The author of this book is a celebrated Somali novelist who apparently has been a frequent contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. I was unfamiliar with him until I came across a brief plot outline of this book in The New Yorker and the premise sounded interesting.
Mugdi, a former Somali diplomat, and his wife Gacalo have lived in Oslo for two decades. Their son Dhaqaneh, raised in a secular, upper-middle-class home in Norway, was radicalized and joined Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group in Mogadiscio. He died in a suicide bombing. Though Mugdi disowned his son because of his jihadist activities, Gacalo maintained contact and promised to look after his wife Waliya and his two stepchildren. Gacalo convinces her husband to sponsor the family and bring them to Norway.
Events take place over a five-year period. Waliya makes no effort to integrate and keeps company with members of a radical mosque. The children, 12-year-old Naciim and 14-year-old Saafi, are torn between their mother’s ultra-conservativism and the freedoms offered by Norwegian society. Mugdi and Gacalo’s lives suffer upheaval as they contend with their daughter-in-law’s hostility and try to do what they think is best for their grandchildren.
This novel often reads more like non-fiction with long passages extoling a point of view: “As his eyes move from the face of a Caucasian woman to a man with Middle Eastern features, and from a woman in a sari to an African man in an agbada, Mugdi is sad that scenes such as this, where a variety of races congregate at a public arena, are unavailable in Mogadiscio. As he watches the expressions of the faces of some of the Norwegians, he can spot some whose gentle features stiffen, turning ugly when they come face-to-face with a Muslim woman in full Islamic gear. Maybe a woman with a Muslim headscarf is seen as a threat, whereas a sari-wearing woman is viewed as unusual and fascinating in this part of the world. Mugdi remembers reading about a judge in the state of Georgia in the US who barred a woman with a headscarf from entering his court. Would the same judge turn away a Jewish man with a yarmulke or a nun in her habit?” Conversations often become mini-lectures: “’here in Norway, the Somalis are very much unwelcome, being black Muslim refugees at a time when migration is now viewed both as a political problem and as a threat to the Norwegians’ continued existence as a “pure race.” Right-wing groups see the Somalis as real pests, worse than bubonic plagues.’”
The reader learns a lot about changes in religious attitudes in Somalia: women dressing “in the ‘Saudi’ way . . . has lately become fashionable among Somalis” and “’Lately, many Muslims are practicing a different Islam . . . Whereas in former times, Somalis were relaxed about the genders mingling and spaces were not necessarily allotted to specific genders, our people have recently adopted the more conservative, stricter Wahhabi tradition which stipulates that different entrances are assigned to the two genders’” and “’Besides, in much of Somalia, old men your father’s age have lately been marrying girls even younger than Saafi’” and “lately Somalis have developed the bizarre habit of making little tykes don veils” and “traditional clothes the religionists have lately described as un-Islamic and therefore forbidden” and “Recently he has had the displeasure of extending his hand to shake that of a woman whom he has known for years, only for her to say, ‘I’m sorry, no handshakes’” and “the new social convention prevailing among Islamists in Somalia nowadays discourages men from speaking directly to women except via a Mahram.”
Dialogue is particularly problematic. Everyone speaks in a stiltedly formal way. Would one teenager say to another, “’Nothing would give me more joy than to come with you and to make their acquaintance’”? Would a 17-year-old tell a parent, “’How can you expect me to be good when a great number of our people kill, when the weak are massacred with impunity? We Somalis pay lip service to the faith while we live a life of lies. This is why the dissonance in our hearts continues to flourish, why there is no letup in the usual struggles within our minds, why the strife in our land rages on unabated’”? Conversation is awkward and artificial because often its primary purpose is to convey information to the reader: “’Incense burning is traditional in our culture and it lends an odiferous liveliness to the burial process.’”
Extraneous details are included. Do we need to have the Norwegian flag described: “flags bearing blue crosses outlined in white on a red background, the colors borrowed from the French tricolor, seen as a symbol of liberty”? Do we need to be taught how to make an omelet: “Mugdi brings out a skillet and some butter, cracks two eggs, which he beats together in a bowl, adds a drop of water, and then seasons the mix with black pepper and salt. When the butter has melted, he pours the mix into the frying pan and waits until it is fully cooked on all sides and ready to serve”? Do we need to know what people order to eat in a restaurant: “He orders sautéed scaloppini, Timiro all’arrabbiata, and Eugenia sole in white wine”?
The plotting is uneven. There are instances when there is a build-up of suspense but then nothing happens. This is definitely the case with Arla. She is Waliya’s best friend but she isn’t mentioned until late in the first half of the book. Later, she seems to pose a threat but that peters out to virtually nothing. And the purpose of her first encounter with Mugdi is never explained! And why is she always described as wearing something “see-through”?! Other aspects of the book that should have been developed aren’t. For example, Saafi’s trauma because of what happened in the refugee camp is not sufficiently explored. Saafi receives short shrift throughout. One minute she loses a job and the next, she “is setting up her seamstress business after obtaining her qualifications.” The passage of time is often unclear. We are told that a widower still misses his wife “almost a year and a half after her passing” but he tells a friend there have been several interruptions in his life and some “’more recently, because of my wife’s passing’”?
The book often gives the impression that it was translated rather than written in English. Mugdi and Gacalo rent an apartment for Waliya and the children but a police officer identifies the former “’as the apartment tenants’”? A mother and daughter, distraught at being separated, would cry and weep and sob but calling their emotional outpouring as “ceaseless sniveling” seems a poor choice of words. Some of the diction is complex and then there are clichés like “she has cased the joint” and “He moves like greased lightning”! Clearly, editing was cursory. Naciim buys several Norwegian flags and he lets his mother see only “one of them” but somehow she cuts up several flags, though he has successfully hidden the rest? A man accused of sexual assault must give “blood and urine samples” when earlier he is told “to give samples of blood and semen”? We are told that “Dhaqaneh accorded [Naciim] a greater preference, inducting him into the position of a Mahram, the male head of the household” but later we are told “The initial mistake was Waliya’s, when she singled Naciim out for his maleness in a household of females and assigned him the role of Mahram”!
Mugdi is translating Ole Edvart Rølvaag’s novel Giants in the Earth into Somali, and comparisons are constantly made between the Norwegian immigrants in the Dakotas and Somali immigrants in Norway: “Beret, in her fear of the prairie, covers the windows of her sod house and bars the door at the slightest worry whenever her husband is away. And the Somalis conceal their bodies with all-enveloping tents when they are outside the house, afraid of whom they may run into” and “Just like Beret, Waliya is forever creating havoc, unable to come to terms with her new country’s climate, culture, or faith, nor able to tear herself loose from all that defined her back in the land where she was raised.” These comparisons serve to remind the reader that immigrants regardless of country of origin have struggled, but would a man in the midst of grief really think about the death of a character in a novel?
The book touches on important topics. It examines the impact of religious radicalization. It explores the struggles immigrants face in integrating into a different culture. It points out that Somali immigrants in Norway are really “’caught between a small group of Nazi-inspired vigilantes and a small group of radical jihadis claiming to belong to a purer strain of Islam.’” The problem is that the book is clunky with numerous issues that need to be addressed. The impact of its important message is greatly lessened by the book’s lack of literary quality.