“In Somalia, the bombs have been going off” with such frequency and unpredictability that “people no longer delve into the details unless they recognize the name of a victim or that of the perpetrator.” In far-off Oslo, where the novel “North of Dawn” takes place, Mugdi and his wife, Gacalo, longtime Somali-Norwegians, learn that their son Dhaqaneh has blown himself up in the name of Ashabaab, after exacting Gacalo’s promise to take in his widow, Waliya, and her daughter, Saafi, 14, and son, Naciim, 12.
The route the three take from a refugee camp in Kenya to an apartment in Oslo — by way of Entebbe, Damascus, Nicosia, Rome, Brussels and Frankfurt, by plane and by train, with forged Tanzanian passports, traffickers and minders, all funded by Mugdi — suggests the web of connections binding the world that so suddenly and forcefully intrudes into Mugdi and Gacalo’s quiet life.
These connections, fraught and fraying, are critical to Nuruddin Farah’s fiction, tracing the conditions that give his stories their start and their shape. With the displaced and radically religious Waliya and her children in his family’s midst, Mugdi, a secular Muslim of diplomatic background and academic bent, finds himself faced with the politics and practical realities of immigration and cultural churn that his peaceful isolation seems to have kept at bay.
When we meet him, Mugdi is working on a Somali translation of “his favorite Norwegian novel, ‘Giants in the Earth,’ ” O.E. Rølvaag’s story of an immigrant family in the Dakota Territory in the late 1800s. Throughout, defining his own distance from and immersion in the book’s drama, Mugdi draws parallels between the Norwegians’ struggle in the Dakotas and the Somalis’ in present-day Norway — as his stepgrandchildren undergo the far more immediate struggle of adolescence and assimilation while trying to maintain their faith.
Anders Breivik’s slaughter of scores of people at a summer camp erupts into these characters’ lives, underlining Mugdi’s frequent comparison and condemnation of the two radical “minority groups: on one side, the neo-Nazis … and on the other, the jihadis, small in number when you think of the world’s Muslim population of a billion-plus. These two are at war and the rest are victims.”
Against this backdrop Naciim and Saafi are at pains to fit in, and yet to become truly themselves, while their mother 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.” Their story, simply told, gives intimate life to experience so often framed in world-political terms. “Art is a humanizer,” as one character observes — and as the Somali novelist clearly and deftly demonstrates, once again.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin.
North of Dawn
By: Nuruddin Farah.
Publisher: Riverhead, 373 pages, $27.