Farah’s lat­est looks at rad­i­cal ter­ror­ism

Son is a sui­cide bomber and par­ents try to re­group

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Books - By Ron Charles

When Nu­rud­din Farah writes fic­tion about the rav­ages of ter­ror­ism, the de­tails may be imag­i­nary but the scars are real. The cel­e­brated So­mali nov­el­ist, a fre­quent con­tender for the No­bel Prize in lit­er­a­ture, lost his sis­ter Basra Farah Has­san in 2014. A nu­tri­tion­ist work­ing for UNICEF, she was mur­dered, along with at least 20 oth­ers, when the Tal­iban bombed a restau­rant in Kabul.

Farah’s new book, “North of Dawn,” places its char­ac­ters far from fly­ing shrap­nel but deep in con­flicted grief. Like his pre­vi­ous novel, “Hid­ing in Plain Sight,” it’s con­cerned with dif­fi­cult ques­tions of for­give­ness and re­cov­ery in the af­ter­math of vi­o­lence. The story opens in Oslo, when a So­mali diplo­mat named Mugdi gets word that his only son has blown him­self up at the air­port in Mo­gadishu. Mugdi and his wife, Gacalo, sus­pected their son was rad­i­cal­ized, but news of his death makes it im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore the truth any longer: They are the par­ents of a sui­cide bomber.

Shocked and dis­gusted, Mugdi wants noth­ing to do with the mem­ory of his late son. “How can I mourn a son who caused the death of so many in­no­cent peo­ple?” he asks. “I ex­plode into rage ev­ery time I re­mem­ber what he did.” But his wife re­fuses to re­lin­quish her love for the young man, and she’s de­ter­mined to keep their parental con­nec­tion alive by invit­ing their son’s wi­dow

and her two chil­dren to Oslo. That in­vi­ta­tion, sent on the wings of af­fec­tion and duty, en­snares Gacalo and Mugdi in a com­pli­cated kind­ness that will al­ter the rest of their lives.

“North of Dawn” is a story we rarely hear, a tale con­cern­ing the ter­ror­ist’s fam­ily that takes place in the long shadow of grief, shame and twisted loy­alty. It’s also a story puls­ing with the adren­a­line of our era: a toxic mix of zealotry and xeno­pho­bia.

It’s not hard to imag­ine that Farah, who cur­rently lives in South Africa, has in­fused the pro­tag­o­nist of this novel with his own dis­may. Mugdi is a So­mali who “de­tests So­ma­lia’s dys­func­tion.” He’s a for­eign-born res­i­dent who fears his host coun­try’s grow­ing in­tol­er­ance. He’s a spir­i­tual man who has lost his faith in or­ga­nized re­li­gion, though “the ring­ing of the muezzin stirs mem­o­ries within him.”

As the novel opens, Mugdi is thrust into the awk­ward role of wel­com­ing a daugh­ter-in-law poi­soned by the same rad­i­cal­ism that turned his son into a killer. She ar­rives from a refugee camp in a state of ter­ri­fied be­wil­der­ment, fully cloaked, un­will­ing to speak to him — or any man — di­rectly. Even be­fore they’ve left the Oslo air­port, we can see the clash of sec­u­lar and re­li­gious val­ues that will con­found this awk­ward new fam­ily. When Mugdi asks her to fas­ten her seat belt, she an­nounces: “We’ll die on the day that Al­lah has or­dained for us to die, whether we wear this thing or not.” The test of wills has just be­gun.

“North of Dawn” is brac­ingly hon­est about the dif­fi­cul­ties of as­sim­i­la­tion, the way hos­pi­tal­ity cur­dles into con­de­scen­sion and grat­i­tude sours into re­sent­ment. Mugdi and his wife are ex­traor­di­nar­ily gen­er­ous to­ward their daugh­terin-law, a young woman named Waliya, but Mugdi ex­pects her to re­cip­ro­cate by go­ing to lan­guage classes, find­ing a job and be­com­ing a pro­duc­tive mem­ber of Western so­ci­ety. Waliya, for her part, re­mains un­will­ing to do any­thing that might con­tam­i­nate her. Alarmed by the per­mis­sive cul­ture of Nor­way, she’s in­tensely alien­ated from her new home and de­ter­mined to cling to her con­ser­va­tive prac­tice of Is­lam ever more fiercely.

But for Farah, Mus­lim rad­i­cal­ism is not a prob­lem in iso­la­tion. It’s merely one side of the coin of in­tol­er­ance that’s gain­ing cur­rency

in lib­eral democ­ra­cies. “We are caught,” a friend tells Mugdi, “be­tween a small group of Nazi-in­spired vig­i­lantes and a small group of rad­i­cal ji­hadis claim­ing to be­long to a purer strain of Is­lam.” His wife agrees: “We must all be­ware of provo­ca­teurs, no mat­ter their al­le­giances, who are en­e­mies to the na­tion at large and of peace ev­ery­where.”

This is such a timely, nec­es­sary ar­gu­ment, but I wish it were ex­pressed more grace­fully in these pages. “North of Dawn” suf­fers from a ram­shackle qual­ity one might ex­pect from an ex­cit­ing but not quite fin­ished draft. There are strange gaps in the plot, and the prose some­times

slips into an­tique cliches. Con­fronted by an ag­gres­sive woman at his front door, Mugdi sus­pects “that she has cased the joint.” An­other char­ac­ter “moves like greased light­ning and is at the cafe huff­ing and puff­ing.” And Farah’s char­ac­ters some­times speak in weirdly ar­ti­fi­cial ways. A teenage girl says to her boyfriend, “Noth­ing would give me more joy than to come with you and to make their ac­quain­tance” — a re­mark that would sound more nat­u­ral in a Re­gency ro­mance.

More ir­ri­tat­ing, these char­ac­ters often feel com­pelled to turn away from each other and look out di­rectly at the reader. With preter­nat­u­ral elo­quence,

Mugdi’s 17-year-old grand­son de­claims: “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.”

If Farah wants to make this pow­er­ful and beau­ti­fully phrased ob­ser­va­tion, he would do bet­ter to place it in an es­say in­stead of cram­ming it in the mouth of a boy who would rather be play­ing soc­cer with his buddies. The story Farah shows us through these char­ac­ters’ de­railed lives is more il­lu­mi­nat­ing than any­thing they can ex­plain to us.


Nu­rud­din Farah’s new novel is set pri­mar­ily in Nor­way and in­volves a clash of cul­tures.

‘North of Dawn’ By Nu­rud­din Farah, River­head, 373 pages, $27

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