When we think of modern day Somalia and its history over the past couple decades most of us envision a horrible jumble of genocide, zealotry, corruption and civil war, of piracy and a people suffering under one unstable leader after another. With Crossbones acclaimed Somali writer Nuruddin Farah provides a cogent view of life in Somalia in a way that only truly dedicated writers of historical fiction can achieve.
I must pause here to refute the notion I’ve heard so often that historical fiction is of little use because, after all, it is fiction. Not so. Farah cites over fifty scholarly texts, history books, journal articles and PhD thesis, all chronicling the reality of Somalia’s woes. He also spent a semester interviewing Somalis to deepen his understanding. The fictional characters he creates in Crossbones are simply embodiments of the realities of life in Somalia. Farah describes his purpose for writing, “To keep my country alive by writing about it.”
Three Solami men, father, Jeebleh, his son-in-law, Malik and Malik’s brother, Ahl, with well-established lives in the U.S. and Canada return to Somalia in 2011 in search of Ahl’s teenage son who disappeared from their home in Minneapolis. They all speak Somali and reunite with old family members in Somalia who in turn put them in touch with both reputable and questionable sources to aid their search. Each encounter broadens our understanding of their complicated lives. When Ahl makes friends with man who claims to be the go-between for Somali pirates we learn the bigger truth about piracy. Without a stable government to defend its coastal waters (Somalia has the longest coastline of any African nation) industrial finishing vessels from dozen of countries invaded their waters, over-fishing them, stealing a primary Somalian food source. Without fish to catch, the fishermen turn to piracy. Holding large vessels hostage, the ransom they seek is pilfered by banks, insurance agencies and middlemen so little of the payoffs actually arrives in Somali hands.
Every story in Somalia is like that. People get out of prison, locked away for years or decades by an oppressive regime, re-establish their lives only to have their homes raided and confiscated a few years later by Jihadi factions that are the latest to take over Somali rule. Many areas of the country are so poor and war-torn that the infant mortality is more than fifty percent. In between civil wars Somalia is victimized by its neighbors, invasion by Ethiopia, corrupt double-dealing by Eritrea and extortion of its refugees by Kenyan border guards.
In the family’s search for their missing teenager, we also get a glimpse of Jihadist recruitment, social media that targets disaffected young Muslims in America and recruiters in Africa and the middle east who are paid a bounty for the young people they draft into the Jihadist training camps. And, we learn of the Muslim factions ranging from devout imam teachers to opportunist despots who wear traditional Muslim robes and quote the Koran only when it suits their self-serving purposes.
In the end Crossbones is about life in the extreme, heroic everyday people struggling to survive, generations of good people who often lay down their lives rather than surrender to oppression and corruption. Happy endings are rare and short-lived in Somalia, giving way to renewed crisis.