Over the course of a writing career that spans more than 35 years, Nuruddin Farah has carved out a reputation as one of contemporary literature's most celebrated voices. His deeply moving, expertly nuanced portrayals of his native Somalia have earned him comparisons with a number of venerable literary giants, from Joseph Conrad to Graham Greene, Chinua Achebe to V.S. Naipul.
Now, in Knots, the second novel of a trilogy that began with Links, Farah returns to his literary roots to offer us an opportune and rare glimpse into the shades and complexities of contemporary Somali society. The novel resonates with the same feminist-informed sensibilities that have characterized much of Farah's earlier works. In Knots, his female protagonist's personal journey is set against the clashing ideologies of post-civil war Mogadiscio, a city in transition, a place long dominated by violent, anarchic clan rivalries, and where lately the Islamists are becoming increasingly powerful.
Knots is an unforgettable portrait of a woman searching for her identity in a land where women are under constant threat of violence and rape. It offers a rare opportunity for every reader to be appraised of the current state of affairs in Mogadiscio, a city struggling to define itself in the 21st Century, caught as it is between the opposing ideologies of anarchy and other forms of intolerance. Farah provides a wise, worldly look into a country visibly suffering from the legacies of its recent history, and into the Islamism currently rising in Somalia. Knots is a literary achievement that will further establish his place among our greatest novelists.
Feeling like a different person with a brand-new selfhood, so to speak, Cambara comes out of Zaak's house the following morning, dressed in a head-to-foot veil in the all-occluding shape of a body tent. To top it off, she has worn a strip of muslin cloth, which she holds between her teeth, like a horse with a bit, to keep it firmly in place, covering her entire face. She is donning the all-hiding garment for the first and only time in her life in the hope of disguising her identity. She walks with the consciously cautious tread of an astronaut taking his very first steps in outer space. Her forward motion plodding, her every gait a pained shuffle, her pace is as slow moving as that of a camel with its feet tied together. From a distance, she looks like a miniature Somali nomad's aqal on wheels.
Cambara is on her way to her family's expropriated property, discreetly consulting a map she has drawn from memory; Zaak, along with the driver, took her to within a block of the house late yesterday afternoon. She is finding it cumbersome to do so or to look around, hampered by the all-obstructing veil. Her feet feel trapped, her chest choked and her motion hindered. She is hot; she is boiling under the collar like a traveler hauling heavy bags she does not know what to do with. She is angry with herself for not returning to Zaak and then changing into an easy-to-wear garment and supplementing this with a niqab, a mere face veil.
She slogs with the slowness of a van with terrible shock absorbers, leaning this way and then that in complete disharmony; she is in a great deal of discomfort, perspiring heavily inside her bothersome veil and hitching up her cotton drawers as though expecting that she might sense some air passing through. Notwithstanding all this, she lumbers on, convinced that she will tower above potential aggressors in the likeness of armed youths if they attack her from close range, thanks to her hidden weapon of choice, a knife tucked away in her pocket. Cambara has always seen herself as a potential member of a cloak-and-dagger sorority, and she thinks that a knife is handy when one is surprising an armed foe who is expecting one to be unarmed.
She walks tall and well built; she is very imposing, very impressive; she fearlessly hobbles along. She draws her eyebrows close together in concentration, her mind busily sorting out the thoughts coming at her in waves. She is thinking about the number of codes that she has broken both before coming here and since then. Even though she is officially married to Wardi, she is living alone in a house with Zaak, who is not her spouse. She has done this before under a different, albeit deceptive context. Of course, this is not Saudi Arabia. There, to enter a house, you use one of two entrances; a small, almost secret side door for the women and a bigger, more prominent one for the men. It amuses her to remember the number of times many a Somali living in those parts has committed a faux pas. Some of them have received fifty lashes for presenting themselves at the wrong door and scandalizing the household, with the women looking through the peephole, giggling, and then reporting to the harridan who chaperones the female brood. Harum-scarum and in terrific haste, the hag might ring the principal male householder, who might in turn phone the police to deal with the menace.
Only now does she wonder if she needs to go to the property in a disguise of sorts, considering that Gudcur, the warlord, has no idea who she is and does not know her genuine self. No doubt he or his family may suspect the motives of her visit, which is why, in spite of camouflage, Cambara has to think of plausible grounds that will enable her to gain entry between now and when she is ready to risk asking to be admitted. By then, she will have crossed and recrossed numerous boundaries and will have come upon the moment with which she will mark the action that will define her success or failure. She hopes that she will survive the perilous course on which she is moving, unafraid.
She has had warnings about the dangers that await any man or woman visiting or living in Mogadiscio, a city rampant with the ghosts of its innocent dead.
Her eyes are red like worry beads. She turns her thoughts away from herself for a moment and focuses her attention on the houses on either side of the road where she is walking. Nothing pretty to hold her interest; the streets have the destroyed countenance of a bombed tunnel that has fallen in on itself, and the houses boast the damaged look of a tin, now empty, crushed and lying abandoned by the roadside. She strides forth, sensing that she is separate from her surroundings not only because she is veiled but also because she is wary of running into youths who have more vigor than eunuchs do and who may try to force themselves on her, being presumably alone and unprotected.
Gray as her self-doubts, her sangfroid refuses to acquiesce to her fear; she taps her inner strength for wise guidance. Despite her ambivalence about wearing veils, she wishes someone had taken a photograph of her in the body tent. She assumes that she looks a perfect marvel, a whirl of wonder wrapped in the mysteriousness of a voluminous veil, as surefooted in the sharpness of her bodily responses to the dangers that may be posed as she is relaxed in her knowledge that she can defend herself. She pauses in her stride to observe two women wearing less elaborate veils passing. Farther up the road, coming her way, there is yet a third in a class of her own—she thinks of a dervish spinning a holy trail of dust raised in the act of Sufi worship-in-dance.
She resumes moving, commensurately conscious of the yet undetectable dangers lurking in every corner, up the road, down the drive, and in the alleys. Why? Of course, she is frightened. However, she works hard not to show her fear, her strides shortening like a fat-bellied mosquito climbing out of a deep crevice in the darkness of dawn, mindful not to allow doubts to overwhelm her. Neither does she want her worries to ride the cusp of her self-recrimination. On top of her fears, she is enraged when she thinks about Wardi's treachery, which led to Dalmar's death.
The weight of the knife in the pocket of the loose-fitting caftan she has on underneath the body tent reminds her of where she is and why. Then she remembers buying the veil in its soiled state from an outfit in Dearborn, Michigan, where there is a large and well-established Yemeni community that came to this part of the United States in the thirties. The shop specializes in every imaginable outlandish wearable originating in an Islamic country. She drove over the border to Detroit and then to Dearborn. There is no better camouflage than a body tent, not merely because it looks so theatrical but because it allows a woman to walk with a strut and get away with it. Possibly, everyone will assume that the unevenness of the ground is affecting her gait adversely. She views the world from her vantage of knowing that so far, luck has taken a bit of a shine to her: Zaak meeting her at the airport and driving her home. That he has been wicked to her is all to the good too, as it has prompted her into quick action without relying on him. Then there is the boy soldier, SilkHair.
A rush of anxiety overpowers her as the other veil-wearer whom she saw earlier from a distance comes into view. Cambara is afraid that the other might work out that she is falsely hiding her identity; she knows that she does not belong to the same order as the women she passes by, women covered in a swathe of hand-me-downs, very unlike her own, which is of top drawer, devised in Afghanistan, as the Dearborn salesman explained, for the wife of a top Taliban dignitary to don on special ocaasions. Will it be obvious not only that she is from elsewhere but that she is not a local woman on an errand to a corner shop to buy a pound of sugar and a soda?
Here, at the junction, traffic is on the increase, the odd car rolling along, ramshackle metal rattling and issuing white smoke. Twice she senses the women's piercing stare, making her believe they see through her deceit, and she shudders in panic. She does not want to contemplate what will happen to her if someone discovers her disloyalty. She is so distraught at the thought of being found out that when three women stop and stare at her, one of them commenting that, judging from her gait, she is most likely “a foreigner” unaccustomed to wearing a veil, her knees weaken and she falters in her dodder. There is one advantage to putting on the veil though: No man focuses his predatory lust on a woman so dressed.
Cambara guesses that she is half a kilometer away from her destination, which has felt longer, because of her chameleonlike shuffle. The problem is that Zaak did not show her where the family house is in relation to his house. Vowing not to have anything to do with her madness, he distracted her from concentrating on mapping out a workable, time-saving way of getting here. He kept harping on the fact that one must buy Gudcur's goodwill with a handsome payment, up front, in cash. Cambara does not want to hear of buying back her own house. She says, “I won't pay these murderers a cent. No way. My parents worked hard to own these properties.”
For years, her father worked as a journalist until the tough going got tougher and it became difficult for him to practice his profession honorably. Then he set up a printing press, with Arda running the business part of it. The press specialized in printing visiting and wedding cards, and employed a staff of ten, excluding the cleaners, the menial workers, and several hangers-on who were the family's distant poor relations. He worked diligently, leaving very early in the morning to open up for business and coming home late, bone tired. However, even though he was good at making money, he had a huge failing: He was the proverbial spendthrift and knew not how to save or how to invest wisely. It fell to Arda to do what was necessary. Astute, she was adept at making people and money do what she wanted them to—propagate phenomenally as do plans and animals when the conditions are right. She managed the money side just as she managed the hearts of people, who gave their all to her and a lot more too. Before long, several embassies were signing lucrative contracts to print their invitation cards locally; some, like the Canadian Liaison Office, even requesting that she act as their local agent to deliver the cards by hand on its behalf.
Cambara's family owned two properties and, thanks to Arda's foresight and keen profit-making acumen, invested the surplus funds overseas, in Canada, when it was not fashionable among Mogadiscians to do so. The family—her parents, herself, and Zaak—lived in the modest one, a bungalow with six rooms, two bathrooms, and a small outbuilding with its own toilet facilities, in which the family accommodated long-term guests. However, the property that she intends to repossess is the larger one, bought by her father on her mother's advice and described, in estate-agent terms, as a worthy investment. An upmarket property, it had pride of place with direct access to its own beach, not to speak of an immense garden, built to accommodate a large function. She remembers how—when she was young in Mogadiscio, when Somalis were then at peace with their own ideas about themselves and proud of their uniqueness as a nation—her parents raised a huge monthly income from renting the upmarket property to the Canadians, who used it as a guesthouse for their Kenya-based embassy officials during their brief visits to Somalia.
Her father's printing business helped settle almost all the family expenses, including Cambara's private schooling and Zaak's boarding school fees. The rent money from the property paid for the occasional trips abroad, and, to her mother's everlasting credit and management skill, the family put away the savings, which paid for Cambara's college education in Canada until she got a scholarship and then later helped buy an apartment for her to live in in Toronto. Sadly, Cambara did not return home in time before the collapse. However, her parents got out, flying first to Nairobi and then joining her in Toronto for a while as her guests. Half a year later, they relocated to Ottawa and bought their own place, a good-sized apartment in a housing complex in the eastern suburbs of Ottawa, close to Arda's Canadian friends in the diplomatic corps, with whom she had frequently dealt when they visited Somalia and whom she invited often to dinner whenever they were in Mogadiscio on some diplomatic business.
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