Literature of Exile: Somaliland and Nadif Mohamed

Do butterflies and moths suffer this perplexity? This ‘how did I get here?’ and ‘who am I?’ crisis?

The Somali Civil War is poorly known or understood by many Westerners. After decades of colonialism, the British and Italian-controlled Somali territories united to form the independent Republic of Somalia in 1960. However, in 1988, the military government of general Siad Barre faced resistance movements in the north, leading to a disastrous civil war which destroyed much of Somalia’s’ infrastructure and killed thousands of people. The north eventually split to form the independent (though still unrecognized) Republic of Somaliland.

Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa, the Somaliland capital, and fled to London with her family when civil war broke out in the early 1990s. Though she has only visited Somalia and Somaliland briefly as an adult, she identifies as unequivocally Somali. In a 2012 interview she explained:

Diaspora” is an ancient word that applies to many Britons. I have always felt myself part of one; from lullabies and superstitions to baby names and funeral rites, there are times when my roots on another continent blossom in my everyday life...Despite having just fragments of memories of my old life in Somalia and my mother tongue literally being a language I only used with my mother I stubbornly refused to think of myself as anything but a Somali living in Britain. ,

Her fiction is deeply rooted in her country’s and her family’s turbulent history. Her first novel, Black Mamba Boy, takes us back to 1935, the colonial era, as Jama, a young boy, abandoned in Yemen by his Somali father, treks across Abyssinia, Eritrea Sudan and Egypt to find him. Jama’s story is one of constant movement and short lived friendships, reminiscent of picaresque quests and Greek myth. His story of personal dispossession and abandonment is emblematic of the fate of all colonized and marginalized peoples; while Jama (who is based on Mohamed’s own father) wanders in search of a home and family, he encounters Jewish refugees fleeing Mussolini and seeking a homeland of their own. Mohamed appears to see this rootlessness as endemic to the Somali experience, as Jama says…

‘“Everywhere I go I meet Somalis, always from the north, standing at a crossroads, looking up to the sky for direction, the poor souls never know where they’re going.”

While her first novel is a tale of lost fathers and sons, her second, The Orchard of Lost Souls, is about mothers and daughters. Borrowing from folk traditions of the maid, the matron and the crone, Mohamed presents the Somali Civil War from the perspective of 3 women whose lives intersect during a crucial period in 1987.

As rebels from the Somali National Movement are closing in around Hargesia (Mohamed’s hometown) Kawsar, a defiant elderly widow lies bedbound, awaiting the end. She remembers the jubilation of independence 27 years earlier, wryly reflecting on the short lived spirit of unity and joy..

When the British had left on 26 June 1960, everyone had poured out of their homes in their Eid clothes and gathered at the municipal khayriyo between the national bank and prison. It was as if they were drunk, wild; girls got pregnant that night and when asked who the father of their child was, they would reply: ‘Ask the flag.’ That night, crushed within a mixed crowd as the Somali flag was raised for the first time, Kawsar had lost a long, gold earring that was part of her dowry, but Farah hadn’t cared – he’d said it was a gift to the new nation. The party had moved to Freedom Park and lasted into the next morning, the sleepy town transformed into a playground, the youth of the country believing that they had achieved what their elders hadn’t.

During a giant public rally commemorating that anniversary, Kawsar notices a group of female government informers and enforcers known as “The Guddi” beating a teen street urchin named Deqo. When Kawsar intervenes, she is arrested and interrogated by Filsan – a female soldier intent on establishing herself as a career officer, despite the unrelenting misogyny she encounters on the job. Determined to prove herself to be as ruthless as her male counterparts, she mercilessly beats Kawsar, breaking the old woman’s hip.

As Mohamed presents the interior monologues of these 3 very different women, each with her own generational perspective on Somalia, she comments both on the tragedy of civil war and on the underlying resentment of female independence seen in men who sought independence for themselves. Kawsar notes that on the day of liberation…

People always half-joked afterwards that that day changed the women of Hargeisa; that they never returned to the modest, quiet lives they had known after that bacchanalian display, that the taste of one kind of freedom led to an insatiable desire for every kind.

The end of colonial rule has not brought freedom to these women; instead it has separated mother from daughter. Kawsar mourns a murdered daughter, and Dequo and Filsan have lost their mothers to poverty and misogyny. The violence between women who should support each other mirrors the self-destructive violence of civil war; Filsan, who has suffered relentless brutalization, can only see more violence as the way to build a glorious future Somalia. Yet Kawsar, the oldest and wisest of the three, recognizes the futility of conflict:

Kawsar lies in bed listening to the tanks: “It is not so painful to die when all that she knows is dying around her. It seems as if the world had been built just for her and is being dismantled as she departs.”

For more about Nadifa Mohamed:

Orchard of Lost Souls: The Betty Trask award winner takes on a complex history of Somalian civil unrest with a focus on women

An interview with Nadifa Mohamed: “I don’t feel bound by Somalia…but the stories that have really motivated me are from there”

Nadifa Mohamed: Writing the Lives of Somalia’s Women

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