages -- Somali, Amharic, English, Italian and Arabic -- aware of how whole peoples could be held endlessly to ransom by the caprice of dead colonial cartographers.
Maps (1986) -- the first novel of a trilogy (of which Gifts is the second and Secrets, the third will be published by Serif next spring) -- is set during the 1977-78 Ogaden war, seen by the Somalis as a "betrayal". The die was cast during a curious period of political hiatus. The Soviet Union had ditched its former client in Somalia, General Siad Barre, in favour of the newly-declared "Marxist" regime of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia. The United States, having "lost" Ethiopia, then stepped in, in the 1980s, as Somalia's backer. With an oneiric lyricism, Maps questions the nature of this betrayal, alongside the myths of nation and gender, through the growing pains of a Somali orphan, Askar, who is caught between loyalty to his motherland and his almost incestuous ties to an Ethiopian foster mother.
The Soviet-backed tyranny of General Barre's "scientific socialism" of the 1970s was the target of four of Farah's novels. He shared the brief hopes of revolution that attended Siad Barre's original coup in 1969. But disillusionment was swift, as the political opponents of the new regime began to be detained and executed. "Somalia was a badly written play," he once wrote, "and Siad Barre was its author."
Farah's aim was to give the country a less monological script, to challenge the "Generalissimo's" monopoly on truth. But soon the serialisation of a novel of his in a Somali-language paper was abruptly halted. This was his first and last fiction in his mother tongue -- the inheritance of a rich oral culture (which gained a written script only in 1972). Farah's next novel, A Naked Needle (1976), left him banned and exiled when it was released in London. It had viewed its hero's waning enthusiasm for a "revolutionary" regime through his encroaching mental breakdown.
Perhaps the centrepiece of Farah's achievement is his trilogy, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship. First published in Britain by Margaret Busby, the trilogy was reissued in the United States last year by Graywolf Press. Lamentably, only the second volume, Sardines (Heinemann International, L5.20) is currently in print in Britain. After a trip to the Soviet Union, Hungary, Greece of the Colonels, and Sadat's Egypt, Farah wrote the first part, Sweet and Sour Milk, publishing it in 1979. In Somalia, where copies were smuggled in, it is his most celebrated novel. In the pervasive atmosphere of political intimidation under the rule of "the General" -- the country's Grand Patriarch -- an underground cell of intellectuals plots defiance. In a Mogadishu of Italianate charm, its members are picked off -- killed, tortured, imprisoned, bribed with office, humiliated -- in a chilling game of Russian roulette.
Farah derides "the clowns, cowards and tribal upstarts" who "hide in the convenience of a crowd and clap." He reveals the mechanics of terror in a police state, "rife with internal intrigues, international conspiracies and local mafiadoms". But in place of the General's rigid ideological certainties, Farah offers open-ended, ambiguous truths. There are no political panaceas, no platform. His characters are simply forced to make imperfect moral choices: Loyaan, in Sweet and Sour Milk, who battles for the soul of his poisoned twin, Soyaan, who has been elevated posthumously to be a "Hero of the Revolution" to wipe the traces of his dissent; Medina, in Sardines (1981), a woman journalist who is sacked for refusing to print the General's speeches in full; Deeriye, in Close Sesame (1983), a veteran of a colonialists' prisons, who tries to assassinate the General whom they trained, but pulls out his prayer beads instead of a pistol.
Curiously, the family emerges as the most menacing instrument of authoritarian rule -- with wife-beating patriarchs and circumcising matriarchs. Farah's aim is in part metaphorical: In Sweet and Sour Milk, the betrayal is within the family, the point being that if you take the Somali nation as a family, the betrayal is no longer that of colonialism, it is no longer from outside, but from within. And the cure must also be found within."
Farah's portrait of General Barre's dictatorship shows how it paved the way for chaos when the superpowers of the post cold war era dropped their "spoiled pets". They left behind enough state-of-the-art weaponry to fuel civil war for 20 years.
General Barre was chased out of Mogadishu in January 1991. "From having too much one-man government, the power pendulum has swung 180 degrees into total anarchy, a multiple authority of madmen," Farah says. The "warlords" -- war criminals, he insists -- are "rough-and-tumble replicas of the supreme despot whom they sought to dethrone", sycophants raised from nothing. They are "twins who have fallen out after the death of their tyrant father". General Aideed, for example, was Siad Barre's chief bodyguard; General Morgan, his son-in-law.
General Barre was a master at manipulating clan rivalries. But the "Somali syndrome" is far from customary clan warfare, where elders used their authority to limit bloodshed. "The militias pretend to represent clans, but owe any allegiance they have to guns. They strike deals with each other like thieves in the same den, protecting each other's throats when they fall out."
Farah was writing a novel that anticipated the post-Barre conflagration, when life overtook art, and war erupted. His prescience proved crippling. "I used to have daily visits from a muse like Aladdin's jinn. But for months after being proved right in my predictions, not a single idea came to me. I blame myself for visiting a bad omen on my conscience." He vows to go back to the novel after he has completed a non-fiction book of "psychological portraits" of Somali refugees in Europe, Awake When Asleep, due out next year.
Books by Nuruddin Farah:
From a Crooked Rib (Heinemann International, 1970)
A Naked Needle (Heinemann International, 1976)
Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, a trilogy consisting of:
Sweet and Sour Milk (Allison & Busby, 1979; Heinemann International, 1980)
Sardines (Allison & Busby, 1981; Heinemann International, 1982)
Close Sesame (Allison & Busby, 1983; Heinemann International, 1984)
Maps (Picador, 1986)
Gifts (paperback original published this month by Serif).