After independence, Somalia began to come apart under socialist dictator Siad Barre, who came to power in 1969 and ruled for 22 years. While the socialist regime banned allusions to “cousin” in favour of “comrade” — an attempt to overturn the importance of clan links that had become central to life in Somalia — it also became increasingly dogmatic and dictatorial.
Initially Farah was supportive, becoming the first author to write a story in the Somali script newly ordained by Siad Barre in 1972.
It was the first time in centuries of oral and written traditions that the Somali language had gained a single alphabet of its own. Farah’s 1973 tale was serialised in a local newspaper until it was banned for being lewd and pointing to social and political hypocrisies that he argued would eventually lay waste to the country. “I was turned into a non-person; my name was no longer publishable,” he tells me.
Farah’s continued criticism of the regime from abroad, such as his 1976 book A Naked Needle, in which he satirised misogynists, earned him his death sentence. Uncowed, over the next few years he unleashed a trilogy dedicated to the pervasive and paranoid security state that developed under the Siad Barre dictatorship.
By 1991, Barre was deposed, but clan warfare, famine and warlords quickly destroyed the country. In the mid-2000s, as civil war raged, jihadis, later allied to al-Qaeda, took over much of Somalia, including the capital. Although they were pushed out of Mogadishu in 2011, they still control much of the countryside and launch regular suicide attacks on the capital.
Farah’s books chart all this horror. In his most recent novel, Hiding in Plain Sight, the apparent hero of the book is blown up before the opening chapter, in a breakneck prologue. “Death in Somalia seldom bothers to announce its arrival,” says a line early on. “In fact, death calls with the arrogance of a guest confident of receiving a warm welcome at any time.”
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Instead Farah yearns for his country’s “cosmopolitan” past, when a multitude of ethnic and cultural influences flourished. “My theory is, the greatest casualty of the civil war is that the idea of cosmopolitanism is the one that has died,” he says, adding that most people today belong to “the 13th-century mentality”. “What destroyed Somalia is this clan business.”
Farah argues that in a country otherwise united by the same language and ethnic make-up, clan has become “a trump card” where political representation is allocated according to the “4.5 system”, which divvies up influential and often lucrative roles according to four key clans and a multitude of smaller ones that fall under the “point five”.
“You are dealing with something absolutely non-functional, inoperational. Mogadishu is now a clan family enclave — a den of corruption,” he says. “We are bigger than the 4.5 — it is concretising discrimination and privileging second-rate loudmouths who wouldn’t be able to get a job in any office in anywhere in the world.”
His lead characters have long been bold and articulate intellectuals — regularly women — who lay out Farah’s anguish at the failings of his country. His prodigious output, and this effort to give voice to the voiceless in a land few write about and still fewer understand, has regularly seen him touted as a Nobel literature prize contender.
His next novel will explore Somalis contending with right-wing politics and attitudes as immigrants to Norway, his latest work in a life-long effort to explain Somalia, “a country that is inexplicable”.