Thursday, February 18, 2010

Black Mamba Boy Nadifa Mohamed

Harper Collins Canada

Downtown Mogadishu today is beat-up and bone-white from the sun and a coating of dust. It is overlaid with a deceptive grid of empty streets. Most buildings are ransacked shells frozen in time or have simply vanished. Today, when we think of Somalia we think civil war, Somali pirates, Islamic fundamentalism, so how very refreshing to chance upon "Black Mamba Boy" which takes us back to a thriving Somalia of yesteryear, and not just Somalia, but Djibouti, Sudan, Eritrea, Egypt...a veritable tour of North-East Africa in the mid-30's.

Let me explain: "Black Mamba Boy"by Somali-British author Nadifa Mohamed is based on the true story of the author’s father’s life. Opening in 1930's Aden we are introduced to Jama, a ten year-old Somali boy, a street kid, whose mother dies unexpectedly thus leaving him alone in this world.

Jama is forced home to his native Somalia, the land of his nomadic ancestors. War is on the horizon and the fascist Italian forces who control parts of east Africa are preparing for battle. Yet Jama cannot rest until he discovers whether his father, who has been absent from his life since he was a baby, is alive somewhere. And so begins an epic journey which will take Jama north through Djibouti, war-torn Eritrea and Sudan, to Egypt. And from there, aboard a ship transporting Jewish refugees just released from German concentration camp, across the seas to Britain and freedom."

OK, my challenge here as a "reviewer" is how to give you my impressions without gushing or using a great many superlatives, so I'll just say this: if you choose to read the book, you're in for an amazing ride through the dusty, noisy but bustling streets of the some of the most important cities of North East Africa in the '30's. From the vast sandy deserts of Sudan to narrow busy alleys in Somalia, from the tree-lined manicured boulevards of Djibouti to the emerald-green landscape with juicy mango trees of Abyssinia, you will see it all!

Mohamed's prose zings with the vibrancy of North African life, an unfamiliar landscape of strange tribes and tongues, bizarre rituals, superstitions and tribal kinship. The sensitive way in which she handles Jama's relationships with his family and kinsmen, tugs at one's heartstrings. In a historical context I cannot vouch for Mohamed's accuracy because I know so little about that area and in that time period, but it is told so well, you get completely swept up by the events and happenings.

But central to the story is suffering...the suffering of the African people at the hands of their colonizers. Mohamed's acute and unsparing descriptive powers render vivid everything from Aden street chaos to traditional Palestinian wedding in Khan Younis, but her clipped depiction of the death by torture of a young Somalian man at the hands of two drunk Italians made me gasp out loud and pushed me way out of my comfort zone into a place I wasn't sure I wanted to be. And that's not a bad thing because when I read I want to be astonished, I want to be moved, I want to be shaken to the core and Mohamed succeeds in doing this.

Having said all this though, for me, the most moving part of the account is when Jama finds employment as a deck hand on board the "Runnymede Park" at Haifa, Palestine. "Runnymede Park" was a British prison ship carrying thousands of Jewish refugees originally from Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Treblinka who were denied permission to disembark in Palestine (their Promised Land) but instead taken back to Europe to be made an example out of (thereby deterring other would-be Jewish immigrants from making the trip to Palestine). Her descriptions of the agony (physical and mental) that the poor refugees suffered are so vivid, I could literally hear the crash of broken dreams and feel the dejection in my own chest.

If you enjoy Africa, history, travel (the story weaves its way through a labyrinth of countries), stories of exile and survival...this one is definitely for you!


Stefania - The Italian Backpacker said...

I'm going to write down this name. It doesn't happen very often to hear about a Somali-British writer and one who writes a scene about some drunk Italians (soldiers I guess?) killing a Somali man is not common either. We Italians have a forgotten history with those countries, Somalia especially.

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Stefania!

Lovely to see you, it's been a while eh? Yes, you will enjoy this book even if it doesn't portray Italians in a very good light. The narrator is a Somali boy and he wanders into Eritrea (which was colonized by the Italians at that time) in search of his father whom he was told was in Sudan. I wasn't overly pleased by how the Italian colonizers have been portrayed but then, when have colonizers ever been the good guys? A beautiful book, I would recommend it highly,

Anonymous said...

Your review wowed. Book added to my to read list. Thanks! :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hey no problem Nathalie! Mohamed is a heck of a storyteller and you get to learn a lot of history along the way too! Thanks for dropping by!

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

I don't mind gushing, if it is deserved...

Bill ;-)

Hope you'll check out my book giveaway:

Marilyn said...

Great to see your posts coming A...
Great review as always. I thought about the one you wrote recently about China...most importantly what it lacked, and I can't thank you enough for making me see what I need to see myself.


Anonymous said...

What a fantastic review Angie! I've not read anything by a British- Somali writer and as one of teh other commentators and you ahve said we know little of tht period of history. So I'll try get hold of the book and read it. I liked the sentence where you say'I want to be astonished....shaken to the core and Mohammed succeds will ceratinly make people want to read the book. Thanks for a superb review.

karmic said...

Thank you for a wonderful review as always Lotus. I am not sure I can vouch for the historical accuracy of North east Africa of the 30s either. I suppose her father must be a source for those times?
Here is a youtube interview by the author if you have not come across it yet. link
What I think I liked about your review, is the juxtaposition of the pivotal historical events of those times and the characters are a part of it, the end of wwII, the holocaust, events leading to the birth of Israel, and the fall of fascism
It is important to also know what these countries were like then, for most of us think of these countries in the present tense or of the more recent past. I think books like these help us with that.
And you with your review have surely helped someone like me who did not know this aspect of North East Africa at all.
Thank you for doing that.
Your description makes me want to read the book.

Happy Reader said...

Great review, Angie. I'm ordering this book! Africa and suffering go together and it reflects in every african story we read. My heart goes out to them.