African Library: Little Mother

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Little Mother
Author: Cristina Ali Farah

Originally published in Italian in 2007 as Madre Piccola, this novel was translated into English by Giovanna Bellesia-Contuzzi and Victoria OffrediPoletto and published in this version in 2011 by Indiana University Press. It contains a brief introduction by Alessandra di Maio. The author, though born in Verona, grew up in Somalia, her father’s homeland, which she left at age 18 (with her first child still a baby) when civil war intensified. She settled in Rome, where she works and writes. Like one of her three main characters, christened Domenica by her mother but renamed Axad (the Somali version of the same name, meaning Sunday) by her beloved cousin Barni, the author’s motherland is Italy, a difference being that DomenicaAxad is taken to Italy from Somalia at a much younger age (nine) than the author’s return there. But for both, even though Italy is their motherland, it would be more accurate to describe it as their mothers’ land, Somalia being the land of their primary nurturing and in both cases their fatherland or father’s land.
               
Issues of exile, and the complications of existence for Somali refugees in particular, loom large in this brilliant, dense text, which is as complex in structure as the emotional currents and relations among diasporic Somalis that it portrays. One of the most striking aspects of the novel is that while it educates readers about what it was like to live in Somalia before and during the civil war that toppled the dictatorial rule of Muhammad SiyadBarre, without sparing one the details of the ensuing mayhem and the sorrows that resulted, it is nevertheless filled with a sense of pride in Somaliness and an awareness of the indissoluble though tangled network of Somali affiliations that sustain and sometimes bedevil life for the exiles in the various locations of this diaspora. In the Prelude, in which DomenicaAxad’s is the communicating consciousness, the refrain “soomaalibaanahay” [meaning “I am Somali”] recurs with variations. The quotes are from a 1977 poem by CabdulqaadirXirsiSiyaad and articulate an ethos characterised by moral fierceness and warrior values, but also by a powerful awareness of social obligations and the need to uphold the values of justice and communality in hard and bitter times – “only one branding remained, the duty of unity remained, soomaalibaanahay” (11). In the Epilogue, in which Barni is the speaker, translated quotes from a 1998 theatrical piece written and performed by MaxamuudCabdullahiCisse are featured. His lines lament “[t]he killing of the innocent, your people’s hatred, the spilling of blood, the catastrophes before us”; adding that “[e]ach one of us tries to explain the causes in his own way and corrects his neighbour” (228). The speaker bewails “how dangerous the situation is, how dark the period” and exhorts all Somalis in the phrase “soomaalidhamaantaa” (meaning “Somalis to you all”] (229) to “[c]hase away the bad omens”; to “separate and correct”, since “the story goes on” (230). (Note: all the citations above are italicised in Farah’s text.) Given that in the post-colonial Republic of Somalia democratic government lasted only from 1967 to 1969 (when Barre took over), and that the ancient Somali language acquired an orthography only in 1972, Farah’s prominent featuring of these two fine texts subtly indicates the existence of a cultured and politically as much as morally sophisticated people, utterly different from the worldwide media images of battle-crazed youths; social mayhem and terrible starvation that have become virtually the “Somali brand” or image.
               
Cristina Ali Farah achieves another difficult feat in showing the parallels between the identity confusion suffered by a bicultural (Somali/Italian) daughter transplanted from her fatherland to her motherland at the difficult pre-adolescent stage (a childhood further bedevilled by the emotional strains and conflicting loyalties of her parents’ eventually disintegrating marriage) and the painful adjustments required from Somalis in the diaspora, driven from their homeland by its collapse as a functioning state and society. Leaving Somalia with her mother for Italy (where she had spent several long summers visiting in earlier years) at age nine can clearly not be the same as fleeing Somalia as a refugee or taking up life in a faraway country because your own society is disintegrating. Yet the novel makes superb use of this oblique parallel by showing DomenicaAxad as it were joining the diaspora at the age of eighteen. It happens because, after nine years of carrying the emotional burden of her mother’s sorrow at the distance that opened figuratively and then literally between herself and her idealistic, activist and patriotic Somali husband, Domenica (to use the name that becomes predominant) attempts to reunite with her father and return to her fatherland. She arrives, however, on the very last incoming flight before the eruption of the civil war and is immediately appropriated, as it were, by an older male cousin of hers, Libeen (he is Barni’s cousin too), who protects her from the violence and within days flies back with her to Italy. Once there, however, Domenica experiences an emotional crisis and realises that she cannot rejoin her mother. She lapses into a semi-catatonic state and begins cutting her skin – a well-known manifestation of identity crisis. She refers to her “unfulfilled return” (218) and says that she “felt like a stupid package that is never even opened and is returned to the sender a little bit dirtier and somewhat crumpled” (215).

Libeen, for his part, remains the oddly self-possessed, unruffled and controlling person he has always been. Without this being suggested (and to say so greatly simplifies the complex emotional nuances of her situation) it may be hinted that Libeen represents for DomenicaAxad a replacement of the missing Somali father through whom she reabsorbs certain Somali behavioural patterns, while she remains strangely isolated from most people and does not even reconnect with Barni. DomenicaAxad describes her near total dependence on Libeen (with whom she lives in the Netherlands) at this time as “the love of an unconsummated sin” and also as “an intricate entanglement that was never a real relationship” (220). Talk of her father, Taariikh, whose body was never found, becomes a “taboo” topic between Domenica and Libeen. Taariikh had gone into the war in an attempt to avenge the death by drowning of his sister and several other relatives in a refugee ship on the way to Kenya. Then Libeen dislodges himself from Domenica and she drifts for a number of years among the variously located Somali refugee communities, working as a documentary filmmaker, ending in the USA. Here she meets her husband, Taageere, whose second wife she becomes, since Taageere had become separated from his first wife when they fled Somalia. He has never seen the son (now eight) he had by his first wife, who lives in Italy, where he cannot go for lack of proper papers. 

Taageere is one of Farah’s three central narrators, each of whom is, in turn, given three opportunities to narrate their lives, communicate various impressions, thoughts and anecdotes, and deepen, among them, our understanding of their interrelationships and explain how they manage to survive the various traumas they have suffered. He has a strangely feckless personality, while also indicating very powerful feelings of emotional connection and responsibility. As Cristina Ali Farah’s famous namesake, the novelist NuruddinFarah, has outlined in a book he wrote after visiting all the major Somali refugee communities, Somali men seem to fare much worse in exile than the women do; in Little Mother we find such comments as Barni’s: “It’s so difficult for our men to […] redefine themselves. To adapt. To accept themselves. To humiliate themselves” (29-30). While Libeen and also Barni and Domenica’s paternal uncle Foodcadde seem to be exceptions (in that they do adapt successfully to life in Europe), Taageere does struggle. Perhaps it is (as Barni surmises) that he lacks the intimacies of domestic life and friendships that serve as “signposts” for Somali women (30); this may be confirmed by Taageere’s claim (in a lengthy, garrulous phone call to his first wife from the US city where he lives) that he would have lived a steadier life there if he’d had her and his son to care for.

Taageere gives a moving description of the emotional disruption, bleakness and despair of the exiled condition, of how it degrades men, especially; he calls it “a deep and shabby sadness, a crazy sadness that sprang from the cold and the disillusionment”; he says that “with this sadness” he “went around the city, dirty and unkempt, speaking to no one”, sleeping “wherever [he] happened to be, like a hobo”; he says that he was “so dirty and covered in hair that not even [his] mother would have recognized [him]” (57). Taageere’s first wife, Shukri, arranges an Islamic divorce from him with the aid of an imam and an international phone call. She is thoroughly disillusioned with him for (among other things) doing nothing to support her and their child; she works in Rome as an interpreter and has taken an Italian partner. One is left doubtful as to the “fulfillability”, though not the sincerity, of the following statements by Taageere:
“Being on one’s own for a long time stings like a badly treated wound. I lack endurance. I feel the need for roots, now, today. A family. A family again. To feel like a man in a man’s role. To take care of someone other than myself, to be a man worthy of trust (64).

Of course, Domenica has taken the chance and made the gesture of trust of marrying him and discovers in Italy – having been assigned the task by Taageere of going to the assistance of his terribly traumatised sister Luul (impregnated, who knows how or by whom, as she fled to Italy from Somalia) – that she is expecting their first (his second) child. One is nevertheless left somewhat unsure whether her trust in Taageere has survived his belated revelation that he has been previously married and even has a young son living in Italy with his mother Shukri. But one does understand how she felt an emotional connection with him when they encountered each other by chance in the US: Domenica says that she felt an unspoken “plea that came from him” and she describes how, to her, Taageere seemed to be “someone who embodies the very essence of bewilderment”. To her this was a connection between them that felt “precious and soothing” (217).

Shukri, for her part, had been disgusted with Taageere when, seemingly during her pregnancy in Somalia, he was photographed in the proverbial compromising position with other women at a friend’s party. But for the drifting and alienated Taageere, encountering Domenica was a lifeline; he had been, he says, “so full of rage that [he] couldn’t understand it wasn’t rage but disgust” he felt; that he had in fact been “disgusted with [him]self for not being able to connect again” (84).

Taageere has a link with Barni too. In the section of the novel titled “Interlude” we are shown some of his finer feelings and nobler conduct. We learn of his deep friendship with another young man, Xirsi, through whom he made a connection with the latter’s cousin, Maryam. Maryam has her own narrative of trauma. Xirsi, who clearly cared deeply for (and was perhaps in love with) Maryam, was disgusted when her father married her off to Xassan, later (in Rome) known as the proverbial “dirty old man”. She fell pregnant by him, but the little girl she gave birth to died young. When they were forced to flee Mogadishu Maryam wept terribly upon discovering that she had left a photograph of the child (her only memento) behind. Without a second thought, Xirsi offered to go and fetch it, with Taageere accompanying him, but the mayhem in the city streets overtook them on this very risky expedition, and Xirsi was shot. Again without thinking, Taageere took his fatally wounded friend to the hospital, but it was too late to save his life. The Somali doctor there, known as Gaandi for his saintly ways, asked Taageere to assist him, which he did with hardly any rest or food for almost a week, transported into a strangely self-forgetful state by the shock and grief of his dearest friend’s death. He was brought out of this condition when Barni’s uncle Foodcadde took him away with him and they encountered her at the house where Domenica’s father was negotiating with the post-revolutionary leaders. Speaking to Barni jolted Taageere out of his state of shock; she left the country days afterwards. She also remembers him as “a delicate boy, a delicate show-off” (43). Domenica’s later description of Taageere accords with this; she says that with him she felt “a tenderness”; that even though he does not have exceptional qualities, she thinks of him like “an honest feeling, with no complications”; with him she can be the “unbridled wind” she feels herself to be and does not feel the need to “invent parts of [her]self”; in her eyes he is “a man of uncertain paths, a weak will” (116) who would presumably not behave domineeringly towards her. Even though Taageere was very unhappy in Italy and felt that the work he had to do there (gutting and skinning rabbits in a meat-packing plant) was degrading, he ends up hoping to arrange his return there. The four women who mean most to him and both his children are there (when their son is born to Domenica), after all. And he is happy that his sister Luul with her baby has been reunited with his first wife, Shukri, and that these two have become friends with the sister-like cousins Barni and DomenicaAxad, the latter his new wife. “Women are really incredible”, he says, and adds, “What is there left for me to do but try to join them?” (190). Whether Taageere will achieve this and whether it will all work out, we do not yet know by the end of the novel.

The title of Farah’s novel in the English version, Little mother, is a transliteration of the Somali term for one’s maternal aunt. Since the child born to DomenicaAxad and co-nursed by her cousin and dearest friend Barni, with whom she grew up in the same household and has a sister-like bond, would be brought up to see Barni as his “second mother”, one may assume that Barni has a special status in this text. She has lived in Italy after having left Somalia when the chaos and danger brought about by the social breakdown after the fall of SiyadBarre intensified, and is a qualified midwife. Barni’s is the attractive, lively, down-to-earth and humane voice we hear in the longest of the text’s sections, which are titled with the names of the speakers. It follows the opening chapter, or “Prelude”, in which DomenicaAxad makes it clear that during her childhood in Somalia it was Barni who (though roughly the same age as she) even then played a protective role towards her, chasing away bullying boys or serving as linguistic mediator when she returned from her visits to Italy and struggled at first to regain her Somali fluency. Barni could thus be described as a “little mother” even in childhood, towards DomenicaAxad, even though she herself tragically early lost her own mother in a fire, distraught as the mother was by the death (by firing squad, for his political activism against the Barre regime) of her husband, Barni’s father. Barni was thus an orphan, though lovingly taken care of in the extended family and shared compound where they lived with other cousins, aunts and uncles. Perhaps this made her the self-sufficient person she became, but always with an instinct for care of others.

The chapter in which Barni first speaks is structured as the involved, anecdotal style narrative description of life among Somali exiles in Rome which she presents during a lengthy interview with a sympathetic Italian journalist (a woman) who wants to write a feature on this sector of contemporary Rome’s diverse society. Barni’s story is delightfully involved in presentation and quirkily structured. She implies much, while spelling out a few core points more directly. As a way of indicating how indissolubly connected Somalis are, even in exile, Barni tells the complicated story of a Somali man brought into the hospital where she works: he is badly burnt, and also (apparently) mute; who knows what traumas he went through on the way to Italy? To the police he seemed a likely terrorist and is kept under guard. Barni abandons a half-cooked dinner and her invited guests on her free day to go to this unknown man’s aid. She does this simply by sitting down next to his bed and telling a Muslim tale of the Prophet’s benevolence in Somali. Barni offers the journalist the explanation for her act of spontaneous charity towards the silent patient by saying simply, “I hold my country close to my heart” (17). Later she refers to her frequenting Termini train station in Rome, saying that the many Somalis who went there did so “in the expectation of news, everyone waiting, close to each other. We thought, soon we’ll be going back [to Somalia]” (25).

Acknowledging the “roundabout” way (30) in which she is telling her story, Barni refers to another nodal point for Somalis in Rome: the Somali embassy, formerly a grand building, since the state’s collapse itself having fallen into ruination and occupied mainly by young male Somali squatters. Circuitously (as her own quest on behalf of the mute burn victim unfolded), Barni discovered a connection between the “mute” Somali man and Luul, the recently arrived and seriously traumatised young woman (her cousin DomenicaAxad’s new husband’s own sister, who has since borne the baby she arrived still expecting). Luul, an embittered and largely silent refugee who had left the relatives with whom she first stayed, was taken pity on by an older Somali male named Maxamed who also lived in the derelict embassy. It was he who helped when he found her in the nearby car wreck where she had taken refuge when overtaken by birth pangs. Not long afterwards the car wreck was accidentally set on fire by the embassy youths; the distraught Maxamed, believing Luul and her baby son were in the fire, acquired his burns when he rushed into the flames, thinking to rescue the mother and baby. The baby boy had been named Maxamed in his honour by Luul. So Barni was able to identify the “mute” Somali and clear his name with the police.

In Barni’s next big chapter she is addressing DomenicaAxad, with whom she has been reunited through the Somali network in Rome. They have a great deal of catching up to do since, when Barni was still new in Rome and Domenica returned at eighteen from Somalia in the care of their mutual cousin Libeen (with whom they had both grown up), Barni never got to see Domenica, who was soon taken to the Netherlands by Libeen, and after parting from him drifted through numerous countries. Now she has come to Rome to search for Luul on behalf of Taageere and it is through Luul and Taageere’s first wife Shukri that they have reconnected. Barni tells Domenica of her short-lived marriage, which had crossed Somali clan divisions. She knows, she says, that Libeen kept Domenica away from her because he disapproved of her marriage to one of those he held responsible for his mother’s and other relatives’ deaths by drowning in a refugee ship.

Libeen’s fierce clannishness (the terrible divisive force of which is often noted among Somalis) was soon matched by Barni’s own husband’s excuse for leaving her, despite her solicitousness for him. But she has come to realise, she tells Domenica, that that was a useful excuse; actually he had felt constantly humiliated (again, like many male Somali refugees) by the fact that he had no gainful employment, while she, his wife, did. But Barni is well aware that Somali clan hatreds and rivalries are indeed a terribly destructive force even among exiles. In this chapter she explains how she herself slowly came to understand that she, too, suffered from this tendency.

Barni refers to the “resentment”, the “unspeakable intrigues”, the “mental note” Somalis would make of clan-indicative “names in the book of good and evil”, in this way “constru[ing] plots and threads” along purely clan lines – a terrible “us” and “them” ethos endorsing permanent enmity. Then she refers to a Somali woman named Ardo (as Barni’s mother was), saying that “[p]erhaps it was Ardo who had to help me understand how everything is connected in our lives” (152). She came to know Ardo through a chance encounter on a train during the years of Domenica’s absence from Italy. Ardo was wearing a unique pair of gold filigree earrings that Barni thought she recognised as the only jewellery she had inherited from her mother, confiscated from her by young gun-wielding thugs in Mogadishu just before she left Somalia. Although this Ardo had been kind to her when she fainted on the train, clearly interested in maintaining contact and initiating a friendship, Barni had been instantly distrustful towards her and inclined to a bitter hatred, which she attempted to hide. “She had to be one of them, the one who had taken possession of my tiger eyes [the earrings], eyes that were mine by right” (152), was how Barni reasoned at the time. Even then, however, she did question and caution herself: “Was I reasoning in an unhealthy way?” – as she did, eventually, prove to have done. For Ardo, who had sought comfort from Barni as a fellow Somali, a woman and a midwife to help her cope with traumatising grief at the stillborn loss of her first child, born dead in the alien land of Italy, turned out to have acquired the earrings entirely innocently. An employer had given them to her after they were left at her home by a previous Somali female employee. Later on, when Ardo turned up at Barni’s hospital about to give birth after her second pregnancy, Barni heard the full story, reconciled with Ardo, assisted with the birth and became the godmother to Ardo’s girl child.

The birth of another baby, Domenica and Taageere’s little son, creates the opportunity for further reconciliations. This baby is named Taariikh for DomenicaAxad’s late father. She and Barni travel to the Italian town where their uncle Foodcadde, now the head of their family, lives, so that he can be introduced to this new scion. And they track down and go to see Domenica’s Italian mother, from whom she had been estranged. Domenica explains to her psychiatrist in the letter that forms the penultimate section of the text that while she will speak primarily Italian to her son, both she and Barni will teach him Somali when he is a little older. And she will have him circumcised “to mark his belonging on his body”, and so also mark “his belonging to this story” (223).

Cristina Ali Farah’s fine, moving and exhortatory text exhibits a large talent. She presents us with (a) people who have been deeply harmed, but whose unmistakable dignity and human worth make theirs an unforgettable tale. Her novel is appropriately complex and the narration is non-linear; I have (inevitably) streamlined, simplified and chronologised her text in the above account for the reader’s benefit.

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