Nuruddin Farah’s ‘North of Dawn’ tackles xenophobia and extremism with skill and subtlety

Farah makes it plain that xenophobia doesn’t exist only on one side of the divide between refugees and citizens, writes Margaret von Klemperer

11 June 2019 - 13:15 By Margaret von Klemperer
In 'North of Dawn', Nuruddin Farah deals with themes of exile, xenophobia, Islamophobia and fundamentalism.
In 'North of Dawn', Nuruddin Farah deals with themes of exile, xenophobia, Islamophobia and fundamentalism.
Image: Penguin Random House

Published in the Witness: June 10 2019

Nuruddin Farah is greatly respected in the literary world. Born in Somalia, he currently lives in Cape Town, but he is a cosmopolitan figure, and his latest novel is set mainly in Oslo.

In it Farah deals with themes of exile, xenophobia, Islamophobia and fundamentalism, all of which are extremely pertinent in today’s uncertain and angry world.

His central characters are Somalia-born Mugdi and Gacalo who have lived quietly in Norway for a long time, considering themselves assimilated.

In his former life, Mugdi was a diplomat and now translates into Somali works of classic Norwegian literature, dealing with the Norwegian diaspora into North America, while Gacalo works as a nurse.

They have kept to themselves, but their peaceful life was turned upside down when their son left Europe to return to Somalia where he died as a suicide bomber, leaving a widow and two stepchildren.

Mugdi and Gacalo sponsor Waliya and her children to come to Oslo, albeit a little reluctantly. And they find themselves having to deal with a new set of problems. Waliya makes no effort to integrate herself into Norwegian society – indeed, she seems to resent it – while her son in particular longs for the secular, easy life of a modern teenager. He turns to Mugdi for comfort and advice.

Farah makes it plain that xenophobia doesn’t exist only on one side of the divide between refugees and citizens of the host country. But neither is extremism seen the same way when it comes from Islamists – seen as evil people – and the white right wing – seen as mad, which is perhaps potentially more excusable. He handles these and other issues with skill and considerable subtlety.

Events such as Anders Brevik’s killing spree form a background to the novel as it draws a picture of a family dealing with an extraordinary situation in a country which, however assimilated they may feel, is not where their roots lie.

On that level, it is an important addition to the debate. My only criticism would be that there are moments when the personal cost of it all seems to be treated in a perfunctory way. And at its best, fiction should use close attention to the personal to illustrate the wider concerns of a society.


X