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Authors: Nuruddin Farah

Knots

KNOTS
ALSO BY NURUDDIN FARAH

FICTION

Links

BLOOD IN THE SUN

Secrets

Gifts

Maps

VARIATIONS ON THE THEME
OF AN AFRICAN DICTATORSHIP

Close Sesame

Sardines

Sweet and Sour Milk

From a Crooked Rib

A Naked Needle

NONFICTION

Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora

KNOTS

NURUDDIN FARAH

RIVERHEAD BOOKS
A MEMBER OF
PENGUIN GROUP (USA) INC.

NEW YORK
2007

RIVERHEAD BOOKS
Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA • Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi–110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), Cnr Airborne and Rosedale Roads, Albany, Auckland 1310, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

Copyright © 2007 by Nuruddin Farah
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Published simultaneously in Canada

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Farah, Nuruddin, date.
Knots / Nuruddin Farah.
p.   cm.
ISBN: 978-1-1012-0202-9
1. Americans—Somalia—Fiction. 2. Mogadishu (Somalia)—Fiction 3. Real property—Somalia—Fiction. I. Title.
PR9396.9.F3K58       2007                2006023107 823'.914—dc22

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
      While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

To Abyan, my daughter,
and
Kaahiye, my son,
with all my love

KNOTS
ONE

Zaak says to Cambara, “Who do you blame?”

“Blame?” Cambara asks tetchily, as she goes ahead of him taking the lead, although she has no idea where to go. As it happens, she arrived in Mogadiscio earlier today after a long absence and does not know her way about, the city's landmarks having been savagely destroyed in the ongoing civil war to the extent where, based on what she has seen of the city so far, she doubts if she will recognize it.

Cambara has had the proclivity to keep a safe, polite distance, the better to avoid Zaak's bad breath, diagnosed as chronic gingivitis. When both were younger and growing up in the same household, the dentist would prescribe special toothpaste with antiseptic and aromatic qualities, in addition to a medicinal mouthwash, and a very soft toothbrush with which he was to clean his teeth. Cambara remembers his gums bleeding prolifically and receding wastefully at a phenomenal rate, the inflammation, combined with the irritation on account of the tartar deposits, causing the loosening of several of his teeth. She remembers his suffering from persistent indigestion ever since Arda, her mother, who is also his paternal aunt, brought him from a nomadic hamlet during his early teens as her charge in order to facilitate his receiving proper schooling in Mogadiscio.

Cambara waits for him to push the door shut, which he does with a squeak, and she watches him as he turns the wobbly handle a couple of times in a futile effort to secure it, notwithstanding its state of malfunction. Meanwhile, she reminds herself that it has been years since she last set eyes on him or was in touch with him directly. Arda has carried words back and forth from one to the other and has persuaded her daughter to put up with him, at least for the first few days, since Cambara informed her of her wish to go to Mogadiscio. At her mother's cajoling, Cambara acquiesced to stay with “her blood,” as she put it, for the first few days, until, perhaps, she has made her own contacts with a close friend of a friend living in Toronto. No doubt, Cambara cannot expect her mother to recall her nephew's malodorous breath, nor is it fair to assume that this is reason enough to warrant her daughter's not wanting to share the same space. But how on earth could she, Cambara, have forgotten the awfulness of it, so vile it is sickening? Nor had she known him to be a chain-smoker or a constant chewer of
qaat
, the mild narcotic to which urban Somalis are highly addicted.

“Surely someone is to blame?” Zaak insists.

“Who?”

Zaak lets her go past him and out the side gate—she almost six feet, he a mere five-foot-seven. Scarcely have they left the compound and walked a hundred meters when she slows down, covers her head more appropriately with a plain scarf as the Islamic tradition dictates, and stays ten or so meters behind Zaak. Her eyes downcast—again, as expected of women in Mogadiscio these days—she reaches into one of the inner pockets of her custom-made caftan to make certain that she has brought along her knife, her weapon of choice, if it comes to self-defense. A glance in her direction will prove that she is bracing her courage in preparation for an ugly surprise, to which anyone in a civil war city is vulnerable. Herself, she looks in consternation from the dilapidated tarmac road to Zaak, as she releases her stiff grip around the handle of the knife. Then she tightens her lips and moistens them, her head sending two contradictory messages: the one advising that she remain wary, the other declining, as per her mother's suggestion, to put all her trust in Zaak, because he has firsthand knowledge of how things are likely to pan out. Adopting an indifferent posture as she focuses for a moment on Zaak, she studies his expressions or lack of them, and remarks, with surprise, that he does not appear as if he is expecting an untoward occurrence: the telltale advent on the scene of armed youths intent on launching a virulent mayhem that might end in either of them being shot or killed. She tries to relax into a high state of alert, if that is at all possible, and then picks up Zaak's pungent body odor, the unwashed detritus of a
qaat
-chewer's unhealthy living. The power of the stench hits her forcefully, and she comes close to fainting.

In a belated answer to her question “Who?” Zaak mumbles an unintelligible remark she is unable to make out. With so angry a face, she nervously scans the horizon, as they turn a sharp corner and are suddenly face to face with several sarong-and-flip-flop-wearing youths armed with AK-47s. Her instinct tells her to prepare, her hand making renewed, abrupt contact with the knife, even though two of the youths appear indifferent to her and are religiously chewing
qaat
and arguing, bansheelike, about yesterday's match between Arsenal and Manchester United, and agreeing that the referee made a balls-up of the game by unfairly red-carding the Gunners' captain. Her sense of caution remains relentless until they are well out of danger.

Zaak asks,
“Et tu?”

She is in no mood to answer such a question early in her visit, not until she comes to grips with the complexity of what is in store for her. In fact, she is delighted that she has refrained from engaging him in a serious talk so far, worried that this might give him the license to zero in on her scant preparedness for what she intends her visit to achieve beyond perhaps getting reacquainted with the country of her birth and maybe reacquiring the family property now in the hands of a minor warlord. She is consumed with doubt, wondering if it is possible to accomplish such a feat without a lot of help from a lot of people. Of course, she is well aware that the warlord will give her kind no quarter whatsoever, it being not in the nature of these brutes to show mercy to anyone. What about Zaak, her cousin and current host? Will he extend a protective hand to her if she makes the resolve to confront the warlord? How will he react when she puts his loyalty to the test?

Whatever else she might do, she must not afford Zaak free access to her affairs, at least not before she has consolidated her position and fortified it against its inherent weaknesses, which might come to light after she sets the confrontation with the minor warlord and his armed minions into motion. At any rate, she must not allow Zaak to make her question the motives of her visit, what has prompted her to leave her peaceful life, husband, and job in Toronto, where she has been resident for three-quarters of her life, and come to the war-torn country. She could see questions forming in his head when he met her at the airport, sensing that he wants to ask if she has moved house and relocated to Somalia. Why has she brought so many hefty suitcases filled with all her movable assets?

That she has been unhappy in her marriage to Wardi is no secret—everybody has been aware of this for a long time. Moreover, having once been Cambara's “husband” on paper and having “lived” with her in confined spaces, first as children growing up, then as a couple who entered into a contract of the marriage-of-convenience kind, Zaak has his partisan views. He thinks of her as a woman capable of exemplary generosity, most loyal, above all, to her mother, very devoted to her close friends, especially to Raxma. But she also cuts the figure of an impulsive woman, difficult to please, harder still to pin down, and known, lately, to be off her rocker, understandably so, because of her son's death. Cambara blames Wardi, her husband, and his Canadian mistress for her son's drowning. And even though he has not dared ask her—fearing she might flare up, presuming his question to be provocative—Zaak supposes that she is here for a lengthy period, considering the weight and number of suitcases that she has brought along. She may have been attracted to the idea of relocating here out of her desperate attempt to put an ocean between herself and Wardi, but told everyone else, apart from her mother and intimate friends, that she is here to mourn the passing of her only son. But Cambara hasn't dwelled on her huge loss, not even after Zaak offered his condolences, beyond acknowledging them and saying, “Thank you.” Nor has she let the name of her husband pass her lips or alluded to what is to become of their marriage. She has made a point of giving brief responses to his questions, now nodding her head yes and elaborating no more, now shaking her head no and preferring not to expand further. The last Zaak heard, Wardi is doing splendidly: He is finally a partner in the law firm. For his part, Zaak has steered a judicious course, ostensibly avoiding the obvious and the not-so-obvious pitfalls, and has refrained from pressing her. And whenever they have run out of topics of interest, their conversation has taken a detour and led them to Cambara's mother, whom they both love.

However, if there is a subject that neither is comfortable discussing, it is their own shared past as putative husband and wife. Ill at ease, they have reined back from revisiting it, apprehensive that, unchecked, their talking might deposit them eventually at the door to a concern better left alone—the two years spent together under one roof, in her apartment in Toronto, as man and wife—“Only on paper, I'll have you know,” she will point out again and again—which had been an utter disaster. Maybe she means to have no intimate talk, none whatsoever.

“Has there been fighting here lately?” she asks, coming level with him. Then, seemingly tired, she squints at the afternoon sun, hesitating before cracking her jaws in the yawning attitude of a passenger in a plane clearing her ears of accumulated air pressure. The sun burns down so harshly that the contours of all visible items melt in its fierceness. She sees the giveaway evidence of civil war devastation wherever she turns: buildings leaning in in complete disorder, a great many of them boasting no roof, others boarded up, looking vandalized, abandoned. The road—once tarred and good enough for motor vehicles—is in total disrepair; the walls of the house fronting the street are pocked with bullets, as if a terrible sharpshooter with assault rifles has used them for his target practice.

“Skirmishes,” he says, as if an afterthought.

“How many militiamen died?”

“Only unarmed civilians.”

As though out of kindness to Cambara, Zaak holds his cigarette away from her—in his left hand—and he keeps the fingers of his right hand close to his mouth, almost covering it. Moreover, his head veers away from her; she is not clear if he is doing so to protect her from the slightest whiff of his nicotine or if he has lately become conscious of the ill effect his evil-smelling breath is having on her.

All of a sudden, however, he springs on her a challenge with the strident voice of a man of huge contradictions, courteous in one instant, cruel in the next. He says, “Do not tell me that you are frightened.”

You might think from the way she takes a step back that she is readying to give him a slap across the face. Not so. All she wants to do is to look down on him from her great six-foot height. She also thinks that there is the bravura of a young boy's dare to his taunting, which irks her no less. She remembers their young years together in the same household—Cambara's parents' house, to be exact—and how she would do anything for a dare and he wouldn't; Zaak was not a rebel by nature, was less inclined to act as wild as she would. After all, she was the beloved daughter of the house and he but a poor relation.

She would throw in his direction all manner of gauntlets, but he wouldn't pick them up. Annoyed, she would goad him, “Three dares for your one.” And she would wet her index finger, which is a child's way of timing the retort of the opponent: If the forefinger dries before the response, the challenger will forfeit, and the dare lapses, in which case she would declare herself the winner. He liked to stay out of trouble, preferring living and going to school in Mogadiscio to being sent back to his poorer parents in the hinterland, close to Galkacyo, in Mudugh. Always conscious of their difference in height, he was irritated by her rubbing it in.

She opts for a different tack. She says, wisely, stressing the validity of her point, “Only fools are unafraid.”

“Please don't take it that way,” he apologizes.

As he prepares to walk away, Cambara remarks that they are close to an open-air market. In fact, they meet shoppers returning, the forlorn expressions of the women swathed from head to toe in cheap veils evident, on occasion with only their eyes and hands showing. The women are carrying their small purchases in black plastic bags. To encounter these women in their miserable state saddens Cambara. Even though the men look equally dour and unfulfilled, they seem relaxed. Maybe it is because the men have preciously tucked away under their arms their fresh bundles of
qaat
, the stimulant that some of them have already started to chew. Whereas the women have nothing of importance to expect, save more war-related miseries and rape and sick children to care for, useless husbands whom they serve hand and foot as they chew to their heart's satisfaction and talk politics.

She thinks of herself as being, already, a victim of the habit. After all, he has dragged her out of bed and forced her to carry the lethargy of jet lag to escort him so that he might buy his daily ration. She has found proof of chewing in the upstairs room where she is staying, which is littered with the dried detritus of the discarded stems of the stuff. For a nonchewer, nonsmoker, she looks upon the upstairs room allotted to her as a hellhole, smelly, the walls green from the spit of the chewers, the crannies stuffed with the plant's unchewed stems.

When Cambara puts urgency into her steps with a view to catching up with him, she trips, loses her balance, and almost tumbles over. Zaak stares accusingly at her sandaled feet, which are now covered with fine brown sand.

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