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Nuruddin Farah: From A Crooked Rib

Nuruddin Farah’s first novel, From A Crooked Rib, looks at life in his native Somalia from a feminine perspective. Despite being male, he choose to use this novel to discuss the status of women and their treatment in what is a country balancing traditional and Islamic values while fending off the outside influence of former colonial powers.

It begins with the graceful orphan, Ebla, who, her grandfather has announced, will marry a man she has not met. Not wanting to give herself away to the stranger, considerably older than her, she escapes her nomadic life by running to the town of Belet Wene, where a cousin lives. The cousin, like her grandfather, takes her in and sells her “like cattle” to a broker as a wife. On hearing this she flees again, this time to the city of Mogadishu, where, despite seeking equality, she learns that to be a woman in Somalia means little in comparison to being a man. Yet, with all the struggles within society as she pushes for her own equality, she finds herself questioning her religion and the world around her:

What an agony, what a revolting situation! Naturally women are born in nine months (unless the case is abnormal) just like men. What makes women so inferior to men? Why is it that a girl should refund a token amount to her parents in the form of a dowry, while a boy needs the amount or more to get a woman? Why is it only the sons in the family who are counted? For sure this world is a man’s – it is his dominion. It is his and is going to be his as long as women are oppressed, as long as women are sold and bought like camels, as long as this remains the system of life. Nature is against women.

Ebla’s life in Mogadishu continues to teach her valuable lessons about her place in society; her naivete leads her through marriages, divorce, prostitution, and reflections upon the horrible practice of female circumcision. All the while she argues – within her head – her place in the world, without having the conviction to speak her mind. Traditional values, at times, retain their hold on her.

It’s written by Farah from a female point of view and while I wouldn’t be the best judge of what a woman thinks, he certainly has the degrees of indecisiveness to a tee. Ebla felt convincing, in her way, and so I would rather praise Farah for creating a vivid character, rather than one that was truly authentic.

The prose itself isn’t all that flowery, being matter of fact, although there are times when it heads off into good passages that try to delve deeper into the psyche of why women are supposedly inferior within her world. There’s an interesting scene, toward the end, where Ebla discusses the matter to herself mimicking a man’s voice to counter her own questions; and then reverses this so that she answers the man’s.

From A Crooked Rib is a short novel, coming in at less than 200 pages, but it carries with it many points for discussion around Somalian practices, Islamic law, and the place of women in the world. But in the end it boils down to men need women, women need men, and the world would be a happier place if we treated each other as equals. Something that religion doesn’t exactly help with. From a crooked rib to a straight story: worth reading.

June 1, 2007

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