Rome, 1976. Nuruddin Farah, the thirty-year-old Somali author, had just published his second novel, A Naked Needle. Having lived outside of Somalia for several years, he wanted to go home.
From Rome, Farah called his brother in Mogadishu to see if he could meet him at the airport. As Farah told me several years ago during an interview for The Dominion Post (Wellington), his brother warned him that A Naked Needle had offended the Somali government of Siad Barre. “I don’t think it’s wise for you to return,” his brother said. “Stick around Rome for a while. A friend of mine is coming. He will bring a message.”
That friend worked for the Justice Ministry. His message changed everything for Farah. “If you return to Somalia,” he said, “you will be given a minimum of thirty years’ detention. Or you could be sentenced to death.”
A more formal death sentence came three years later. “They intimated me of the fact that I would face a firing squad if I returned home,” Farah told me in 2006 via phone from his home in Cape Town.
The period marked the beginning of two decades in exile and the ban of Farah’s work in Somalia. By then, however, he was already certain of his literary purpose: “To keep my country alive by writing about it… If the paranoid regime of Siad Barre won’t allow me to return because of my writing,” he said, “then my work must be worth continuing. I must write something worthy of the challenge.”
The leading Somali writer of his generation, Farah received the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature for his body of work, which includes the novels Maps, Gifts and Secrets (Blood in the Sun Trilogy); Links, Knots and Crossbones (Return to Somalia trilogy); and, most recently, Hiding in Plain Sight.
Farah’s new novel begins in contemporary Mogadishu, where Aar, a U.N. logistics officer, receives a death threat from the terrorist group Al-Shabaab. “Death in Somalia seldom bothers to announce its arrival,” Farah writes. “In fact, death calls with the arrogance of a guest confident of receiving a warm welcome at any time, no questions asked.”
The prologue ends with the attack, leaving the reader at once chilled and disappointed to lose Aar, if only because Farah does in the space of those first twelve pages what many writers struggle to do in one hundred. From there, however, his narrative shifts to Bella, Aar’s sister and a character as complex and as fascinating as you’re likely to find in contemporary fiction. A glamorous photographer, Bella leaves her home in Rome and returns to Africa, putting her international lifestyle on hold in order to mourn her brother and to care for Aar’s two children.
Hiding in Plain Sight examines the fate of Somalia during its post-Siad Barre era and its civil war that is now approaching a third decade. It is a deep and moving meditation on the obligations of family and the meaning of home by a writer who has spent the majority of his life living outside of Somalia but who has remained committed to understanding his country and the people who inhabit it.
Farah’s most accessible novel, Hiding in Plain Sight is also the perfect introduction to a body of work that weaves cultures, religions, politics and storytelling, making him a writer we can’t afford to ignore.