As I slide out of the Uber that has dropped me off at the little art deco block of flats in Cape Town where Nuruddin Farah lives by himself, and where he is to cook me lunch, I catch a friendly face peering from above. “I’ll come down and let you in,” the great Somali novelist calls softly.
The man who opens the gate a minute later is slightly frail, but has an upright, dignified bearing. He is wearing loose-fitting jeans, a baggy shirt and light leather moccasins.
I am carrying a heavy suitcase, which he offers to help me lug up the three flights of stairs, a proposal I politely decline. Once at the top, he ushers me into a modest and somewhat chaotic little flat with a study, a kitchen, a bedroom and a tiny room extension, the decorating not yet completed. Through its picture window, it boasts an extraordinary view of Table Mountain.
Over a career spanning nearly six decades, Farah, now 77, has become one of the world’s most highly acclaimed authors, and a perennial nominee, it is said, for the Nobel Prize.
Like many people forced to live in exile, Farah has a complex relationship with his homeland. A liberal who abhors the radical Islam that has overwhelmed his country, a fierce individualist who detests the conformity imposed by many families, Farah is a man who has lived in 13 countries but who can only think about one: Somalia.
“The Somali-ness is the thing that kept me going,” he tells me once we are settled inside the flat where he is surrounded by precarious towers of books and memories of a Mogadishu long lost to the past. (In his novels, he unfailingly refers to the ancient Somali capital as Mogadiscio, an Italian spelling he settled on, he says, as a result of a missing “h” in his typewriter.)
“There is an ambiguous relationship between me and Somalia,” he says. “To some Somalis, I represent everything that is un-Somali because of the way I think, the way I write, the way I talk about them. The Greeks divided the world into Greeks and Barbarians. I divide the world into Somalis and non-Somalis.”
Farah, who was born in 1945 in Baidoa in the former Italian Somaliland, first went into exile in 1976. He was about to return home from a book tour in Italy and had called his brother to arrange an airport pick-up. “Apparently, you haven’t heard,” his brother said. “‘I haven’t heard what?’ I said. And that is when he told me that, if I were to return to Somalia, I would receive no less than 30 years in prison.”
In A Naked Needle, his second novel, Farah had committed the sin of satirising Somalia’s leader, the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. His first novel, From a Crooked Rib, had caused its own controversy by telling the story of a young Somali woman who flees an arranged marriage to a much older man. When Farah learnt he could not go home, he had $150 in his possession. He would not return for more than 20 years.
He shuffles into a small kitchen strewn with the flotsam of cooking. In a frying pan on the old stove is some grilled swordfish. “You can take a bit of heat?” he asks, referring to a chilli sauce he is ladling over the top.
“We have to improvise,” he says of the lunch he has evidently prepared earlier so that we can talk without him being distracted by cooking. He spoons out a lentil dish from one pan and mushrooms cooked with onions from another, and pops each plate in the microwave. There is also a big leaf salad and olive oil and vinegar dressing.
I’m sorry to put him to trouble, I say. “It’s OK, you’re not responsible for it,” he replies, measuring his words in the way some people can to make even the simplest phrase hint at great profundity.
We decide to eat in his newly extended room, bare save for a cheap desk on which we are to dine, a computer chair, which I sit on, and a stool for him.
Would I like wine? I tell him FT readers often appreciate it when lunch involves a drink or two. “Once you’ve had a glass of wine in the middle of the day,” he says, glugging some Tall Horse red into two glass tumblers, “the day is gone”. Again the slow, measured rhythm and again that sense of profundity in the ordinary.
Most of Farah’s 15 novels are set in Somalia, but his latest trilogy (his fourth) takes place among the Somali diaspora, in Nairobi, Oslo and — the one he is writing now — Cape Town. I ask why some people adapt so well to where they live, while others struggle to assimilate.
In North of Dawn, published in 2018, a Somali couple have become thoroughly cosmopolitan Norwegians, but their son joins al-Shabaab, a militant Islamist group, and returns to Somalia. One Somali-born woman in Norway wears a hijab and rejects seatbelt-wearing as un-Islamic; she will live and die as God wills it. Another Somali-born female character settled in Italy keeps three lovers in different countries to serve her various needs, intellectual, aesthetic and (the well-hung one) sexual. Some of his characters are gay. What explains these wildly diverse reactions to the allure — or repulsion — of western liberalism?
This tussle of values inside the family unit — a battle that mirrors wider struggles in society — lies at the heart of everything he writes, he says. “Somalis are in each other’s hair all the time, telling you what to do every single day. And this is not acceptable,” he says. “The question is, how do you continue to balance things out if your cousin has never been anywhere else except a mosque, never allows you to have a glass of wine, never allows you to walk into a church and appreciate the beauty inside the church?
“In every Somali family, there is a patriarch,” he continues, taking a mouthful of the mushrooms, which have a lovely lemony tang. I’m hungry and am way ahead with the food, lobbing a question and then diving into my plate for forkfuls of spicy lentils or a mouthful of flaky fish.
“In the absence of the patriarch, there is the matriarch,” he continues. “The Somali as an individual doesn’t have a voice. He has to respect the elders. He has to respect Islam. He has to respect everything to the point where he or she as an individual becomes beholden to someone else,” he says, fork hovering.
“My point is that the individual is born free. And therefore he or she should remain free. That’s my point. And anything that warps the integrity and the honour of the individual is dictatorial.”
Farah describes himself as a “radical secularist”. He often writes about middle-class Africans going about their secular business. A Japanese publisher once told him it wouldn’t translate his books because they didn’t seem African enough. “There wasn’t enough drumming,” he grimaces. He doesn’t travel to countries that haven’t translated his books.
His views on maintaining peace between warring family members, warring patriarchs, warring clans or warring nations are resolutely liberal. “I respect the faith, and anyone who practises it, but I do not want someone to impose it on me,” he says. “I cannot give more than five minutes to people with no tolerance of my views,” he adds in a sort of reverse-Groucho Marx. (Groucho would never join a club that accepted him as a member.)
“Do you see what I’m saying? My tolerance level is very high except when it comes to someone trying to impose things on me.”
Farah’s parents moved from Somalia to the Somali region of Ethiopia when he was 18 months old. His father was an interpreter for the British governor and his mother a poet, who composed verses to celebrate weddings. “My mother might have become a greater poet if she had not produced 10 children,” he says sadly, adding that his life of writing has been, to some extent, a homage to her suppressed talent. “She never went to school. She was literate in the oral sense of Somali literature, but not literate in the way you and I are.”
At the age of eight or nine, one of his first pieces of writing came about thanks to her. She had written a poem for a neighbour, but had no time to deliver it personally. Instead, she recited it to the young Farah and told him to go and relay it.
“I was kicking a ball around, and I forgot some lines,” he recalls, summoning up an impression of childish absent-mindedness. “When I arrived, I replaced them with my own verse. My mother later called me and she said, ‘Those are not my words.’ I said, ‘Well I forgot them and replaced them. Are they OK?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’”
That was the encouragement he needed. He still recites his words out loud after scrawling them in longhand in different coloured pens, before committing them to text — these days on a laptop. “It’s a blessing that I live alone. Nobody thinks I’ve gone mad, shouting the dialogue,” he smiles.
Unlike his mother, he received a proper education. He has spoken often about the absurdity of boys going to school in preference to girls. He learnt Somali, Arabic, English and later Italian when his older brother, who went to school across the border in Italian-speaking Somalia, started teaching him. His brother, now gone, also introduced him to literature, including Dostoyevsky. “He’s the one who shaped my intellectual life,” he says.
It began a love affair with books that is unusually intense. He needs to be surrounded by them at all times, he says. Once, he was in New York, finishing a novel in an apartment without a single volume. “I remember saying I couldn’t write like that.” His agent came around one day with 150 books to break the curse.
That’s why he can’t write in Somalia, where, he once said with typically grim humour, “it’s cheaper to purchase a gun than a novel”.
Books, he says, have a life of their own. “They talk to other people. They continue talking to other books. If you look at a blurb, you’ll see ‘this book reminds me of Günter Grass’, ‘this book reminds me of Salman Rushdie’. And that is because the books are continuing their dialogue through the writing with other books. And the reader is the person who finds out which books they’re in dialogue with.”
By the same token, once a book is finished, it must make its own way in the world, he says. “I can live without my books. They make their own friends. There are some people who love my books more than I do.”
And what does he do while his books are out there making acquaintances, I ask. “I’m writing another book,” he guffaws.
He pads off to the kitchen and returns with the bottle of wine to refill my glass.
If Farah’s aim is to escape family constraints, he has managed quite well, though he maintains contact with his three surviving sisters. He is twice divorced, most recently from a Nigerian-British writer who has moved with their two children to California.
He now lives alone in his small flat — they sold their seven-bedroom house — and is currently on a two-year sabbatical from Bard College in New York, where he is distinguished professor of literature. Though he has friends in Cape Town, he says, he can hide in his apartment for days on end without the phone ringing.
A fourth sister, a nutritionist working in Afghanistan for Unicef, was killed by the Taliban when they stormed the restaurant in which she was having lunch. In Hiding in Plain Sight, part of his latest trilogy, the opening chapter depicts a chillingly similar episode. A Somali man working for the UN in Mogadishu receives a piece of paper with the word “deth” written on it. By the end of the chapter, he has been blown to smithereens.
Hiding in Plain Sight came out in 2014, not long after his sister had been killed. But the words were written before. “I thought I had willed my sister’s death,” he says mournfully.
I’ve eaten all of the main course and he asks if I’d like mango and coffee. We move to the kitchen, where he brews a Kenyan roast in an Italian stove-top coffee-maker. Meanwhile, he slices the mango in half and deftly removes the stone. It is from Durban and is, without doubt, the most luscious mango I’ve ever tasted: juicy and delicately tart.
Farah has lived in India, Britain, Germany, Sweden and the US. But he has been most comfortable in Africa, he says, where he has resided in The Gambia, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Sudan and now South Africa. “I, Nuruddin, have been helped by the world in which I find myself,” he says of the acceptance and success he has found in his nomadic life.
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I return to the subject of Somalia, which exerts a gravitational pull. He remembers the Mogadishu of the 1960s and early 1970s. It was entirely different from the city today, which is pockmarked by years of civil war, under assault from al-Shabaab and subject to the strictures of radical Islam. The city of his memory is the one that absorbed waves of foreigners over centuries — Arabs, Turks, Persians, Zanzibaris, Italians — who each left their mark on an architecturally dazzling, cosmopolitan seaside city.
“I remember Mogadishu when it was peaceful, when you could walk out at three o’clock in the morning from one district to another without any kind of problems,” says Farah. Groups of men and women would go to a party together and sleep innocently in the same room if they couldn’t get a taxi home. “I remember that kind of Somalia, where it was possible to imagine a world of cohesiveness.”
In those days, he says, women used to wear the guntino, a dress with a slit down the side that revealed part of the breast. Now that women cover up, he says, men have become more obsessed by sex.
I say he sometimes takes on these topics with a bluntness almost designed to offend. In his novels, covered women wear “body tents”, and a female character dressed in a fashionable T-shirt would “surely be stoned on sight” if she dressed like that in any “Muslim land”. Some Somalis, muses one protagonist, are “guilty of nativist backward thinking”. What did he make of Boris Johnson’s controversial likening of a burka to a letterbox, I ask. “Well, as a Somali I can say that,” he chuckles.
If he doesn’t recognise the new Somalia, could that old, liberal Somalia ever return, I wonder, or is it dead for ever? “Old Somalia is going to come back,” he replies without hesitation. “This particular generation of non-secular Somalis will die away. In every generation, there are changes. There was a time when I was in Somalia, and I thought that nearly everyone was like me. There will come a time when Somalis will be more or less like me again.”
David Pilling is the FT’s Africa editor.
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