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Fred de Vries

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Supremely cosmopolitan, Nuruddin Farah

The story of Nuruddin Farah, one of Africa’s most celebrated authors, begins, inevitably, with a story. Nuruddin was ten years old and lived in the Somali town of Kallafo, in the Ogaden, which was had come under Ethiopian rule. Since the Ethiopians weren’t interested in educating those backward Somalis, illiteracy was high.

But Nuruddin’s father, a merchant, was a stubborn fellow. He invited teachers from other parts of Somalia to set up schools in Kallafo. Hence, for a while young Nuruddin visited an American mission school in the morning and an Arabic school in the afternoon.

Because Nuruddin spoke Somali, English and Arabic he was often asked for wordy assistance. “At the age of ten, eleven I started a business in writing, where I would charge people to write letters for them,” says Farah in his Cape Town apartment.

“One day a man came and told me his wife had run away, and he was threatening her that if she did not come back in three months he would go to the town where she was, beat her up and then drag her all the way to Kallafo.” Cheeky Nuruddin changed that threat into: “If you don’t come back in three months you may see yourself divorced.”

The woman received the letter and showed it to her brothers. They took it to the local judge, who declared them divorced.

Farah recounts this anecdote to illustrate how he became aware of “the power of the word” and why he wanted to become a writer. “From then on it was a question of ability: could I or could I not?”

But the anecdote exemplifies more. It gives an idea of how Farah developed a sense of justice early in life. It shows how he became aware of the fate of women. And it hints at an early longing for cosmopolitism, a refusal to succumb to the dogma of one language, one religion, one culture.

This strong desire for cosmopolitanism, that cacophony of voices and opinions, resonates during our three hour interview – from the moment he shows me the views from his apartment in Rondebosch. There’s Table Mountain. That’s the university. André Brink lives down there. That’s where JM Coetzee used to live. Later he talks about his watered down friendship with Salman Rushdie, another literary master in exile.

But where Rushdie surrounds himself with supermodels and glamour, Farah, wearing jeans and takkies, epitomises ascetism. His basic apartment used to be his office, but after his wife and children moved to the United States it has also become his living space. It’s like a cabin where he spends ten hours a day writing and reading. Sometimes, when he’s working on the final draft of his manuscript, he goes “into hiding” here. He gets his food delivered and works obsessively. Yes, totally anti-social.

He’s moved to Cape Town in 1998. Remarkable, I say, that he feels so at home here. After all the city is often seen as a last vestige of apartheid. Farah shakes his head. “Cape Town isn’t false, it’s true to itself. It has been like this for centuries, it’s the ‘mother city’, a cosmopolitan city. And cosmopolitans embody a certain mix of tolerance and intolerance. Everybody locks themselves in their apartments. If I meet people from this building in the corridor I say hello, but I have not set foot inside their apartment. If we meet we tolerate each other. But if anyone goes beyond a certain line I remind them: this is my space.”

When I mention the often lethal attacks on Somalis in South African townships he’s remarkably nuanced. “People forget that ten, fifteen years after independence these things happen in every country where the government doesn’t fulfill its promises. The people who are ill informed about the politics of their own country need to take it out on others. The foreigner is usually the scapegoat. And I would add: more South Africans have suffered from township violence than Zimbabweans or Somalis

“I would blame the government for not doing something quickly enough. I also blame the Somalis, who went into the hyena’s mouth, for not knowing what they were doing. Many are ill-educated and have left Somalia for the first time. They went in, assuming erroneously that they were protected by the fact that they did good business with these people.”

Farah loves to talk and debate. But first and foremost he’s a formidable writer, with nine novels and several plays to his name. His singular subject is Somalia, that godforsaken country in the Horn of Africa. In 1974 Farah was forced to go into exile, to avoid arrest for treason after writing slightly subversive things. He subsequently lived in Europe, America and half a dozen African countries. Meanwhile, in 1991 a civil war had erupted in Somalia, after which the country would become known as a ‘failed state’ where the charred bodies of American soldiers were paraded through the streets and pirates rule the waves.

Farah has made it his task to “keep the country alive by writing about it”. His style is idiosyncratic, full of parables, myths and metaphors. Some critics have been irked by the slowness and the detours, which sometimes reduces the narrative to a trickle. Others think it’s a pity that he writes in English, since it’s not his first language.

Farah, who in 1998 won the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature and whose debut From a crooked rib is a Penguin Classic, shrugs. ‘People would say that. They’re open to their opinion. In Somali we say: a hunchback will eventually get used to his discomfort. So even though English was my fourth language I got used to its discomforts to make it work for me.”

He asks me to imagine putting long passages by William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway next to each other. Yes, everyone will immediately recognise the awkward Faulkner. “Every time a new voice emerges it would use language in a different way. Someone who’s ‘original’ would take you a very long time to get used to.”

He’s now working on the third part of his third trilogy. His oeuvre can be read as a reconstruction of the collapse of individual and the nation. It’s an attempt to capture the complexities of Somalia, to show that there’s much more at stake than the media-friendly simplification of a struggle between clans. The problems are rooted in the colonial past, the patriarchic society, the lack of education, the arrival of Islam and the character of the Somalis. “They are a very self destructive kind of engine, full of gumption and movement. And the movement is not necessarily positive all the time. Not all of it is healthy.”


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    December 15th, 2008 @14:09 #

    The letter story is a lovely one; to hear Nuruddin tell it himself is a delight. He's also put it into one of his books. I don't understand why he hasn't been given the Nobel Prize for literature; the year He-Who-Lives-in-Oz got it, I really thought Nuruddin should have got it instead.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    December 16th, 2008 @12:31 #

    What a wonderful profile. I loved the letter story and the hunchback anecdote is fantastic.


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