Nuruddin Farah’s Writings: Complex, elusive truths of Africa’s social and political cultures

For over 45 years, Farah has pursued complex, elusive truths of Africa’s social, cultural and political issues to become one of the continent's "real interpreters".

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Nuruddin Farah Writings

The Horn of Africa (HOA) is a geographical reference to Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti, but now it connotes politics and counter-politics that affect security and state-hood in Somalia, Somaliland, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti. The HOA has never had stable level of peace and security since the end of World War II. There is usually war over boundaries between Ethiopia and Eretria, ideologically fueled state collapse in Somalia, Shifta bandits in Kenya, and Anti-Somali politics in Southern Ethiopia, and/or as for now the regular Al Shabaab Terrorist attacks in the entire region.

These conflicts and tensions emanate from a range of structural and conjunctural factors rooted in history, national and regional politics, poverty, religious divides, and patriarchy. However, religion and social patriarchy so far tower above all other factors as the main causes of regular conflicts in the Horn of Africa. Thus, by implication, rights and security conditions of children, women and minorities must be an area of imperative policy concern.

One of the actors and forces of gender policy in such situations is literature, theater and other movements related to art as an agent of gender freedom. Just as Salman Rushdie comments about Nuruddin Farah’s focus on the rights of the humble in his essay Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism. This paper also sets out to assess the extent to which literature and art has championed for gender policy concern in this region by using an in-depth analysis of the writings of Nuruddin Farah.

Nuruddin Farah's writings on Africa's social and political cultures
Nuruddin Farah | Somali Novelist

Nuruddin Farah is among the African writers that are gender focused; he pursues aesthetics through art but also questions the ills of modern-day society. Farah finds a connection between the structure of the society and its social as well as political practices; between social patriarchy and political dictatorship. His writings questions oppression of women by the economic selfishness in the social patriarchy as nurtured by the selfish world of men.

He is among the first African writers to speak out on behalf of the silenced voices such the gender fluids, gay, lesbian, bisexuals, intersexual and the transgender. He does this in contradistinction to the bristling hostility in form of the firm cultural and Islamic position against gender and legal rights of homosexuality in Somalia. Nuruddin Farah has dealt with these gender issues almost in all of his works, ranging from Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, From the Crooked Rib, Sweet and Sour Milk, The Naked Needle, Blood in the Sun, Maps, Sardines, Secrets, Links, Yesterday-Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora, Knots, Close Sesame and as well as in his latest book Hiding in the plain Sight.

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As Azize Bosnak avers in her essay Politics and Gender Issues in Nuruddin Farah’s Novels, Nuruddin Farah was born in Baidoa in 1945, in Italian Somaliland. His family moved to Ethiopia where he had his primary education. Other than his mother tongue of Somali, he also speaks Arabic, Amharic, English, and Italian. Farah later-on moved back home and worked for the department of Education in Somalia, and subsequently left for India. From there he pursued a degree in philosophy, literature and sociology at Punjab University in Chandigarh, India.

He first wrote a short story in his native Somali language then switched to writing in English while still attending university in India. He wrote his first novel From a Crooked Rib (1970) in India, later to be re-published by Heinemann’s African Writers’ series.  In the mid-1970s, Farah moved to England to study drama and theatre. Upon the publication of A Naked Needle in 1976, he was banned in Somalia by Siad Barre’s regime.  In the meantime he picked teaching jobs and thus taught in the United States, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Sudan, India and Nigeria as well as Cape Town.

Farah’s first works, Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), Sardines (1981) and Close Sesame (1983) were later on renamed Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship. Sweet and Sour Milk addresses the theme of authoritarianism. The twins, Loyaan, a dentist, and Soyaan, a journalist are the characters. Soyaan dies mysteriously. Loyaan inquires into his brother’s death and finds out that Soyaan was a member of a political and ideological organization that aimed at overthrowing the regime of the incumbent government.  Soyaan’s death is attributed to specifically authoring a memorandum that was offensive to the then powers that be, entitled   Dionysius’s Ear thereby recalling the Syracuse tyrant who had a cave in the shape of a human ear which echoed to him whatever the prisoners whispered to one another.

The cave implies the informers in Somalia; most informers are like the Characters in Ngugi’s Wizard of the Crow and Imbuga’s Betrayal in the city; illiterate men and women who belong to an oral culture, who report daily what they hear as they hear it, word by word. But in the case of Somalia, such a system of surveillance and control fosters the clan divisions that continue to be important for all by a clique and handful of few intellectuals inside a power-place bubble. However, the oppressive effects of Social patriarchy, auto-racism (racism within the same race) and auto-sexism (sexual discrimination within the same gender) is observed from the side of the oppressed as Margarita, a former girlfriend to Soyaan, is treated unfairly by fellow women during her efforts to establish the identity of the child she had had with Soyaan.

In Sardines, Medina, the protagonist, activist and a feminist conscience loses her job as the editor of the national newspaper. Unlike other women, Medina has adopted modern or western values like smoking. She asserts her power by asking for a separate room so that she can also claim some feminine space in the corporate world for herself. She brings up her daughter, Ubax without support from a man as traditionally expected. She does this with a sense of dignity and mental freedom as well as intellectual independence.

However, her mother-in-law, Idil is pressured by the future of the young girl, who is already alienated from her environment. Idil’s situation is typical of situations where the oppressed internalize the values of an oppressive patriarchy. For example, Idil is not worried about her son, Medina’s husband who rules his house buttressed by Islamic Strictures and Somali Culture; he also worries Medina because of his support for female circumcision, something medina does not want her daughter to go through.

In the Sardines the author brilliantly combines a social commentary on life under a patriarchal dictatorship with a compassionate exploration of African feminist issues living us with the question; is militant matriarchy the only possible solution to social patriarchy?

In Close Sesame, Farah veers away from gender and issues of minorities instead focusing on the politics of colonialism, Somalia before colonialism, inhumanity of post-colonialism, education and the role of Islam in the lives of a boy and a girl. He focuses on the disintegration of social fibers Somali society and consequent conflict.

On the release of Hiding in the Plain Sight in 2016, Nuruddin Farah visited Nairobi, where he   had had an interview with one of the leading Television houses. He discussed the book and other matters of politics, culture, religion and global socialization currently affecting the HOA then as covered in the book. The interview provoked public response; among the responses was a newspaper article by a member of the Somali community in Kenya, who wrote in the Nairobi Saturday Nation that Nuruddin Farah’s latest book, Hiding in the Plain sight was offensive to the Somalis in Kenya and by extension to all the Somalis.

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The writer of the article, Adow Kalil Jubat, argued that the book is offensive to the Somalis because it addressed themes such as inter-marriages, lesbianism and homosexuality, prostitution and urban poverty as well as terrorism using characters identified as Somali. At the same time Jubat commended the author for using Somali proverbs and for pointing out that Somalis as a community has been victimized by the Kenya government.

Technically, Jubat’s analysis of the book was partially correct but substantially wrong. The analysis was substantially wrong because the analysis was only a visceral overtone, at most echoing the writer’s ethnic axioms suffering from an intellectual blur from a very parochial grasping of Nuruddin Farah’s writings. However, the fact is that Farah is a writer that champions rights of the oppressed and the silenced.

What has happened is that Kenya as a political system has never alienated the people of Somali community living in Kenya. It is the people from the Somali community that have taken social positions that make their community to be self-alienated or self-marginalized. For example When any community engages into isolationist approaches to life like avoiding others because of difference in religion, refusing to inter-marry with the rest of the communities in the neighborhood on the basis of ethnicity, or refusing  to take the girl-child to school lest the girlchild gets contaminated with bad ideas, like being married away to a foreigner, as Nuruddin Farah mentions in the Naked Needle, then the community observing such primeval values will automatically get self-marginalized or self alienated.

In connection to Adow’s criticism of Nurrudin Hiding in the Plain Sight it is therefore important to appreciate a fact that it can be socially strange for one to reason that a writer stands culpable for offending a certain community by using lesbian or sex-worker characters in the novel basing on that particular community.

A lesbian as a biological and social creature can come from any community. Whether Somali or Arabic. Faith in Islam as Adow implied in his article does not make any family or society extricated from social and biological diversities available in the nature of humanity. It is out of such understanding that Nuruddin Farah’s writings boldly come out as a wake-up call for Africa to come out of pristine cultures that have oppressed women, the sexual minorities, children, slaves, the poor and the ruled for a long time.

Careful reading of Hiding in Plain Sight and all the books of Nuruddin Farah shows that Nuruddin as a writer uses the printed word as a weapon with which he fights dictatorships; political, cultural, religious, gender, economic and ideological dictatorships. He has always offered alternatives for the oppressor and the oppressed. He is a writer that fits well the modern accolades of championship for afro-politanism (an African as a universal person), afro-futurism (Africa’s good future), afro-optimism (Africa full of hope) and afro-centralism (Africa as an original center of human civilization) and the literary ntuologist (literature as a concern for humanity).

His approach to writing shows that Farah is evidently an intellectual protégé of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, and Gunter Grass. For example, in the From the Cooked Rib, he challenges the evils of man’s tyranny over a woman, a social tyranny which always enjoys support from the ignorance in the crudeness of culture and religion to an extent of forcing a girl below the age of fifteen years into a marriage.

In the Sweet and Sour Milk Nuruddin tackles evils inherent in selfish politics as observed in the soviet experiment with communist expansionism in Somalia and Somaliland through the two main characters Soyaan and Loyaan. Nuruddin’s further attack on the cult of human selfishness is seen in his novel the Naked Needle, in this book, he exposes how the tyranny of a woman over a man is as oppressive as the tyranny of man over a woman. Hence there is no good tyranny.

Then how do Farah’s writings contribute to the gender policy agenda in the horn of Africa today? Farah invariably points to a need to resolve and transform Somalia‘s dilemmas. While denouncing  the Barre regime, in his Variations of African Dictatorship, Farah points out the  mechanisms  by  which dictators  maintain  themselves  in power; how they miss-inform the people  and use   divide  and rule strategies,  as well  as outright repression.

Which then raises the implicit and also rhetorical query; does one delink from society or oppose tyranny? This is the issue that distinguishes Soyaan from his twin brother Loyaan, whether to oppose violence with violence or not. This is also the core of argument between Deeriye and Mursala in Close Sesame. An argument which Farah resolves by denouncing   tyranny.

Pertinently, Farah paints women’s struggles through Medina in Sardines, and how she is brutalized by the powerful in the government and oppressed by the conventional patriarchal values espoused by her husband and her mother-in-law.  He clearly shows through his works that the difference between the character of men and women is quite observable. Men are not ready to break from what binds them to their gender interests the patriarchal power structure which marginalizes women in all the social and political spheres.

Deeriye a character in Close Sesame emerges as a revolutionary by narrating to his offspring that pre-colonial Somalia, colonial and post-colonial Somalia, had a history of gender inequality that reinforced social exclusion of women. This has no other implications other than a lesson to the women in the HOA and all other places in the world that dignity to women will be earned through struggle by women it will not be given as a gift by the man who is the oppressor.

To be exact, Nuruddin Farah is more concerned with gender rights and gender policy issues in the HOA more than any other writer in Africa. He has been living in exile because of his outright criticism of the dictatorships in the HOA, like that one initially experienced in Siad Barre.

His writings project a conscience that gender rights as the rights of the humble cannot be protected by political tyranny. He often shows that liberal culture, democratic governance and economic freedom are basic substructures for gender-mainstreaming and gender democracy. This is the core idea to be learned as a positive lesson from the Naked Needle as well From the Crooked Rib.

The picture painted by Nuruddin Farah in From the Crooked Rib is a gender focused literary-cum-social observation. In this book Ebla a young girl below the age of fourteen is sold into marriage to an old man by her grand-father, then she manages to escape by running away to a big town in Somalia to live with her cousin brother a business, Ebla finds the wife of this cousin brother one day old from home delivery, very much in puerperal or post-delivery pain yet the husband is a very successful business man but cannot buy a pain killer nor even seek any medical advice.

He does not see that his wife is in pain he only wants his wife to take care of the cows, especially his beloved cow Bafto. Ebla steps in to take care of the cows, the work she did without pay. This picture is simply Nuruddin Farah’s loud thinking in a way of vouchsafing a liberal concern that something has to be done politically in order to liberate women and the humble in the HOA from oppressive the yoke of selfish culture, politics and economic system. Nuruddin Farah goes politically humorous by quoting Somali proverbs about gender and rights of the vulnerable in the HOA at the end the book. He jestingly made a literary concern for the rights of the vulnerable, like especially those that have been smoothened down into silence by brutal cultures like that of Mutanaby, an Arabian slave trader who had a philosophy that when you buy a nigger buy along with a stick for beating him and also that of Sigmund Freud who proposed psychological model that when you wed a woman immediately buy a whip.

This picture shares a philosophical and political position with the photo essay by anonymous artist in the volume six of the Journal of African Women Experiences published by the Open society initiative in Southern Africa (OSISA). The essay gives a photographic narrative about Somali women displaced by war, living in the diaspora as refuges and still oppressed by culture in form of traditional marriage, ethnicity and cultural obligations of a Somali woman to a Somali man.

This is not contextually different from Laila Lalami in her essay Nuruddin Farah’s ‘Hiding in Plain Sight published as a book review in the New York Times showed clearly how Nurrudin Farah is concerned with peace and human comfort in the HOA, Gender rights, essence of feminism, maternal rights, rights of children and security of women and children in times of war and violence.

Adow Kalil Jubat, Nurrudin Farah’s Hiding in the Plain sight is Offensive to Somali Community, Saturday Nation, September 2015, Nairobi
Azize Bosnak, Politics and Gender Issues in Nurrudin Farah’s Novels, 2015,
Nurrudin Farah,” in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981–1991, Granta Books,
Laila Lalami, Nuruddin Farah’s ‘Hiding in Plain Sight, The New York Times, November 2014
Anonymous; Somali Women in Mayfair, Buwa! Journal of Women African Experiences, Vol 6, June 2016

Alexander Opicho

I am a poet, essayist, freelance writer and a short story writer based in Lodwar Kenya. Lecturer of Conservational Biostatistics.