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North of Dawn

Nuruddin Farah was born in 1945 in southern Somalia, which was then Italian Somaliland. He studied in India and now divides his time between Cape Town in South Africa and Annandale-on-Hudson in the United States. In addition to writing, Farah is a literature professor at Bard College. His latest novel, North of Dawn, published in 2018 and released in a German translation by Wolfgang Müller in 2020, is set in Oslo.

North of Dawn tells its story of migration and the different ways of dealing with being a newcomer by way of the experiences of a Somali family. It becomes clear that educational background, religion and worldview play a central role. The novel conveys how challenging the often involuntary resettlement is, but that one’s own attitude is central to still being able to lead a content life.

The already elderly Somali couple Gacalo and Mugdi live a quiet, secluded and comfortable middle-class life in Oslo. They are full of gratitude to the state of Norway for allowing them to find a new home there. But their son, who grew up in Norway, develops a profound dissatisfaction with his living situation in the far north as he grows up. In search of his place in the world, he travels to Somalia and joins radical Islamists there, which has fatal consequences for him and his family. He blows himself up, along with many innocent others. The very question of how to deal with having a suicide bomber in the family is an enormous test for Gacalo and Mugdi, made even more challenging when they must take up responsibility for his strictly religious, possibly also Islamist, widow Waliya after their son’s deadly act.

The characters in the novel are put together grippingly: they represent very different positions with regard to worldview and religion, immigration and integration, as well as national identity. Mugdi does not mourn for his son and wants nothing to do with the widow of this murderer. Gacalo, however, insists on bringing Waliya and her two children to Norway. Waliya understands a woman’s role to entail being a good Muslim wife. She refuses to learn Norwegian, to work, or even to leave the house. In the apartment that Gacalo finances for her, a cassette of Koran recitations plays around the clock. This puts Waliya in stark contrast to her sister-in-law – Mugdi and Gacalo’s daughter – who lives in Switzerland, has a successful career and, while pregnant, seeks a divorce from her unfaithful husband. Conflicts arise repeatedly and the tension is continuously maintained by the question of whether Waliya is a radical Islamist. In addition, tragic radical right-wing attacks on Black people and Muslim immigrants are taking place in Norway.

I enjoyed reading this book because it addresses relevant issues of our time, and it made me think. I was driven to find out how the tangled family history would unravel – would something bad happen? Or would everyone reconcile, and distance themselves from violent, even murderous radicalism? All the same, I was sometimes puzzled by how strongly the book seemed to advocate for assimilation: Mugdi, the old, level-headed family man, former Somali diplomat who translates great Norwegian works into Somali in his spare time, appears again and again as the well-behaved, conformist voice of reason. In the face of various extremes, this seems reasonable at first, but after reading it, I was left wondering: should assimilation be the goal?