Somalia: the literature of a nation in ruins

Photo from the international book fair in Mogadishu. Image credit: AMISOM Public Information

When Somalis appear in western media it is often as victims or perpetrators. “It is to be expected. They come from a country in anarchy”, we’re told. Yet, even among the ruins of Somalia, books are being read and written, and problems are being discussed in fictional form.  Ali Jimale Ahmed is a professor of comparative African literature, and he draws a nuanced picture of the cultural life of his native country.

Ali Jimale Ahmed is a Somali poet, essayist and scholar. He is  Chair and Professor of Comparative Literature at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center in New York.

Historyradio.org: Somalia has long been considered a failed state, but are there still significant authors who write about daily life in the country?

Professor Ahmed: By all accounts Somalia is a failed state–governmental structures and the ideologies that sustained them have collapsed. But that does not mean that a semblance of pseudo-state organizations are absent. The international community–the U.N., the EU, the AU, and a host of other organizations are in the country to shore up the internationally recognized government.

That said, when we speak about Somali writing and writers, it is much better to differentiate between two forms of discourses, namely, discourses of the state and discourses of the nation. Seen from that perspective, there are significant authors who write about daily life–the trials and tribulations, as well as the accomplishments of people trying to eke out a living under difficult circumstances–in all parts of Somalia. These writers publish articles and books inside the country. One need only read the many books published in the “country.”

Historyradio.org: What sort of education do the normal citizen of Somalia get these days?

Professor Ahmed: Education is one of the sectors severally impacted by the collapse of the state. There is no uniform or harmonized curriculum. The various state entities do not have a coherent educational policy in place. Private institutions and civil society groups run the educational sector. Depending on their affiliation or from where they get their financial or moral/intellectual support from these institutions replicate the kind of curriculum found in Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, and the UK, and so on.

That said, graduates from those schools and universities are found to be well prepared to undertake undergraduate and graduate studies in European and North American universities.  Some such students are now studying at Princeton, for example.

Historyradio.org: Like many African countries Somalia has a proud and ancient history, to what extent do Somali today writers revive this tradition of stories in their work?

Professor Ahmed: This is one of the reasons that Somali society has still a viable and resilient culture. Since the collapse of the state, there has been a concerted effort on the part of intellectuals to publish on Somali history and literature. There are Somali websites like Hoyga Suugaanta and Laashin that specialize in literature, and Somali presses, such as Scansom, Laashin and Iftiinka Aqoonta in Sweden, Looh press in England, Redsea-online publishing Group in Italy/UK/Somaliland, that publish the findings and collections of both aspiring and established authors.

Literature, in all its forms, is held in high esteem. Indeed, the etymology of suugaan, Somali word for literature, means the sap or fluid of certain plants like the geesariyood. These plants are evergreen, and are associated with life and the sustaining of life under precarious situations or conditions. When all else is gone as a result of a drought, for example, the sap from this plant will sustain a modicum of existence, of life. Thus for the Somali, literature is sustenance that nourishes both the body and mind.

Historyradio.org: When we hear news from Somalia, they often involve Al Shabab and Islamic extremism. What sort of attitude do the major Somali writers take to religion?

Professor Ahmed: With the exception of Nuruddin Farah, whose novels have internationalized the Somali case, other major writers rarely discuss religious issues in their fiction. In Maps and Secrets, for example, Farah is at times critical of what he perceives to be excesses and transgressions by those who claim to be religious. In his Past Imperfect Trilogy (2004-2011), In Links, the narrative limns the contours of the post-Siad Barre Somalia–warlords, U.s. intervention, the successes of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), and the eventual arrival on the scene by the better equipped Ethiopian soldiers that denied the ICU what seemed to be a total victory against the warlords. In Crossbones, farah’s narrative reveals a misreading of Somali pirates who were perceived to be Al Shabab members or surrogates.

Historyradio.org: The diaspora is central to the Somali experience, and thus also the racism and prejudices that its citizens face abroad. Are there novels in the Somali language which tell the story of refugees?

Ismaaciil C. Ubax (image credit: his official twitter account)

A recent novel that touches on this topic is Ismaaciil C. Ubax’s Gaax (“Deferment or Postponement”), [Looh Press, 2017]. It is a novel that describes or trails the lives of three main characters who, even though they live in different climes and times, share certain uncanny characteristics.
Equally important are books written for Somali children who are born in the Diaspora. Musa M. Isse’s bilingual tales written in Somali and Swedish help kids born in the Diaspora to develop strong identities. Isse is also the Editor-in-Chief of the first Somali Children’s Magazine in the Europe.

The subject of racism is discussed in Igiaba Scego’s Italian-language short stories, and Yasmeen Mohamed’s novel Nomad Diaries, written in English. The topic is also taken up in the novels of two seasoned and award-winning novelists in the Diaspora: Nadifa Mohamed who writes in English and Abdourahman Waberi who writes in French.

Historyradio.org: Somali is a non-european language. Do writers leave their native tongue in favor of English, French or some other European language? To what extent is the Somali language under threat?

Professor Ahmed: Somali writers who write in European languages are small compared to those who write in Somali. I do not perceive any threat per se. Rather, the absence of a strong state to nurture and promote the language is perhaps more of a threat to the flourishing of Somali language.

Historyradio.org: Are there big differences between the literary schools of Europe and Somali literature? Is there a Somali modernist school, for instance? Will the intellectual thoughts of urban Europe even make sense in a Somali context?

Professor Ahmed: We live in a globalizing/globalized world. The kind of Somalis who could read novels in Somali are, more often than not, the ones who are able to traverse borders. The hundreds of thousands of Somalis who live in Europe travel constantly between Somalia and Europe. That said, we must distinguish between modernization (the process) and modernity (the consciousness).

Historyradio.org: Some parts of Somalia have experienced peace for some time. What sort of literature have been produced in these areas?

Professor Ahmed: There are several writers who have written books on their experiences (or those of others) as refugees. But a great deal of literature is coming out of the parts of Somalia that have experienced peace. One need only catalog the plethora of novels published in the country and exhibited at the Hargeysa International Book Fair in Somaliland. The last few years have witnessed the growth of Book Fairs in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, and Garoowe in Puntland.

Historyradio.org: We hear a lot about “the great American novel”. Is there such a thing as “the great Somali novel”? Is there a book or a novel that all Somalis love?

Professor Ahmed: The novel has not been fully domesticated in Somalia. Of course, the novel genre is such that it is in its protean form; it has yet to crystallize and assume a definite form. That said, two novels would contend or vie for the distinction. Maxamed Daahir Afrax’s (Mohamed Dahir Afrah) Maana Faay (1981;1993) ushers in a new form of storytelling, as it exhibits ingenious and conscious ways of using language to reflect the quotidian life of its characters. With Maana Faay the novel genre in the Somali language comes of age, both in terms of content and structure.

The other novel is Yuusuf Axmed Ibraahin-Hawd’s Aanadii Negeeye, a riveting story that recounts the gory details of murder and revenge. The narrative unfolds as the eponymous protagonist, Negeeye, whose father was murdered shortly after Negeeye’s birth, remembers his mother’s account of the brutal killing of his father. Negeeye, then, plots to avenge his father’s death.

Maxamed Daahir Afrax’s (Mohamed Dahir Afrah) Maana Faay (1981)

Yuusuf Axmed Ibraahin-Hawd’s Aanadii Negeeye (2012)

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