Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK
North of Dawn by Nuruddin Farah
North of Dawn by Nuruddin Farah

Novels seldom feel so contemporary: I meet Somalian author Nuruddin Farah in circumstances which darken the day, news having broken of the far-right terror attack in New Zealand which killed 49 people at prayer. 

His new book, North of Dawn, envelops issues which the news has brought acutely, awfully, into focus. I’m conscious, too, of how he must feel on a personal level, as the novel is dedicated to his sister, killed in a terrorist atrocity five years ago in Kabul.

The plot revolves around an elderly Somalian couple now living in Oslo. They’re shocked to learn their son has perpetrated a suicide bombing. The retired diplomat, Mugdi, disowns his son’s memory, but his wife, Gacalo, wavers between less straightforward reactions, and feels compelled to bring her widowed daughter-in-law, Waliya, and her two teenage step-grandchildren, to Oslo. Family tensions surface almost from the outset: Gacalo’s empathy is reciprocated only by Waliya’s ungratefulness and her deepening fundamentalism as a recoil against her children’s assimilation. 

North of Dawn initially holds up Norway as a liberal, tolerant country. Then, savagely, Farah weaves in the horror of the 2011 Utøya massacre of 77 young people: neo-fascist extremism tears the fabric of Norwegian society just as religious fundamentalism betrays Somalia’s future. “One of the points the novel makes is that the hostile right-wing mentality is the same as that of fundamentalist Islamic terrorists. The space between these ends of the spectrum is where common people navigate their lives,” says Farah.

North of Dawn is Farah’s 12th novel. His first, From a Crooked Rib, was written when he was just 23. Since then he’s been regularly nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and has won the Neustadt International Prize. Now 73, he’s still writing, travelling for research, investigating – and still trying to remind the world why Somalis do not deserve to be forgotten.

Havoc has been synonymous with Somalia for nearly three decades. “In 1993, when George Bush sent troops to do what he called God’s work, the civil war was petering out. But the American presence gave a leg up to the warlord Mohamed Aidid and extended the hostilities. The fabric of Somalia was smashed into smithereens,” Farah laments.

Near anarchy now manifests in the regularity of terrorist atrocities, mainly in the capital, Mogadishu, a constant target for al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab. In one of the deadliest worldwide recent terrorist attacks, a truck bomb killed 587 people in October 2017.  March 2019 saw multiple explosions, suicide bombings and gun battles, killing 60 civilians. And in April, after a few months’ pause, the US resumed air bombings and drone strikes targeting al-Shabaab. There have been 28 such missions to date in 2019 — an escalation condemned by Amnesty International for its callous disregard for civilians.

Somalia’s geostrategic location has contributed to its destabilisation. Its coast hosts Suez Canal, Red Sea and Gulf of Aden shipping lanes, and proximity to the Arabian Peninsula oil fields draws increasing involvement of global powers as the Horn of Africa becomes enmeshed in the Middle East’s enmities and complexities. Somalia was largely secular before the civil war, but hostilities have hardened attitudes and strict Islamic sensibilities have infiltrated the country.

“No penny of aid comes from Saudi Arabia without the insistence on strict adherence to Wahhabism. It’s an imposed culture,” says Farah. “Guntiino dresses, for example, are worn when women want to express their Somalian identity, not the burqa or veil. So when people in the diaspora claim strict Muslim tenets are part of our culture, it’s a lie.”

The nation’s turmoil has led to Somalis comprising one of the world’s largest refugees groups. The UN estimates nearly 3-million in neighbouring countries or displaced within Somalia – a number which excludes the diaspora in the West. Farah himself has lived in exile since writing his 1976 political satire, A Naked Needle, while studying in the US. He was warned he faced 30 years’ imprisonment if he returned; a subsequent novel, Sweet and Sour Milk, earned him a death sentence in absentia.

He wandered a dozen countries on three continents before settling in SA. “If I couldn’t go back to Somalia, I had to live somewhere in Africa. Africa helps calm my neuroses, to temper my anxieties.”

These permeate throughout North of Dawn in clear autobiographical allusions. The slow-burn psychological tension, despite a near nonexistent plot, mirrors the paradoxes of refugee life, waiting and yearning for change in their homeland while coping with a culture shock in their adopted country where, as “others”, they are selectively ignored or constantly noticed. 

North of Dawn conveys these struggles of alienation and assimilation, even when hosts are welcoming and progressive. But many in the diaspora are unwilling to adapt. Farah has written about this in a previous nonfiction work, Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora.

Strangely, then, Farah’s dialogue often feels contrived. North of Dawn’s characters seem to turn to the reader, lecturing about ways to combat zealotry, berating refugees who disparage their adopted country, or railing against religion-based insularity. The teenager, Naciim, preaches, “Somalis pay lip service to the faith while we live a life of lies. This is why the dissonance in our hearts continues to flourish, […] why the strife in our land rages on unabated.” The novel would be even more powerful if Farah allowed it to speak for itself.

In its tonal world-weariness, and undercurrents of tragedy, North of Dawn expresses the sadness caused by the harmful side of human nature. Of a higher power, “I doubt God loves Somalia,” Farah muses. Like his book, which concludes in open-ended feint towards another looming extremist threat, there are only fragile hopes for a new world.