Nuruddin Farah keeps Somalia alive with his pen

November 2008 -

Somali author Nuruddin Farah is considered by many to be the most important African candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The oeuvre with which Farah established his reputation primarily has one theme: his homeland Somalia, from which he fled in 1974 during the reign of dictator Siad Barre. Years ago, Farah explained that he believes his task is to keep his country "alive by writing about it." He has succeeded. His readers know all the ins and outs of the recent history of this East African country. From the war in the region in which he was born, Ogaden, in the 1970s, as he described it in Maps, to the dependency on foreign aid portrayed in Gifts. Farah considers writing to be "a gateway to dialogue, to tolerance, democracy and justice. A gateway to understanding the thoughts of others."

Women’s rights and the Islamisation of Somalia are recurring themes in his work. Farah is so good at understanding his female characters that sometimes it’s hard for readers to believe that his books were written by a man. In his latest novel, Knots, Farah tells the story of Cambara, a Somali woman brought up in Toronto who returns to her devastated country after twenty years. It is a lot like Farah’s own story: his return in 1996 after 22 years of exile to his homeland that had changed beyond recognition. "Mogadishu was one of the most peaceful cities in Somalia, in the world, when I left my country", Farah said in a recent interview. When he returned, clans were embroiled in feuds and Islamisation was rapidly spreading. "That is a recent phenomenon", according to Farah. "Many Somalis lost their jobs during Siad Barre’s reign, and many who did went to work in the Gulf states – Saudi Arabia and the Emirates – where they learned to pray in a manner entirely different than our practice of the Islam in Somalia. Some of these people returned, bringing with them the concept of wearing a veil. A veil was not part of our tradition: there were no veils until the 1980s."

Farah is wary, however, of generalisations about his country in which clans and Islamisation are key words. "The crisis in Somalia is just as complicated as the politics of any other country, even if it’s reduced to a crisis triggered by social inequality, colonialism, nationalism and the twenty years of Siad Barre’s dictatorship. In other words: Somalia is a country of contradictions and not a one-single issue country!"

Nuruddin Farah will be opening the Winternachten literature festival on 15 January 2009 in the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague, with a presentation on migration and exile. A debate between Farah and colleague author Ilja Trojanov on 17 January 2009 will include the topic of Africa’s Islamisation. His novel Maps will be published in a new edition in January 2009 as part of the Africanon.