Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Somalia: The Orchard of Lost Souls, by Nadifa Mohamed

I found this a really interesting book to read shortly after my pick for Ethiopia (scroll down a couple of posts). It is set in the north part of Somalia, near the border with Ethiopia and about ten years later than Maaza Mengiste's book. So there were noticeable resonances between the two stories.

The Orchard of Lost Souls focuses on three women (or rather, two women and a girl). All are strong, independent characters. Filsan is a young female soldier, sent north to Hargeisa from Mogadishu to help suppress the rebellion growing in the north. Kawsar is a widow. Nine-year-old Deqo was born in a vast refugee camp outside the city. She is brought with a troop of refugee children to dance at a political rally. When she forgets the steps, frozen in fear, she is dragged aside by the woman in charge of the troop to be punished. Kawsar intervenes and Deqo runs off, leaving Kawsar to be arrested. At the police station the soldier Filsan beats her savagely. Thereafter she is crippled and confined to her house, unable to tend to her beloved orchard. The paths of the three characters separate but, like channels of a braided river, they come together again later in the story.

Apart from the beating Kawsar receives in the police station, I found this book not nearly as brutal as Mengiste's. We see the city emptying out and suffering from the war, but the portrayal of political oppression is not as extreme, perhaps because the city is remote from the capital where the leaders live. There are certainly some brutal passages, for instance when Filsan is sent to take part in an action to destroy water reservoirs in surrounding villages, because the tribesmen are suspected of aiding the rebels. However, these are not quite as central to the story as in "Beneath the Lion's Gaze", and the focus is more on the tenderness between the three women that arises as events unfold, leading to a much more hopeful ending, at least for the central characters.

The north of Somalia, where the book is set, has been declared to be an independent state, the Republic of Somaliland, since 1991. So for anyone wishing to include Somaliland as a separate country, this would be a good book to read. However its independence is not officially recognized, and it is not on the list of countries recognized by the United Nations that I am following. Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa in 1981 and moved to London with her family in 1986, shortly before the events of this book. This was intended to be a temporary move, but it became permanent when the war broke out. She did not return to Hargeisa until 2008.

The Orchard of Lost Souls is her second book and was published by Simon and Schuster UK Ltd in 2013.

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