Book Review: Guban by Abdi Latif Ega

gubanThe events unfolding around the political arrest of an apolitical businessman tells the story of a politically troubled country. The author of Guban, Abdi Latif Ega, cleverly weaves the social, environmental, cultural and political provisions of Somalia to voice the journey of a largely misunderstood country that came to be viewed as predestined to failure because of its culture. The author impressively debunks this preconception by offering an urgently needed alternate narrative, not only to grasp the circumstances through which Somalia came to be “a failing state” but also to construe the histories of many African countries.

The author represents a rare voice that goes contrary to a great number of African authors who take a cathartic mode of writing through which they try to appeal to Western mainstream audiences confirming the prejudices about the savagery, inhumanity, poverty, famine, diseases and violence of African societies. He, however, does not go to the extreme opposite of that cathartic mode to talk about “the positive” through cultural enchantment. The author provides a compelling story of Somalia that humanizes and historicizes its political struggle. Guban is not a novel to be read for entertainment although it generously fulfills that requisite; rather, it is a story to be read for reflection and political learning.

Pulling the Thread

On a regular afternoon, Hoagsaday hears invasive knocks on the door of his house. He hurries angrily to open the door only to find himself surrounded by soldiers pushing him into a military truck. The news reaches the corners of Somalia like forest fire through neighbors and relatives who gather to witness the fiasco. Hoagsaday is driven to a heavily guarded building, leaving behind a hysterically crying wife and children.

The author makes a telling point through his shrewd exposé of the central character of the story. Hoagasaday is a regular man. He is not in the government and has no interest in politics; he has not breached the law in any way. This portrayal encompasses multiple meanings about the nature of Somali politics and society. Starting out as a revolutionary, socialist, and nationalist the government of Somalia morphed into a militarized “clanstocracy” ruling under the guise of “political reform”. Hoagasaday, who has no interest in politics, is targeted by the state for political arrest for no other reason than belonging to a particular clan and being a relative of Beheyeah, a wayward revolutionary of the government. Altruistic in nature, Beheyeah is the opposite of his former schoolmate and current megalomaniac government member Kumanay. Beheyeah does not approve of the new trajectory the government and its power-hungry members like Kumanay have taken. Arresting Hoagsaday is the “clannish” way for the government and for Kumanay to get at Beheyeah.

The sudden arrest of an ordinary man instigates an upheaval in the whole country like pulling a thread of crochet in a beautifully woven fabric.  It indicates that everyone is equally important in Somali society; prestige and power are not necessary to cause a commotion in the whole country. It is an egalitarianism rooted in Somali nomadic culture. It also illustrates the sacredness of blood relations and social ties in Somali society while revealing the double-edged nature of this social solidarity. The irony of social solidarity is exposed through the dramatic events that follow the attempt Hoagsaday’s relatives make to find and free him.  Freeing Hoagasaday first develops into armed struggle between the government and Hoagsaday’s clan then escalates into full-fledged armed resistance against the government. As the government’s clutches reach further encampments and cut the pathways of pastoralists in the hinterlands, more clans and pastoralists join the rebel group that operates from Ethiopia.

With the intensification of violence, Hoagsaday becomes a potent rebel leader whose name makes soldiers tremble, revealing yet another layer of meaning to Hoagsaday’s character. The circumstantial evolution of a regular man into a formidable rebel leader is a powerful point that humanizes an armed political struggle and a leadership that is forced into standing up against a brutal dictatorship.

A journey into Exile

Tusmo is left broken. She is prevented from opening her store, her house is kept under heavy surveillance and everyday a member of her husband’s clan is arrested or killed. Tusmo’s way out of these horrible circumstances would be at the hands of someone she never expects: Asha her neighbor, an elderly woman who hardly talks to her and who belongs to the government’s clan. Asha crosses the line of clan and risks her own life to help Tusmo and her little ones. She surreptitiously prepares for them to leave to Nairobi. Asha’s noble action attests to the fact that human connections can supersede narrow identities and interests.

Tusmo symbolizes multiple issues in the novel. She personifies the vulnerability of a Somali citizen who brusquely finds herself a victim of a coercive power surmounted by danger and uncertainty. Her vulnerability does not stem only from being a young powerless woman whose husband has been taken away. It emanates also from her responsibility towards her daughters who rely on her for protection – a protection that she cannot assure for herself. She is forced into realization that she must forget life as she knew it. She is uprooted from the life she enjoyed – however short-lived – after leaving the hinterlands and marrying Hoagsaday.

On her way out of the country, anxious Tusmo does not know that she is about to add a layer of identity to herself: a displaced person in diaspora. She will be initiated into the group of displaced people in diaspora by Dehka, a young Somali lady who studies in Kenya while waiting to join her father in London. The author makes the ingenious choice of not revealing whether Tusmo joins her husband or not. He rather leaves it open to all possibilities, as it is the case in real life, where displaced people live a life shrouded with uncertainty, ambiguity, and insecurity. Tusmo, with the help of Dehka, will get her daughters in school in Nairobi along with other children of Somali diaspora in Kenya and start her journey of struggle in the unknown.

Tusmo also represents an average Somali, African and Muslim woman who takes us in an expedition through the sociocultural and geographic terrain of Somalia. In this expedition, we learn about cherished Somali cultural traits such as hospitality.  We learn about Somali music and are given a taste of its poetry, a highly regarded cultural peculiarity in Somalia. We see a beautiful Somalian landscape that does not feature famine, poverty and disease. Throughout the journey we never see the pornographic scenes of violence and savagery conventionally depicted about Africa. We witness the mundane interaction of a Muslim woman that does not submit to the Islamophobic views widely held about Somalia and other Muslim societies.

Different Types of Misleaders

After freeing Hoagasaday, Beheyeah makes the perilous escape out of Somalia and joins the established rebel group in Ethiopia. Once a socialist revolutionary, now Beheyeah’s major concern is how to undo the brutal dictatorship he had a part in creating. He spends his days intoxicating himself to oblivion to soothe the pain of his political sobriety. He is now conscious that Somalia is not fully and truly an independent nation and that he has contributed to its dependency through his own intellectual slavery.

Beheyeah might be one of those Western-educated leaders or native informants who seek to sanitize their own minds and the minds of their people from homegrown ideas and transplant Western ways into the lives of nomads. But he is unlike other elites who continue to be self-enchanted and who are interested only in being at the head of the table.  Beheyeah is recognized for defecting from the government in the height of his power as soon as he realizes its ills. Kumanay, the megalomaniac, on the other hand, is described by the Western officials in Mogadishu, as an “amenable” man. He is the one who facilitates Americans’ endeavors to bring Somalia into the Western camp during the Cold War in exchange for cash and weapons. Hence, being “amenable,” we should deduce, is a euphemism for the potentiality for political enslavement.

However, through the novel we surmise that being a Western or Eastern minion is not the sole defect that the Somali leadership needs to redress. The author extensively addresses the issue of the supremacy of clan and the conflict of loyalty and priority it creates for people trying to act as a nation. This is expressed succinctly in the words of Abukar when he tries to fend off the arrest of his relative Hoagsaday and ends up in jail himself. He shouts at the soldiers “…this is not a government matter. When you come here like this, you don’t come here as a government, but as a clan. Everyone has a clan too, and you will reckon with Hoagsaday’s. We see you behind the clan camouflage of your uniform.” The omnipotence of clan is also expressed through Beheyeah’s contemplations when he observes the rebel leaders in Ethiopia convene to work as a movement that represents Somalia and aims to liberate it yet hold secret meetings to discuss the interests of their clans. It is an ailment that cuts through leadership in both government and opposition.

Western-educated elite are not the only ones who mislead their people while trying to keep their positions. Chiefs and traditional leaders, like Jama, face similar challenges as they try to appeal to their fearless nomads at the same time they follow the government’s agenda. This becomes even more challenging with the intensification of violence and more killings of their sons. The novel takes us through the heated meetings of chiefs with their people and with government personnel to illustrate the difficulty of choice-making at this level of power relations.  The author refers to the history of chieftaincy during colonialism, explaining much about the ambiguous political positions and roles of chiefs in today’s political turmoil.

Psychological make-up and Individual motivation

Although the novel emphasizes the complicity of both the West and Somali leaders in the calamity of Somalia, we decipher that individual motivations and aspirations loom large in what transpires. Unearthing through ideology, Pan-Africanism, Cold War, clan, etc., we find that, in many cases, people act for their personal fulfillment. This can be interpreted in both the positive and negative depictions of the major and minor characters.  On the positive side, for instance, we see, Beheyeah fulfills the righteous person he is when he leaves the government when it digresses from its initial principles. Also, Asha acts against her clan to satisfy the good in herself. On the negative side, Kumanay is motivated by his greed and power hunger when he accepts to be the enabler of the US Cold War Agenda in Somalia in exchange for money. Similarly, Yusuf, who implements Hoagsaday’s arrest in a humiliating way, was motivated by his own aspiration to get rid of his hinterland ways and becomes a “post-camel” man. The buzz he makes when arresting Hoagasaday is his tactic to send a message of humiliation and intimidation following on the steps of his senior and role model in modernity Ali Deray. Yusuf’s insecurity of his pastoralist ways push him to seize any opportunity to “make it” among the city dwellers.

The psychological make-up of individuals is a leading factor in the positions the characters take and the roles they play. The author gives us an extensive account of the social background of many characters such as Ali Deray, to grasp his psychological predispositions as a “security apparatus guy” and a business broker who mediates between merchants, NGOs and government officials to serve his own avarice and selfishness. The author also makes brief stops to provide explanation of minor yet thought-provoking characters of the novel. One example of this is the family that Tusmo spends transitory time with at the border between Somalia and Kenya. The lady of the house shocks Tusmo with her coldness towards Tusmo’s presence. It is totally unexpected posturing that contradicts the conventional warmth and hospitality of Somalis towards their guests. Then, we come to understand, along with Tusmo, that the geographic location of her house on the route that many people fleeing Somalia take has molded her into the callous woman she is. She used to get emotionally attached to fleeing people’s dreams and hopes, but she then learned that once the people make it out she never hears from them. This portrayal alludes to the fact that fleeing the country is an aspiration shared by most Somalis and has become a social habit. The portrayal also invites a study of the human condition and the socio-psychological make-up of similar people living on the borders and the changeability of their culture.

Modernity and Pastoralism

One of the major themes that run through the novel is the conflict between the hinterland and the city, representing the conflict of modernity and tradition. There is a hierarchal order to the duality of modernity and tradition stemming from the fact that modernity is a Western concept and, by necessity, assumes a superior position to “tradition.” The city of Mogadishu represents a local model of what the West stands for – an aspiration everyone should reach. Embracing modernity and becoming one of the city dwellers is sought by many characters such as Yusuf to become a “post-camel” person. However, this hierarchal order is not a fixed one. For instance, we observe that the hinterland people despise city dwellers and regard them as sluggish walkers who lack valor and forte.

The relationship between modernity and tradition is also not a definite; it is a dialectical relationship. Through the novel there is dialectic between modernity and tradition that can be sensed in the grand scheme of things as well as within the life span of one person. For instance, we see how people of the city, who were once camel people themselves, look down to and joke about the people of the hinterland who are yet to make it. Ali Deray, for example, does that when he gossips with his urban fellows about a Yusuf who asks him for help to make it in modernity. Yet, we see those same city dwellers celebrate their enormous dignity, fearlessness, and hospitality which are rooted in nomadic culture of Somalia. On the other hand, within the same life span, we witness Beheyeah submits to both modernity and tradition. He is a devotee to Western notions of progress embracing them zealously at the personal level. However, when going through personal crisis, Beheyeah looks for redemption in the spiritual legacy of his forefathers. Hence, the back and forth within the duality of modernity and tradition speaks to the indefinite relationship between them while alluding to their nebulous meanings. That being said, clan is an all-pervading sociocultural factor that overarches city modes and hinterland ways. Clan is both; a vehicle/tool to serve individuals’ ambitions and an authority to be submitted to by the same individuals in the city and in the hinterlands.

The novel is written in an exquisite language that depicts captivating images. Its engaging language makes scenes vivid by paying attention to minute expressions and subtle body language. You feel the heated conversations in the chiefs’ meetings, the anxiety of Tusmo, the arrogance of Ali Deray, the prudence of Asha and you become sympathetic with Beheyeah’s as he goes through disillusionment. The novel interconnects many levels of agency. The characters of the novel, with their worries and aspirations are very relevant in a way that makes them traverse Somalia and become appealing in other contexts. It is a story to be read to learn about Somalia, Africa, world politics as well as the human condition.

Rabah Omer has worked as a researcher in Sudan and South Africa.

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