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Two brothers enter the war-torn expanse of Somalia in search of answers.

October 27, 2011

Crossbones By Nurrudin Farah Penguin Group 400 pp.


Reviewed by Mark Sarvas for The Barnes & Noble Review

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Most Americans, if they think of Somalia at all, know it only from "Black Hawk Down," the 2001 film adaptation of Mark Bowden's 1999 account of the bloody Battle of Mogadishu. Tragic though those events were, they represent a mere sliver of the decades of internal strife that have left Somalia one of the poorest and most violent countries in the world. Moving from Communist rule to dictatorship to civil war, there has been no functioning central government for 20 years. Warlords and clan factions have given way to militant Islam, and pirates terrorize the coastal waters. "That unfortunate country, cursed with those dreadful clanspeople, forever killing one another and everyone around them," is one of Nurrudin Farah's character's bleak precis. It's to this unpromisingly harrowing milieu that Farah has tirelessly devoted himself for 11 novels that paint a more nuanced picture of the country's woes than one is likely to find on CNN.

Farah, who departed Somalia in 1976 and now divides his time between Cape Town and Minnesota, has devoted three trilogies to his homeland, and Crossbones is the culminating volume of his "Past Imperfect" trilogy, which began with "Links" (2003) and continued with "Knots" (2007). Although several characters appear in the preceding books, "Crossbones" can be read on its own.

"Crossbones" is set against another violent chapter in Somalia's history, the 2006 civil war in which Ethiopia invaded to support the Transitional Federal Government in their power struggle against the Islamists. Amid this backdrop, two brothers enter the country on separate but intertwined missions. Malik, a freelance journalist of Somali parentage based in New York makes his first trip to the country in the hope of reporting on the burgeoning conflict. At the same time, his brother Ahl has come from Minnesota to try to locate his stepson who has disappeared and is rumored to be training to be a suicide bomber.It's the latest of fate's cruel iterations for Somalia that the country has moved from the control of warlords into the hands of the Islamic Court Union. The uniforms may have changed – "most of the youths have grown beards and donned those white robes" – but the "general collapse is still the same, though: houses with their insides caved in, with a Lego-like look to them…"


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