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Nuruddin Farah Biography

Nationality: Somali. Born: Baidoa, 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. 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.

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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 stations—country, 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 meaning—in this case the oral structure that carries an emancipatory message—and 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 machinery—and 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 beginning—as 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 double—his 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 regime—an 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 disrupted—time 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 miscarriages—a 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 life—his grandfather Nonno, and his father Yaqut, who taught him everything—are 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

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