Don’t be fooled by the bucolic setting of the first story in Ahmed Ismail Yusuf’s “The Lion’s Binding Oath and Other Stories.” War does not encroach on the tale of a boy who loses track of his herd of sheep, but the leopard that menaces Doogle in “A Slow Moving Night” is a metaphor for the violence that threatens to rip apart his country.
With their focus on youthful soccer stars or childhood friendships, as well as their simple language and pastoral settings, the tales that begin the loosely linked stories of “Lion’s Binding Oath” lull readers into a false sense of security.
But by the end of the collection, it is clear that being young or living in a rural area can’t protect Somalians from more than three decades of civil war. Man or woman, adult or child, teacher or reluctant soldier, no one in “Lion’s Binding Oath” is safe.
Many stories suggest that if members of Somalia’s various factions could learn to live together as its animals have, the world would be a better place. The most arresting example of that is the title story. Reminiscent of Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi,” it’s the last and best story in Yusuf’s collection. (“A Crack in the Sky,” a play about a Somali-American that had its world premiere last winter at St. Paul’s History Theatre, was co-written by Yusuf and Harrison David Rivers.)
A boy named Hassan is let out of school early because of the nearby sounds of rapid-fire grenades, as Somalia’s capital city, Mogadishu, explodes. He becomes separated from his fleeing family and befriends a lion, with whom he establishes an uneasy and suspenseful truce. Hassan remains acutely aware that the lion could decide at any moment that he looks delicious, but it’s only by working with the creature — with whom he communicates in a form of hieroglyphics they mark on the sand — that Hassan survives.
Survival is also the theme of the disturbing “The Vulture Has Landed.” The titular phrase is a code Aayan devises to save her younger sister, Amran, when soldiers break into their home to rape them. (In keeping with the book’s anthropomorphism, the soldiers are the vultures.) Aayan’s husband is killed during the assault but Amran is saved, and it is she, in turn, who saves the life of her older sister. Yusuf packs a lot of trauma into the story’s terse 18 pages, but he ends it on a hopeful note that suggests that even when you’ve lost nearly everything, there are reasons to keep on living.
Not all of the stories are as successful. The five-part “Mayxaano Chronicles” introduces some likable characters, including the Mary Poppins-esque title character, a woman whose intelligence and style are inspirational to everyone she meets, but it feels aimless and it’s marred by some jarring word choices.
In general, it feels like Yusuf — who is, after all, not writing in his first language — could have used the services of a skilled copy editor. None is thanked in the Acknowledgments at the end of this rewarding collection and, in fact, maybe that’s why the book spells it “Acknowledgements,” instead?
Chris Hewitt is a features writer and theater critic for the Star Tribune. @HewittStrib
The Lion's Binding Oath and Other Stories
By: Ahmed Ismail Yusuf.
Publisher: Catalyst Press, 220 pages, $15.95.
Events: 7 p.m. June 11, Moon Palace Books, 3032 Minnehaha Av. S., Mpls.; 7 p.m. June 21, Subtext Bookstore, 6 W. 5th St., St. Paul.