Nuruddin Farah: 'Even hunchbacks learn to live with their discomfort'

Article published on May 28, 2007
Article published on May 28, 2007
The Somali writer, 62, is an important figure in African literature. A committed defender of women’s rights, he chronicles Somalia’s trip to chaos and back

Beyond the windows of the Centre of Contemporary Culture in Barcelona (CCCB), a spectacular panorama, a chaos of roof terraces and satellite dishes extends to the horizon. In the distance, proud and dominant, rises the Castle of Montjuïc. We are here to attend a conference on the Horn of Africa country, Somalia, and to listen to the one of its native writers Nuruddin Farah.

Born in Baidoa in the south of the country, the author has become a kind of literary testament to the chaos and collective failure of Somalian society, and the spokesperson for the liberation of African women. In the light of new clashes in Mogadishu between the Transition Federal Government troops, with their Ethiopian allies, and the militia of the Islamic Courts Union, and the Hawiye clan, Farah’s views are unmissable.

Everyone is guilty

At the appointed hour, we find Nuruddin Farah in one of the CCCB’s large meeting rooms. Quoting a common phrase from his work, he is asked without preamble 'Who is to blame?' for the situation in Somalia. 'Almost everyone is responsible. We belong to a society and must be held responsible for our acts,' answers Somali’s most important person of letters. Educated in India and the UK, this polyglot author – he speaks English, Arabic, Italian and Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia – has won various literary prizes, including the prestigious Neustadt Prize in 1998.

'If I place one finger on the table, then you do, then everyone does the same, it begins to become instable,' he says, in a metaphor representing his country. He believes the last 16 years of civil war in Somalia are the 'consequence of misunderstood identities, of economic or historical nature, but, above all, of things badly done, and for which no-one is prepared to take responsibility, only to blame others.' In this context, it is little surprise that many Somalis take a positive view of the prospect of a return to a dictatorship, which would bring a little order to the country.

Farah does not share this view – it was during the Siad Barre dictatorship, after being sentenced to death in absentia for the critical attitude of his book A Naked Needle (1976), that he had to flee his native country and seek exile abroad. During his exile, he dedicated himself to exploring the reasons behind dictatorships, in his trilogy Variations on the Theme of African Dictatorship (1980-1983).

For him, one of the reasons for the existence and persistence of so many dictatorships in Africa lies in the authoritarian nature of many African families. According to Farah, there is no room for the 'tolerance of diversity which is necessary for democracy.' The victims are, at a family level, women and children, and in the wider society, anyone who finds themself living on the margins. Only after the fall of Siad Barre could the author return to Somalia, in 1996. He now lives mostly in Cape Town, South Africa, with his family, although he occasionally visits his native country.

Road to peace

What, then, is the path to stability in Somalia? 'Even hunchbacks learn to live with their discomfort,' he answers, quoting a Somali proverb. Far from foreign intervention, Farah is of the opinion that the answer lies with the Somalis themselves. 'The solution is in realising that war leads us only down one route, towards self -destruction; peace, on the other hand, takes us down avenues of possibilities.'

It is this dilemma which for the first time Somalis are coming to understand. For Farah, in any hypothetical peace negotiations, the leading role must be given to the organisations representing the civil state, and not 'those who are part of the problem, such as the Islamists' or the warlords: for Farah, this latter group are 'genuine war criminals' and should face the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague.

Womanly source of inspiration

Aside from their African setting, the novels of Nuruddin Farah are distinguished by the role that determined, combative women play in them: Cambara, an exiled woman who returns home in Farah’s latest novel Knots (2007); Ebla, a nomadic woman who refuses to accept an arranged marriage in From a Crocked Rib (1970); the enigmatic Sholongo in Secrets (2000). All are examples of Farah’s commitment to promote women’s rights, a stance which is perhaps reinforced by his marriage to the Nigerian writer and academic, Amina Mama. In Farah’s own words, it all dates back a long way. 'When I was little I felt very close to my mother, (a poet). With the passage of time I sensed her unhappiness, expressed through gestures. From the example she set, I developed a kind of empathy with women.'

To earn a little money, the young Farah wrote letters for illiterate people. 'One day, a man asked me to write a letter to his wife who had run away from home. He wanted me to say that if she hadn’t returned in three months he would go and find her, beat her and drag back home,' he explains. Instead of writing what he had been asked, he wrote a completely different version of the letter in which he said the man said he allowed his wife to divorce him.

Although that letter caused Farah problems later on, he is still proud that he wrote it. This use of prose as a tool for denunciation and struggle shows us a writer who is committed not only to sexual equality but also to human rights in general in his country. Under the flag of justice, freedom and responsibility, Nuruddin Farah is the conscience of an Africa that sees the present with a critical eye but a hopeful one, asserting that the future of Africa is in the hands of Africans themselves.