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From a Crooked Rib by Nuruddin Farah

Cover image. © Penguin Books.
I stumbled across Nuruddin Farah’s novels when searching for something written by a Somali author. Perhaps due to the conflict that has raged for years in Somalia, it is very difficult to find much from Somali writers published in English.

From a Crooked Rib was published in 1970 and tells the story of Ebla, a young, orphaned, illiterate nomadic girl, who runs away from her encampment. She takes the decision to leave upon learning of her Grandfather’s intention to marry her off to an older man within their Jes (a group of families living in an encampment together).

She firstly escapes to a town, Belet Amin, where she finds her cousin and his pregnant wife. She also finds a guide and confidante in a character known only as the widow. Things seem settled until, yet again, Ebla finds her freedom compromised by a male character – this time her cousin, whose wife and child Ebla has been nursing.

In her haste she leaves Belet Amin with the widow’s nephew, bound for Mogadishu – still called Mogadiscio due to the novel being set prior to that area of Somalia’s independence from Italy. Here, far from escaping the oppressive presence of masculinity, Ebla finds herself even more controlled by it.

The Somali society Nuruddin Farah describes has a proverb reading that, "God created Woman from a crooked rib; and any one who trieth to straighten it, breaketh it." This proverb is taken from the story of Adam and Hawa - the Islamic version of Adam and Eve. To Farah, this proverb seems to predetermine the fate of women within Somali society to be of a lower status than men throughout their lives.

So, at a time when many African writers were musing on values of tradition and the notion of independence, Farah, far from telling a tale of a rural girl trying to survive in the big city, is actually providing a critique on what he sees as an inhumane and hypocritical traditional society.

To Farah, Somalia of 1960/70s is a place where women are second-class citizens to be bought and sold, by others, like cattle at market. He sees it as a land where, from a young age through to sexual maturity, women have no real ownership of anything – even their own bodies.

In spite of the serious themes of the novel, there are many moments of humour that mark out Ebla as a likeable character who the reader finds themselves really rooting for. A particular comedic highlight is when Ebla sees an Arab woman in a niqab leaving the widow's house and runs away believing she has seen jinn or ghost.

When I told some of my Somali students that I was reading a novel written by a Somali writer they laughed. One even asked, “Do Somalis write novels?” 

The answer is a resounding “yes”. Furthermore, I would recommend From a Crooked Rib to anyone who feels that it is high time to read a tale from a part of the world that hitherto remains off most Westerners’ literary radars.

Note: Not being an expert on Somali culture, this review is of a literary work of fiction and is not my personal critique of Somali traditions, the Islamic faith or Somalia as a nation.

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