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Nuruddin Farah Hassan (b. 1945)


Somali novelist, writing in English and Somali. Nuruddin Farah has ofted dealt the history of his country throught the fates of his characters. The central theme is the women's liberation in postcolonial Somaliland, which he sees as a precondition for political and individual freedom. The majority of his essays, novels, short stories, plays, and film scripts are written in English, but he has also translated children's stories from Arabic, Italian, French, and English into Somali. Farah received in 1998 the Neustadt Award.

"You exist, you think, the way the heavenly bodies exist, for although one does extend one's finger and point at the heavens, one knows, yes that's the word, one knows that that is not the heavens. Unless . . . unless there are, in a sense, as many heavens as there are thinking beings; unless there are as many heavens as there are pointing fingers." (in Maps, 1981)

Nuruddin Farah was born in Baidoa, a city in Italian Somaliland, which was at the time under British control. His father worked as a translator for the British. Soon after Nuruddin's birth he was transferred to work for the governor in the Ogaden (the Ethiopian West). In 1948 the British restored the Ogaden to Ethiopian rule, and a year later the recently formed United Nations returned the south to Italy. Farah received his primary education at schools in Kallafo, Ogden. Besides Somali, he spoke English (his chosen language of expression), Arabic, Italian, and Amharic, the official Ethiopian language.

Somalia was granted independence by the British and Italians in 1960. Three years later Farah moved to the southern region to flee from border conflicts in the Ogaden. In his childhood Farah wasn't much of a reader, partly because the were no books for children in the Ogaden. He read ad reread A Thousand and One Nights several times. From his elder brother he got Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment in Arabic, and books in English, among them Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy, and novels by Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway, Neither of his parents owned books.

In 1963 the family moed to Mogadiscio, to escape war in Ogden. Farah's mother was a well-known oral poet, and supported his literary effors, whereas his father later said that he would've been happier, if his son had become a clerk at a bank and brought home all his earnings. He died in a refugee camp in 1991.

'Why Dead So Soon?' (1965), Farah's first longish short story, was published in Somali News – he penned it feverishly in hospital, waiting for an operation and afraid of dying. After studying literature and philosophy in India at the University of Chandigarh in the Punjab, Farah returned to Somalia with his Indian wife, Chitra Muliyil. They settled in Mogadishu, where Farah worked first as a secondary school teacher and then as a lecturer at the Somali National University. Farah's first marriage ended in 1970.

While still a student in the Punjab, Farah finished in less than a month-and-a-half his first novel, From a Crooked Rib (1970). It appeared in the famous Heinemann African Writers' Series. At that time Farah's favorite  authors were James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf, but reviews and criticism emphasized the oral featues of the novel – Somali culture was almost exclusively oral; poetry was right at the heart of the culture.

The central character is a nomad girl, Ebla, who flees her family's camp because she has been promised in marriage to an old man, 40 years her senior; "fit to be her father". Ebla's quest takes her first to a small town, and eventually she arrives in Mogadiscio. Farah's novel reveals the authoritarian role of the patriarchal clan system, in which women are exploited and denied individual rights. The portrayal of Ebla and her experiences was so convincing that the author received mail addressed to "Dear Ms Farah". (Reading Nuruddin Farah: The Individual, the Novel & the Idea of Home by F. Fiona Moolla, 2014,  p. 2) Farah has said in an interview that "reading Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House just as I embarked on writing my first bovel, From a Crooked Rib, made me the writer, the person, I am at present."

A few chapters of Farah's second novel appeared in Somali in serialized form in a local newspaper in 1973, but when the government found his work politically objectionable, it was was discontinued. His writings were described as "a selection of untruths". In 1974 Farah escaped from Somalia after authorities had condemned his second novel, A Naked Needle, which eventually came out in 1976. Abroad at the time, he was warned by his brother not to return home; it was the beginning of his 22-year exile. Siyad Barre's regime banned all of his works in Somalia and ordered that the author be killed. "Somalia was a badly written play," Farah though, "and Siyad Barre was its author." (Emerging Perspectives on Nuruddin Farah by Derek Wright, 2002, p. 10) For a period he lived in England, where he studied theatre at the University of London and continued studies for one year the University of Essex. Between 1971 and 1980, Farah wrote four books on Barre's dictatorship, "for posterity's sake, the true history of a nation," as he said.

A Naked Needle explores the relationships of Somali men and women with Westerners. The protagonist, Koschin, is a Mogadisho teacher, whose favorite novel is Wole Soyinka's The Interpreters. He has promised to marry an English girl while studying overseas. The girl arrives in Somalia and expects Koschin to keep his promise. Farah studies the crisis of Somali identity allegorically, and suggests that women's lives are even more dominated by male authority since the achievement of political independence. After this novel, Farah too up the practice of composing his novels in trilogies.

The first trilogy, collectively titled Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship (1980-1983) draws parallels between the colonial practices and authoritarian regimes in postcolonial Somalia. Sweet and Sour Milk  (1980), the first part, about political terror, had some elements of a detective story. The novels tells of two twins, Loyaan, a dentist, and Soyaan, a journalist, who dies mysteriously. In his inquiry about his brother's death Loyaan finds out the Soyaan was a member of an organization that aimed at overthrowing the regime. At the end Loyaan is appointed ambassador of Yugoslavia, but his fate is left open: just when he is about to leave to the airport, there is a knock on the door. Sweet and Sour Milk  received the English-Speaking Union Literary Award.

Sardines (1981) was praised for its consciousness of style. In the story an editor of a national newspaper, Medina, is sacked. Like Beatrice Okoh in Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah (1987), she is a well-educated, modern woman, who resists patriarchal oppression. (see 'New Women and Old Myths in Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah and Farah's Sardines' by Patricia Alden, in Emerging Perspectives on Nuruddin Farah, edited by Derek Wright, 2002, pp. 359-380) Medina's husband, Samater, is lured to become a minister by false promises. He rules his house with the iron hand of traditional Islam and she fears that her daughter Ubax will be forced to submit to the horrors of female circumcision.

Maps (1986) is the first novel of a second trilogy, Blood in the Sun, that studies the pain of cultural uncertainty in postcolonial reality. Gifts (1999) dealt with foreign aid. Duniya, a nurse at a maternity hospital, is once widowed and once divorced. She has no intentions getting entangled again – until she meets an American-educated economist Bosaano, driving his cousin's taxi. "Suddenly the two of them were exaggeratedly conscious of each other's presence, aware of their physical proximity for the first time. Disregarding a small crowd that out of curiosity had gathered around the car, Duniya and Bosaaso touched, marvelling at having shared a life-and-death experience, at having stopped in good time before crossing a threshold."

This novel offers the reader more optimistic view of the war-torn land than Maps, which focuses on the Ogaden war of 1977, and Secrets (1998), which mirrors Somalia's violent recent history and long-simmering tribal hatreds. In the story young successful businessman Kalaman learns the truth about himself and his family – he is the result of a gang rape committed by members of a rival clan. Kalaman lives in Mogadisho and one day his chidhood sweetheart, Sholoongo, visits him and tells that she wants to procreate a child with him. Sholoongo has strange powers, she stays at his apartment, and Kalaman suspects that she had an affair with his father.

Farah's tells the story from different viewpoints within the family – they all have their own secrets and special relationship to Sholoongo and to forces she represents. "We say, in Somali, that you don't ask someone whom you know to tell you about themselves." Kalamen rejects her but she sleeps with his grandfather Nonno, who dies. "One body. Three secrets," ends Farah the story.

Farah moved to Los Angeles in 1979. He has held teaching positions at universities in Europa, the United States, and Africa. He has lived also in Rome and Kaduna, Nigeria. Farah asked himself in Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora (2000): "what would become of us without mitigation, the kindly interventions of our women?"

Farah saw again his home country in 1996, but the civil war prevented him from settling down. "Even if I returned, I would still be in exile because Somalia can't contain the experiences that I hve been exposed to through living in so many different countries and continents." (Emerging Perspectives on Nuruddin Farah, edited by Derek Wright, 2002, p. xvi) In 1998 Farah moved to Capetown, South Africa, with his second wife, the Nigerian writer and academic Amina Mama.

Knots (2007), the second in a trilogy beginning with Links (2004), was about an exile's return to Mogadishu in the middle of a civil war. The final volume, Crossbones, came out in 2011. Farah wrote it as he was commuting between Cape Town, Minneapolis, the USA, where he served as 2010-2012 Winton Chair in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota, and Newcastle in England, where he was  awarded a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship.

After Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie for the novel The Satanic Verses (1988), Farah offered to mediate with the Islamic intellectual Ali Mazrui, perhaps best known for the television series The Africans: A Triple Heritage (1986), as a way to break the deadlock. "OK," said Rushdie, "but I'm not apologising or withdrawing the book." (Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie, 2012, p. 199) Farah's attempt failed: Islamic officials wanted more than he was willing to give.

By the request of the Islamic Courts Union, Farah acted in August 2006 as an emissary between Somalia's two main warring factions, the transitional government army and the Islamists, supported by clan-based militiamen. His mission was cut short when Ethiopian troops invaded Mogadishu in December and expelled the Islamists. From his personal experience Farah drew the conclusion that both sides must give: "Most Somalis believe that the Islamists deserve a place at the table; they have been disempowered through invasion by an occupying force, which must withdraw, the sooner the better." ('My Life as a Diplomat', New York Times, May 26, 2007)

North of Dawn (2018) is Farah's 13th novel. Differing from fiction, in which fundamentalists are portrayed as living on the edge of society, it gives to a jihadi a family that tries to hold itself together after he kills himself in a suicide attack in Somali. "Farah has a rare genius for taking an issue so weighty it might scare off a lesser writer and relating it with stunning clarity." ('The human side of headlines' by N.M. [Nicholas Mancusi], Time, December 10, 2018) Farah approaches Islam with respect. He has argued that "Islam is most peculiarly more tolerant of Christianity than Christianity of Islam," but he admits that "there are many varieties of Islam too, and there is more enmity between Muslims than there is between Christians." ('Nuruddin Farah Interviewed by Armando Pajalich' by Armando Pajalich, in Kunapipi, 15, 1993, pp. 61-71)

For further reading: Oralité et littérature dans la Corne de l'Afrique by Moussa Souleiman Obsieh (2022); 'Evoking the Body of the Disappeared in Assia Djebar and Nuruddin Farah,' in Narrating Human Rights in Africa by Eleni Coundouriotis (2021); The Postcolonial Animal: African Literature and Posthuman Ethics by Evan Maina Mwangi (2019); Naturalizing Africa: Ecological Violence, Agency, and Postcolonial Resistance in African Literature by Cajetan Iheka (2018); Reading Nuruddin Farah: The Individual, the Novel & the Idea of Home by F. Fiona Moolla (2014); Disorder of Things: A Foucauldian Approach To The Work Of Nuruddin Farah by John Masterson (2013); Radical Eschatologies: Embracing the Eschaton in the Works of Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, Nuruddin Farah, and Ayi Kwei Armah by OP Dr. Sebastian Mahfood (2009); Emerging Perspectives on Nuruddin Farah, edited by Derek Wright (2002); Nuruddin Farah by Patricia Alden and Louis Tremaide (1999); 'Farah, Nuruddin' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); 'Nuruddin Farah' by Hema Chari, in Postcolonial African Writers, edited by Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); The Novels of Nuruddin Farah by Derek Wright (1994); 'The Novels of Nuruddin Farah' by Florence Stratton in World Literature Written in English (1985 )

Selected works:

  • From a Crooked Rib, 1970
  • A Dagger in Vacuum, 1970 (play)
  • The Offering, 1975 (play)
  • A Naked Needle, 1976
  • Tartar Delight, 1980 (radio play)
  • Sweet and Sour Milk, 1980 (Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship)
  • Sardines, 1981 (Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship)
  • Yussuf and His Brothers, 1982 (play)
  • Close Sesame, 1983 (Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship)
  • Maps, 1986 (Blood in the Sun) - Karttoja (suom. Marja Haapio, 1988)
  • Secrets, 1998 (Blood in the Sun) - Perhesalaisuuksia (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1999)
  • Gifts, 1999 (Blood in the Sun) - Elämisen lahja (suom. Kimmo Rentola, 1990)
  • Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora, 2000
  • Links, 2004 (first in a trilogy)
  • Knots, 2007 (second in a trilogy)
  • Crossbones, 2011 (third in a trilogy)
  • Hiding in Plain Sight, 2014
  • North of Dawn: A Novel, 2018

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