Offspring of Paradise
Author: Safi Abdi
Publiser: 1st Books Library
This powerful novel by a Somali woman presently living in Dubai might be described as a combination of historical novel, sociological study and thriller – it is, moreover, a text that is strongly coloured by the fierce Afro-feminism and proudly Muslim convictions of its young protagonist, Hana, who as a little girl loses her home and most of her family to the eruption of clannist mayhem that took up the power vacuum after the fall of the dictator Siad Barre in 1991. It is a work of mourning for the disintegration of a civilisation, but more audible than the lament is its anger at the range of predators that descend on decent Somali families both during the onset of social breakdown and subsequently; the human jackals of the Somali warlords as well as the “do-gooder” European Christians whom they encounter in the refugee colonies outside of Somalia.
Fairly late in the text an adult Somali woman recalls the texture of living in “peaceful Somalia” (as it was) by remembering “old folk songs” expressive of “the poetry, the beauty and the richness of her mother tongue” and the musicians such as “Saado Ali, Umar Duleh, Ilma Mooge and all the others whose melodies had once enthralled the streets of Hamar and Hargeisa, BandarQasim, Kismayo, Galk’ayo, and Borame”; with nostalgia calling up “an era of songs and good humor, of Thursday trysts on the beaches, and of Friday lunches taken under the cool shade” (108-9). How very sadly one contrasts these images of prosperous times with the awful present disasters of self-perpetuating bloodshed, drought and starvation. Among the few images we are shown depicting post-civil war Hamar (the name by which the city of Mogadiscio is known) is the following:
“… the broken neighbourhood where women worked like horses. And men grazed like cows – that’s when they weren’t chasing each other down the street with their machine guns, or whatever other ammunition under their disposal” (330).
In a slightly later passage Hana’s mother, Asha, in transit on her flight from Somalia after many years of separation from her daughter, encounters a fellow Somali woman in a foreign airport, a woman who left Hamar much earlier than Asha and is desperate to hear what is left of her old, loved neighbourhood and its landmarks, “… wanting to know about the state of this building or that building, and every time Asha said, ‘O God! That one? I can’t remember seeing it, lately, maybe it’s gone, too!’ her head would shake and the eyebrows fold. ‘Everything gone?’ ‘I think so.’ ‘Behind the Muncipio, remember the …?’ ‘Gone, too. Grass, grass, grass, everywhere, if it weren’t for the donkeys.’ ‘Grass growing in the middle of No 4? That road no more? And Forte Sheikh?’ ‘You don’t want to know …’ ‘HawaTako? Muhamed Abdullah Hassan?’ ‘You want to know?’ She once lived a stone’s throw away from where Asha lived. ‘Now tell me, how’s Hasharwayne?’ The woman’s mother was a fruit and vegetable dealer and they used to have all kinds of fruit and vegetables growing in their backyard. ‘You really don’t want to know,’ Asha would say, whenever a certain question popped into the woman’s mind. For the Hamar she’d left behind was not a Hamar that grew things or built anything of concrete” (338-339).
When she “woke up” from her spell of mental block-out after trauma, Hana’s mother had said: “The women of this land must overcome, someday, if it be by the Grace of Allah” (329), and that is perhaps the faint hope held out by this text, though it shows, too, examples of the few good men who would be contributing to such an endeavour.
The novel opens arrestingly, shockingly, with a scene depicting an “exhausted vehicle” in which the remnants of a family attempt to make their escape from “the madness of the fallen city [Hamar]”. Here we catch our first glimpse of a six-year-old Hana, huddling “under her mother’s pregnant belly”, her mother Asha’s teardrops soaking her brow (1). Mere hours before, Hana’s father was killed – in a manner about which we will learn much more, later; also how his death relates to the haunting cover image of this text. The whole family has been labelled “Faqash” – a term presumably meaning something like “rubbish” and recalling the label of “cockroach” attached to victims to inspire another, more notorious genocide; here, we are in the Horn of Africa and anyone whose clan connection remotely links them to the toppled dictator has become prey. Hence the next move in this “filthy game … degrading and disgracing all it touched” less than an hour after they started driving is the sudden, fatal and almost random shooting of Hana’s paternal uncle, the driver of their vehicle. Quick as a wink her grandmother hides the little girl under her garment, but the men seize on Asha, Hana’s pregnant mother, to gang-rape her – only to be frustrated or interrupted in their vile deed when she goes into birth-throes. The baby boy is stillborn and the mother, maddened by shock, loss and horror, crawls away into the pitch-dark night and disappears from sight. Ayeyo (which means “grandmother” and is the form of address Hana always employs for her), ever resourceful and steadfast, and now the only living adult companion to the child, takes charge of the burials of the two corpses, with Hana’s exhausted help. For “beyond the litter on the ground” (7) are the heavens to which she shifts her gaze, retaining her trust in Allah.
What began as an uprising against a tyrant, as Abdi shows the reader from another character’s perspective, quickly deteriorates into “a wholesale bloodbath and vandalism” in which “killing and maiming of all forms of life became the norm”, and “the dishonouring of women an honourable feat” (17). This character’s brother had shot dead his own father and wounded brother; when her mother later gets the news that he, too, has been killed, she sheds no tears, for, she states, to her “her son had died long ago … ‘the day the tribal fever hit his heart’” (36). Without justifying the “twenty-one years of corruption and depravity, of mass killing and persecution” of Barre’s hated reign, a man encountered by chance observes that nevertheless, with the fall of that regime went “whatever sanity … ever held this insane nation together”. He utters the portentous remark that “the pen has dried and the books are stolen” (56).
After two years of wandering and suffering, Hana and her grandmother finally make it to a refugee centre in an unnamed European country, where the little girl has to try and come to terms with the images of her nation and motherland shown on the cheap television set in their small flat. Over and over she sees photographs of starving Somali women “with ropes for arms”; photographs that for her blend into one and that she somehow associates with her mother, saying “Her baby will die” (11). This eerie remark reflects the horror that even a child like this (now ten) has imbibed from combining the screen’s spectacularisation of her homeland as a disaster area with her own memories. All the horrors blend into one: “all the chaotic elements in the huge furnace that was Somalia … whip up to just one burning matter: why?”Her grandmother’s answer is blunt: “Greed,” she says, the possessive lust of very bad men. When the child raises the further question why babies should be harmed and killed, her grandmother explains that ruthlessness destroys humane considerations, so that “babies get burnt when men kindle the fire of hell, and the women” (12) and the old and the maimed and helpless all get hurt. All they can do is to pray, she says. “But,” the child says, “we pray, and nothing happens?” Ayeyo’s reply is that “for a prayer of this magnitude to become effective, you need a lot of people praying together, with one single voice, and with one single heart …” (13).
The contrasting superficiality to this profound spiritual yearning for a caring Somali community through communion is again touched on when Abdi builds a scene depicting the infamous mutilation of the corpse of an American soldier from a shot-down helicopter into her narrative, as observed by one of her female characters. As many readers will know, the scene was built into the film Blackhawk Down and had been televised and photographed at the time; her concern is with how an event of this kind freezes the international image of Somalis and Somalia. Over a mere five-and-a-half pages Abdi achieves something of a more complex view of the event and its context. First, she refers to the UN/US intervention in the Somali civil war sarcastically as “the humanitarian missionaries” who nevertheless, by attacking “the thieves of Hamar”, destroyed local “women, children, even babies” who were caught in the crossfire or by “the indiscriminate firings from above” from the helicopter gunships (69). In this way, the narrator insists, “it was the foreign troops who had taken on the role of the warlords and their ragtag clansmen” (69). Observing the to her grotesque sight of a pretty young Somali woman getting her face proudly photographed (for the international media) next to a piece of the corpse’s flesh, Amina elicits the bitter comment from an equally shocked male bystander that the image subsequently broadcast across the globe will convey a single, brutal “meaning”: that “every single Somali is barbaric and every single Somali is stupid … [since] No one’s going to believe” that actually those responsible are “a one tribal show … one out of many ethnic groups” in Somalia (71). When Hana later in her life sees yet another image of a “potbellied child” somewhere in Africa, she screams out in fury, denouncing the clearly absent father of the child who, she declares, is probably fighting in some faction (103-4). In the epigraph to her fourth chapter, Abdi had invoked the words of the Prophet of Islam: “That person is not of us who inviteth others to aid him in oppression; and he is not of us who fighteth for his tribe in injustice; and he is not of us who dieth in assisting his tribe in tyranny.”
In the quest to learn more about her own past before her ageing grandmother passes away, an adolescent Hana begs her: “Ayeyo, I want to know everything.” She needs, Hana says, “to talk about this … to find some meaning in this”, insisting that “there isn’t a thing I can’t take.” Even though she had, years earlier, made a tape for Hana with the help of their neighbour and friend Mulki, the grandmother now admonishes herself by her own name Aaliya to “rake up the dirt” and “wade … through the mud”, since it’s Hana’s “heritage”: “a fallen nation’s heritage to one of her own; let the poor citizen record,” she adds, for Hana is assiduously taking notes. Partly, one suspects, to avoid the especially painful topic of Hana’s mother Asha’s “disappearance” and what caused it, Ayeyo brings up the way her father had died: assassinated by means of a bomb blast just as he was stepping into their home after attending mosque; “shatter[ing] like a crystal glass” in front of the horrified eyes of his wife, daughter and mother-in-law.
As she hears the explanation of how her father died, Hana’s own memory of the event (that she must have previously blocked from her mind in a child’s incomprehension) is triggered. She sees (as on the text’s cover image) “a tiny frame in a flowered dress with puffy sleeves” and understands at last that “it is she”: “barefooted and transfixed in the thicket of the bedlam” that had not only killed her father but had blown off the roof of their home. She re-experiences “the stench of fire and smoke” and “the deafening cry of a pregnant woman … [her mother] … splashed with blood and rubble” (84).
Not long after this scene Hana has to face the impending death of her Ayeyo, “gazing at the beloved creases” for the last time. Her grandmother had appointed their neighbour Mulki (whose own terrible Somali background is depicted in the text) to be Hana’s guardian after her death. Hana, now 15, changes into an uncontrollable, perpetually unhelpful and resentful person after losing her grandmother, and Mulki has to put up with a great deal – which she does, patiently, because she understands how bitterly Hana has been affected by her loss after the earlier losses in her life.
The time comes for Mulki to play her the tape Ayeyohad made, but Hana declares that there is nothing on it she had not previously heard. What she does understand better after hearing it is that her mother had been in shock both before and after giving birth to the stillborn boy baby and that this makes her fleeing (at the time) comprehensible. Hana is also much too sharp not to notice that her grandmother had erased the part of the tape where she had initially spoken of the (attempted or interrupted) gang rape of Asha, Hana’s mother. Despite her grandmother’s wise words to her at the end of the tape, “Hana, Allah does not change the condition of people until they change that which is in themselves”, and her allusion to the layers of history behind the mayhem that destroyed their family, Hana registers nothing but fierce anger at this point – an anger that she directs for the time being at the nearest target, Mulki, who had (as Hana knows) herself been forced to abandon her own best friend on her family’s journey out of Somalia.
Into the gap torn in the girl’s heart by her many losses and her sense of terrible betrayals moves a sinister figure: a woman who not only befriends Hana by offering her certain opportunities and privileges that as a European she can, but much more potently, by conveying to Hana that she is part of a network that is tracking down her mother in Somalia. What the woman, Helen, at first hides from Hana, however, is that she and her associates (her partner, Jason, and an older man, Rune) are fanatical Christians who make it their business to convert the younger African Muslim refugees whom they believe are still vulnerable to the potent combination of “help” and initially muted Christian propaganda with which they approach them. Abdi spends a great deal of time in the text building up the truly fearsome profiles of especially Helen and her partner Jason, who are portrayed as the murderers of Jason’s former wife (though they managed to pin the blame on another man who happened to be a serial killer with whom the ex-wife had established a relationship). In the end, however, it is the “respectable” and seemingly conscientious pastor, Rune Schumacher, who proves to be even more sinister than these two – and it is he who will at the end of the text “take care of” (ie get rid of) the by then troublesome couple by a murder dressed up as an accidental overdose in Helen’s case, and a discreetly arranged assassination in Somalia in Jason’s case.
It will be clear from the above not only that this is how the “thriller” element gets into the text, but that it involves a richly melodramatic dimension. It is helpful to see that what is at work in the portrayals of the various Christian characters and their actions is not merely a turning of the tables on the stereotypes of “evil” Muslims so prevalent in the West/North, but a serious concern with the insensitivity, disrespect, ignorance and ruthlessness shown in certain missionary ventures undertaken by Christians. The missionaries call themselves “carriers”, short for “carriers of the cross” (40). Although modelling themselves on the crusaders by that naming, they are technologically super-efficient and ultra-modern.
Although Hana is fortunately too canny a subject to be easily brainwashed into abandoning her Muslim faith (despite her anger at “Somali men”, or the stereotype of them that she carries around in her head) and is watched over by those who love her and who are concerned for her, there is no doubt that misguided efforts like those of Helen et al are visited upon vulnerable refugees as a type of neo-colonisation. Helen and company do not care that, having lost most of her nearest and dearest as well as her home and country, the last thing such a displaced and traumatised youngster needs is to be cut off from her fellow refugees by inculcation into a different faith. What I found fascinating is that, as if despite herself, author Abdi has endowed the character of Helen with some poignancy – she is a desperately needy personality who at long last found comfort in Christ and who associates the saviour with the partner (Jason) whom she then chooses for herself, who dances to her commands until she starts going too far – in fact, she loses not only all discretion, but her mind; kidnapping Hana in a last and desperate bid to convert her, even (eventually) plotting Hana’s death!
Abdi portrays several discussions between Hana and Helen that indicate the process of attempted influencing by Helen and a sort of instinctive resistance by Hana. For instance, Helen expresses frustrated puzzlement at the fact that Hana continues to “trust these people” (142), meaning her fellow Somalis (especially those living among the refugees). Here Hana, “amused at Helen’s outburst”, responds with “I don’t think you’ll ever get to know us Somalis’’, declaring that despite including some seeming “cutthroats”, the Somalis are in the end all “family” caught in a type of “sibling rivalry gone awry”. She recalls the words of her grandmother, stating that, until Somalis begin to understand the both “un-Islamic” and (worse) “plain idiotic” nature of what they have done to themselves, “they’ll never amount to anything” (143). On a later occasion, Helen sneers to Hana: “[H]ow irksome, though, it has to be us Christians who must help Muslims”, and Helen is secretly infuriated that Hana refers her to their imam, Abdirahman, to explain the issue (186).
The final example of this kind of exchange occurs on the estate where Helen (in the final section of the text) holds Hana captive when the young girl feistily responds to awful scenes in a TV documentary showing Somali gunmen stealing food parcels and humanitarian aid meant for war and famine victims. Hana raises the countering example of many Christian Serbs’ barbaric treatment of Bosnian women and children, mentioning a Bosnian woman among the refugees who was raped, impregnated and lost her hearing in a Serb attack.
Abdi puts an admirable Muslim leader, Abdirahman, into the text. He is the imam to the Somali refugees and a caring family man. Abdirahman and his wife Khadra have their own problems with a rebellious teenage daughter who takes the now harshly “independent” Hana as her role model. In an important and poignant scene we overhear a long and difficult discussion between the angry and bitter Hana and the imam – whom she respects, but sees as simultaneously representing the great cohort of Somali men who have so dreadfully failed their women, children and homeland. Because Abdirahman has the tact and sensitivity not to respond defensively to Hana’s accusations, revealing his own grief and sense of guilt to Hana, he conveys to her that “everyone’s suffering” and even men like him are “eaten up with regret”. Yet she persists in demanding that much more be done by Somali men in order to compensate for their communal failures and misdeeds, eventually driving Abdirahman into openly weeping, but asking her to meet again and continue their discussion (233-7).
In writing a “profile” of a text like this one omits many details, inevitably, but I should at least make mention of some other admirable and well-meaning Somali men whom Abdi portrays, in this way balancing Hana’s homogenising condemnation. Apart from Hana’s own father and Abdirahman, there is the responsible, faithful and kindly husband of Amina, a former nurse, who for years gives shelter to Hana’s mother Asha. Other examples include a distant kinsman, Kaise, who finds false passports for Hana and her grandmother and pays for their flight out of Somalia, and Usman, a young Somali fellow refugee who takes pains to warn Hana against Helen; and, of course, Hana’s paternal uncle, who had attempted to drive them away to safety after her father’s assassination, only to be gunned down himself. In another small “balancing act” Abdi puts a most kindly elderly Christian couple on the estate where Helen holds her captive; the wife, Mrs Grant (the housekeeper), both devises and assists in Helen’s escape from Helen’s clutches – at great risk to herself.
Towards the end of the text Abdi alludes to the then prospective peace process in Djibouti, planning for a future Somalia and indicating hopes, cynicism and anxieties about this among the Somali refugees. The text ends slightly ambivalently: there is the great joy of Hana’s mother’s arrival and their impending reunion, but also the lurking dark shadow of Rune, who is plotting further sinister conversion attempts.
On balance, Offspring of Paradise is an important and fascinating text offering profound insights despite some rather banal parts or dimensions of its narrative. It is a worthwhile addition to the African literary archive.