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Nuruddin Farah and Somali culture

Ali Jiale Ahmed
2020 Tydskrif vir Letterkunde  
I am honored to participate in this project, a theme issue of Tydskrif vir Letterkunde on Nuruddin Farah. Farah's shadow looms over most of my work. He was my 9 th grade teacher, and most of my writings-poetry and proseseem, in some small way, to be a kind of rejoinder to his distinguished work. One of my first stories, "Nudged", was written for him. If he does not remember, it won't be his fault, as it had all the hallmarks and insignia of a teenager's infatuation with the writing process. I,
more » ... riting process. I, too, only vaguely remember the tenor and drift of that early story. In addition to that infatuation, it was written to impress a teacher who had just published his first novel, From a Crooked Rib. Reading Farah's first novel sent me on a storytelling path. That tendency, for sure, was already there, as both my parents were consummate storytellers. My contemplative essay in this issue, therefore, serves, in some modest way, to acknowledge the power a teacher could have on impressionable minds. It is uncanny to even reflect on the fact that my first book of poems, Fear is a Cow, was somehow a response to Farah's "Fear is a Goat", a brilliant earlier article. As Somalia's preeminent novelist, Nuruddin Farah has certainly internationalized the case of Somalia-the country, its literature, culture and politics, to the point that he has become the Somali countenance most easily recognizable in the world. Farah does not speak idly when he tells all and sundry that his writing keeps Somalia "alive". And keep it alive he has. When the world all but forgot about the war-ravaged country, Farah refused to let go of Somalia. He was not concerned whether readers would be interested or not in reading about a country that had cannibalized itself to the brink of oblivion. Rather, his abiding concern has always been how to ensure that the Somali agony will not fade into a nether region or domain of "donor/humanity-fatigue". And to that purpose he has devoted much of his work: starting with Gifts, which signals the beginning of the Somali collapse, and ending with his latest, North of Dawn. The seven novels about the destruction of Somalia comprise more than half of his total novelistic output, and have served to keep Somalia at the forefront of the world's gaze. In this he has succeeded, for the novelist is, to borrow from Milan Kundera, "an explorer of existence" (Kundera 44). Through his work, readers have been made privy to the trials and tribulations of humans swept up in a whirlpool of brutal existence, grim circumstances, and overall catastrophe. What Farah's characters reveal is the precipitous slope down which, more often than not, communities and nations tend to slide in times of war. Yet Farah's work equally reveals how nations and communities ignore their writers' warnings at their own peril. I have mentioned elsewhere (Ahmed, Daybreak is Near: Literature, Clans and the Nation-state in Somalia 95) that Farah's A Naked Needle could have helped Somalia and its then-leaders avoid the cataclysmic disorder that followed on the heels of the disintegration of the regime of Muhammed Siyad Barre. In short, he has succeeded to give victims of the civil war a platform on which their shattered humanity could be reassessed. This platform is rooted in history, even when the characters are not overtly perceived as sacrificial lambs on History's "slaughter bench", to quote Hegel. In his work, Farah reveals a deep understanding of Somali culture as, in his words, "metaphor-based" (Farah, Jussawalla and Dasenbrock 49). He correctly argues that Somali culture is not overtly "proverb-based". It is possible that many Somalis-scholars or otherwise-did not give much thought to this dichotomy. Proverb-based cultures give prominence to exemplary nuggets of knowledge, a kind of pedagogic knowledge that derives meaning from a precedent, a past still capable of framing the future. (This does not, however, imply that proverbs are irrelevant to contemporary life, or that they do not impart metaphoric knowledge; rather, proverbs, employed as apodictic tools, tend to give, or be utilized as, an unambiguous last word to discourse or discussion.) A metaphor-based discourse, on the other hand, compels the individual to be aware of the ellipses that dot the landscape of any discourse. A metaphor is able to create connections where you least expect them. It also fosters discussion,
doi:10.17159/2309-9070/tvl.v.57i1.7983 fatcat:g5uy35ffuvcy3fwn2ckxicxvi4