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Sunday 14 July 2024

Interviews

Helmi Ben Meriem: “To appreciate Nuruddin Farah read his fiction and non-fiction”

24 June, 2024
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Helmi Ben Meriem
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Helmi Ben Meriem speaks to Geeska about his research on Nuruddin Farah’s fiction and non-fiction writing, as well as broader currents in Somali literature today

Helmi Ben Meriem is a Somali studies scholar of Tunisian origin whose research focuses on Somali-Anglophone literature. He spoke to Geeska about his serendipitous discovery of Nuruddin Farah’s work (which eventually inspired a PhD project), and how the award-winning author deals with the concepts of dictatorship and democracy through his fiction and non-fiction writing, as well as the impact and reception of Farah’s vast oeuvre. 

Ben Meriem discusses Nuruddin Farah’s works, how they can be approached, and the lessons Somalis today can learn from them. He highlights Farah’s resistance to pressure and political dogma, his advocacy for freedom of speech, and his commitment to human rights and individuality. Ben Meriem emphasises the importance of appreciating and adopting these qualities from Farah, stating that they should be valued and embraced by both Somalis and non-Somalis alike. 

Ben Meriem is also a connoisseur of Somali literature more broadly and reflects on his favourite works, the emergence of several talented female authors, and a new diasporic Somali literature connected to, but also distant from, home.

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Mohamed Buux: How would you describe your journey from a chance-encounter with Nuruddin Farah to solely researching Somali-anglophone literature?

Helmi Ben Meriem: My introduction to Somali literature, regardless of its language, was through Farah’s From a Crooked Rib, a tightly-plotted short novel with a strong driving force in the figure of Ebla. Prior to that I did not know anything about Somali literature. When talked about on the streets or on TV, Somalia and Somalis are thought of simply in terms of anarchy, starvation, and failed-state status. 

Who would have told me, as a young child or teenager, that there was more to Somalis than what meets the eye? For me at least, the only positive thing about Somalia that I could think of was its shape, its location and the symbolism that comes with that. Since I was a child, I have always been fascinated with the periphery—societal, religious, or spatial, among others. For me, Somalia, when examined on a map, encapsulates what we may call ‘the human desire for an escape to a better place’. Somalia looks as if it wants to detach itself from the rest of Africa and swim away to a faraway place. Maybe looking for a better climate. Or maybe a less volatile region. 

Now, after many years of my first literary encounter with Somalia, I wish more people would recognize Somalis for what they truly are: a people like all others just trying to chart a path to peace and prosperity. Unfortunately, in an age where less and less people read, I have my doubts about the literary outreach and of the possibility of changing long-held stereotypes. What I am about to say now may shock many. I believe that we live in a visual world and people are more inclined to watch a TikTok than read a short story, not even a novel.

MB: What is the main take from your PhD thesis on Nuruddin Farah?

HBM: I titled my PhD thesis Writing Dictatorship in Selected Works by Nuruddin Farah, a Foucauldian Reading and it explores the notions of dictatorship and democracy in Somalia through Farah’s early novels, From a Crooked Rib (1970), A Naked Needle (1976), Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), Sardines (1981), and Close Sesame (1983). Dictatorship and democracy, as explored in the thesis, are not limited to the political realm but encompass all facets of life in Somalia between 1969 and the early 1990s. Farah’s fiction is examined as a mapping of the machinations of dictatorship but also, maybe more importantly, a testimony to the democratic inclinations innate in most individuals. My thesis is about two contradictory movements: ‘Writing the Somali Meander of Dictatorship: From the Villa Somalia to the Jes’ and ‘Writing the Somali Meander of Democracy: From the Jes to the Villa Somalia’. The latter is a reaction and a counterargument to the former, which itself is in constant reshaping as to not be totally negated by democratic endeavours. Through discipline, discourse, manipulation/unearthing of truth, and management of knowledge, the dictatorial and the democratic individuals contest power and its manifestations and seek to organise power relations to benefit from them.

MB: Where do you situate Nuruddin Farah in relation to Somali literature? And what can Somalis learn from his works?

HBM: I believe that Charles Baudelaire’s words fittingly describe Farah: “Nations, like families, have great men only in spite of themselves. They do everything in their power not to have any”. If Farah stayed inside Somalia during Barre’s regime, he would have been relegated to the margin. The political elite back then actively sought to disempower him by banning his works and even, as Farah revealed in an unpublished interview with Maya Jaggi: “I was being hunted down. Two attempts at killing me were made, in Nigeria and Rome”. His family would have also dissuaded him from opposing the government and, also as importantly, Somali patriarchal values. “Nuruddin, you’re a small boy, but this is a big man’s world.” This is what Farah envisaged his father telling him. His unwillingness to yield to pressure and political dogma, his fight for freedom of speech, and his belief in the human rights and the value of individuality, among other traits, should be valued and embraced by Somalis and non-Somalis alike.

Also, if one is to truly appreciate Farah, one should read both his fiction and non-fiction because they complement each other and offer more insights into Farah’s literary creativity and his philosophical approach to even the most common of issues. In fact, Farah is even more forthright in his interviews, essays and Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora.

MB: How would you describe the oeuvre of Nuruddin Farah? What are some of the effective ways to approach his body of work? 

HBM: Farah’s fiction is primarily studied in relation to the history and culture of Somalia, especially politics, Islam, colonialism, and the civil war. In this respect, some critics, such as Reed Way Dasenbrock, have argued that Farah’s fiction can be classified under the genre of the historical novel, a form of fictional narrative which reconstructs history and re-creates it imaginatively. 

Farah’s novels offer a verisimilitude that examines historical and contemporary events and phenomena, dissects them, and attempts to better understand them. Another vantage point when examining Farah’s fiction is his close examination of the status of women in Somalia as it relates to the intersections between feminism, religion, culture, and freedom. In fact, his understanding of the cause and the plight of Somali women is one of the reasons why he has been referred to as “the first feminist writer to come out of Africa”. 

Throughout his works, he attempts to present a balanced and egalitarian reading of Somali men and women, and voices both patriarchal elements and feminist ones. His novels are a balancing act of voicing the male and the female by creating a sort of dialogue between converging and diverging perspectives held by different Somalis on the issue of women’s liberation and its relation to the overall struggle for democracy. Still, regardless of the approach to his fiction, Farah’s fiction is centred around inscribing Somalia, preserving its people’s history, and charting new possibilities for Somalis, all from his own subjective perspectives, of course. Indeed, his more recent works have moved away from these issues and they deal more with the psycho-social status of Somalis in the west and their ever-changing understanding of their place as a diaspora that is still deeply attached to the Horn.

MB: What is your favourite work by Farah?

HBM: My favourite is From a Crooked Rib. This is not because of some nostalgic sensitivity towards the first Somali work I ever read. It actually is about the ‘complex simplicity’ of the novel that is missed in Farah’s later works, which are more indulgent, style and plot-wise, repetitive and, at times, inconsistent in terms of the narrative and the characterization. 

From a Crooked Rib offers its readers a streamlined story where every word/action is capitalised on and applied to the advancement of the narrative. The story is fast-moving and neatly written. The story stands on its own and is the centre of the reader’s attention. This, unfortunately, cannot be said of Farah’s most recent works which are bloated and inflated to the point where the story is lost. The embellishing of the narrative becomes the centre, not the story.

As a matter of fact, as early as 1985, Jacqueline Bardolph has made a prescient remark about Farah’s style: “Farah’s talent is rich and singular. Whether he will move even further into more demanding forms and a more limited readership remains to be seen”. Nuruddin Farah is still well-read, but I fear that his tendency to prioritise style over narrative matter has negatively impacted his readership. I always hope for a return to his early style: the unpretentious yet commanding style. But I am one reader among many, and reading is a subjective activity.

MB: Nuruddin Farah has been living outside of Somalia for decades. How has that impacted his work, if at all? 

HBM: After he was declared persona non grata and was exiled by Siad Barre, Farah returned to Somalia for only brief visits. In a 1989 interview, Farah responded to this issue of exile and the image of Somalia in his fiction: “Distance, I think, has enabled me to focus more clearly on Somalia, and distance has also enabled me to expel all the useless material embedded in my memory”; according to Farah, exile, not his choice, shifts from a handicap to an advantage, providing him with a new horizon for exploring Somalia and giving him the liberty of contemplating his country free of any constraints. 

Nonetheless, this brings us back to Dasenbrock’s “historical novels” description of Farah’s writing. How authentic can Farah’s fiction be given the physical distance—which in itself creates emotional and psychological distancing? This may explain why more and more of his works are set in the west and why the Somali setting is usually internal—in safe houses and hotels. I have examined this issue in depth in “In Praise of Exile? The Case of Somali Writer Nuruddin Farah”. But suffice to say that exile is both empowering and disempowering. Writing from exile is a continuous balancing act where the writer grapples with the act of writing about a home that he is not in direct touch with anymore.

MB: As a reader of Somali literature, what books do you recommend?

HBM: As a preemptive consideration, reading as an experience is subjective and can be affected by all manner of external and internal circumstances. That being said, there is proliferation in relation to Somali fiction, immaterial of its language of choice or the writer’s residence. Nowadays there is more variety in the literary output by Somalis. They are no longer focused on Barre’s dictatorial reign or the civil war. More and more Somalis are writing about the individual struggles whether inside or outside Somalia. There is also a gender and generational shift from the early days of Somali written fiction of mainly male writers. Younger Somali women are emerging as a voice to contend with—taking agency over their stories and portrayal. Some of my favourite books by Somali writers include, among many others: The Arab Season by Alisa Ahlam; The Yibir of Las Burgabo by Mahmood Gaildon; Memory Lane by I. Farah; In the Name of Our Fathers by Abdirazak Osman; Close SesameLinks and Knots by Nuruddin Farah; Race to the Finish Line by Aisha Yusuf.

MB: Have you read works by Somalis in languages other than English? And what about non-Somalis writing about Somalia?

HBM: I have not read much in either Arabic or French. Some works, which are published by small houses or in particular countries, are some of the toughest to acquire. Some of the works I read in French and Arabic include poetry in French by William Syad and Mohamed Said Samantar; prose fiction in Arabic by Zahra Mursal and Mohamed Diriye. As for non-Somalis writing fiction about Somalia, there is an increase in the number of works by such authors, who, in most cases, were stationed in Somalia, typically, prior to the collapse of the central government. 

These writers—doctors, teachers, lawyers, inter alia—draw on their experiences, albeit limited in time and scope, to tell stories about the meeting of two different cultures and attitudes to life, about the human bond that transcends cultural clashes and personal peculiarities, and about a time of relative peace amid political chaos. Some may see this as fetishizing a people, who have been struggling for decades to rebuild their nation against the backdrop of armed violence and natural disasters and using them as a selling point. But they are not, the majority of these works are written with much thoughtfulness and a deep respect for Somalis, who are not incidental to the story but are rather consequential to the plot.

MB: The upcoming Somali studies conference is about rebuilding and developing the Somali nation. How do you think literature can take part in rebuilding the culture of said nation?

HBM: If we examine all previous Somali Studies Association congresses that were held post-1990s, we find a section, usually the bulkiest, that deals with peace and state-building. But these papers, ambitious as they are, remain theoretical and fail to reach the targeted audience: the populace. In most of these conferences, the speakers are basically preaching to the choir since the attendees are already aware of the complex issues, political, social, environmental, etc, facing the nation and its people. But what about the common man and woman, whether literate or not? Where can they access these ideas? Besides, most, if not all, papers are presented in foreign languages? Translating these papers into Somali would be a positive step into the dissemination of these ideas. Let us take Farah’s From a Crooked Rib. It was translated into Somali which I regard as a milestone in bringing Farah and his fiction home. More works, by him and others, should be made available in Somali. And what about reading them out loud to illiterate individuals. Somalis are, after all, known for having an oral tradition of storytelling. Debates would then ensue, and more ideas would be generated. Let us take the debate to the streets, alleys and the social venues.