Starting and ending in doubt … Babel’s Nuruddin Farah

Deliberately enunciating his words, novelist Nuruddin Farah used a calculated cadence to talk about his tireless ability to find trouble. The second speaker in Just Buffalo Literary Center‘s 2012-2013 Babel series, his Somali roots provide a very interesting connection to Buffalo considering the nation’s past two prime ministers came from here. His own history with the country isn’t quite as auspicious, however, as the subject of his work actually provoked the dictatorship to sentence him to death in absentia after fleeing to England in self-exile years ago. Farah chose his side early on with conviction—he’d write in favor of justice against tyranny no matter the cost.

This is a man disowned by his father after arguing his sisters had as much right to an education as his younger brothers, caned by his teacher on the first day of school for refusing to answer the question “who are you?” due to existential wrestling, and missed out on the last sixteen years of his mother’s life because he successfully became a published author like she hoped one of her children would. Born in a country sans written language with oral poetry ruling the day inside a culture keen for its words to be spoken in their “separateness”, Farah discovered the power of communication early. The fact this introduction always ended in conflict was a testament to both his progressive nature and his homeland’s oppressive state.

Learning the Qur’an as a full body exercise “swaying to its sacred sounds” despite not understanding a single word, tradition proved more important than true education as a child. He was meant to be a parrot in an ugly world and his refusal became his ticket out. In one instance, his inability to transcribe a husband’s threat of death to a wife hiding from the abuse created a meddling bit of legal evidence for their divorce. He was only ten. Morality and a hope for universal peace started young and have continued to infer on his work in his sixties. Trouble follows him because of his tireless fight against the injustice not because he seeks it out.

Despite reading directly from a prepared lecture like Russell Banks last month—I wonder if this will now be a trend—Farah still found a way to let his affable personality shine through. Speaking on how he’s enjoyed his visit thus far, his declaration that he may become a resident if we accept him met with rousing applause. In fact, the responses met more raucously came from his matter-of-fact statement on war being fashionable because someone is making money and moderator Barbara Cole explaining how she wrote two introductions reflecting both possible election outcomes and was ecstatic she was reading the one where Obama prevailed. Quick to compare Somalia’s tyranny to that of Republicans stateside was a completely unsurprising reaction from the usual Babel audience.

But all politics aside, Farah’s insight on what he’s seen was highly informative. His humor explained how a character in his novel Links was pronounced in Somali with a silent ‘c’ (“silent for you, not silent for me”) while his intelligence shared tips such as making sure each book’s characters had names beginning with different letters so the world’s rapid reading style wouldn’t confuse them. He heard Black Hawk Down was “odiously ill-informed” and thus hasn’t seen its caricature in lieu of stories with real human beings; he uses dream, folk tale, and proverbs to elevate the ordinary in his works; and besides his three trilogies existing to give both a masculine and feminine consciousness before combing the two in conclusion, he also writes them because he’s long-winded.

Before reading a brief passage from Maps, it was his firsthand knowledge of Muslim Somali women and their relationship with the veil that left the deepest mark. Sharing a story about a Sheikh telling him his mother wasn’t a real Muslim because she never wore one in her 75 years of life, Farah explained to us why Somali women really began wearing them. In the 90s during civil war, the traditional wrap that exposed a woman’s breast at her side began inciting rape. Muslim women went to the veil to find anonymity and hide from the abuse, not because of religious statutes. Those he knows who wear one in Africa do not here. It’s just one more example of our world’s tragic state and the distance between reality and the dream for peace.

Babel 2012/2013 Season:
Alexandra Fuller (Great Britain/Zimbabwe) – March 7, 2013 – Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
Julia Alvarez (Dominican Republic/USA) – April 3, 2013 – In the Time of Butterflies
Buy your tickets today by clicking here.

Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.

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