Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Exile of the Mind

On the outset, Links by Nuruddin Farah delves into the thoughts and emotions of the Somali exile arriving in Mogadiscio after 20 years. On a deeper level, the book depicts the sense of alienation and despair prevalent among resident Somalis in the land of their birth. A work of fiction, set against the background of actual events, the novel captures life at its rawest where warlords are “in the business not of building institutions but of demolishing them.” As readers we witness scenes, make attempts to assess people, and clutch at multiple realities through the eyes of Jeebleh, the protagonist. It is, therefore, fitting that no character (except perhaps that of Seamus) is easy to comprehend. We are left to wonder what is to become of the human persona caught in a never-ending siege of the land and the mind.

For this reader—an outsider somewhat introduced to Somalia through American narratives, specifically, Black Hawk Down—it was easy to visualize the frustrated trigger-happy youth killing, among other reasons, for fun; the zealous, territorial clan militia; the bizarrely efficient underground economies; and the elaborately set up organ cartels in a dysfunctional nation. However, grasping the significance of Raasta, the miracle child, to the decimated locals, was more of a challenge. That I didn’t warm up to the concept of “special children born to societies torn apart by internal conflict” itself goes to show that casual outsiders (like me), despite our best intentions to understand, may never recognize the tender longing of a conflict-ridden people to believe in the most innocent, precious and hopeful dream. This need to believe in something or someone good beyond the imagination may ultimately represent the desire of even the most wretched society to heal from within.

Farah’s narrative style is not consistent with respect to the craft of story-telling. There are passages where the book reads like a long, unedited interview. Yet there are other sections that are urgent and gripping and they let you live through Jeebleh’s horror or fear like they were your own. In the end, despite some weaknesses in plot and narration, the book stays with you, albeit sadly and heavily, and makes you look around your own somewhat-frayed society with newly wise eyes. For this reason the book is well worth the read for anyone who wishes to know more about a crumbling society from someone who is from that social world. No words can express my thoughts on this as well as Farah’s:

[Jeebleh] … saw a slim book in Italian written by Shirin Ramzanali Fazel, a Somali of Persian origin. He recalled reading the book in New York, and thinking that it was no mean feat for a housewife to write about her life in Mogadiscio, and then her exile in Italy. He was pleased that Somalis were recording their ideas about themselves and their country, sometimes in their own language, sometimes in foreign tongues. These efforts, meager as they might seem, pointed to the gaps in the world’s knowledge about Somalia. Reading the slim volume had been salutary, because unlike many books by authors with clan-sharpened axes to grind, this was not a grievance-driven pamphlet. It was charming, in that you felt that the author was the first to write a book about the civil war from a Somali perspective.

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