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Revisiting Ismael Hurreh’s Fiction

Dr. Helmi Ben Meriem

Following the publication of my essay “Early Anglophone Somali Circadian Short Stories (1965-1979): A Thematic Survey with Emphasis on Abdi Sheik Abdi” in Volume 20 of Bildhaan in which I reviewed Ismael Hurreh’s “I, You, the Whorehouse,” I gained access to his 1971 short story “On the World’s Extreme Corner,” which was published under the name Ismael Hurrah–with this slight alteration of his last name–|in Pan-African Journal Fall 1971. I was also granted access to Hurreh’s “Off the Somali Coast,” his 1969 MA thesis in Arts at Syracuse University. To provide a more informed perspective, I would like to add a few additional remarks to my review of “I, You, the Whorehouse”.

Ismael Hurreh (Buba)

“I, You, the Whorehouse” benefits from being considered contextually as part of a larger narrative, including “Off the Somali Coast” and “On the World’s Extreme Corner”. Describing Hurreh’s “I, You, the Whorehouse,” Nuruddin Farah observes: “Ismail Booba (Buube/Buba is Hurreh’s nickname) was the first Somali writer I had met who had written something and published it. It was a short story. I don’t think I understood it. But I was impressed with the mere idea of being published. You know this was so earthshaking given the oral tradition of Somali society. Booba’s story had the title of “You and I,” [sic] and it was part of his Master’s project in creative writing in the United States” (Samatar 89-90). Farah’s inability to comprehend the story is linked to what I called the story’s “disjointed and confusing monologue about events that take place in Mogadishu” (101). This description still holds even in light of the fuller image presented in “Off the Somali Coast” and “On the World’s Extreme Corner.” Robleh’s jumbled monologue should be read in contrast to Christopher’s organized and associative monologue in “Chapter 2” (54-122) and also in contrast to Robleh’s more streamlined though still associative monologue in “On the World’s Extreme Corner.”

On the one hand, “Off the Somali Coast,” Hurreh’s 122-page unfinished manuscript, has two chapters. The first chapter was published verbatim as “I, You, the Whorehouse” in 1968. The second, which ends abruptly and in mid-sentence, is told from the perspective of Christopher Bosso, an Italian accountant at the Ministry of Finance in Mogadishu.

In my 2020 essay, I described Robleh as having an “unbalanced mind [. . .] in disintegration” (102). Indeed, Christopher described Robleh as an “indecipherable” individual (78; 81) who “has always slipped into a world unknown to” others, his subconscious (80). In the eyes of Christopher, Robleh has withdrawn into himself, becoming reclusive and “uncommunicative” (78) and creating an echo chamber within himself, where his worries, obsessions, desires, and misunderstandings are amplified, resulting in a distorted view of reality. One such distortion is centered on how Robleh perceives himself and how he is perceived by his colleagues at the Ministry of Finance. In “I, You, the Whorehouse,” Robleh describes himself as a “diligent, intelligent, [and] hardworking” civil servant (170). However, he is described by Christopher as “mostly useless in the office” and causing the Minister of Finance to “rav[e] … over the telephone about the spelling mistakes in a letter typed by that wretched Robleh” (103).

Third of all, one major indication of how Robleh “drift[s] in an obscure world known only to his uncommunicative self” (79), creating a disconnection between him and his environment, can be found in the events that unfold on this particular night at Bar Lido. Fadumo, a prostitute, tells the customers at the bar about how she became a prostitute and was raped by the Minister of Finance, Robleh’s boss. But, in “I, You, the Whorehouse,” Robleh does not refer to this incident or the reactions from those present at the bar, including Christopher. Instead, Robleh is more obsessed with his shoe sole.

Fourth of all, Robleh and Christopher, despite their differences, are obsessed with one particular item in the bar, revealing a shared psychological trait. On the one hand, in “I, You, the Whorehouse,” Robleh describes the table where he sat: “Our table, a long rectangular one with many cracks all over which resembles cracks in an old pavement, has six uneven legs and awkwardly wobbles” (178). Robleh, clearly obsessed with his shoes, can only see in the table surface a pavement where shoes tread. On the other hand, Christopher’s description of the table suggests a similar preoccupation: “The table was rectangular. It had six legs [. . .]  the wobbling, long, rectangular table” (69, 120). In fact, the wobbliness of the table might be seen to symbolize the wobbliness of life in Mogadishu, the uncertainty of existence in limbo, economically, politically, and socially.   

On the other hand, “On the World’s Extreme Corner” is told from the perspective of Robleh, whom the reader learns was used to “sneaking into a whorehouse in a dark deserted street in Hargeisa when [he] was younger and more immature” (495). Also, the story deals with events that occurred beyond the narrative end-point of “Off the Somali Coast.” Additionally, it is clear that the night at Bar Lido is still haunting Robleh, who, faced with Ebado, is reminded of it: “The Bar Lido incident rings noisily in [my] mind. It will not happen again, I reassure myself. Besides I have no cardboard soles anymore” (495). Still, certain details about that night are not evident as they were not disclosed in “Off the Somali Coast” since Christopher’s telling ends mid-sentence. For instance, one does not know how much time has passed since that night, whether or not Robleh still has his job, and what happened to the cardboard soles. This makes “On the World’s Extreme Corner” a in media res continuation of the narrative but with a narrative gap that readers have to fill in. Negotiating this gap is a laborious act since the narrative, as it is presented, is not sufficiently clear, if clear at all. 

“On the World’s Extreme Corner” also rehashes the relationship between Robleh and Ebado without much, if any, variation. Indeed, the scene, where the two characters interact, is described as follows: “I was expecting to see Ebado pounce at me at any minute, but instead her hands dropped quickly over her face, like two broken wings flapping for the last time over the empty air; then she broke out into a frantic, shattering cry” (493). This scene actually mirrors another scene in “I, You, the Whorehouse,” even using the same verb “pounce:” “She puffed up her throat like a cobra preparing for a fatal strike. [. . .] She pounced out of bed.  [Then] she dropped the knife on the bed. [. . .] She wipes the tears from her eyes” (183-6).

This reiteration can be explained by Robleh’s own words in “On the World’s Extreme Corner:” “I have said this before. Not that there is anything wrong with repeating what I have said. You see, I thrive on repeating myself” (501). In my essay, I postulated that “Robleh’s annoyance, irritation and verbal violence [can be located] within a general sentiment experienced by a number of Somalis in the early years following Somalia independence” (102). In fact, Robleh’s digressions and repetitiveness in both short stories are emblematic of his monotonous life, centered around his shoes and the whorehouse, and of his disintegrating mind, which is trapped in a loop and unable to disentangle itself from it.

In short, “I, You, the Whorehouse” should be read as the biased recollections of Robleh, a troubled character, infused with his personal obsessions and abnormalities. The fogginess surrounding his memory of the night can be only lifted by juxtaposing it with and against Christopher’s recollections in “Off the Somali Coast” as both accounts of the night are limited perspectives, which, together, offer a fuller, if not total, rendition of one night at Bar Lido. Furthermore, “On the World’s Extreme Corner” fails to settle, let alone clarify, any of the issues left unresolved in “I, You, the Whorehouse” and “Off the Somali Coast.” In fact, “On the World’s Extreme Corner” stresses that Robleh’s world has been reduced both spatially and intellectually. By talking more, Robleh sows more confusion and burrows deeper into his delusions and further away from reality.

It is worth considering the possibility that Hurreh was considering a version of a Faulknerian narrative in which clarity is generated in successive sections and which can be evaluated only in its entirety. The classic pattern is Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, which begins with the perspective of an idiot and ends with the stable view of a black woman. But this possibility only Hurreh himself can address.

Dr. Helmi Ben Meriem
Specialist of Somali Studies,
Independent Researcher 
Member of the Anglo-Somali Society, London



Ben Meriem, Helmi. “Early Anglophone Somali Circadian Short Stories (1965-1979): Thematic Survey with Emphasis on Abdi Sheik Abdi.” Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies: Vol. 20.  Saint Paul, MN: Macalester College, 2020. 98-113.

Hurreh, Ismael. “I, You, the Whorehouse.” Intro. Issue 1. September 1968. Ed. R. V. Cassill. New York: A Bantam Book, 1968.170-94.
—. “Off the Somali Coast.” 1965. Unpublished Material. Personal Collection. 1-122.

Hurrah, Ismael. “On the World’s Extreme Corner.” Pan-African Journal. Vol. IV. Issue 4. Fall 1971. Ed. Maina Kagombe. New York: Pan-African Institute, 1971. 491-502.

Samatar, Ahmed I. “Interview with Nuruddin Farah.” Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies: Vol. 1.  Saint Paul, MN: Macalester College, 2001. 87–106. 

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