The law of the gun

New Voices


LINKS, the latest novel by the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah, tells the story of Jeebleh, who returns home to Mogadishu after living in New York for 20 years. Jeebleh has two reasons for his journey: to rebury his mother who has died during his exile, and to rescue from kidnap Raasta, the daughter of his best friend Bile. He finds a ruined city, divided between a host of clan-based militias.

Farah weaves a hazy web of mystery and intrigue, using references to and quotations from Dante's Inferno. Jeebleh fights to retain his sanity in the midst of anarchy, where there are no longer any laws to govern human relations. "It struck him that madness was a country to which many people he knew in Mogadishu had paid visits. He prayed that neither he nor any one of his friends would suffer any permanent damage." Everything he does to fulfil his double mission must be negotiated step by step and with great care. In the absence of government, the only rule is loyalty to the extended family or clan, a system which Jeebleh, like Farah, sees as exacerbating the warfare and dividing the Somali people.

Jeebleh gets a taste of what lies in store even before he has left the airport, or more precisely the dirt track where camels now graze that has replaced the international airport. He sees some young gunmen shoot dead a 10-year-old boy for a bet, a bit of target practice for idle fingers. Many people witness the shooting but no one does anything to confront the militiamen. Not for the first time, he considers giving up.

Jeebleh's twin goals represent the most important aspects of life in Somalia — coming to terms with death and holding on to hope for the country's future, a future symbolised by Raasta, a girl with a magical ability to bring calm to the troubled spirits of those caught up in the civil war. As he tries to find his mother's grave and rescue the girl, Jeebleh uncovers hidden elements in his own past and that of the friends he left behind 20 years ago.

Links also touches on the contradictions of living in exile. In the United States, Jeebleh is seen a Somali but, back in Africa, he realises how different he has become from his compatriots. In one incident, he goes out of his way to insult the elders of his clan, who have asked him to buy them some military hardware. Shortly afterwards, he stops a boy from beating an Alsatian while she gives birth. "What manner of man chases away the elders of his clan, and in the same afternoon risks his life to save a bitch?", a bystander comments. These are the actions of a Westerner; for a Somali, clan elders must be treated with the utmost respect, while dogs are considered unclean.

Like Jeebleh, Farah has lived abroad for many years; he describes the ruins of Mogadishu with an exile's eye: "Most of the buildings they drove past ... appeared gutted; the windows were bashed in, like a boxer who had suffered a severe knockout". Nowadays, the name Mogadishu conjures up images of the bodies of U.S. troops being dragged through the streets by teenage gunmen in 1993, and the embarrassing U.S. retreat from what was supposed to be a humanitarian mission. Farah recalls many of his people, some of whom were not gun-toting militiamen, killed by the American forces. "They saw everything in black and white, had no understanding of and no respect for other cultures, and were short on imagination, as they never put themselves in anyone else's shoes. They were also let down by their intelligence services", says Jeebleh's friend Seamus, who has swapped the relative tranquility of Northern Ireland for Somalia's chaotic civil war. Farah recently said that if the U.S. forces had examined what had gone wrong in Somalia, they would not have made the same mistakes in Iraq a decade later.

Links describes a city ruled by gunmen, where a stray bullet, or a misplaced word, can mean death. It also gives an insight into the intricacies of Somali clan relations. Farah stretches English to its limits, and sometimes beyond, and this can get in the way of the plot, which feels pedestrian by comparison. His characters are full of mystery. All have been affected by war madness, or they are putting on an act, which they deem necessary to survive until they feel safe enough to be themselves again.

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