Searching for a lost boy in the tumult of Somalia

Nuruddin Farah is a former Somali who fled in his teens.
Nuruddin Farah is a former Somali who fled in his teens.
Posted: October 02, 2011

By Nuruddin Farah

Riverhead. 400 pp. $27.95

Reviewed by Rita Giordano
A Somali-American teenager runs away from his home in heartland America to join the militant Islamic group al-Shabab. Adult male relatives seek to have the boy, Taxliil, brought safely home.

One is Ahl, Taxliil's stepfather, a gentle, dutiful academic who has never before so much as called in a day sick. But with his wife, Taxliil's mother, in despair for her lost child, Ahl dispatches himself to a virtually lawless land.

Earlier rumors from Somalia had it that Taxliil was in training as a suicide bomber. But more recent word has the boy sent to Puntland, a region that is a base for pirates, possibly as a liaison of sorts between the pirates and Shabab.

Malik, Ahl's younger brother, arrives in Somalia shortly before him, accompanied by his father-in-law, the wise Jeebleh. Malik will help if he can in locating Taxliil, but he has another mission. A foreign correspondent with much experience in areas of conflict, Malik intends to write about unrest and skulduggery in his father's native land.

And search they do in their separate orbits, these brothers of a Somali father and Malaysian mother. But neither knows what lies in store, whom to trust, and on what side of so many twisted lines good or evil falls. All too soon, they will learn there are no simple answers. If there are answers at all.

This is Crossbones, the latest novel by the acclaimed and prolific Somali expatriate writer Nuruddin Farah. Fleeing his homeland in his teens, Farah, a Nobel Prize nominee, attended university in India and divides his time between Cape Town, South Africa, and Minneapolis.

Ahl and Malik both must gingerly feel their way through Somali society, such as it is, even with help from the likes of Jeebleh and Somalis they manage to connect with through family ties.

Their Somalia is rife with danger and risk. Crossbones often reads like a taut, tense thriller. Malik arrives shortly before Ethiopia invades the country. At that time, the reader is told, Somalia is controlled by clan-based militiamen. So-called "religionists," in some cases former militia, have imposed their own order, which includes oppression of women, violence, and deals with pirates.

These are dangerous people, but Farah does not depict them as only that. He sketches in the roots of the present, but he doesn't seem to be making excuses.

Particularly interesting to American audiences may be the perspective on the pirates some characters raise. One, Fidno, a former doctor, says he will help Ahl in his quest to find Taxliil. But he wants in return the chance to tell Malik the journalist what he says is the truth about the pirates. The pirates, Fidno claims, started out as simple fishermen who were abused by other nations that overfished their waters with the collapse of order and polluted their seas. Fidno portrays the pirates as the victims of greater forces, making little from their privateering.

But even this is a version of reality that readers are left to believe, discount, or pursue on their own. What rings most certain in Crossbones is the relationships and emotions of people - family members, men and women, guardians and children, old friends and their shared pasts, strangers whose fates become intertwined.

Farah has frequently written about his former land in Western newspapers. If he has shown himself to be in any way a partisan, it has been for the people of Somalia, for their survival and liberation from suffering, not for any particular regime. If anything, Crossbones speaks eloquently of how opportunists of any stripe find a way to cash in, in spite of, and often because of, chaos or misery.

Some readers won't agree with his take on events in Somalia, but Crossbones is a thought-provoking read as well as an absorbing look into a culture and a people in extreme circumstances. For Farah, it seems, the thugs and those lost to ideology are those whose humanity has been compromised.

His heroes are those who, despite anything, still think, feel and love.

Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or

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