Nadifa Mohamed is a rising star of the literary world whose life experiences are woven intimately into her award-winning fiction.
Born in Hargeisa, a city in the north of what was then Somalia, she was four years old when her family relocated to London, where they remained when civil war broke out in their homeland shortly thereafter. It was an experience she described as “a rupture of everything I’d known… going to school for the first time in a completely different environment knowing that the world I did know was lost in quite a big way was very traumatic.”
A Somali diaspora has emerged in the UK and elsewhere in the intervening years, but in that early and chaotic period it lacked the sense of diasporic community that it would later develop.
“That’s definitely I think something that came along later, with the increase of Somalis in London. Before that it was almost like being an alien. Very few people had heard of Somalia. The two big groups here were either Jamaican or Pakistani, so you were constantly put into one of those two groups, or questioned as to why you weren’t one of those groups. It was only much later, say in the mid-‘90s, when Somalis began to move into my part of London and began to be seen more widely across London. And now there’s a huge population, and you do feel part of a diaspora.”
After growing up and attending university in the UK, Mohamed’s career took an unexpected literary turn. Her debut novel, Black Mamba Boy, was based on her father’s experiences growing up in ‘30s Yemen and East Africa. The novel, published in 2009, won the Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for several other prestigious prizes.
In 2013 she released her second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls. The book is set in 1987 Somalia, in the northern city of Hargeisa on the eve of the civil war which would devastate and fragment the country. The events leading up to the outbreak of civil war are experienced from the perspective of three female protagonists – Kawsar, Deqo, and Filsan – but the events and characters that populate the novel are based on dozens of interviews, in addition to considerable archival research, that Mohamed conducted as she developed the book. Having studied history at Oxford, this part of the work came naturally to her.
“I loved the research part of writing,” she enthused. “I began with interviews, I interviewed my mother to begin with, and female relatives who’d been in the war as children now as adults. I go to Hargeisa quite a lot now for different reasons, so I also interviewed people there and that was really fascinating. There’s very little done to memorialize people’s experience of the war. I think it’s so close that people just kind of turned their backs to it and walked away. So it’s very rare to actually hear a full narrative of someone’s experiences in the war. And so I sought them out.”
Despite the fact that Mohamed was only a child when the events she describes were taking place, her novel depicts them in powerful and evocative prose. In addition to interviewing people who experienced the war, and studying the reports of humanitarian organizations that operated in Somalia during and after the war, she drew from other first-hand sources, as well.
“There’s lots and lots of footage now of Somalia as it used to be on YouTube. Lots of young people who’ve grown up outside of the country are fascinated by these videos of such a normal city – especially Mogadishu, which is so destroyed now – but on YouTube you can watch hours and hours of footage of people just walking around Mogadishu. People are really touched at the fact that there are streetlights, and traffic, and policemen, and you know people just sitting around outside cafes and wearing different clothes from what they can wear now.”
The interviews she conducted also struck her powerfully. Some of them comprised brief off-hand conversations; others turned into lengthy repeat sessions. Some of those interviews, she said, constituted book-worthy experiences in their own right.
“There was one guy at a hotel in Hargeisa, we were both staying at this hotel, and we got talking in a casual way and it turns out he’d been in the war as a doctor. He’d been corralled into the main hospital – where I was born – to treat soldiers. All of the civilian patients had been forced out and it had been turned into a military hospital and he was forced to work nonstop for twelve days until his white coat was soaked in blood, he said. And eventually he managed to persuade them to let him go home to pick some things up, or to clean up, and then he escaped.
So he had a really interesting view on what it was like in that hospital, on what it had been like before then. He’d been born into a nomadic family and been educated – he was definitely the first doctor in his family, probably even the first to go to university, maybe even to be literate in his family. So he was an obstetrician in Somalia but because of the trauma and experiences he’d had during the war he ended up moving to Canada and retraining as a psychiatrist. He’s someone that deserves a book of his own.”
The complex psychology of the pre-war period is what riveted her, and this comes through expressively in the novel.
“It’s a situation where the people of what becomes Somaliland later on are treated like children. They’re told to go to their rooms and not to leave their homes after 4pm and they can’t listen to this radio station and they can’t do that and they can’t build buildings over two storeys, and it’s so infantilizing.
And it also affected gender relationships. Before, men were the ones who could roam and do what they like, and they were the breadwinners of their family, and that wasn’t really the case anymore. Many of the men went to different countries because they couldn’t earn anything and live freely, and the ones who stayed were harassed by the government and imprisoned and executed, and that had a huge impact.”
Writing Somalia’s Past – and Present
Today, Hargeisa lies in Somaliland, in what was once the north of Somalia. Somaliland has declared its independence from the former Somalia but has not been recognized by any other nations as a state despite a functional democratic government and a growing infrastructure of hospitals, schools, universities and other modern institutions. After growing up in London, while in her early 20s, Mohamed eventually returned to Hargeisa, in Somaliland.
“It was amazing. The city had changed a lot… everything has been rebuilt and swept up and is all very busy and there’s lots of little shops everywhere. So it’s a strange city, and it’s also a familiar city at the same time. It’s much wealthier than when I was living there in the ‘80s, there are many more schools and hospitals and universities. It’s much more successful, and freer, and democratic now, but it’s also more conservative now on the social level. So it’s somewhere that I’m getting to know, and I think that I had this kind of nostalgic belief that it was still home. But the more time that I spend there the more I realize no, it’s actually the home of the people who stayed. And their ownership and their attachment is much greater than mine.”
Her previous book, Black Mamba Boy, focused on predominantly male worlds. For her second book she wanted to focus on women’s lives, and also on the Somali civil war which had such an impact on her own life.
“The two images that started the novel were one of an elderly woman bed-bound as the war raged around her. And the inspiration for that probably came from the fact that my grandmother experienced the war in a similar way. She was bed-bound after a car accident, and when the war broke out everyone who could flee, fled. But of course disabled people, sick people, some of the mentally ill trapped in cells, could not escape. And the other image was of a little girl who is using the war as an opportunity. All of the sudden these abandoned homes become her playground. She breaks into them and enjoys their lovely big beds and eats their food. Very Goldilocks like.”
Both of these images turned into key characters in the novel. Deqo is the young girl, an abandoned child who grew up in a refugee camp. She lives in a barrel under a bridge, but wanders the city with a child’s skittish freedom, seeking to understand the strange world unfolding around her.
Kawsar is the old woman: a matriarch who tries to defend Deqo – a stranger to her – when a government militia tries to capture and beat the girl. Kawsar is arrested and brutally beaten in Deqo’s place, and spends much of the novel bed-bound as a result, surrounded by her memories and her strong but powerless feelings about the nation descending into war and violence outside her walls. After peeking through her window at the scenes of civilians fleeing, tanks firing and jet fighters screaming overhead, “She collapses back onto the bed and pulls a blanket over her face, fearing that a bomb will explode through her roof in a matter of seconds. Both she and Guryo Samo have reached the end of their time; the soldiers will return the street to the desert, unplug the stars, shoot the dogs and extinguish the sun in a well.”
This moving depiction of the beginning of the end for Somalia as it was then, which appears toward the end of the book, lies in stark contrast to Kawsar’s equally moving memory of independence, which she describes at the beginning of the book. The hopes and dreams of that moment are juxtaposed powerfully against the despair and horror that erupts 27 years later.
When the British had left on 26 June 1960, everyone had poured out of their homes in their Eid clothes and gathered at the municipal khayriyo between the national bank and prison. It was as if they were drunk, wild; girls got pregnant that night and when asked who the father of their child was, they would reply: ‘Ask the flag.’ That night, crushed within a mixed crowd as the Somali flag was raised for the first time, Kawsar had lost a long, gold earring that was part of her dowry, but Farah hadn’t cared – he’d said it was a gift to the new nation. The party had moved to Freedom Park and lasted into the next morning, the sleepy town transformed into a playground, the youth of the country believing that they had achieved what their elders hadn’t. People always half-joked afterwards that that day changed the women of Hargeisa; that they never returned to the modest, quiet lives they had known after that bacchanalian display, that the taste of one kind of freedom led to an insatiable desire for every kind.
Of all the characters, Kawsar, based loosely on her grandmother, is Mohamed’s favourite. “When I saw her in my mind it was almost as if she’d always been there, waiting for me. She’s a very fully formed person to me… I think for me she represents a lot of the women I lost during the war, or during our own departure.”
Other characters had more fragmented origins. Filsan is an unlikely protagonist. A soldier in the Somalian army, she navigates the constant threat of sexual harassment and rebel attacks yet also commits acts of horrific violence. Despite this, she’s a powerfully engaging character the reader cannot help sympathizing with.
“Filsan is probably the hardest character to pin down to any one person,” reflects Mohamed. “She’s someone who appears more tangentially in narratives that people said, because women were part of the dictatorship, they were part of the framework of this regime… people often say that she’s a character they haven’t seen before, and I guess she’s a character that I have not written before. I wouldn’t say I liked her, but the more I spent time with her and told her story, the more I sympathized and felt sorry for her, because she had been brutalized at a very early age, and she had the misfortune to grow up in what becomes a police state. And she’s been told that she’s part of making society better through this police state.
At heart she’s an idealist. She’s someone that wants improvement and progress and she’s led by these men around her to believe that that can be done through violence. And on an emotional level, she’s willing to use violence. She’s sick of being the powerless one. With her father she’s the powerless one, often in these professional environments she’s the least powerful one, so when she’s given the opportunity to be the powerful one, she can’t say no.”
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