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  • on 06.05.2012
  • at 02:44 PM
  • by Randa Ghazy

The human face of troubled Mogadishu 0

“Once you have tasted the water of Mogadishu, you will always go back,” the Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah told me during his recent visit to Nairobi en route to Somalia’s war-torn capital.

Mogadishu has often been described as the most dangerous city in the world — “the world capital of things-gone-completely-to-hell,” as author Mark Bowden put it.

But I knew what Farah meant. Since I visited Mogadishu last year, I have yearned to go back.

The city never quite leaves you; I suppose because it is impossible for those who have lived there, or even visited briefly, to reconcile the horror and devastation of its recent history with its glorious past.

When former residents speak of Mogadishu, one can hear a longing in their voices for a city that once held so much promise.

In a recent essay, Farah described the city of his youth as being “the prettiest and most colourful” in the world, “a living metropolis with cosmopolitan values.”

Today, once-magnificent buildings that used to house government offices, museums, cinemas and hotels have become shells hosting internally displaced people.

Guttted cathedrals and ancient mosques stand stubbornly in the most desolate and devastated parts of the city.

It is difficult to understand why one of Africa’s most beautiful cities allowed itself to implode. But even amid the rubble, there is a sense of hope — and sometimes even flickers of joy — in the faces of the women, men and children who struggle to survive in the city against all odds.

Farah has been going back to Mogadishu every two years since 1996.

Forced into exile by the Siad Barre regime in 1976 after the publication of his novel ‘A Naked Needle’, the 66-year-old novelist has lived and taught in Uganda, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Sudan, India, Nigeria, the Gambia and the US.

He blames Barre, the military dictator who ruled from 1969 to 1991, for much of the havoc that was unleashed in his country.

“Somalia was a badly written play, and Barre was its author,” he once wrote.

The novelist divides his time between Minneapolis, US, where he holds the Winton chair in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota, and Cape Town, South Africa.

In 1998, he became the first African to win the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, a biennial award that is considered by some to be second only to the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In a 2004 interview with the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, Farah said that he tries to view Mogadishu as the principal character in his novels, and the people living in it or visiting it as secondary characters.

His latest book ‘Crossbones’, which was published last year, has been described as “a tense and moving portrait of people struggling to sustain their individuality and fragile connections in the face of zealotry, corruption and civil war.”

Farah has often said that his writing is an attempt to “keep my country alive by writing about it.”

Unlike many famous authors, Farah does not carry around him an air of arrogance or self-importance.

When I contacted him, he appeared surprised that I would even want to interview him, but promptly agreed to meet me at the Serena Hotel in Nairobi, where he was meeting friends.

He appeared older and frailer than I had imagined, and was carrying with him Michael Ondaatje’s book ‘Running in the Family’, which he said keeps him company when he is “sitting in Nairobi’s dreadful traffic.”

(The other authors he likes to read are William Faulkner and Samuel Becket.) He also has a wry sense of humour.

When asked if he was a Muslim, he said: “I don’t know which heaven is better, the Muslim one or the Christian one — once I know that, I’ll decide.”

Appiah describes Farah as a “feminist novelist in a part of the world where that’s almost unknown among male writers.”

Indeed, the female characters in his novels are both strong and independent.

Gifts for example, tells the story of a Somali nurse struggling to care for her family in the face of a famine.

His first novel, ‘From a Crooked Rib’, is about a nomad girl who flees an arranged marriage to a much older man.

Farah, who has been married twice and has three children, believes that his nation’s salvation lies in women and that the prevalence of violence against women in Somali society is just a symptom of the violence that grips his homeland.

He, however, has no time for the writings of the other famous “feminist” Somali author, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has gained notoriety in the West for denouncing Islam and her Somali roots.

He thinks that Ali is not just ill-informed about Somalia and Islam, but about Africa as a whole. “She has no understanding of the complexities that make up Somali society,” he says.

He is convinced that inter-clan fighting in Somalia is not so much about blood ties, but about gaining access to economic resources.

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