Farah, Nuruddin 1945–

views updated May 23 2018

Nuruddin Farah 1945


At a Glance

Became Africas First Feminist Writer

Criticized Somalian Revolution and Dictatorship

Portrayed Besieged People of Somalia

Won Neustadt Prize for Literature

Selected writings


Before the 1991 collapse of the dictatorship in his country, Somalia, novelist and playwright Nuruddin Farah was forced to live in exile. Still, Farah became one of Africas most influential authors. Although the multilingual, nomadic writer has admitted that he feels at home everywhere, he also believes he feels closer to Somalia the longer he is away from it. In In Praise of Exile, an essay he wrote in 1998, Farah described his work in this way: My novels are about states of exile; about women shivering in the cruel cold in a world ruled by men; about the commoner denied justice; about a torturer tortured by guilt, his own conscience; about a traitor betrayed. These words come from a man who has lived in Europe, the U.S., and particularly in African countries other then his own. While in exile, Farah began what became a lifelong literary projectkeeping his country alive by writing about it.

Farahs fictional works reflect his deep sympathy towards women in Somali society and explore feminist themes. Several of his novels are told from a womans point of view. Many of his tales focus on the history and politics of Somalia, the role of the privileged intelligentsia, the corruption of the political elite, and the repressive quality of the Somali Revolution. In his works he is especially critical of the regime of Siyad Barre, the iron-fisted dictator who ruled Somalia for 21 years. But Farah is a writer who has been widely influenced by international culture. Farah himself has said that his work probably has more in common with works by writers from South Asia with Islamic backgroundsSalman Rushdie, 11 for instance, who called Farah one of the finest contemporary African noveliststhan with African writers like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. Farahs parents linguistic and temperamental differences ultimately contributed to the shaping of one of his primary literary themes. As he told his audience during his lecture upon receiving the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1998, ...Language, and what uses we make of it, is the longest distance between two persons, the one a poet, sensitive, committed to ideas larger than herself, the other despondently despotic, a patriarch willing to submit the world to the authority of his whim.

Farahs eight novels, which include two trilogies, have been translated into twelve languages. Starting in 1990 Farah received various fellowships, prizes, and honors. He was awarded the German Academic Exchange

At a Glance

Born in 1945 in Baidoa, Somalia; son of Hassan (a merchant) and Aleeli (a poet); married Chitra Muliyil, 1970, (divorced in 1972); children: Koschin (son); remarried in 1992; children: Abyan (daughter) and Kaahiye (son). Education: Graduated from Punjab University in Chandigarh, India, 1970; postgraduate studies in theater at the University of London, attached to the Royal Court Theater, 1974-75; continued studies at the University of Essex.

Career: Associate professor at the University of lbadan in Jos, Nigeria; first short story printed, 1965; wrote play, A Dagger in Vacuum, 1969; published first novel, From a Crooked Rib, 1970; novel, Tallow Waa Talee Ma, serialized in a government newspaper, 1973; produced play, The Offering, in Essex; novel, A Naked Needle, 1976; novel Sweet and Sour Milk, 1979; wrote film scripts; novel Sardines, 1981; taught at the University of Bayreuth in West Germany; play, Yussuf and His Brothers, produced in Jos, Nigeria, 1982; novel, Close Sesame, 1983; novel, Maps, 1986; novel, Secrets, 1998; novels translated into 12 languages.

Awards: Received the Tucholsky Prize in Stockholm for his work as a literary exile, 1991; Gifts won Best Novel Award in Zimbabwe, 1993; selected as fifteenth Neustadt laureate, 1998; French edition of Cifts won the St. Malo Literary Festival award and was named Book of the Month for all French libraries; received Neustadt Prize at the University of Oklahoma.

Addresses: Office c/o Arcade Publishing, 141 Fifth Avenue, New York City, 10010.

Service fellowship to Berlin, which enabled him to finish a first draft of Secrets. He received the Tucholsky Prize for work as a literary exile in Stockholm, Sweden. Gifts won the Best Novel Award in Zimbabwe, and the French edition won the St. Malo Literary Festival award and was named Book of the Month for all libraries in France. The Premio Cavour was awarded to the Italian edition of Close Sesame. He was chosen as the laureate of the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. This prize, according to The New York Times, is widely regarded as the most prestigious international literary award after the Nobel. Farah has been praised by other notable writers. South African novelist Nadine Gordimer described him as one of the real interpreters of experience on our troubled continent, while Chinua Achebe observed that Farah excels in giving voice to tragedy in remote places of the world that speak directly and familiarly out to our own hearts.

Nuruddin Farah was born in Baidoa, Somalia (what was then Italian Somaliland), to Hassan, a Muslim merchant, and Aleeli, a poet, in 1945. Two years later, his family resettled in Kallafo, in British-occupied Ogaden, which later came under Ethiopian control. In 1963, three years after Somalia gained its independence from Italy and the United Kingdom, Farahs family moved to Mogadiscio (Mogadishu), Somalia, to avoid the war raging in Ogaden. Growing up in an ethnically and linguistically mixed area and listening to his self-assured, articulate mother who recited poems aloud, Farah quickly became fascinated with languages and literature. He spoke Somali with his family, but at school he learned Amharic, Italian, Arabic, and English.

In 1965, after finishing secondary school in Somalia, Farah wrote his first short story in English because Somali was not yet a written language. He also worked as a clerk-typist at the Ministry of Education. A year later he went to India to study literature and philosophy at Punjab University in Chandigarh. He lived in India for three or four years. He returned to Somalia for six months, where he wrote a play called A Dagger in Vacuum, but was denied a license to produce it. In 1970, after receiving his BA from Punjab University, he married Chitra Muliyil, an Indian student, and they soon had a son, Koschin. During the early 1970s Farah taught secondary school in Somalia and lectured on comparative literature at the Afgoi College of Education.

Became Africas First Feminist Writer

In 1970 his debut novel, From a Crooked Rib, was published in English. It was the first fictional work by a Somali writer to be printed in English. Because of its subject matter, Farah was hailed by essayist Kirsten Hoist Petersen in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature as the first feminist writer to come out of Africa who describes and analyzes women as victims of male subjugation. From a Crooked Rib empathetically portrayed a Somali woman trapped within a restraining, traditional Somali society. In the story, the main character, Ebla, flees an arranged marriage to an elderly man and forfeits her ties to her nomadic clan. She winds up living alone in the city, without legal protection, and becomes a prostitute. Farahs book is highly critical of Islamic law and nomadic life as it pertains to the low position of women in traditional Somali society. Unfortunately for Farah, this novel was published at the time of the Somalian Revolution, of which he also was critical. The revolution brought the autocratic Major General Siyad Barre to power and swept away democracy in Somalia. This brought Farah face to face with the issue of censorship. In 1973, the serialization in a government newspaper of Tallow Waa Talee Ma, a novel by Farah written in Somali, which had just been made into an official written language, was cut short by government censors.

A year later Farah won a UNESCO fellowship and departed for England, leaving behind his ex-wife and son and beginning 22 years of exile from Somalia. In 1974 and 1975 Farah nourished his interest in theater by studying it as a postgraduate at the University of London, which was attached to Royal Court Theater, and at the University of Essex. One of his plays, The Offering, was produced at the University of Essex. While Farah was living in Italy in the late 1970s, another of his plays, A Spread of Butter, was broadcast by the BBC African Service.

In 1976, his second novel, A Naked Needle, was published, after being held by the publisher because of political uncertainty in Somalia. Farah eventually rejected the book, possibly because of this censorship, but he also was displeased with it because he felt it did not effectively expose the corruption and abuses of Siyad Barres regime. The novel dealt with a westernized intellectual young man, named after Farahs son, whose search for a comfortable life in Somalia after the revolution is jeopardized by the arrival of a former girlfriend from England, who plans to marry him. It depicts the discussions among the educated elite in the capital, the privilegentzia, and the experimental hopes in the new revolution. As with his previous novel, it deals in part with the plight of women in a Muslim society, be they eastern or western. Critical reaction to the book was mixed. On a positive note, Reinhard W. Sander was quoted as saying in Black Literature Criticism that this novel was perhaps the most self-searching to have come out of post-independence Africa.

Criticized Somalian Revolution and Dictatorship

In 1979 Farah published Sweet and Sour Milk, the first novel of a trilogy known as Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship. The book, which later won the English-Speaking Union Literary Award, made its author persona non grata in his native Somalia. It centers around a political activist who tries to uncover the reason for his twin brothers mysterious death and is prevented from doing so by his father, a former government interrogator and torturer. The repressive nature of the Somali revolution is apparent in this novel. Reviewers have noted that it is reminiscent of Franz Kafka in its view of a totalitarianism that depends on silence and betrayal for its survival. About Sweet and Sour Milk Robert McDowell wrote in African Writers, This story of institutional hardship and personal betrayal is heavy with symbolism. Each chapter, for instance, begins with a poetic description of the natural workL that wraps characters and circumstances in a shroud of dramatic hostility. McDowell added, In Sweet and Sour Milk, the most artfully constructed novel in his first completed trilogy, Farah has created a major political novel of lasting value.

Farahs next novel in the trilogy, Sardines, published in 1981, paints a portrait of life under the Generals regime. The story depicts a world dominated by the tyrant; his secret police are everywhere, security goons dog the innocent, and people disappear. The novel centers around a new breed of westernized Somali woman who fights to make her way in a male, hierarchically-dominated world in order to find a room of ones own, a country of ones own, a century in which one [is] not a guest. Farahs heroine, Medina, is a journalist who is fired from her editorial job at Somalias sole newspaper because she refuses to publish the speeches of the General. At the same time she flees from the home of her husband because she is terrified that his mother, who upholds traditions laid down by males, is going to have their daughter circumcised.

In Sardines Farahs female characters discuss female circumcision with surprising candor. Medina, who has endured circumcision, tells a friend: If they mutilate you at eight or nine, they open you up with a rusty knife the night they marry you off.Life for a circumcised woman is a series of de-flowering pains, delivery pains, and re-stitching pains. Wrote Charles R. Larson in World Literature Today, No novelist has written as profoundly about the African womans struggle for equality as has Nuruddin Farah. Other critics noted Farahs creative use of language. Farah [sic] is a disturbing writer whose linguistic inventiveness sometimes overpowers author and reader alike,Faith Pullin wrote in British Book News. But, in terms of vitality, compassion and the ability to take literary risks, his talent demands recognition. While working on a draft of the last novel in the trilogy, Farah taught and lived in West Germany. He later moved to Jos in Nigeria, where he was an instructor at the University of Ibadan. His play, Yussuf and His Brothers, was staged in Jos.

Farah published the last novel of the trilogy, Close Sesame, in 1983. In this book Farah again focuses on themes of crushed political idealism and tyranny, but from a mans viewpoint, while using the English language in a way that is uniquely his own. The novel focuses on an elderly nationalist and political idealist who has spent years in jail for opposing the British and Italian colonial governments. The hero also has been imprisoned for his opposition to the Somalian, dictatorial-style, post-revolutionary government. After getting out of jail he leaves the protection of his children and tries to do away with the ruling General. For this he is shot to death by the Presidential Guard.

Peter Lewis wrote in the London Magazine, Close Sesame analyses the betrayal of African aspirations in the postcolonial period: the appalling abuse of power, the breakdown of national unity in the face of tribal rivalry, and the systematic violation of language itself, so that such words as democratic and socialist are as perverted as pacification, for example, was in the colonial era. As for Farahs place among other African writers and his literary gifts, J.P. Durix commented in The Times Literary Supplement, Close Sesame confirms Farahs reputation as one of Africas major writers, and as the creator of a new language, strong, poetic, and possessing great rhythmic qualities, which, like the author himself, is cosmopolitan yet rooted in the Somali tradition.

Portrayed Besieged People of Somalia

Farahs Variations trilogy was followed by his Blood in the Sun trilogy, which is made up of the novels, Maps (1986), Gifts (1992), and Secrets (1998). Each of the three novels has been recognized individually as a masterpiece in its own right. Taken together, as the story of civil conflict that has dominated Somalia for over two decades, their beauty and power increase exponentially. They are extraordinary portrayals of a besieged people who manage to retain their humanity.

Maps takes place during Somalias war with Ethiopia in the late 1970s. The book portrays the agony of people who live in a country whose borders have been haphazardly created by colonialists and, although the colonizers are gone, their successors have inherited their leadership roles and their maps. Here, Farah explores the conflict between nationalism and personal commitment through the story of the Somali orphan, Askar, who is brought up by an Ethiopian woman, Misra, with whom he is extremely close. As Askar nears adulthood, he must choose between joining the Somalian Liberation Front and looking after his ill adoptive mother, who is suspected of being a spy. About Maps Robert McDowell wrote in African Writers that it was a marvelous account of an orphaned childs discovery of maternal love. United by circumstance amid the brutality of war along the Ethiopia-Somalia border, Misra and Askar represent the backbone of the communitythe stay-at-homes and the workers, the young and abandoned, the feminine and abusedwho suffer oppression yet ultimately survive their oppressors. These two characters also represent the child and woman in all of us.

While some reviewers criticized Farah for writing a belabored sociopolitical character study with too many stylistic and thematic layers, others admired him for his narrative skill and persuasiveness. Publishers Weekly observed that he constructs a deft narrative that reflects an oral tradition. Christopher Hope wrote in The New York Times Book Review, It is always the sincerity of the emotions and his ability to make them palpable that distinguish this tantalizing and original novel, and make it a journey into what Mr. Farah calls the territory of pain and what we, rather loosely perhaps, call Africa.

In Gifts Farah weaves dreams, memories, and folklore into a contemporary tale of ordinary people attempting to live dignified lives in the midst of lack of food, colonialism, and age-old ethnic divisions. The book chronicles the life of Duniya, one of Somalias embattled populace, a widowed nurse and simple village woman attempting to bring up three children alone in the city of Mogadishu. When she resolves to take in an abandoned baby, she must confront the patriarchs of her family and by extension, Somalias male-dominated society. She also learns for the first time what it means to fall in love and the obligations, expectations, and dependence the gift of love can bring. The resilient Duniya represents, through her strength and bravery, the type of woman who helps Somalia to survive its worst times. The different facets of her personality that emerge when she is dealing with the different men in her life, wrote Chitra Divakaruni in the Wall Street Journal, are quite amazing and illustrate Mr. Farahs deep understanding of the female psyche.

Won Neustadt Prize for Literature

Farahs last book in this trilogy, Secrets, which won the prestigious 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, has been described by some critics as a lyrical enigma. Wrote Kwame Dawes in Emerge,Secrets takes the reader on a mammoth journey of profound mystery, bizarre happenings, magical reckonings and deeply philosophical musings in the hope of unearthing the secrets of a Somali family. Like Gifts, Secrets is also set in Mogadishu, just before the outbreak of the civil war in Somalia. The novels central character, Kalaman, broods about his confusing childhood with its unexplained secrets, among them his ancestry. One day he receives a surprise house guest, his childhood lover, Sholoongo, who asks Kalaman to get her pregnant. Victimized by colonialism, Sholoongo uses the exploitive tactics that were used against her to seek her own gain and precipitates a family civil war that resembles Somali clan warfare. Helpless and tyrannizedSholoongo was so domineering I could never say my own name in her presenceKalaman is sucked into a voyage of self-discovery. When Kalaman eventually finds out about his origins, he discovers many possible parents, impossible to trace, a situation which resembles the colonial history of Somalia and of all Africa. Interestingly, unlike the women in Farahs other novels, Sholoongo is not struggling against the restraints of traditional Somali society, nor is she portrayed empathetically. She leaves readers with a riddle: Does she despise herself as a woman and use her sexuality as a weapon? Or is she a revolutionary who tries to castrate the very patriarchal society upon which Somalias dictatorship was founded? Brilliantly elliptical as ever, Farah shrouds Secrets in ambiguity, wrote Lisa Meyer in San Franciscos Examiner, keeping Sholoongo a mystery throughout.

Farah wrote his novels about Somalia while living in Gambia, the Sudan, Uganda, Berlin, Ethiopia, and Nigeria. He returned to his native land for a visit in 1996, five years after strongman Siyad Barre was driven from power. In 1992 he married again, to Amina Mama, and their union has produced two children, a daughter, Abyan, and a son, Kaahiye. Farah continues to live abroad. He and his family are currently residing in Cape Town, South Africa.

Selected writings


From a Crooked Rib, Heinemann, 1970.

A Naked Needle, Heinemann, 1976.

Sweet and Sour Milk, Heinemann, 1980; Graywolf Press, 1992.

Sardines, Allison & Busby, 1981; Heinemann, 1982; Graywolf Press, 1992.

Close Sesame, Allison & Busby, 1983; Graywolf Press, 1992.

Maps, Picador, 1986; Pantheon, 1986.

Gifts, Baobab Books, 1992; Serif Publishers, 1992.

Secrets, Arcade, 1998.


The Offering, Lotus (Afro-Asian Writings), 1976, pp. 77-93; produced at the University of Essex, 1975.



African Writers, Charles Scribners Sons, 1997, pp. 249-262.

Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992, pp. 757770.

Contemporary Authors, Volume 106, Gale, 1982, p. 173.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, 1989, pp. 131141.

Contemporary Novelists, St. James Press, 1986, pp. 312313.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 125, Gale, 1993, pp. 3540.

Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, St. James Press, 1999, pp. 8889.

International Authors and Writers Whos Who, 19931994, International Biographical Centre, 1993, p. 186.

Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World, edited by Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock, University Press of Mississippi, 1992, pp. 4362.

Literary Exile in the Twentieth Century, edited by Martin Tucker, Greenwood Press, 1991, pp. 239241.

Whos Who in the World, 19961997, Marquis, 1995, p. 400.

Writers Directory, 1992-1994, St. James Press, 1991, p. 303.


Boston Globe, April 5, 2000, pp. C1,C4.

Emerge, September 1998, pp. 6566; July/August 1999, p. 78.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1999.

Library Journal, August 1999.

Los Angeles Times, March 15, 1999; August 9, 1999.

New Yorker, June 15, 1998.

New York Review of Books, March 4, 1999.

New York Times Book Review, July 19, 1998; September 12, 1999.

Philadelphia Inquirer, July 19, 1998.

Publishers Weekly, June 28, 1999; August 23, 1999, pp.28-29.

Wall Street Journal, September 10, 1999.

Washington Post Book World, September 26, 1999.

World Literature Today, Autumn 1998, pp. 701786.


Additional information was provided by Arcade Publishing, News.

Alison Carb Sussman

Farah, Nuruddin

views updated Jun 11 2018

FARAH, Nuruddin

Nationality: Somali. Born: Baidoa, 24 November 1945. Education: Istituto di Magistrale, Mogadiscio, Somalia, 1964; Panjab University, Chindigarh, India, 1966-70; University of London, 1974-75; University of Essex, Colchester, 1975-76. Family: Divorced, one son; remarried in 1992, one daughter. Career: Clerk-typist, Ministry of Education, and secondary school teacher, 1969-71, Mogadiscio; teacher, Wardhiigley Secondary School, 1970-71; lecturer, Somali National University, Mogadiscio, 1971-74; guest professor, Bayreuth University, Germany, 1981; associate professor, University of Jos, Nigeria, 1981-83; visiting professor, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Autumn 1988, State University of New York, Stony Brook, Spring 1989, and Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, Autumn 1991. Since 1990 professor, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. Awards: Unesco fellowship, 1974; English-Speaking Union award, 1980; Corman Artists fellowship, 1990; Tucholsky award for literary exiles (Sweden), 1993; Cavour prize (Italy), 1993; Neustadt International Prize for Literature, 1998. Agent: Curtis Brown, 162-168 Regent Street, London W1R 5TB, England.



From a Crooked Rib. London, Heinemann, 1970.

A Naked Needle. London, Heinemann, 1976. Variations in African Dictatorship:

Sweet and Sour Milk. London, Allison and Busby, 1979; St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1992.

Sardines. London, Allison and Busby, 1981; St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1992.

Close Sesame. London, Allison and Busby, 1983; St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1992.

Maps. London, Pan, 1986; New York, Pantheon, 1987.

Gifts. London, Serif, 1992; New York, Arcade, 1999.

Secrets. New York, Arcade, 1998.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Why Dead So Soon?" in Somali News (Mogadiscio), 1965.


A Dagger in Vacuum (produced Mogadiscio, 1970).

The Offering (produced Colchester, Essex, 1975).

Yussuf and His Brothers (produced Jos, Nigeria, 1982).

Radio Plays:

Tartar Delight, 1980 (Germany); A Spread of Butter. n.d.


Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora. London andNew York, Cassell, 2000.


Critical Studies:

The Novels of Nuruddin Farah by Derek Wright. Bayreuth, Germany, Bayreuth University, 1994; Nuruddin Farah by Patricia Alden and Louis Tremaine. New York, Twayne, 1999.

* * *

When Nuruddin Farah's first novel in English, From a Crooked Rib, appeared in the Heinemann African Writers' Series (1970), the book was well received by critics, and Farah was immediately classified as a leading figure among the "second generation" of African writers. While Sweet and Sour Milk was about to appear, Farah stayed on a writer's fellowship in Italy and was warned not to return to Somalia, since the dictatorial regime of Siyad Barre had taken offense with his second novel, A Naked Needle. Farah decided "not to return home for the time being" and for more than thirty years now, he has been living in different African countries (Sudan, Gambia, Nigeria, Uganda) and has held a number of writer-in-residence positions in Europe and the United States. Since 1998 he has been living in Capetown, South Africa. Apart from his several published novels, Farah has written both stage and radio plays. He is also the author of a nonfiction book on the Somali refugee diaspora.

Since the publication of From a Crooked Rib with its first-person narration and simple diction, Farah's narrative style has become more complex. But he has remained faithful to Somalia as the space of his literary imagination and also to the predominant themes of the role of women, the psychology of power relations among men and women and between the generations, and the fragmentation of social structures from the family to the nation state in Africa.

From a Crooked Rib deals with the modern quest of Ebla, who escapes the supression of women in rural Somalia to achieve limited self-determination in the city, thus revolting against a male-dominated society. But Farah retains the structure and the idiom of an oral tale. We first meet Ebla in a community of camel nomads, where everything is determined by outside forces: the seasonal changes from drought to spring rains determine the annual life cycle, the needs of the camels determine the daily cycle of life, and the grandfather who heads the clan determines the social relations within his community. When he arranges a marriage with a husband 40 years her senior, Ebla escapes to a cousin in a small town, only to go through the same experience again, until she finally arrives in Mogadiscio. Ebla's quest unfolds in three stationscountry, town, city. Following the typical structure of orality, she has to pass a test and prove herself at each of these stations. However, Ebla proves herself by rejecting female submission to social conformity, in clear contrast to oral morals. Parallel to Ebla's individual life cycle, Farah unfolds in exemplary fashion the life cycle of women from initiation to circumcision, marriage, and births. On the one hand Ebla accepts what seems to her the inescapable demands on women, on the other she learns to transform her traditional gender role into a source of empowerment in that she can exert control over men with her sexuality. She thus arrives at a delicate equilibrum between her individual sexual and moral responsibilties and her social conditioning. Ebla's quest leads her from a simplistic revolt against the domination by her grandfather to mature womanhood with an elaborate set of behavioral codes that allow her to evade male domination. From a Crooked Rib reveals two persistent features of Farah's writing: the ambigious tension between formal tradition and intended meaningin this case the oral structure that carries an emancipatory messageand an ending that precludes unambigous moral conclusions.

After the publication of A Naked Needle, Farah designed a novel trilogy titled Variations in African Dictatorship. The first novel in this series, Sweet and Sour Milk, sets the tone for the following novels, Sardines in which a journalist and her daughter, a national sports champion, decline popularity as puppets in the regime's propaganda machineryand Close Sesame, which deals with the regimes tactics of whipping up clan rivalries to ensure the maintenance of power. As in Crooked Rib Farah uses an established literary form, the analytical detective novel, which he infuses with stylistic and structural elements of orality, thus achieving a complexity of form that subverts the simplicity of the "pure" form of the detective novel and the oral tale with contradictions and ambiguities. Loyaan, a dentist, is confronted with the mysterious death of his twin brother Soyaan, a journalist and top government official. Trying to unravel the deadly mysteries, Loyaan delves deeper and deeper into the life of his twin brother. He relives the same experiences as his brother. In a symbolic sequence of two cycles of seven days (death-wake-burial-final obsequities as prescribed in Somali tradition), Loyaan completes his double quest, at the end of which he practically becomes the double, the reincarnation of his own brother. His brother was appointed ambassador to Yugoslavia but died before assuming office. Now Loyaan is appointed to the very same position, and the novel ends with a government limousine picking him up. Just as with his brother, it is left open whether he is really taken to the airport, or rather to a prison cell or an execution chamber of the secret police. Farah bends the narrative form of the analytical detective novel, with its linear plot leading to a definite closure of demystification and the unravelling of the murder mystery, and brings it back in full circle to its beginningas in an oral tale. Instead of unravelling the mysteries about Soyaan's death, he adds another mystery: whether Loyaan awaits the same fate as his doublehis twin brother.

Farah essentially maintains a uniform narrative stance, but his narrator never seems to know more than his characters, and he never enters into complicity with his readers, as is common in detective novels. On the other hand, Farah arranges his characters in pairs, either as supportive doubles (Soyaan and Loyaan) or as Manichean opposites, e.g. the twins and their father, the twins and the regimean oedipal conflict between the generations but also between modernism and fundamentalist dogmatism. This is exemplified when the twins play with a ball and run enthusiastically to their father, presenting him the ball as the globe. The father rudely denies this heretical idea, pronounces the earth to be flat, and strictly forbids any further games of that nature. He reveals himself as an unenlightened ideologue who acts as a third-rate informer for the secret police.

The trilogy Variations of African Dictatorships dealt with the relation of the individual to political power. Farah's second trilogy investigates the impact of international organizations and norms with Maps (on colonial boundaries), Gifts (on foreign aid), and Secrets (on ethical norms). Maps foregrounds Somalia's aspiration to true nation-statehood and the ensuing anxieties by neighboring states about Somali irredentism. The Somali people were divided among four different imperial powers, the British, the Italians, the French, and Imperial Ethiopia. At independence, only British and Italian Somali land were joined together as the Republic of Somalia. The five-pointed star in the national flag always reminds Somalis of the other three territories still under foreign domination: Northern Kenya, the Ogaden, and Djibuti.

Farah thematizes all these facets of national identity in Maps by focusing on the Ogaden war of 1977. He concentrates on the internal conflict, but the international involvement of the United States and the Soviet Union makes itself felt as an implied issue. The global conflict between capitalism and communism and the vicarious wars, together with the love of many African potentates for self-aggrandizement by playing the Russian-American rivalry card, constitutes the background to Maps.

Farah tells the life story of Askar, son of an Ogaden freedom fighter. Askar, an orphan and foundling, is brought up by Misra of mixed Oromo and Ethiopian/Amharic descent. Askar develops an intense relationship to his foster mother Misra, wavering between filial attachment, incestuous admiration, and machoistic urge for domination. For his future, Askar hovers between a career as an academic and poet and that of a freedom fighter. Eventually, he joins the West Somali Liberation Army. In the Ogaden war area, he meets Misra, who is accused of betraying the freedom fighters to the Ethiopian army. She falls victim to a gang rape and a nationalist-motivated ritual murder. Askar is arrested and accused of having participated in the crime.

This plot summary is misleading, since Farah no longer follows a linear narrative pattern. The time sequence and narrative perspective are disruptedtime and space, events and characters present themselves with a variety of contradictory associations. Meanings become ambiguous, multi-layered, inconclusive. Farah presents his reader with bits and pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that is deliberately left incomplete. The reader can never arrive at a complete reading of the novel, he can only formulate hypotheses or speculations; the author doesn't guide the reader, on the contrary he lures him into blind narrative alleys or traps him with deceiving images.

The plurality of meanings and voices manifest themselves through the three narrators: Askar appears as a first-person narrator, a self-centered egotistic chatter-box persona. His narrative stance is contrasted by a third-person authorial narrator with an uninvolved, condensed narrative voice. A dialogic narrative voice addresses his/her counterpart with a familial "you." This could be Misra, the mother, addressing Askar and the children of the nation. The family, highlighted as the central institution in the socio-political fabric in the dictatorship novels, now falls victim to fragmentation: all the major characters are fatherless, motherless, or childless. Social organization is not based on the Somali extended family, nor the nuclear family, but on an amputated dual or triangular personal relationship. Farah even expands the image of amputation and fragmentation: Misra suffers amputation of one of her breasts due to cancer; Aw-Adan, teacher of the Quoran, loses one of his legs; Uncle Qorrax's fingers are hacked off. All these images are revealed as illustrations of different readings of the Somali national mythology, as it was passed on in the oral poetry of "The Sayyid." Sayyid and Farah celebrate Somalia as a beautiful and liberal woman who has affairs with five suitors. Three of the affairs end in miscarriagesa parable for the aborted dreams of "Great Somalia." When Farah retells this story from the oral tradition, he injects relativistic or divergent connotations on two levels. First, it is Misra, the Oromo-Amharic bastard who educates Askar about his national heritage. Secondly, he likens Misra to the mother Somalia of the oral tradition. Misra, too, has affairs with five different men, representing the various ethnic, social, and religious groups at the Horn of Africa. It is not Misra who betrays her suitors, but the suitors who betray her, enslave her, rape her, force her into abortion. Through Farah's retelling, the national epic acquires a new unheroic dimension. The moving story of the nation that has to forego the perfection of national unity is turned into a tale about intrigues, betrayal, and blackmail, where national pride is whipped up and strangers are prosecuted. Farah elaborates the metaphor of the nation as mother when he parallels the events and recurring cycles in Somalia's history with the pregnancies, miscarriages, and menstruation cycles of Misra. Farah even embarks on a gender-oriented interpretation of history.

With Askar's circumcision and initiation into adulthood, another set of images is imported into the narration that provided the title of the novel: maps. The prominent gift for his initiation is a globe, a map of the world. Maps are perceived as particularly reliable replicas of reality, and yet maps too are only reconstructions of reality. Farah emphasizes this aspect of maps as reconstructed reality. He shows us Askar and his freedom fighters plugging flags onto the map pretending to document the progress of the Ogaden war while they are really indulging in nationalist wishful thinking. Farah uses the one-dimensional medium of the map to inscribe broader dimensions by mapping out social, cultural, and mental spaces.

Farah's postmodern narrative stance leaves it to Askarto to unveil his naive enthusiasm for a national awakening of Somalia and ethno-fundamentalist attitudes. Farah also provides us with an insight into the rifts and cracks within Somalian society that resulted in the balcanization of the country and is the topic of Secrets.

Against the backdrop of the Ogaden war and the nationalist craze, Farah took up the issue of ethnic purity with Oromo-Amharic mongrel Misra and the pure-bred Somali Askar in Maps. With Secrets and the imminent clan wars of the rival warlords, Farah raises the issue of genealogical purity. Secrets, in spite of its title, is the only Farah novel where the major mystery is actually resolved, namely the parentage of Kalaman, a computer specialist and enterpreneur in Mogadiscio. What the very first line suggests, "My name Kalaman conjures up memories of childhood," with its ambiguities about parentage inherent in the name, and what later continuously surfaces with the saying "Mothers matter a lot, fathers matter not," points to the calamities of a Somali in Mogadiscio with its clan segregation. When he learns that he is the result of a gang rape committed by members of a rival clan, Kalaman has to accept that those people who were most influentual in his lifehis grandfather Nonno, and his father Yaqut, who taught him everythingare in the terminology of the clan fanatics only strangers to him. And he also realizes that, contrary to the ideas of the clan fundamentalists, social and moral parenthood can matter more than biological parenthood. "Certainty" is a key word in Secrets, first as an opposite concept to secrets, but mainly as the biological certainty of motherhood. In the end, the social parenthoods of Nonno and Yaqut are the real certainties in Kalaman's life, while the biological certainty of motherhood loses in importance. Thus, the children's rhyme of "Mothers matter a lot, Fathers matter not" is a statement of social fact tranformed into a riddle, one that can be true or false. Secrets reflects the fragmentation, fluidity, and instability of life on the eve of the civil war through the multiple narrative voices and the fragmented flow of narrative continuity.

Eckhard Breitinger

Farah, Nuruddin

views updated Jun 11 2018

Nuruddin Farah

BORN: 1945, Baidoa, Somalia


GENRE: Fiction, drama

From a Crooked Rib (1970)
Sweet and Sour Milk (1979)
Sardines (1981)
Maps (1986)


An important figure in contemporary African literature whose fiction is informed by his country's turbulent history, Farah combines native legends, myths, and Islamic doctrines with a journalistic objectivity to comment on his country's present autocratic government. His criticism of traditional Somali society—in particular, the plight of women and the patriarchal family structure—has made him an “enemy of the state,” and he has lived in voluntary exile in England and Nigeria. Kirsten Holst Petersen

Nuruddin Farah Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

described Farah's “thankless task” of writing about the oppressed: “Pushed by his own sympathy and sensitivity, but not pushed too far, anchored to a modified Western bourgeois ideology, he battles valiantly, not for causes, but for individual freedom, for a slightly larger space round each person, to be filled as he or she chooses.”

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Early Life in a Tradition of Rich Oral Culture Born in 1945 in Baidoa to Hassan Farah (a merchant) and Aleeli Faduma Farah (a poet), Nuruddin Farah was educated at first in the Ogaden, a Somali-populated area now in Ethiopia. His first languages as a child were Somali, Amharic, and Arabic, followed by Italian and English. From these early years one can see two important features that were to dominate his writing life. First, he was brought up in a tradition with a rich oral culture, in which poetry is a craft that takes years to master. Poetry enters political debates in a sophisticated manner, epic or satirical but also oblique and allusive, and plays an important social function. Some of Farah's relatives, including his mother, are known masters of the genre. Second, the history of colonization and borders gave him early access to a wide range of cultures: his travels and readings made him a cosmopolitan writer, a world nomad who was to write from a distance about Somalia, “my country in my mind,” as he once called it.

In 1965 his novella Why Die So Soon? brought him to public attention in his country and into contact with the Canadian writer Margaret Laurence, then in Somalia. While a student at the University of Chandigarh in India (1966–1970) he wrote—in two months—From a Crooked Rib (1970), a novel that has maintained its popularity for the past thirty-eight years.

Uncertain Future and Coup in Somalia In 1969 a coup gave power to the military regime of Siad Barre, replacing the democratic government that came to power in 1960 when Somalia gained its independence from Italy. In 1970 Farah went back to Somalia with his Indian wife, Chitra Muliyil Farah, and their son, Koschin (born in 1969). Farah then taught at a secondary school and finished his second novel, A Naked Needle. The publisher accepted it but agreed to hold it, until 1976, due to political uncertainty in Somalia. It describes the debates among the elite in the capital, the “privilegentzia”—the privileged—and the tentative hopes in the new “revolution.” Later Farah rejected this early book as irrelevant and refused to have it reprinted: “It was not the answer to the tremendous challenge the tyrannical regime posed,” he says in “Why I Write” (1988).

Censorship and Exile In 1972 the Somali language was given an official transcription and dictionary; what was spoken by the whole nation could become a national literary language. It was for Farah the long-awaited opportunity to write fiction in his mother tongue and thereby speak directly to his people. In 1973 he started the serialization of a novel titled “Tolow Waa Talee Ma … !” in Somali News, but the series was interrupted by censorship. Farah, then on a trip to the Soviet Union, was advised not to run any more risks. Thus he began a long exile from his country.

Extending Political Themes in Fiction His visit to the Soviet Union extended to a trip through Hungary, Egypt, and Greece in the days of the Siad Barre military regime. From this contact with various types of political power came his first major novel, Sweet and Sour Milk (1979). It had to be written in English, since Farah could no longer be published at home. But this imposed language, implicitly creating an international readership, extended the scope of his fictional exploration of political themes. With this novel Farah started a trilogy he calls “Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship,” which has much relevance inside and outside Africa.

His next novel, Maps (1986), began another trilogy known as the “Blood in the Sun” trilogy. These works were set amid the real-life Ogaden War, a territorial

dispute fought between Somalia and Ethiopia in the 1970s. In 1996, Farah once again returned to his home country, which was then under the weak control of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). This mirrors the events in his 2007 novel Knots, in which a Somali woman who has lived most of her life in Canada returns to her native country to discover the devastation caused by the local warlords. Farah also wrote Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora (2000), a nonfiction book that chronicles the lives of Somalis forced to flee from the country after the collapse of the government in 1991. In 1998 Farah was awarded the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature and is regarded by many as one of Africa's most significant literary figures of the twentieth century.

Works in Literary Context

Nuruddin Farah's novels are an important contribution to African literature. He writes about his country, Somalia, but the interest is more than regional: The books present the theme of individual freedom in the face of arbitrary power in a way that is relevant outside Africa as well, and they do so with an intellectual and poetic control that makes him one of the most stimulating prose writers in Africa today. Influenced by the work of authors in his extended family, the guiding topic for the majority of Farah's work is the plight of women in Somalia. Nuruddin's novels were not well-received by the military regime in Somalia, however, he did receive mild praise from critics abroad.

Linking Freedom with Feminism In the slim novel From a Crooked Rib, a young Somali woman, Ebla, leaves her nomad community to avoid an arranged marriage, and in her quest for independence she finally finds a kind of stability in the capital, Mogadishu, living with two men of her choice. The journey to freedom can be read as an allegory of the birth of Somalia as a new nation. But the attraction of the book lies in the sensitive portrayal of a young peasant woman, illiterate but not naive, aware of her low status in society but always clear-eyed and resourceful. It came as a surprise to readers to realize how well the young writer, male and Muslim, could represent a woman's perception of herself, her body, and the world.

Sardines (1981) is another of Farah's strikingly feminist novels. The story focuses on the world of women hemmed in together in their houses, women who are like children hiding in closets when they play the game “sardines.” Medina, a journalist, has decided that her daughter, Ubax, aged eight, is not going to go through the ritual clitoral excision and infibulation performed on all Somali women according to custom. Medina is pitted against her ineffectual husband and the power of her mother and mother-in-law. Although ideological debates play an important part in the story, the main weight of the meaning is again carried by a dense metaphorical network: natural images—fire, water, and birds—show how the balance in the fertility cycles is broken by the socially enforced clitoral circumcision, seen by Farah as a deliberate maiming of women. Again the issue is not merely feminism; it is connected with overall political oppression: “Like all good Somali poets,” Farah told Julie Kitchener, “I used women as a symbol for Somalia. Because when the women are free, then and only then can we talk about a free Somalia.” In Sardines Farah touches a taboo subject as a warning to his compatriots, but also to all nations where, according to him, the subjection of women paves the way for the establishment of tyranny.

Advocating Human Rights Farah is generally acknowledged, along with Sembene Ousmane and Ayi Kwei Armah, whose female characters also possess the same vision as Farah's women, as one of the African writers who has done the greatest justice in championing human rights through his work. His influence extends beyond the world of literature to include political and cultural realms, particularly with regard to gender inequality.


Farah's famous contemporaries include:

Chinua Achebe (1930–): Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart (1958), the most widely successful African novel ever published.

V. S. Naipaul (1934–): Trinidad-born author and Nobel Prize winner whose 1979 novel, A Bend in the River, concerned a Muslim living in an African country recently granted its independence.

Gloria Steinem (1934–): Outspoken American feminist, writer, and cofounder of Ms. magazine.

Benazir Bhutto (1953–2007): Extremely popular Pakistani politician who went into a self-imposed exile in 1998. In 2007, she returned to Pakistan to run for office but was assassinated on December 27, 2007, within weeks of the upcoming election.

Siad Barre (1919–1995): This army commander came to power after the assassination of President Abdirashid Ali Shermarke and the military coup of 1969; after replacing the democratic government with his military regime, Barre held power as the Head of State of Somalia until 1991.

Works in Critical Context

Critics have praised the uniqueness of Farah's writing. “The novels are, in the widest sense, political but are never simplistic or predictable,” declares Angela Smith

in Contemporary Novelists. The author's first two novels, From a Crooked Rib (1970) and A Naked Needle (1976), were both written before his self-imposed exile from his home country. He is better known, however, for his trilogy of novels about the collapse of democracy in Somalia known as “Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship.”

From a Crooked Rib and A Naked Needle He depicted the inferior status of women in Somali society in his first novel, From a Crooked Rib (1970), the first work of fiction to be published in English by a Somali author. According to Kirsten Holst Petersen, who has called Farah “the first feminist writer to come out of Africa,” From a Crooked Rib will likely “go down in the history of African literature as a pioneering work, valued for its courage and sensitivity.” Other critics believe the work is substandard, however. Florence Stratton wrote: “Stylistically and technically, From a Crooked Rib is a most unsatisfactory piece of work. It does not prepare the reader for the elegant prose, intricate structures, or displays of technical virtuosity of the later novels.” Farah's next novel, A Naked Needle (1976), revolves around a British-educated young man, Koschin, whose search for a comfortable existence in post-revolutionary Somalia is complicated by the arrival of a former lover from England who intends to marry him. Reinhard W. Sander observed: “Next to Wole Soyinka's The Interpreters, [A Naked Needle] is perhaps the most self-searching [novel] to have come out of post-independence Africa.”

The “Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship” Trilogy These works document the demise of democracy in Somalia and the emerging autocratic regime of Major General Muhammad Siyad Barre, referred to as the “General” in this series. The first volume of the trilogy, Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), focuses upon a political activist whose attempts to uncover the circumstances of his twin brother's mysterious death are thwarted by his father, a former government interrogator and torturer. Sardines (1981), the next installment, depicts life under the General's repressive administration and examines social barriers that limit the quest for individuality among modern Somali women. Critics admired Farah's realistic evocation of his heroine's tribulations. Charles R. Larson stated: “No novelist has written as profoundly about the African woman's struggle for equality as has Nuruddin Farah.” Close Sesame (1982), the final volume of the trilogy, concerns an elderly man who spent many years in prison for opposing both colonial and post-revolutionary governments. When his son conspires to overthrow the General's regime, the man's attempts to stop the coup cost him his life. According to Peter Lewis, “Close Sesame analyzes the betrayal of African aspirations in the postcolonial period: the appalling abuse of power, the breakdown of national unity in the face of tribal rivalry, and the systematic violation of language itself.”


Farah's novels are notable for their concern with the problems experienced by women in his native Somalia. Indeed, Farah has been credited with writing the first feminist novel to come out of Africa. However, feminism in literature dates back at least to the late eighteenth century, and has been produced in many cultures around the world. Here are a few more prominent feminist texts that argue that women deserve more freedom than society then allowed them:

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), a treatise by Mary Wollstonecraft. This work, written by the mother of Mary Shelley—the author of Frankenstein—is one of the first to present an argument for women's rights in general, and the right to an education in particular.

The Feminine Mystique (1963), a nonfiction work by Betty Friedan. In this work, Friedan discusses the stifling nature of the role to which women were relegated at that time in America: the role of housewife, a position that she finds “terrifying” because of the loneliness the housewife must feel to be all day cut off from interactions with other adults.

The Subjection of Women (1869), an essay by John Stuart Mill. Arguing against the patriarchal system in which he lived and in favor of equality between the sexes, John Stuart Mill became one of the first major authors to support the burgeoning feminist movement.

A Room of One's Own (1929), an essay by Virginia Woolf. One of the arguments made against the equality of men and women in the artistic sphere during Woolf's lifetime was that women had not proven themselves capable of producing high art. Woolf argued that women would produce high art if aspiring female artists had their own money and “a room of one's own,” just as men have, to explore their innate talents.

Responses to Literature

  1. Both Farah's Sardines and Freidan's The Feminine Mystique deal with, in one way or another, the sexuality of women and the role that societal conventions play in a woman's perception of her body. Read these texts, and then, in a short essay, compare how each of these authors approaches these delicate subjects. Who seems to be the intended audience for each text? Based on the text, what changes do you think each author would like to see made in society? Make sure to cite specific passages from each text in support of your argument.
  2. Farah has been praised for his ability to write from a female's point of view, considered by some a difficult task for a man. Read From a Crooked Rib. In a short essay, describe the narrative techniques, turns of phrases, and other details of the novel that make Farah's portrayal of his female protagonist so effective.
  3. In his book Sardines, the balance in the fertility cycles is broken by the socially enforced clitoral circumcision. Forced female circumcision has persisted in many African countries, despite attempts by outside agencies, and authors like Farah, to put an end to the practice. Using the Internet and the library, research the history of forced female circumcision in Africa—its origins, its purpose, and its significance— and then write a short essay in which you explore the question: Why does forced circumcision persist in these countries? Describe your emotional reaction to the inclusion of this issue in Farah's novel.
  4. Read Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship. This trilogy is meant to depict the political changes in Somalia and includes references to real-life figures. After having read the text, use the Internet and the library to research events described in Farah's text. Which events does Farah choose to fictionalize or exaggerate in his trilogy? In your opinion, why does he choose these events to fictionalize and not others?



Bardolph, Jacqueline. “The Literary Treatment of History in Nuruddin Farah's Close Sesame.” Proceedings of the Third International Congress of Somali Studies, Ed. Annarita Publieli. Rome: Pensiero Scientifico, 1988.

Killam, G. D., ed. The Writings of East and Central Africa. London: Heinemann, 1984.

Little, Kenneth. Women and Urbanization in African Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1981.

Wright, Derek. Emerging Perspectives on Nuruddin Farah. Trenton, N.J.: African World Press, 2002.


Adam, Ian. “The Murder of Soyaan Keynaan.”. World Literature Written in English (Autumn 1986).

———. “Nuruddin Farah and James Joyce: Some Issues of Intertextuality.” World Literature Written in English (Summer 1984).

Cochrane, Judith. “The Theme of Sacrifice in the Novels of Nuruddin Farah.” World Literature Written in English (April 1979).

Mnthali, Felix. “Autocracy and the Limits of Identity: A Reading of the Novels of Nuruddin Farah.” Ufahamu (1989).

Moore, G. H. “Nomads and Feminists: The Novels of Nuruddin Farah.” International Fiction Review (Winter 1984).

Sparrow, Fiona. “Telling the Story Yet Again: Oral Traditions in Nuruddin Farah's Fiction.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature (1989).

Farah, Nuruddin 1945–

views updated May 11 2018

Farah, Nuruddin 1945–

PERSONAL: Born November 24, 1945, in Baidoa, Somalia; son of Hassan (a merchant) and Aleeli (a poet; maiden name, Faduma) Farah; married Chitra Muliyil Farah (divorced); married Amina Mama (a physician), July 21, 1992; children: (first marriage) Koschin Nuruddin (son); (second marriage) Kaahiye (son). Education: Attended Punjab University, Chandigarh, India, 1966–70, University of London, 1974–75, and University of Essex, 1975–76. Religion: "Born Muslim."

ADDRESSES: Home—Kaduna, Nigeria. Agent—c/o Riverhead Publicity, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014.

CAREER: Writer, translator, broadcaster, and educator. Clerk-typist for Ministry of Education in Somalia, 1964–66; teacher at secondary school in Mogadishu, Somalia, 1969–71; lecturer in comparative literature at Afgoi College of Education, and at Somali National University, Mogadishu, 1971–74; Royal Court Theatre, London, England, resident writer, 1976; University of Ibadan, Jos Campus, Jos, Nigeria, associate professor, 1981–83; Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, professor, 1990–. Guest professor and lecturer at universities in the United States, Europe, and Africa.

MEMBER: Union of Writers of the African Peoples.

AWARDS, HONORS: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) fellowship, 1974–76; literary award from English-Speaking Union, 1980, for Sweet and Sour Milk; Neustadt Award, 1998.


A Dagger in Vacuum (play), produced in Mogadishu, Somalia, 1970.

From a Crooked Rib (novel), Heinemann (London, England), 1970.

The Offering (play), produced in Colchester, Essex, England, 1975.

A Naked Needle (novel), Heinemann (London, England), 1976.

A Spread of Butter (radio play), 1978.

Sweet and Sour Milk (first novel in the "Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship" trilogy), Allison & Busby (London, England), 1979, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 1992.

Tartar Delight (radio play), broadcast in Germany, 1980.

Sardines (second novel in the "Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship" trilogy), Allison & Busby (London, England), 1981, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 1992.

Close Sesame (third novel in the "Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship" trilogy), Allison & Busby (London, England), 1982, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 1992.

Yussuf and His Brothers (play), produced in Jos, Nigeria, 1982.

Maps (novel), Pan Book (London, England), 1986, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1987.

Gavor (novel), 1990.

Secrets (novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1998.

Gifts, Arcade (New York, NY), 1999.

Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora (nonfiction), Cassell (London, England), 2000.

Links, Riverhead (New York, NY), 2004.

Also author of short stories, including "Why Dead So Soon?," 1965. Contributor to periodicals, including Suitcase: A Journal of Transcultural Traffic.

SIDELIGHTS: An African writer best known for novels that champion the oppressed, particularly women, Nuruddin Farah sets his plots in twentieth-century Somalia, with most of the action occurring in the capital, Mogadishu. Farah is best known for the "Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship" trilogy about an African dictatorship led by the fictional Major General Muhammad Siyad, referred to as the "General," and the subsequent demise of democracy in Somalia. The first volume, Sweet and Sour Milk, focuses on a political activist who attempts to unravel the mysterious circumstances involving the death of his twin brother. The second novel, Sardines, depicts life under the General's repressive regime, while also examining the social barriers that limit Somalian women and their quest for individuality and equality. The novel's central character is Medina, a young woman who, after losing her job as editor of a state-run newspaper, refuses to support the General's domestic policies. The final volume in the trilogy is Close Sesame, the story of an elderly man who spent many years in prison for opposing both colonial and post-revolutionary governments. When the man's son plots to overthrow the General's regime, the man attempts to stop the coup himself.

Farah often portrays women's ability to take an active part in the environment which surrounds them. Because Farah presents his women from this perspective, he is unique among African creative writers. Farah's depiction of progress made by African women in their bid for personal freedom from outdated values is typified by Medina in Sweet and Sour Milk. Conscious that sacrifice is indispensable in any concerted struggle against established authority, Medina, despite a privileged background, rises up against the General in a blow for the silent majority. As an active member of a revolutionary group, Medina offers counsel and protection to young students who participate in protests of the General's tyrannical form of government. Another character in the same book, Qumman, also serves as an example of Farah's portrayal of women taking an active role in the world. A suppressed, second-class citizen of traditional Muslim culture, Qumman is the typical mother, loving, all-caring, and patient. The victim of physical abuse by her husband, Qumman lives only for her children. But despite being cast in the traditional mold, Qumman organizes the religious rituals involved with her son Soyaan's funeral while arranging for the presence of the sheikhs watching over the corpse. Though such arrangements would be common in Western culture, this clearly exemplifies the changing role of women in African society.

In his 2004 novel, Links, the author tells the tale of Jeeblah, who is living in New York but returns after twenty years to Somalia, both to visit his recently deceased mother's grave and to help recover a friend's child who has been abducted. Back in Somalia, Jeeblah is nearly overwhelmed by the changes in his homeland, including the presence of warlords who prey on the citizenry. Nevertheless, Jeeblah is determined to bring about the return of his friend's daughter. "Farah writes of governmental and social unrest in chilling detail that hardly seems to be fiction at all," noted Christopher Korenowsky in the Library Journal. Writing in Newsweek, Malcolm Jones called the novel a "roughhewn art, but art it surely is." The reviewer added, "Like Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, writers to whom he can be favorably compared, Farah poses questions that, once asked, never go away."

Though sometimes criticized for substandard stylistic and technical writing, Farah is generally acknowledged—along with Sembene Ousmane and Ayi Kwei Armah, whose female characters also possess the same vision as Farah's women—as the African writers who have done the greatest justice in championing human rights. The political tone of his novels is evident as Farah attempts to show the pressure of the Somalian regime on individual psyches, but his writings concentrate on characters who, despite the system, slowly grow as individuals. Critics have praised the uniqueness of Farah's writing. "The novels are, in the widest sense, political but are never simplistic or predictable," declared Angela Smith in Contemporary Novelists. "Farah is not politically naive or specifically anti-Soviet; his implicit theme is the imprisoning effect of outside intervention in Somalian life."

Farah is also the author of the nonfiction work Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora. This book, which is based on interviews with Somali refugees conducted between 1991 and 1998, focuses on the refugees' lives, their sufferings at the hands of various overseers, and their attempts to build new lives. "Farah's courageous and unflinchingly honest book, sparing neither himself nor his subjects, helps us to understand the experiences of all peoples forced from their homelands into places where they have to start all over again," wrote Derek Wright in World Literature Today. "It is recommended reading for anyone working with refugees."



Alden, Patricia, and Louis Tremaine, Nuruddin Farah, Twayne (New York, NY), 1999.

Contemporary Novelists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Little, Kenneth, Women and Urbanization in African Literature, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1981.

Wright, Derek, The Novels of Nuruddin Farah, Bayreuth University (Germany), 1994.


African Affairs, July, 1995, Stewart Brown, "The Novels of Nuruddin Farah," p. 413.

Africa News Service, November 1, 2004, Fanuel Jongwe, "Author Farah on Afro-Politics"; November 4, 2004, Sheuneni Kurasha, "Writers Have Role in Solving Problems"; November 16, 2004, "Farah Launches Novel in Zim"; November 23, 2004, Ron Charles, review of Links.

American Visions, February, 2000, Jennifer Hunt, "The 'Blood in the Sun' Trilogy: Maps, Gifts and Secrets," p. 36.

Booklist, May 15, 1998, Bonnie Johnston, review of Secrets, p. 1594; August, 1999, Bonnie Johnston, review of Gifts, p. 2023; March 15, 2004, Frank Caso, review of Links, p. 1264.

Economist, February 13, 1999, review of The Secret. Entertainment Weekly, March 26, 2004, Ben Spier, review of Links, p. 77.

Journal of Asian and African Studies, October, 2004, Lee Cassanelli, review of Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora, p. 484.

Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2004, review of Links, p. 146.

Library Journal, May 1, 1998, Lisa Rohrbaugh, review of Secrets, p. 136; August, 1999, Ellen Flexman, reviews of Maps, and Gifts, p. 138; April 1, 2004, Christopher Korenowsky, review of Links, p. 120.

Newsweek, April 19, 2004, Malcolm Jones, review of Links, p. 65.

Newsweek International, April 19, 2004, Malcolm Jones, review of Links, p. 103.

Publishers Weekly, March 30, 1998, review of Secrets, p. 68; June 28, 1999, reviews of Maps and Gifts, pp. 52-53; August 23, 1999, Stephen Gray, "Nu-ruddin Farah: The Novelist and the Nomad," interview with Farah, p. 28; March 1, 2004, review of Links, p. 48.

Research in African Literature, spring, 2000, John C. Hawley, review of Nuruddin Farah, p. 198, Jacqueline Bardolph, "On Nuruddin Farah," p. 119; spring, 2005, Julia Praud, "Beyond Empire and Nation: Postnational Arguments in the Fiction of Nuruddin Farah and B. Kojo Laing," p. 130.

World Literature Today, autumn, 1994, Reed Way Dasenbrock, "The Novels of Nuruddin Farah," p. 868; autumn, 1998, Ngigi wa Thiong'o, "Nuruddin Farah: A Statement of Nomination to the 1998 Neustadt Jury," p. 715, "Chronology (Nuruddin Farah)," p. 716, "Selected Bibliography (Nuruddin Farah), "p. 723, Jacqueline Bardolph, "Brothers and Sisters in Nuruddin Farah's Two Trilogies," p. 727, Charles Sugnet, "Nuruddin Farah's Maps: Deterritorialization and 'The Postmodern,'" p. 739, and Reed Way Dasenbrock, "Nuruddin Farah: A Tale of Two Trilogies," p. 747; summer, 2000, Derek Wright, review of Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora, p. 574, and Charlie Sugnet, review of Nuruddin Farah, p. 574.


Pegasos, http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/ (September 7, 2005), biographical information on Farah.

Farah, Nuruddin

views updated Jun 11 2018

Nuruddin Farah

Somali writer Nuruddin Farah (born 1945) is one of Africa's most acclaimed contemporary writers, as well as the sole Somali author whose works have achieved international renown. Farah has lived in exile from his homeland since 1976, when the content of his second novel was deemed treasonous by Somalia's ruling dictatorship. After learning that he was persona non grata that day in Rome in 1976, he vowed that “if I couldn't go back home then I would systematically make the rest of Africa my country,” he explained in a Publishers Weekly interview with Stephen Gray.

Farah was born on November 24, 1945, in the southcentral Somali city of Baidoa. At the time of his birth, the area was under British jurisdiction in the months just following World War II; prior to this, Somalia had been a colonial possession of Italy, along with neighboring Ethiopia and, beyond that, the nation of Eritrea. The alliances and animosities in this region, known as the Horn of Africa, along with decisions made by foreign powers in this postwar era, would play a large role in shaping the long and deadly descent into chaos that marked Somalia's late twentieth-century history.

Studied in India

In addition to his first language, Somali, Farah became fluent in English, Italian, Arabic, and Amharic—the predominant tongue of Ethiopia—reflecting the cosmopolitan, multicultural nature of the region. Somalia's capital was Mogadishu, which had been a trading port connected to the Indian subcontinent since the first century C.E. Farah's father, Hassan, was a merchant, and his mother, Aleeli, was a poet whose work was presented orally, according to the literary tradition of Somalia at the time. The Somali tongue, part of the Cushitic family of languages spoken in the Horn of Africa, was not codified into a written language until the early 1970s, just when Farah was beginning his career as a writer.

Farah attended school in Kallafo, a city located in Ogaden, which was a largely Somali-populated region that bordered Ethiopia and figured prominently in a long-running dispute between the two nations. His family had settled there when he was a toddler, but when the border war flared up once again, they were forced to flee to Mogadishu. As a young man, he took a job as a clerk-typist with Somalia's Ministry of Education in 1964, but two years later went to Punjab University in Chandigarh, India, to spend the next three years studying philosophy, literature, and sociology.

Farah returned to Somalia in 1969, the same year that a military coup led by a Somali army officer, General Siad Barre (1919-1995), ousted the regime which had administered the country since the World War II era, installed when the area achieved independence from Britain. Initially Marxist in fervor and progressive in outlook, the new Barre regime was greeted with enthusiasm by many young Somalis, Farah among them, for its revolutionary goals. One of Barre's first official acts, for example, was to end the reliance on colonial languages in Somalia's educational system, and he ordered linguists to rush a written form of the Somali language into development.

Published First Novel

Though Farah initially took a job as a secondary school teacher when he returned from India, he was also aiming for a literary career, and in 1970 his first novel, From a CrookedRib, was published in English by the Heinemann publishing house in London as part of its influential African Writers Series. Farah's story centers on Ebla, a young Somali woman who struggles to break free of the constraints that keep her from an independent life and will force her into an arranged marriage. He took the title of the novel from a well-known Somali proverb, “God created woman from a crooked rib; and any one who trieth to straighten it, breaketh it,” according to an article that appeared in London's Independent in 2005.”

In the early 1970s, Farah taught comparative literature at the university level in Mogadishu while working on his second novel, which for a time was serialized in a new Somalilanguage newspaper but then halted. This would be the sole work that he wrote in the Somali language. The Barre regime, now firmly allied with the Soviet Union, was becoming an increasingly repressive one, and Farah decided to leave for a time in order to study playwriting in England. He spent time at the University of London and the University of Essex, and in 1976 served a stint at London's acclaimed Royal Court Theatre. His next book, A Naked Needle, appeared that same year under the Heinemann imprint. Its plot centers around a marriage discussed between a teacher in Mogadishu and an English girl he meets while studying abroad. When she arrives in Somalia, the young, idealistic Somali has second thoughts about the interracial match.

Forced into Exile

A Naked Needle contained descriptions of life in contemporary Somalia that the Barre regime deemed unacceptable, and this precipitated the events that would change Farah's life in a major way. In 1976 he was at the Fiumicino airport in Rome awaiting a flight home to Somalia, and he phoned his brother in Mogadishu to arrange an airport pickup. His brother warned him not to board the plane, telling him that the authorities were so incensed about his novel that it was advisable to instead “forget Somalia,” and to “think of it as if it no longer exists for you,” Farah recalled during an interview with Maya Jaggi in the London Guardian. From that point forward, Farah lived in several African nations, including Uganda, the Gambia, and Nigeria. Freed from the fear of political reprisals, he began writing a trilogy called “Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship.” The first novel was Sweet and Sour Milk, published in Britain in 1979. The story centers on Loyaan, a dentist who learns that the recent death of his twin brother was tied to the latter's underground political activities in opposition to an authoritarian regime of a ruler known only as “the General.”

Maps Lauded by Academia

Farah's next novel in the trilogy was Sardines, published in 1981. Its protagonist is Medina, a former journalist who finds herself in trouble with the General's regime. In the third and final work, Close Sesame, a man is released from prison after decades of political dissent under various regimes. When he learns that his son is now involved in a coup plot, he attempts to halt the ill-conceived plan. Close Sesame appeared in 1982, the same year that all three works in the first trilogy first appeared in print in the United States. By this point Farah had become well-known in European literary circles, and he emerged as an important new discovery among American academics in 1986 with Maps, the first in his “Blood in the Sun” trilogy. The work attracted major attention in academia, and immediately became part of the standard reading list for courses on postcolonial literature.

Maps focuses on the coming of age of Askar, who is a boy in Ogaden before moving to Mogadishu during his teens. “At the same time as he discovers the ‘territory of pain’ connected with the necessary separations that lead to manhood, he becomes aware of the border conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia,” explained Jacqueline Bardolph in an essay on Farah that appeared in Research in African Literatures. “The two themes, the personal and the political, are woven in a complex manner, all the more striking as the narrative sequences follow one another in the first-, second-, and third-person pronouns, ‘I,’ ‘you,’ ‘he.’ ”

Won Neustadt Prize

In 1996 Farah was finally able to return to Somalia for the first time in 22 years, when he made a brief visit to family members who had remained there. Barre had finally been ousted in January of 1991, but the country had erupted into civil war in the interim. In 1998 Farah won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, a highly prestigious literary award given by the University of Oklahoma and its journal, World Literature Today. With its $40,000 prize purse, the Neustadt is considered the literary world's second most coveted honor after the Nobel Prize. Farah joined an impressive list of past Neustadt recipients, including Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez (born 1927) and Poland's Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004).

Later in 1998 Farah moved to Capetown, South Africa, with his wife, Nigerian academic Amina Mama, with whom he has a son. Secrets, the second work in his “Blood in the Sun” trilogy, also appeared that year. Again, the story features a powerful female protagonist, in this case Sholoongo, who is abandoned by her mother and raised by lions, later moves to New York City, and returns to Somalia in the early 1990s, just as Barre's dictatorship is winding down. The third work in Farah's trilogy was Gifts, which appeared in 1999. Its protagonist is Duniya, a nurse who worries about her family as Somalia's civil war looms. She also recalls her own struggle for independence as a young woman, when a marriage to an elderly blind man was arranged by her family.

Farah began a new trilogy in 2004 with Links, the story of Jeebleh, a Somali immigrant to the United States who returns to his homeland after two decades' absence. He becomes enmeshed in the terror experienced by the family of his longtime friend, whose young daughter appears to have been kidnapped by the local warlord. The next work in the trilogy was 2007's Knots. Its heroine is Cambara, a Somali immigrant to Canada whose young son has drowned in a swimming pool because of the negligence of her adulterous husband. Griefstricken, she returns to Mogadishu determined to retake possession of her family's former home, now the lair of one of the notorious warlords who dominated Somali politics until just before the novel's actual publication.

Briefly Ventured into Diplomacy

The author himself reluctantly returned once again to Somalia when he was asked to serve as go-between to settle a conflict between the transitional government and an Islamic fundamentalist group. His mission was unsuccessful, but he wrote of it in a 2007 New York Times article titled “My Life as a Diplomat,” in which he concluded that “the only way out of the current impasse is to resume dialogue between the two principal parties to the conflict. I now know from personal experience how difficult this is.”

Farah also spoke about the experience in an interview with Jeffrey Brown of News Hour, a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) news program. Brown asked Farah about an oft-repeated quote the author had made many years before, when he asserted that his mission was “to keep my country alive by writing about it.” Farah replied, “When I said that, I was a young man. You could say that, being young, I was also ambitious. I dreamt that this is what I was going to do. And now that I am older, the only thing I can say is that I have tried my best to keep my country alive by writing about it, and the reason is because nothing good comes out of a country until the artists of that country turn to writing about it in a truthful way.”


Guardian (London, England), April 3, 1993; May 3, 1996.

Independent (London, England), March 11, 2005.

New York Times, July 19, 1998; May 19, 2004; April 8, 2007; May 26, 2007.

Publishers Weekly, August 23, 1999.

Research in African Literatures, Spring 1998.


“Somali Author Reflects on Conflict in Native Country,” PBS, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/africa/jan-june07/farah_02-27.html (January 10, 2008).