Posted by: koolwine | December 14, 2010

Somalia: Secrets

The surprise reappearance of a man’s first lover triggers the revelation of family secrets.

Country Focus: Somalia (Soomaaliya in Somali)

Nuruddin Farah
Originally published by Arcade, 1998.
My edition: Penguin, 1999.  298 pgs.
Acclaim: Winner of the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature

To make a long story short: Kalaman comes home one day to find that Sholoongo, his childhood girlfriend, has unexpectedly arrived and is demanding that he father her child.  Kalaman asks his grandfather Nonno for advice and for answers to some long unanswered questions – most importantly, why does his mother hate Sholoongo?  And why was he called Kalaman, a name which does not tie him to either his father’s or mother’s clan?  As his country descends into civil war, Kalaman uncovers secrets that threaten to tear apart his family.

Quote: “The repository of a secret needs a bit of warning, he or she requires time to prepare to give up a secret.  Like virginity, once you’ve parted with it, the loss of a secret is total.”

My opinion: Although Secrets begins and ends with the same four words – “One corpse, three secrets!” – I came across four corpses and at least thirteen secrets throughout the course of the novel.  Which secrets and which corpse are the ones referred to, I couldn’t figure out.

The complexity and deviancy of the relationships in this book puts even the wackiest soap opera plot lines to shame.  The novel’s sexual content is heavy and, uh, out of the ordinary (but maybe that’s just me).  Most of the story is told from Kalaman’s point of view, so that the reader is just as in the dark as he is, but as secrets are revealed, Farah writes chapters in the voices of Nonno, Kalaman’s mother and Sholoongo – a clever way to get a more complete picture of everyone’s motives.

Farah is an agile writer, juggling points of view, native folklore, Muslim culture, entangled secrets and the burgeoning civil war.  I respect this densely woven and unique story, but I couldn’t say that I enjoyed it.

The armchair travel experience: Farah set his tale in Mogadishu and Afgoi prior to the 1991 beginning of Somalia’s (still ongoing) civil war.  References to the unstable political situation are made throughout the book, but without  knowledge of the country’s history, I found them difficult to understand.  Rich with Somali folklore and beliefs, populated with characters who drink tamarind juice, own pet monkeys, die from elephant and crocodile attacks and whose love is undermined by Muslim law and clan ties, Secrets is distinctly African (it’s only my knowledge gap that keeps me from saying distinctly Somali).  Farah has said that he wants “to keep my country alive by writing about it,” quite a magnanimous objective considering that in 1976 Somali President Siyad Barre ordered his execution.  Farah has lived in exile ever since.

In my book (or, what Somalia means to me and maybe you, too)

Down in Mogadishu
Sad to say, I’m primarily familiar with Somalia because of the U.S. military catastrophe known to historians as the Battle of Mogadishu and to movie-goers as  Black Hawk Down.  Check me off as one of  the latter; I never followed any news reports on the U.S. intervention in Somalia and I figured that seeing Hollywood’s version would be the easiest and fastest way to get the five W’s answered (not to mention a great excuse to gaze at Josh Hartnett).

Based on Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Mark Bowden’s eponymous book, Black Hawk Down drops the viewer into the thick of the grueling street battle that unfolded after two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were shot down during what was supposed to be a 30 minute extraction operation.  Sixteen hours later, 18 American soldiers and approximately 700 Somali militiamen were dead.

Mean Streets
The movie version of Black Hawk Down leaves out the one event that I most associate with Somalia – the dragging of a dead American soldier through the Mogadishu streets by triumphant Somalis.  The unsettling Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs of U.S. Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland’s desecrated body, taken by Canadian journalist Paul Watson for the Toronto Star, were so pervasive that they even infiltrated my MTV-powered force field of ignorance.  What U.S. forces were doing in Somalia to begin with, I had no idea,* but those abhorrent images communicated in no uncertain terms that it was time for us to leave.

*humanitarian relief initially, but when the country’s chaos made aid nearly impossible, our objective changed to establishing a secure environment.

Give me a career as a buccaneer
So much for setting their long black beards afire, purveying spiced rum, being “over-forty victims of fate,” wearing puffy white shirts and trolling the Caribbean for treasure; nowadays pirates are t-shirted, assault rifle-toting Somalis buzzing along in speedboats.

Frustrated Somali fisherman turned to piracy when their fishing grounds were depleted and polluted by other countries.  At first just charging a “tax” to hijacked vessels, pirates now pose a threat to international shipping by holding hostages for millions of dollars in ransom.

The popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies juxtaposed with the deployment of counter-piracy warships off the Somali coastline reveals the irony of the public’s ability to romanticize 18th century pirates while demonizing present-day ones.  Maybe two hundred years from now, there will be movies mythologizing the Robin Hood/eco-activist beginnings of the Somali pirates…is there a Somali translation of “Ahoy matey”?


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