Nuruddin Farah and the Humanist Spirit

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Tom Odhiambo

The core of Nuruddin’s writing is a humanist spirit, which constantly seeks to re-center the relationship between human beings, demanding a reconnection between individual and individual, and individual and the community.

Nuruddin Farah, Somalia’s best known author, is probably the African writer who most deserves a Nobel Prize in literature but who is rarely cited as shortlisted for the award. Why, one may ask? Probably because he is a Somali and Somalia isn’t seen these days as a functioning state. Thus, the country may not have enough ‘friends’ to support Nuruddin or nominate him. Maybe it is just the politics of literature in general in which literature from Africa is a tiny part of the global whole. So, Nuruddin is a speck on the global literary map.

Yet, Nuruddin Farah, for those who have read him doesn’t just write for and about Somalia. Yes, his books are set in his country of birth. They are peopled with Somalis. The issues they deal with are largely Somali. The language, style and tone evoke Somalia and Somalis. But at the core of Nuruddin’s writing is a humanist spirit, which constantly seeks to re-center the relationship between human beings. There is a sense in which some readers or critics believe that the end result of literature should be to ‘(re)-humanize’ the individual. However, in Nuruddin’s fiction, the humanist spirit hovers over all his stories, demanding a reconnection between individual and individual, and individual and the community.

This vision, to re-center the relationship between human beings, is traceable in Nuruddin’s fiction probably his most read novel, From a Crooked Rib (2006) to his latest, Hiding in Plain Sight (2014). Whether one is reading the introductory line, “Guns lack the body of human truths”, in Links (2003) to the introductory paragraph in the epilogue of Hiding in Plain Sight, “On his desk in the office, Aar has three photographs, one each of his two teenage children and a third, the photo of a very beautiful woman, which occupies center stage”, Nuruddin places human interaction and relationships at the core of his stories.

It is this deep search for what makes, unmakes and remakes relationships between individuals and the society that is carried in the story or stories of the novel, Crossbones (2011). This is a story about the search for a ‘lost’ son.  There are several individuals in the book, each searching for something. Jeebleh and his journalist son-in-law are probably searching for a story on what Somalia ‘really’ is. Is it the chaotic land that foreign journalists and experts speak of so easily? Or does it hold together in some way? Is there love in Somalia or just raw anger, hatred and violence? In other words, does the human spirit still roam the streets of Somalia’s war-ravaged country or its countryside?

On the other hand, Malik’s brother’s stepson, Taxliil, had disappeared from Minneapolis, USA. The suspicion is that he had been recruited by Al-Shabaab. His step-father, Ahl goes to Puntland to look for him. Would he find his step-son? What would he do if he runs into the violence that defines Puntland at the time of his arrival?

In either case, the reader finds himself or herself in a Somalia that in one instance evokes tremendous fear but in another instance projects a somewhat functioning community, seemingly against all the odds stacked against it. Nuruddin describes a community – not necessarily the whole country – such as in Mogadiscio, which is under siege but does its best to live through the suspicion, fear, potential hijacking, imminent violence and death etc. One moment you may be laughing with someone or sharing a cup of coffee. The next moment the individual may be kidnapped and ransom demanded for his release. Special security arrangements, something g that in a normal society is only associated with politicians, is a necessity for visitors to the Somalia of Crossbones. This is one of the many realities in Somalia that Jeebleh, Malik and Ahl, discover.

What Nuruddin does is to weave several strands of life in a broken society, Somalia, interlacing the prevalent fear with unstinting hope. Even amidst this fear of the unknown, the visitors find welcoming locals. They meet people who still trust in friendship and companionship and are willing to help strangers in a difficult situation. Nuruddin, through the characters in Crossbones, denies victory to the violence and death. Instead, he emphasizes the triumph of the human spirit in which those who survive the gunfire and murder live in the hope that tomorrow may offer peace and security.

Yet the story of Somalia here is also the story of the tragedy of humanity in the 20th and 21st centuries. How, one may ask, (and one senses that Nuruddin is asking) is it that at a time when humanity claims to have reached great heights of civilization violence increasingly defines how people resolve disputes? Why is it that supposedly civilized societies resort to violence to resolve a violent situation? In a more political sense, this question applies to the various groups that have tried to dominate Somalia since the end of colonial occupation. Why did the incoming regime create a state that relied on repressing the rights of some communities whilst privileging others?

One can say that one of the enduring lessons of Crossbones is that the human spirit can endure unimaginable suffering but still triumph. Indeed, there are Somalis of all shades: Ordinary men and women, farmers, teachers, hoteliers, doctors, sheikhs, bankers, engineers and journalists among others who today remain in their homeland, believing that somehow one day their country will stand on its feet again and be seriously counted among the community of nations as a functioning society.

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. Tom.odhiambo@uonbi.ac.ke