Sunday, November 13, 2011

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.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Bakiga Window: Exploring the Backstreets

Phone networks ensure that Uganda's shops are as colourful outside as they are inside.

The backstreets of any town are always a treasure trove of hidden gems. They obscure from the casual traveller or commuter a great deal of real life - a life missed from the main road. Kabale is no exception to this rule.

It is Wednesday 20th April and the midday sun is engaged in a battle with dark rainclouds for ownership of the Kigezi skies. This morning I have been at the Taufiq Islamic School and now I am exploring some of Kabale’s backstreets alone, something I have never had chance to do before.

Upon leaving the main road, I cross an open square, past the Edirisa, and head down Nyerere Avenue. Along this street I don’t stir much curiosity in the local people and pass the Kabale Milk Centre unnoticed. Here young boys on bicycles precariously balance heavily laden milk churns on their luggage racks before riding off into the distance.

I reach Nyerere Drive Road, turn right and then right again shortly after passing by the modestly named Amazing Pub.

I find myself in a small street with a dead end. I have a look around the buildings and discover that the majority are small businesses, mainly inns, with the exception of the last building. This building advertises its services, quite simply, with a hand painted wooden sign, reading, “Male Circumcision and Dental Service.”
A limited, but interesting choice of services available at this backstreet clinic.
I am puzzled for a moment at the unusual combination of services offered by this establishment and laugh out loud to myself thinking about the conversations that may take place inside; something like, “I’ve got a problem with my upper-right wisdom tooth, left molar and my foreskin.”

After a few minutes I am aware that someone is speaking to me, having emerged from one of the shadier looking inns across this small road. Conscious of the fact I am in a dead end and no one knows my whereabouts, I start to walk back to Nyerere Avenue.

The man catches up with me. He begins telling me that he is an alcoholic and wants some money to buy a locally produced drink made from sorghum. Sympathetic as I am to anyone in such a situation, I decide that I am not willing to get myself into a dodgy situation up a sidestreet. 

Having rounded the corner, back towards the hustle and bustle of a main street, I make my escape. Whilst new friend is looking in the opposite direction, I disappear into the Amazing Pub to buy a copy of the Daily Monitor. The man carries on walking up the road into the distance.

Later, having looked at my map of Kabale, I realised what a pitifully bad job of exploring the backstreets I had done. Despite walking for felt like a long time, it would appear that I was only ever about two minutes walk from the main Kabale-Kisoro Road. Next year I must try harder.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...