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Since United Nations forces withdrew from Somalia in 1995, few Americans have had cause to think regularly about this once prosperous nation located on the Horn of Africa. Yet, as Nuruddin Farah reveals in his absorbing novel Knots, the pain and bloodshed of civil war have continued. In Mogadiscio, the country’s beleaguered capital, gangs of adolescent boys roam the streets armed with automatic weapons. Much of the city’s infrastructure has been dismantled and sold for scrap and a simple car ride across town can all too easily end in an armed robbery or worse.
In Knots, Farah returns to the scene of his novel Links, in which an Americanized Somalian named Jeebleh returns to his native land soon after the UN pullout to settle his mother’s accounts and recover a lost portion of his identity. Cambara, the heroine of Knots, resembles Jeebleh in that she, too, hopes to restore a bit of sanity and order to the devastated city. Cambara and Jeebleh are also similar in their struggles to make sense of complicated family relationships and in their willingness to gamble their personal safety for their principles. But unlike Jeebleh, who eventually leaves Mogadiscio, Cambara is determined to stay. In a further and significant contrast to Jeebleh, Cambara is also a woman, one whose story reflects the author’s deep personal commitment to women’s rights in the developing world. Through Cambara, a person of strength, compassion, and endless resourcefulness, Farah makes an eloquent case for human rights and gender equality.
Exuding an outward air of confidence and skilled in martial arts, Cambara is no one to fool with. Yet she is as inwardly torn and conflicted as the war-ravaged city to which she has traveled. Though a native of Somalia, Cambara has long enjoyed a life of comfort and privilege in Toronto, Canada. Her life took a horrendous turn, however, when her nine-year-old son drowned in a swimming pool while his father, who was supposed to be minding the boy, was having sex with his mistress. Bereaved and angry, Cambara has returned to Mogadiscio in a move that is both a flight from her past and an effort to recover it. The core of Cambara’s mission is to reclaim her family’s handsome estate in a formerly affluent section the city, and she hopes to enlist the aid of her cousin Zaak to restore the property to its erstwhile glory. Complications, however, promptly ensue as she discovers that Zaak is virtually a slave to qaat, the regional narcotic of choice, and her family’s property has been commandeered by a violent warlord named Gudcur, who is unlikely to respect the claims of anyone who is not brandishing a gun.
Through a combination of unselfish gestures and a polite but firm insistence on her principles, Cambara gradually assembles the allies she needs to accomplish her goals. However, her progress is seldom certain. Will she fall prey to random street violence? Will she act with too much assertiveness in a land where women are expected to wear veils and submit to male authority? Or will she be destroyed by her own lingering feelings of rage and regret?
A story inspired by Farah’s own real-life quest to recover his family’s properties in Somalia, Knots deftly builds suspense and intrigue, keeping readers guessing until its final pages.
The son of a merchant father and a poet mother, Nuruddin Farah was born in Somalia in 1945. Throughout a literary career that now spans more than forty years, Farah has been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights in postcolonial Africa. He has also been a vocal critic of political corruption in Somalia and elsewhere on his native continent. Often controversial, the government of Somalia threatened him with imprisonment. During a long self-imposed exile, he taught in the United States, Germany, Italy, India, and a number of African countries. The recipient of the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, Farah now makes his home in Cape Town, South Africa. Knots is his tenth novel.
- Knots can be the kinks and snarls that must be removed to make something smooth and orderly, or they can be the ties that bind things together. Which meaning of the word do you think was uppermost in Farah’s mind when he chose the title Knots, and why?
- Many of the pivotal scenes in Knots involve the preparation and consumption of food. How do these activities influence the personal relationships in Farah’s novel?
- Farah is also very much concerned with his characters’ clothing, especially the veils that women are expected to wear. How do veiling, unveiling, and other matters related to clothing affect Cambara’s mood, her self-image, and other aspects of the story?
- Cambara makes herself responsible for the welfare of two preadolescent boys, SilkHair and Gacal. Are the two boys more or less interchangeable, or do they fundamentally differ as characters? Why do you think Farah chose to use these two characters in Knots?
- Cambara would not be able to achieve her objectives without the help of a cadre of astonishingly loyal and cooperative friends. Is there something about Cambara that makes her friends so endlessly obliging? Do you find her friends’ willingness to sacrifice for her believable?
- Cambara continually worries, with good reason, that she is recklessly endangering the people she loves in order to gain her own ends. Nevertheless, her qualms never prevent her from using these people and even deceiving them when it suits her. Do you regard Cambara as a good, well-motivated person or a compulsively manipulative one? Why?
- Cambara is sometimes an extremely meticulous planner. She can, however, occasionally be rash and impulsive in the commitments she makes, especially with regard to SilkHair, Gacal, and the men she loves. What do you make of this seeming inconsistency in her character?
- The members of Cambara’s literal family, like Arda, Zaak, and Wardi, are generally sources of grave annoyance and even outright grief. By contrast, the patchwork, nonbiological family she assembles around herself in Mogadiscio gives her great satisfaction. What commentary on the nature of family do you observe in Knots?
- In Knots, Farah tends to use the violence of Somalia’s civil war mostly as an implied threat, rather than presenting graphic scenes of actual mayhem. Do you agree with this choice, or do you think that Knots would have been strengthened, both in terms of its plot and in the power of its message, by a greater display of violent conflict?
- Nuruddin Farah is known as an advocate of gender equality. Often when one promoting the status of one gender, people become overly critical of the other. Based on what you have read in Knots, do you find that Farah falls into this category, or is he able to differentiate between men and women without prejudice?
- Cambara is an assertive, self-reliant woman. However, in Knots, she more than once wins the favor and respect of new acquaintances by performing such traditionally female tasks as cooking and cleaning. How does this fact complicate both her character and Farah’s feminist politics?
- What do you consider the most suspenseful moments in Knots? What, if anything, do these moments have in common?
- Farah enjoys using original, unexpected metaphors and similes, like eyes that are “red as worry beads.” Find some of Farah’s more surprising tropes and discuss how they enliven his writing.
- What role is played by the narratives of dreams that Farah inserts in his story?
- Why is the production of Cambara’s play—and casting so many of her friends in it—so important to her? In what ways does the play’s theme appear to comment on the political situation in Mogadiscio?
- In Mogadiscio, Farah depicts the ruins of a once civilized metropolis. What, in your view, are the values and institutions necessary to preserve civilization? How do Cambara and her friends embody the forces of civilization?