Somali Author Reflects on Conflict in Native Country

February 27, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: The Somalia most of us have come to recognize in recent years is a war-torn and ravaged land. The clashing clan militias, dangerous streets filled with armed young men, hunger and destruction everywhere.

But Somalia is also a country of history and tradition, its capital, Mogadishu, once a center for learning and culture in the Horn of Africa.

Nuruddin Farah has spent his life portraying his contradictory homeland and its people, in the process becoming known as one of post-colonial Africa’s leading literacy voices, and oft-mentioned candidate for the Nobel Prize.

Farah was forced to leave his country in 1974 after his second novel was condemned by the regime of Siad Barre. He now lives in South Africa, but has returned to Somalia often in the last decade.

His newest novel, his 10th, is “Knots,” which tells the story of a Somali-born Toronto-raised woman who returns after a two decades to a devastated country she can barely recognize in the hope of reclaiming her family’s home and perhaps her own troubled life.

A 'challenged writer'

JEFFREY BROWN: And welcome to you.

NURUDDIN FARAH, Somali Author: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see yourself in telling this story trying to grapple somehow with the modern history of Somalia?

NURUDDIN FARAH: Well, I see myself as a challenged writer, challenged in the sense that there are difficulties, first of all, artistically, artistic difficulties, writing about civil wars. And the reason is because civil wars usually get a lot of characters, a lot of people involved.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean because there's so much history going on?

NURUDDIN FARAH: Because there is so much history, and there is so much to tell. It is very difficult, also, because things continue changing in a civil war situation.

To go back to Somalia also takes certain courage. And the reason is because you don't actually know what you're going to meet.

Whenever I went to Mogadishu before, with the exception of my last visit, which was only about two months ago, I had to have bodyguards to be able to move around, to interview people, to talk to the young people who carried guns, to go see, you know, some of the warlords whom I was trying to talk to about peace.

A different Somalia

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, your main character in this book, a woman who comes back after several decades, similarly has to come back and find a very different country. Is that what you found?

NURUDDIN FARAH: Well, this is what I found, and this is what you will find whenever you go away from a country and then go back. When you go away from a country at peace, when the people are at peace with themselves, and in themselves, and in of themselves they are comfortable to be in Somalia, and then suddenly you go back -- as she does -- to a country that's devastated, which you can't recognize anymore, and in which you do not find your past.

And the reason is because we, as living beings, think we have a continued existence. And that interruption, the interruption from what you have known before and this particular thing of clashing clan militias and young men carrying guns all the time, this is not something that we have known before.


NURUDDIN FARAH: It is not. It is not. Mogadishu was one of the most peaceful cities of Somalia, in the world when I left Somalia.

JEFFREY BROWN: That Somalia, that Mogadishu of your youth comes through, through this character coming back there. But what she finds is a -- it seems like a real clash now of, I guess, of histories, a clash of the old, of that Somalia, and a new place, that is both violent, where there's a rise of Islam. It seems like a very, very different place.

NURUDDIN FARAH: Sure. Well, let me tell you the rise of Islam in Somalia. This is a more recent phenomena, recent in the sense of in the past 15, 16 years.

This is the consequence of many, many Somalis becoming jobless in the era of Siad Barre and many of them ending up working in the Gulf countries, in Saudi Arabia and in the Emirates, and there learning ways of worship that are very, very different from the way we used to practice Islam.

And then they have come back, some of these people, with the idea of the veil. We did not have in our tradition -- there was no veil, no veil until the 1980s.

Keeping Somalia alive

JEFFREY BROWN: You once wrote that your goal is, quote, "to keep my country alive by writing about it." That seems a hugely ambitious and difficult task.

NURUDDIN FARAH: Well, you could say that, when I said that, I was a young man. You could say that, being young, I was also ambitious. I dreamt that this is what I was going to do.

And now that I am older, the only thing I can say is that I have tried my best to keep my country alive by writing about it, and the reason is because nothing good comes out of a country until the artists of that country turn to writing about it in a truthful way.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, this is the role of an artist, the role of a writer.

NURUDDIN FARAH: This is the role of the artist, the role of the artist who also is, well, shall we say, probably courageous, probably mad, probably terribly ambitious writer, who wants to say, "This is what Somalia is like, and this is what I'm going to write."

It is possible that the way I see Somalia is not the way that some other Somalis or some other foreigners who do not know Somalia may see it that way. But I have continually seen Somalia as a country full of hope, and yet that are being held back from, you know, accomplishing that hope, that dream.

Educating Americans about Somalia

JEFFREY BROWN: I know that you regularly visit the United States. You've been traveling here recently. What do we get wrong? Or what do we not know about your country that you want Americans to know?

NURUDDIN FARAH: Well, there are three types of Americans. I would say there is the ordinary American, who obviously needs to be told that, you know, we have a long history, as you have pointed out, we have a long tradition, and that we'd like many of them to know that the crises that's taking place in Somalia is a recent one and that someone like me is of the hope that this is a short-term crisis.

But I would say that there are some history professors, literature professors, who know enough about Africa. And I'm hopeful that some of these people would comment and challenge some of the stories that are being -- you know, the way Africa is being portrayed is not always the way Africa is.

And my interest in novel-writing is also to bring that out, to bring out also something else that's very, very important, at least to me, the place that women play in civil wars, in civil wars like Somalia. It is about that, writing about that, you know, in this novel and in many other novels that I have done, that I'd like to bring out this.

That whereas men create destruction, benefit from anarchy, use clan warfare in order to gain more power, women are the nurses, healing the wounded, you know, mending the broken, and putting things together all the time, and working towards peace.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The novel is called "Knots." Nuruddin Farah, thank you very much.

NURUDDIN FARAH: Thank you. My pleasure.