Nadifa Mohamed, The Orchard of Lost Souls

August 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

The tanks blow their way down the street cloaked in a white pall of smoke.  Kawsar props herself up on her elbows and looks through the side window.  Her neighbours try to flee, hidden in a haze of cement dust, but bright sandals and dresses give them away and the soldiers drop to their knees and shoot at the ghostly figures.  Overhead there is the groan of a plane’s engines and then sweeping down from the direction of the airport she sees a MIG with the Somali flag on each of its wings.  Kawsar feels the air swarm about her and steal the breath from her lungs as missiles peel off the clanging tin roofs of the neighbourhood.

She collapses back onto the bed and pulls a blanket over her face, fearing that a bomb will explode through her roof in a matter of seconds.  Both she and Guryo Samo have reached the end of their time; the soldiers will return the street to the desert, unplug the stars, shoot the dogs and extinguish the sun in a well. (pp. 204-205)

Before the civil war era of 1990s Black Hawk Down or the pirates of the Red and Arabian Seas of the 2000s, Somalia was ruled for most of the 1970s and 1980s by General Mohamed Siad Barre.  Already there were tensions between the military and the populace, between various groups, especially after Somalia lost its Soviet patronage to neighboring Ethiopia.  In her second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls, Somalian-British writer Nadifa Mohamed traces the lives of three women during the tumultuous 1987-1988 period that preceded Somalia’s descent into civil war.  It is a snapshot of imperiled lives at the cusp of a cataclysm, but also a testimony to the endurance of hope when all seems to be turning to dust.

Mohamad’s three characters represent different facets of 1980s Somalian society.  Kawsar, a widow in her mid-50s who has lost not just her husband but also several stillborn children buried in her fruit orchard, endures much in her life.  Her husband, a policeman, was abandoned by the dictatorship after he proved to be too honest and unwilling to take bribes.  Her assault by pro-government forces on the eve of a rally in the northwestern town of Hargeisa sets the stage for much of what follows.  Filsan is a corporal, the daughter of a prominent military official who has in turn berated her and protected her from practices such as female circumcision, who has been sent to Hargeisa to help quell the incipient rebel uprising occurring there.  Her story symbolizes the conflict between the Marxist-influenced government and traditional Somali customs.  Deqo is perhaps the most heartbreaking figure of the three.  Orphaned at a young man, never knowing who her father was, Deqo finds her way to the dictator’s rally at a local stadium in Hargeisa, hoping that her dancing will earn her a pair of shoes.  She ends up being taken in as a maid at a local brothel, where the prostitutes are given names such as “China” and “Karl Marx” in reference to their clientele. 

Mohamed alternates between the three, devoting long chapters to establishing their backstories and the reasons why each has come to be in Hargeisa on the eve of this momentous rally.  These stories are gripping due to Mohamed’s mixture of keen observant reflections from each of the three women with short, staccato dialogue bursts that break over the narrative like the distant gunfire of the latter chapters.  In each character, Mohamed explores gender and social divisions within Somali society, illustrating issues that became even more important after full-blown civil war broke out.  Moments such as this observation by Kawsar punctuate this sense of coming calamity:

It is not so painful to die when all that she knows is dying around her.  It seems as if the world has been built just for her and is being dismantled as she departs. (p. 277)

Yet despite the setting and the events that occur within, not all hope is lost.  In her final section, Mohamed revisits these three characters after their first encounter in Hargeisha and through the wartime devastation, with body counts mounting and buildings, like the government, collapsing, there is still a desire to live, a need to create some stability in the midst of chaos.  It is fitting at Deqo, who has known nothing of family, has the final lines:

She is back in her familiar world; the war and all that time in Hargeisa just a complicated trial to achieve what she has always wanted:  a family, however makeshift. (p. 334)

The Orchard of Lost Souls is not perfect, as there are times where each of the three narrators seems to become too passive of observers in the conflict that envelops them, but it does serve as a vividly-told story of hope in the midst in destructive violence.  Mohamad’s characters possess their own voices and views on the unfolding national tragedy and while at times they might slip too much into the backdrop, on the whole they serve as witnesses for what was happening to Somali women during this time.  There is a sense that their stories carry on after the concluding scene and with it, hope is carried with them out of the conflict, where it might bear fruit in a new orchard away from the fighting.

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