Crossbones (published in 2012 by Penguin) is a work of fiction, the last volume of a trilogy that began with Links and Knots. If it is foretold that all good things come to an end, here’s proof.
But from the pen of Nuruddin Farah, a Somali national, who is now resident in Cape Town, it reads like a true life account of the scourge of piracy that currently plagues the coastline of his motherland. It would be difficult to convince those who watch it – should a movie about this book be made – that the reel version is not a documentary.
When he writes about the character traits of his countrymen, Farah does so with brutal honesty. These are people who would tear each others’ limbs off for a $100 note; they think nothing of spoiling for a fight with the Ethiopians even when they know they possess no military wherewithal to withstand the inevitable onslaught; every little incident creates spectator value in a busy town like Mogadishu; they have elevated chewing qaat to an art-form.
If it was anybody else but their own writing this intimately and unabashedly about the Somali character flaw, a national riot would have ensued. But I guess it is acceptable for Chris Rock – and not Jay Leno – to refer to a black man as a nigger! It is not for nothing that Farah is championed as a literary conscience of Somalia.
He writes about piracy but manages to bring the core of the Somali into the narrative. Are they capable of being pirates, what exactly is a pirate, he asks? The world knows Somalia, at least the one not in Farah’s text, to be making a killing through the illegal hijacking of container ships fishing off the coast – the longest in Africa – of the war-torn country. At least that’s what the footage of the international news media trumps – and shows.
But the journalists in Crossbones, including Malik – who accompanies his father-in-law Jeebleh on a trip to touch base with his roots in Mogadiscio (sic), get to be given another perspective. The millions said to be collected in ransom do not reach Somalia. Pawns in a game the world condemns them as its kingpins, the Somali make crumbs from this piracy. The huge chunk of the loot is controlled from air-conditioned bank boardrooms in London. What filters down to the men in machine guns are crumbs. If they made so much money from this illegal practice, why would the pirates run for such parochial gains as the personal possessions of the crews; like cellular phones and wrist watches? How do you hijack a ship the size of a whole apartment block from a skiff, the narrative ponders the question. If they really made money, how is it that large parts of Somalia remain undeveloped?
It is a convincing perspective or is it just vintage Somali spin that Farah, on his trip to the book’s Johannesburg launch, credited his countrymen with?
Piracy and the twin evil of Shabaab swallow impressionable young children – like Taxliil, the same way the wars of other African countries feed on their young.
But luckily, there are the likes of Taxliil, who are saved before they could sacrifice their youth to the martyrdom of the worst of Somalia’s ills. Others, like Saifullah, know no such luck.