I first heard of Abdi Latif Ega’s debut novel Guban last November, when, towards the conclusion of an event where I was the discussant of scholar Mahmood Mamdani’s new book Define and Rule, Mamdani asked me out of the blue: “Have you read Gubaan?” Unsure of what he was saying, I replied, What? “Gubaan,” he said, with a stress on the consonant “b” followed by a long “a” vowel. Sensing my perplexity, he wrote it down on a piece of paper: Guban. Oh, I said. What is it about? “It’s a novel by Abdi Latif Ega. Have you read it?” He repeated the question. No, I said, to which Mamdani simply retorted: “Shame on you.” From the tone of his retort, I knew he had given me an assignment, a challenge. “I’ll read it,” I said, without even asking who Ega was or what the novel was about. But of guban, the coastal plain in northern Somalia known for its sweltering heat and humidity, this much I knew from my intermediate school geography back in Somalia, taught by Mike Roomey of the Peace Corps: Guban, “burnt,” from gub, “to burn or scorch,” refers to “the barren coastal strip” in northern Somalia, now Somaliland. “Here the average annual rainfall is about four inches, falling in the comparatively cool months between October and March and providing in good years a surprisingly generous covering of grass and vegetation. In the torrid months of [the dry season] the coast becomes unbearably hot and desiccated, and except in the main towns and ports is virtually deserted.”(1)
Ega’s narrative is structured as a concatenation of 33 chapter-episodes of varying lengths. The narrative opens with a short chapter appropriately entitled “The Water Bearer,” which consists of only 3 pages, 11 paragraphs in all. The omniscient narrator relays the internally analyzed thoughts of Tusmo, a young girl entrusted with ensuring her family’s constant supply of water, a precious commodity in this “most barren part of the world” where “Everything that grew here had to put up a great fight to merely exist” (12). The chapter is a testament to Tusmo’s extraordinary talent, fortitude, perseverance, and sense of responsibility. The journey to the well always proves a daunting task for the young girl, but: “Whenever she felt she could not possibly go through with [the chores of fetching water], the voice of her mother in her head would sternly urge her on, resoundingly stating how it was her duty to the clan, family, and a further duty to her own homestead of the future” (11). Some cultural anomalies pleasantly assail the reader’s perceptions of Somali pastoral culture. We are a bit surprised, for example, that a young girl is in charge of a camel, and/or is tasked to trek the harsh terrain of the Somali interior to fetch water for the family. We are also intrigued by the absence of any male relative, save an old and frail grandfather. But the portrayal of a fiercely independent and dependable young lady is important to the overall theme of the novel. Ega’s depiction of powerful women characters jibe with the reality on the ground. The Somalis would have found themselves in a far more precarious situation during the pre- and post-civil war periods had it not been for the gallant role played by women in keeping families together.
Tusmo’s early forays into roles typically associated with males prepare her for the painful episodes that later await her in the narrative. The retrospective narrative of the first chapter gives way to the arrest of her husband Hoagsaday in the next chapter. In this chapter, we are introduced to Tusmo’s husband and his nemesis, Lieutenant Colonel Ali Deray, a protégé of General Kumanay, aka “General Global Change to Waybee” (11). Both protagonist and nemesis are non- native to Mogadishu, the Somali capital. Hoagsaday was born and raised in the harsh coastal plains that give the novel its title. He is a self-made man who after a stint in the Gulf region came back to own and run a thriving business. Because of his success and stature, the clan takes great pride in his being their “ambassador in the capital” (42). Hoagsaday’s nemesis is also a self made man, albeit a hustler and a cunning leader of the Mogadishu jet set. Ega’s characterization of Ali Deray and his coterie of upstart swindlers as “jet set” points to a simple fact, namely, that the diversity and composition of the swindlers cuts across clan lines. General Kumanay, Ali Deray’s benefactor, is a member of the ruling council and a relative of the President of the republic. Hoagsaday’s clansman General Beheyeah is also a member of the ruling council and a long-time colleague of General Kumanay. Both generals graduated from the Royal Sandhurst Military Academy. Gen. Beheyeah seems to be a socialist and a pan-Africanist, who is genuinely interested in catapulting his country into modernity. (Modernization, the process, and modernity, the consciousness, are both brilliantly tackled in this novel.) On the other hand, Gen. Kumanay seems to have reneged on his earlier progressive pronouncements, as he is now firmly entrenched in thinly-veiled clan rhetoric. It is only a question of time before the two generals travel their separate ways. This occurs when Beheyeah helps his clansman Hoagsaday escape from prison, as they both flee to Ethiopia to join a nascent opposition group formed by Somali dissidents in the Ethiopian capital. True to his idealism, Gen. Beheyeah soon becomes disillusioned with the way the guerilla leadership conducts itself on and off the battlefield. He succumbs to drink, until late in the novel when divine oneiric interventions in the form of his late grandfather jolt him from his besotted mind. General Kumanay’s fate is no better. He is last seen in the midst of a mob surrounding his station wagon as he tries to flee the onslaught of the opposition on the capital.
The final battle, though, is reserved for the duo, who are, for all practical purposes, the novel’s protagonist and antagonist. The final battle is fought on Hoagsaday’s turf in the guban plains of northern Somalia, where Ali Deray is now stationed to quell an uprising and, more importantly, the incursions of Hoagsaday and his comrades from across the border. Soon, the regime’s forces are routed, and Ali Deray comes face to face with his former prisoner, Hoagsaday. Between Ali Deray and the combatants and ordinary citizens in the town calling for his lynching ironically stands none other than Hoagsaday, the commander of the unit that stormed Ali Deray’s stronghold. Hoagsaday decides against senseless retribution, preferring to send Ali Deray to the headquarters of the high command. This decisive factor gave the Somali National Movement in the north its special characteristic. Hoagsaday’s actions are no doubt modeled on the gallant and difficult decisions of real flesh-and-blood beings. The decision to discourage retributions became the guiding principle of successive leaders in northern Somalia or Somaliland.
The story is told that Somaliland’s late President Mohammed Ibrahim Egal was approached by a delegation of Somaliland expatriates which wanted to impress on Egal and his government the need to wage war on clans deemed traitors for their association with the regime of Somalia’s late president Mohammed Siyad Barre. Egal put the delegation up in a nice hotel, and told them to wait for his instructions. The next day, he called the members of the delegation to his office, where his defense minister was also present. After exchanging some niceties with them, Egal went to the point: “I’ll take you up on your patriotic and brilliant suggestion.” He then instructed the minister to escort the men to a military camp on the outskirts of the town. Following a moment of silent assessment, the men let the president know of their dissatisfaction and disappointment with his decision. Egal seemed surprised at their response, saying: “If you were unwilling to die for the cause you so eloquently explained the other day, then who else would fight for it,” and thus foiling their hypocrisy. Needless to say, they hurriedly left the presidential palace, and I would assume the country, to return to their families in comfortable corners of the world. The story could be spurious, but apocryphal stories tend to reflect and formulate latent fears with which a society is grappling.
The story-time of some of the chapters occurs simultaneously. For example, chapter 25, “Marital Bliss,” celebrates the deep bond between an elderly couple in a border town between Somalia and Kenya. Tusmo, Hoagsaday’s wife, is on her way to join him in Ethiopia. The old couple with whom Tusmo and her daughters are staying are known in the neighborhood for their close and loving relationship. Tusmo is amused and delighted by the scene in which the husband flirts with his wife, who is burning incense. In a society where cuckoldry is tantamount to weakness, the old man seems to revel in his role and even radiates insouciance. When queried about his attitude towards his peers, the old man lets people know that his wife is better company than the nincompoops with whom he is unable to hold a decent conversation. This chapter is followed by another with the same title. Chapter 26, “Marital Bliss,” could be read as a day in the life of Hoagsaday, the guerrilla fighter. The chapter juxtaposes the different yet similar fates of Hoagsaday and Tusmo. Both are in foreign lands; both are persevering, against the odds, to hold a family reunion. It is as though Tusmo and Hoagsaday are in a constant telepathic communion.
The above chapters and the concurrence of story-time also reveal an important characteristic of Ega’s astute plot design. The mini-plots are sutured together by an abiding and deep quest for an alternative route out of individual and communal predicaments.
Ega’s novel limns the etymology of a historical conjuncture. Put differently, the narrative is meant to encompass both the circumstances and events that produced the Somali crisis of the last two or three decades that led to the death of the supra-nation, the nation that was not meaningfully introjected but repeated in overly ritualized public displays meant to galvanize collective sentiments against real or manufactured external threats. Unfortunately, such sentiments were never harnessed to produce the requisite discursive formation needed for the clans to become or morph into a nation. Ega’s narrative is populated by visionary characters that are not beholden to the fissiparous, clan-racked ideological grid. It is no easy feat to swim against prevalent and pervasive state-engineered discursive formations that stunt the development needed for human agency. Ega creates one such visionary character with the prescience and presence of mind to cry for the beloved country.
When Tusmo’s husband Hoagsaday is in prison, Asha, who belongs to the ruling clan, comes to her rescue. Chapter 14 exquisitely reveals the depth of Asha’s humanity and empathy. She is a pious woman who is bothered by the slow disintegration and unraveling of the country, and both she and her husband are willing to risk their lives for Tusmo and her daughters to leave Somalia and join her husband in Ethiopia. When Asha smuggles Tusmo and her daughters out of Mogadishu, Tusmo’s perception of her drastically changes: “The Asha she had known crumbled in her imagination to pieces into oblivion and was replaced by an apparition of some of the attributes she had known her mother for” (78). This is important in that it demythologizes and demystifies the clan factor in Somali society. Not all people in the ruling clan were implicated in the mayhem and corruption. Yet, Asha’s parting words proleptically capture the sad affairs of the country after the uprising: “When blood starts, the smell of it lingers as it engulfs all within its range. So don’t worry for you and yours. Worry and pray to Allah for those of us who you have left behind to face the forces of irrational pride unchecked” (78). This sentence speaks volumes about the ensuing Somali civil war.
While the clan cultural inscription on the Somali subject cannot be underestimated or downplayed, it’s equally impossible or unwise to downplay the redemptive powers of an individual consciousness. Asha’s courage could perhaps be understood against the background of clan and regime manipulations. To understand this, I would not be exaggerating if I appropriated Herbert Blau’s memorable words in Take Up the Bodies, substituting Blau’s “theater” with “clan”: the past always demands blood donors, and the clan is a means of transfusion. Ega conceptualizes clan reification differently by applying a kind of transformative labor that (con) textualizes the corporate kin system without reifying it. “All reification,” writes Adorno “is a forgetting.” The narrative structure and its aesthetic and ethical imperative allow Asha’s premonitions to find voice in Ega’s carefully crafted semantic disjuncture and syntactic disturbance. The semantic fault line he creates allows him to challenge deep-rooted inclinations to ossify and reify clan content and character. And that is where his narrative gains a keen gumption required by all narratives that go against the grain. It rightfully stresses a distinction Somalis associate with literature. To understand the drift of my intentions here, let me quote from Ega’s exquisite rendering of the pastoralist’s strategies to domesticate the inclement landscape through poetic imagination: “Every prickly plant or even miserly waterhole would be reshaped through the poetic form, or descriptive narrative into something gushing with a softness of natural fertility. The miserly waterhole would become, through poetic license, something bountiful and rich with minerals that nourish man and camel alike” (23). To mitigate the effects of the harsh environment, the Somalis resort to a panoply of poetic imagination. Both oral narratives and poetry are utilized to rein in the effects of the inclement environment. Indeed, the etymology of suugaan, the Somali word for “literature,” means the sap or fluid of certain plants like the geesariyood. These plants are evergreen, and are associated with life and the sustaining of life under precarious situations or conditions. When all else is gone as a result of a drought, for example, the sap from this plant will sustain a modicum of existence, of life. Thus, for the Somali, literature is sustenance that nourishes both the body and mind.
Ega’s novel is a must-read for anyone who wishes to know/understand the torturous history of a society in conflict and transition. It shows that both clan inscriptions, when viewed as what Freud termed “traumatic neurosis,” (i.e., a revenant occurrence that is hard to leave behind,) and its corollary, catastrophe, have a history. Reading Guban, the narrative as well as the landscape that lends the narrative its name as a fitting protagonist, demonstrates how the consequences of that history are unfortunately interiorized and recycled generationally. Ega’s complex and luxuriant narrative is a cautionary tale against wholesale acceptance of unexamined notions and concepts whether foreign or indigenous. It demonstrates the need for a sober analysis of the characters that claim to be “a synthesis of two cultures,” to borrow from Sembene, or worse, are “beasts of no nation,” to use Achebe’s memorable phrase. Reading Ega’s novel will help future and present experts on Somali affairs to learn from the mistakes of Harold Brathwaite, the retired ambassador, who, “remorseful and quite ill at ease in his Potomac home,” is confounded by the events unfolding in his former diplomatic posting. Brathwaite “couldn’t imagine the virulent hate the civilians were en masse manifesting against the government. He realized it was the first time he had really seen the people of Somal” (257). This is a fitting sentence to end a narrative that encourages us to unlearn what we know of Somalia. In the penultimate chapter but one, aptly entitled “The Beginnings,” Ega shows how sanity has definitely gone to the dogs. Yet there is a latent hope in Ega’s narrative that Somalis will transcend the “euphoria of freedom in anarchy” that has now engulfed their land. This hope connects Ega’s narrative of war and misery to other war narratives, and breeds the necessary realization that, in the words of Wislawa Szymborska in her poem “The End and the Beginning”: “After every war/someone has to tidy up. /Things won’t pick/ themselves up, after all.” May Ega’s narrative be the one that initiates the process and project of healing and suturing Somali wounds.
(1) Andrzejewski and Lewis, Somali Poetry: An Introduction, 15
Ali Jimale Ahmed (PhD, UCLA) is on the Advisory Board of Warscapes magazine. He is Professor and Chair of Comparative Literature at Queens College, where he also teaches for the Africana Studies Program and the Department of Classical, Middle Eastern, and Asian Languages and Cultures; he is also on the Comparative Literature faculty at the CUNY Graduate center. Author of several books, including The Invention of Somalia (1995), Daybreak Is near: Literature, Clans, and the Nation-State in Somalia (1996), Fear Is a Cow (2002), and Diaspora Blues (2005), Ahmed’s poetry and short stories have been translated into several languages. His most recent publications include When Donkeys Give Birth to Calves: totems, wars, horizons, diasporas (2012) and The Road Less Traveled: Reflections on the Literatures of the Horn of Africa (2008, co-edited with the late Taddesse Adera). A former Editor-in-Chief of the UCLA journal Ufahamu, Ahmed has, in a past life, been a journalist (both print and radio) in Somalia, where he had a weekly radio program, Qoraalka iyo Qoraaga (Writing and Writers), and was for several years, a contributing editor for Heegan (Vigilance), the only English weekly in Somalia at the time.