Monday, May 25, 2020
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Helmi Ben Meriem Interview with Nur Abdi:The Author of The Somali Camel Boy

Editor’s note: Nur Abdi grew up in Somaliland. When the civil war broke out in the 1980s, he left and settled in Canada where he was naturalized in 1994. The Somali Camel Boy (2019) is his debut novel. Dr. Helmi Ben Meriem, a Tunisian scholar of Somali studies interviewed Nur for his book, The Somali Camel Boy.

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The Somali Camel Boy (2019) tells the story of Ali, a Somali nomad, as he negotiates Somali clannish politics, dictatorship, and violence.  The Somali Camel Boy is centered on the rise of General Kahin, following a coup d’état in Somalia, and the power struggle between the Duki clan, General Kahin’s clan, and the rest of the clans, including Ali’s Sudi clan. Facing political persecution in his native land, Ali goes into exile in Canada where Somalia’s clannish politics are as present as they are in Somalia. As he is still haunted by his past, Ali must decide whether to immerse himself in his Canadian life or to avenge his father.    

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Helmi: How did The Somali Camel Boy come to be? What inspired you to write it?

As you know, the state of affairs of the Somali people is not good.  Their government failed.  They are divided into warring clans and sub-clans and their future is not certain. I really fear for their existence neither as one sovereign country nor as two separate countries.  That was what forced me to write this story.  By writing The Somali Camel Boy, I tried to point out the roots of the armed clan conflicts that led to this tragedy and to come up with a solution in recommending a cultural change of the society from one based on clans to one based on free individuals. 

Helmi:  Though the names of the leading political figures and clans in The Somali Camel Boy are different from those found in the modern history of Somalia, it is, nonetheless, clear that the novel is tailored following Barre’s régime and the civil war. Was there a reason, if any, behind such changes?  

Nur: Yes, the novel is a fictionalized reality, done in a satiric way.  It is not limited to Barre’s regime. It really covers the time before Barre’s regime when the Duki clan killed Ali’s father and raided his herd of camels.  It also covers after his regime when Somaha Republic was formed and it also degenerated into warring sub-clans.

Helmi: In a conversation between Ali and Isman, Isman encourages Ali to avenge his father while warning him that it will be “a bit complicated [due to the presence of] the police and the government” (p.9). Where do traditional values, such as avenging one’s relatives, fit within the modern system of justice?

Nur: The act of revenge is still practiced in the countryside.  It can also be done in the towns.  If the relatives of the victim are not satisfied with the sentence of a government court, they take matters into their own hands and avenge the killing of their relatives.

Helmi: The first-person narrator, Ali, states that “Sudi clansmen [Ali’s clansmen] never collected trash from the streets or did any other dirty job. Anyone of us who worked in those jobs betrayed his clan and dishonored us [. . .] Who do they think we are? Ruri clansmen?” (p.62). Even though he was undergoing injustice based on his clan affiliation, Ali is prejudiced against the Ruri, in all probability another name for the Midgans of Somalia, which is a sub-clan regarded by many Somalis as low-caste due to the menial jobs its members’ practice. What can one read into Ali’s bigoted behavior?

Nur: Yes, Ali is prejudiced against this clan that does menial jobs in town.  It is a kind of discrimination practiced by the Somalis.  And obviously, Ali is ignorant about his discriminatory behavior.   It is very unfortunate, but it is a reality.  I don’t even know how this came about.  But one thing is certain: this discriminatory behavior is based on ignorance and it is about time that it is stopped and rejected.  

Helmi: Ali poses a number of questions: “Why do you [Canadians] always have good presidents and we have bad ones?” and “why are we always the desperate refugees and you are not?” (pp.169-70). Why does Ali not blame himself for the calamity that Somalia was undergoing?

Nur: Ali is actually blaming the whole Somali society in this case including himself.  He is saying ‘why don’t we have good rulers like the Western World. Why don’t we go forward and make things like the Western World and so on?’  He has seen the Canadian Society, the peace and serenity in this country, their working government, and wonders why the Somali People can’t do the same. 

Helmi: Even in Canada, the tribal and inter-tribal fighting continues. Can Somalis ever sever themselves from their tribal identity? Will this umbilical cord be the only constant in the lives of Somalis, within and outside the Horn?

Nur: Unfortunately, that is true.  Even those who graduated from universities and hold Ph.D. degrees still practice tribal and clan identity.  That is the sad part.  Instead of making a difference in their society, instead of telling their fellow countrymen that there is a contradiction between national politics and clan loyalties, the educated Somali elite behave like uneducated Camel boys.  They just pedal their own clan loyalty and weaponize it for their own self-interest. That is what makes me pessimistic.

Helmi: While still in Somalia, Ali wishes for “a happy marriage and many children, particularly sons” (p.28) and, when living in Canada, he pronounces: “I had to assume my position as the head of the family” (p.192). Even in Canada, Ali’s gender perceptions are unwavering. Is this a failure of the Canadian immigration experience in ridding some men of their demeaning perceptions of women?

 Nur: No, that is not the failure of Canadian Immigration. Women have equal rights here in Canada. That is why Fatima called the Police and kicked Ali out of the house.  Ali, of course, still wants to be the head of the family even in Canada, but it didn’t work for him and he ended up in jail.

Helmi: In an era characterized by political and/or economic alliances, such as the European Union, African Union, or BRICS, among others, is the succession of the Somaha Republic, as suggested by Ali, a viable option?

Nur: At the time, Ali only cared about his clan, the Sudi clan.  He just wanted that they have their own separate country and not to have anything to do with the Duki clan anymore.  He believed that the Somaha Republic will be a viable option.  It might have worked if they didn’t do the same thing they had fought against.  They couldn’t help it.  Instead of building a government based on the rule of law and democratic values, they resorted to sub-clan loyalties and armed conflict ensued.

Helmi: Ali stresses that avenging his father “is more important than anything else,” including sponsoring his wife and son in order for them to immigrate to Canada (p.132). He is, to quote Diriye Osman, caught like many Somalis in “a kind of collective psychosis, each sufferer oblivious to the fact that they were paying for the sins of their fathers and their father’s fathers, caught in a perpetual arrested development” (Fairytales for Lost Children p. 138, emphasis added). How can one read Ali valuing the dead over the living? And can Somalis escape the state of “perpetual arrested development”?

Nur: It is hard to believe, but this clan and sub-clan loyalties in the Somali culture is really worse at the present time than in the past. In the past, there used to be armed conflicts between the clans and sub-clans once in a while.  Other than that, they used to see each other as equals.  No clan or sub-clan could dominate another at that time.  When they took their independence in 1960, that is, when things got worse, when clans and sub-clans identities have become a weapon to take over the government.

Helmi: Judge Ramen links the failure of Somalis to create a nationality-based country to not having “political philosophers [. .] who believed in the rights of the individual” (p.189). Such a statement reduces all Somalis to tribally-driven entities and negates the existence of Somalis who are not limited by clan politics. Where does this locate Somalis, who are not motivated by clannish politics?

Nur: Judge Ramen was just telling Ali what caused the political breakdown in his society.  He was saying that a government based on a clan or a sub-clan won’t work. Why? Because it is not based on a solid foundation like the rule of law and democratic values. 

He was saying that the Somali society should go beyond clan and sub-clan loyalties and adopt a culture of free individuals. He added that free individuals vote based on their independent opinions and ask the questions of why, how and what rather blindly following a group. 

Helmi Ben Meriem


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