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Interview Nadifa Mohamed

"The black mamba is one of the most dangerous and feared snakes in Africa due to its potent venom, large size, and the ferocity of its attacks. However, humans bitten by black mambas are rare, as the snake would rather avoid confrontation with humans, and their occurrences are uncommon."
- Wikipedia

Nadifa Mohamed
Stacey Knecht

Black Mamba Boy

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SK — Nadifa, I noticed that as you were reading to me just now, your voice really changed when you reached the passage in which your father is speaking.

NM — I feel like there’s a definite need to tell his stories the way he would tell them. He speaks very differently than I do. He’s got a very booming voice and a kind of crazy mixed accent. So when I think of a story like that, I obviously think of the way he would tell it and I feel like I wouldn’t do it justice if I did it in my own voice.

SK — Something else that struck me in this first passage: he’s wearing ma’awis, even though he’s living in England.

NM — It’s funny. He’s got these habits that come from different places, disparate things. So when you see him in the street, he always wears a hat, a kind of trilby, with a little feather in it. When I went to Eritrea, many of the men are dressed in a similar way, so I think that comes from his time there. When he’s at home he likes to relax in Somali clothes. His accent is half Somali, he’s got some Yorkshire in there, some West Indian - it’s like an amalgamation of many different things. And the food he cooks, again, is a funny mixture of stodgy English food but with Somali spices. He’s very cosmopolitan, in every way, I think. Even his views are a mixture of what he picked up in Aden, what he learned from his Somali family, what he experienced in his life.

SK — What was it like in Somalia when your father was a child?

NM — It was a very old world. My father was born in the middle of nowhere, to a nomadic family. In some ways their lives had changed but in the most crucial ways they were living as their ancestors had been for centuries. Beyond the nomadic world you had the big old port towns which had been port towns for centuries: Mogadishu, Aden, Berbera and Zeila on the Somali coast and then a few along the Eritrean coast and then up towards Sudan and Egypt. So it’s this really ancient, kind of Old Testament-y type world. And you had communities there which had been living there for centuries. So you had Somalis and Jewish people living next door to each other.

SK — That’s interesting. It never occurred to me that there were Jews living in Somalia.

NM — Yes! There are apparently even ancient Jewish graves. You had the Jewish influence from the Middle East, from the Gulf, and the Jewish influence from Ethiopia. You also had the monsoon winds bringing people, bringing Indians, bringing Arabs, bringing Indonesians. So it’s really kind of a swirling Old World that probably wouldn’t have changed so much if you read it in the Greek texts that you have from 1,500 years ago. And then: bang! Everything starts to change. Suddenly Jews and Muslims are on opposing sides, rather than the same people that they have been, with the same customs, who speak pidgin versions of each other’s languages, there must have been some intermarriage… so everything was suddenly torn apart. When Somalis go to Aden, they’re policed by the British, people from a small island in the north of Europe. I find that crash of a culture, that collapse of a culture, really interesting, and how something new is created from that. Aden, now, when you go there, doesn’t have the same magic as it did. I’ve got pictures of Aden, old postcards, and you’ve got people holding up a sea cow, and they call it a mermaid. And there’s a guy on a camel with a huge cart with a water barrel, and that’s how water was taken around town.

SK — When were those pictures taken, do you think?

NM — Twenties, maybe? Up until the 1930’s, things pretty much remained the same. But suddenly all this industry comes in, everything is mechanized and that Aladdin-quality, the ‘1,001 nights’ quality of that life, is gone. My father was sort of on the cusp of that change. I mean, he could’ve been a pearl diver - if he knew how to swim! But instead he ended up working in the engine room of a ship. I love the idea of my dad as - well, not a relic exactly, but a kind of relic (laughs) of this really ancient history. He knew Hebrew when he was a child, and he knew Hindi. There’s this amazing book from 1850 called An Account of the British Settlement in Aden, by Captain F.E. Hunter. I mean this guy actually went to the effort of describing what every community wore, their jewelry, what they ate, what they earned, what kind of work they did, what they believed. It’s priceless. You read about the rather strange customs that the Yemeni Jews had when it came to marriage - they did something with a white cow, I can’t remember what - and the Somalis were often getting into trouble with the police because they had these huge robes that would fall open and they had nothing underneath.

SK — Men and women?

NM — Mostly men. Women would wear a little belt to tie it with. But the men didn’t, and I think the British had this policy of three strikes and you’re out, so if you revealed yourself three times, you went to prison. Lots of lovely little details like that. And there are these old cisterns, thousands of years old, with these tiny little bricks. My father used to play in them. I love those details. Because you have to look far and wide to get any information about Somalia, especially written works that describe Somalia in a non-racist, non-patronizing way. Most of what you find is colonial - British, Italian, whatever - and they have a very particular outlook on ‘the savages,’ as they called them. But ‘the savages’ were my grandparents. So something doesn’t make sense.

SK — Does your father ever speak of that ‘amalgamation,’ as you call it? Does he have a particular identity? How does he describe himself?

NM — Oh yes, he feels it really strongly. He loves to say that he’s a global citizen, a man of the world. I think that’s his identity now. He feels maybe slightly awkward saying he’s… He says he’s Somali, but he has hardly spent any time in Somalia. He grew up largely in Eritrea, but he’s not Eritrean. He has lived most of his life in England and he tells me now that he feels English, and that he’s English, but then he’s still Somali. So it’s like a cyclical thing. He has been to 107 different countries in the world, because he was a sailor for more than fifty years. He loves that, and I think that’s a source of pride for him. He’ll say, ‘You can never imagine what I’ve seen!’ That was his education, and his life.

SK — And that phrase, ‘You can never imagine what I’ve seen!’ could apply to this entire book. I myself could never imagine what he’d been through. I often thought, while reading the book: how could a child endure such trials? This can’t be true! Have you had this reaction from other readers?

NM — Definitely. They don’t want to believe it’s true. There’s a reaction against it, the sense that no one should experience all these things, especially not a child, especially not a child without parents. That sad thing is that it’s true. It does happen and it happens all the time. Even now. And even in Western societies, you have children who are growing up in the most awful situations, and maybe they won’t have war to deal with, or droughts, or anything like that, but psychologically the damage is sometimes even worse, after what they’ve seen and experienced.
My father didn’t really have a childhood. He jumped from being a six-year-old to being an adult. He had to work for himself, look after himself, think for himself. That’s an idea that, even for me, is very strange. You’re a child, you must have someone looking after you, of course you do! His mother was a kind of… she… there was an overarching ‘care,’ attention paid to him, but on a day-to-day basis he lived by himself. So I think: it’s real, but we don’t really want to face its reality.

SK — My first impression of his mother, as you’ve portrayed her, was, ‘She’s not very nice to him!’ But sometimes the warmth is there, when she brings him clothes, or tells him the story of her pregnancy, the story of the black mamba. And of course the scene in which she dies - it’s heartbreaking to see how close they actually are.

NM — Yes, I think they had a very intense relationship, a very passionate relationship, and because they didn’t really have any other family, they were in Aden and it was just them. He didn’t blame her for not looking after him, in the sense that he understood, even as a six-year-old, that she had to go and work twelve hours a day and she was hardly getting anything for it. They couldn’t even afford a place of their own. She was also very young, she had him at the age of seventeen. There was a parity between them which is very unusual. I think maybe sometimes books set in Africa or Asia you have this very hierarchical, ritualized relationship between parent and child, and it wasn’t there between them. They were equals. She would do anything - she would die for him, and at certain points in their relationship she did the unimaginable for him. She would go into the desert - anything, anything he needed.

SK — I just remembered a passage in which you say that many - or most - Somali women abandoned their four- and five-year-old boys when their fathers left them, but she did everything she could to care for him.

NM — Yes. In whatever way she could. There were so many women who were left by their husbands, either because they had gone to find work or because the marriage had broken down, it was very common. When you read the historical accounts of Aden at the time, the Somali children were considered a local nuisance, and they were sometimes rounded up and deported to Somalia en masse. So they were part of the cityscape. For her it wasn’t acceptable to leave him completely to his own devices, so she tried to get him into a Muslim school, and then into another Muslim school - she was ambitious for him and tried to do what she could within her ability.

SK — Have you seen photographs of her? Do you have any?

NM — I do have one of her, when she was elderly, and she looks very serious, she has an intense gaze. Doesn’t look much like my father, maybe there’s a similarity around the mouth, but there’s definitely an intensity that you can see. She was, you know, a very powerful woman. When she returned to Hargeisa, in Somaliland, in the Fifties or Sixties, she used to wear her Sudanese clothes, never mind what anyone else said. She was always independent. She never relied on anyone and she taught her son never to rely on anyone either.

SK — So she actually lived to a ripe old age? Aha!

NM — Yes! That’s one of the differences between the book and real life. I thought it would be interesting to see how he would cope, because it’s not impossible for a little boy to cope on his own, and what would he do, what dangers would he face and survive?

SK — It’s an odyssey. He’s in search of his father. I hesitate to keep asking you ‘Did this really happen?’, ‘Is this fiction?,’ but keep it in mind that I was wondering about this as I read the book, and I’m still wondering about it now!

NM — (laughs)

SK — It seemed that his motivation, his drive, especially once his mother had died, was to go in search of his father. And this independent streak, which his mother seems to have nurtured in him… He doesn’t stay anywhere.

NM — No, he doesn’t! (laughs)

SK — Even if people are really nice to him, like that couple that takes him in.

NM — There are a few reasons for that. I think maybe he doesn’t trust people, and he’s also ambitious for himself. He feels like there’s something better just over the horizon: let me go see what’s over there. And again, I think it’s something that his mother instilled in him, that he was born for a special fate.

SK — Does he believe that? Because he seems to doubt it at one point.

NM — He does doubt it. And I think now that my father is old, he definitely believes he was born with a particular luck. And I don’t blame him. He has survived so many different things that no one else did.

SK — Do you think he’s right?

NM — Yes, I think he is. My grandmother, who was really into traditional beliefs - later on in life she worked as a fortune-teller, and it wasn’t kind of like a scammy thing, she was very serious about it - she consulted a fortune-teller when Jama left for the Navy, and they often predicted, or saw, things that actually really did happen. So she had a belief and a faith in that, and people she trusted repeated the sense that this child was born for a special fate. I think when a child hears that over and over again, they start to believe it, despite the fact that the environments he found himself in were completely hostile to someone like him. A poor black child was not meant to come to anything. But because of his mother’s influence, he thought that he would come to something, whatever that might be.

SK — So he probably exuded that confidence, that belief in himself, which may have been annoying to people who felt otherwise.

NM — Yes, I think so. I think he also had a sense of self-preservation. He would back away, while some children, like Shidane in the book, don’t know when to back down. They don’t have that survival mechanism.

SK — And they don’t survive.

NM — They don’t survive. My father knew when to stay quiet, when to observe, when to walk away. I think that’s what must have saved him. And also that inner belief that there’s something better to life than this.

SK — Shidane is an interesting counterpart to Jama.

NM — Yes, Shidane seems so vibrant and intelligent, and he has charisma, so he can bring people to his aid and influence them. But when I think about Somalia - much later on as well - these very gutsy, extroverted, proud boys, they’re the ones that often die, they’re the ones that don’t survive.

SK — It might be interesting for the readers, the listeners, if you could give us some historical context, maybe talk about that part of the world during the Second World War. Because your father’s story is very much a part of the larger picture.

NM — That’s true. In some ways his life was quite typical of what was happening in Somalia at the time. The disruptions in his life and the fact that his mother left Hargeisa, left Somaliland in the first place because her family’s livestock died, and that was the only way of making a living. People went to Aden, because it’s the biggest city, it’s just across the Red Sea, and they found work in coffee factories - the women did, and the men would be laborers or work on the ships, or do whatever they could, and their lives were circumscribed by rules that the Colonial powers had made, but which had no relation to what they needed. I remember my other grandmother telling me that when her child was sick and she was carrying him on her back as she was leaving her nomadic camp to come to the city in Somaliland - to Hargeisa - people were really nervous about letting her into their houses, because there were smallpox epidemics, and she had a sick child, and the British would come and burn their house down as a way of controlling smallpox. It was how they dealt with the natives, that you could destroy their property at any cost, to preserve your own. She was actually put in quarantine, in a smallpox hospital, with her son.

SK — This is your other grandmother?

NM — Yes.

SK — Was she also Somali?

NM — Yes, she was. Luckily, both she and her son survived. But it’s that kind of rough treatment. And you can’t negotiate. Someone like her could not negotiate with the government. She was the subject of their laws. And that was felt to a certain level in Somaliland and even more strongly outside, in Djibouti, and especially in the Italian Empire - Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, where the rules were very very strict in terms of where you could live… you had to step out of the road if an Italian was coming, you had to call him ‘the Master.’ It was much stricter than apartheid was in South Africa later on. There was a sense that wherever you went as a black person, whether it was Australia - which had a sign saying ‘Welcome to White Australia’ -, whether you went to the US, whether you went to South Africa, whether you went anywhere, this was the way you were meant to be treated. You were second-class. I think that’s actually one of the more frightening aspects of the novel - I wondered how it had affected my dad psychologically, to be told, and for it to be confirmed at every opportunity, that you were second-class.

SK — He’s warned about that, at one point, isn’t he? Idea, the very kind man who takes him under his wing, tells him basically: when you go out there, into the world, you’ll see that life for a black man is harder than you can ever imagine.

NM — Yes. And as a child he just thinks, oh no no no.

SK — Well how can a child possibly conceive of a thing like that? Especially if he thinks he’s invincible. Have you ever talked with him about it?

NM — Yes. I wondered whether he felt any kind of resistance to it, because there was resistance. Indignation, too. The Ethiopians were fighting the Italians really quite brutally and were inflicting serious damage on the Italians, but in Somalia and Eritrea you had less resistance. They were more passive. I think people were just eager to keep their heads down and to survive it. They were hoping the Italians would just go away. And while the Italians were still there, they hoped to at least benefit in some way, financially, or maybe hospital treatment, whatever they could get from the system they would try and get. But there wasn’t the strong, feudal state that you had in Ethiopia that could actually offer resistance. Ethiopia was also a massive country: there were 70 million in comparison to maybe 1 million, or maybe it was 50 million at that time and 1 million in Somalia. But still, a massive difference.

SK — By the way, what’s the difference between Somalia and Somaliland?

NM — It’s complicated! (laughs) But at that time - here, let’s look at the map in the front of the book - these were all Somali territories. In fact all of this (points), and here. Somalis live in Djibouti, in that part of Ethiopia, all of that area, and into Northern Kenya. So when the British and Italians went there, they called that area Somaliland, and you had Italian Somaliland, British Somaliland, and French Somaliland, which is Djibouti. This area (points), which is the Ogaden, was given to Abyssinia later on. And then this area (points) was given to Kenya. In the 1960s, when most of the countries were getting independence, these two areas were given independence - one by Italy, one by Britain - and they decided to join, and this whole area became Somalia. And that’s the country I was born in, that’s the state I was born in. I was born in Hargeisa, and the capital is Mogadishu. But then we had the civil war, in 1988, which started here, between Burao and Hargeisa, and this area was where the civil war began, and within two or three years the rebels, who were Isaaq Clan - the predominant clan in the whole of Somaliland, defeated the government, and they broke away. So this area is now a new state, an independent republic, separate from the rest of Somalia. And it’s called Somaliland. But not British Somaliland.

SK — Now it’s Somali Somaliland!

NM — Yes. It’s been independent for eighteen years. We’ve had Democratic elections three times, there’s just been a change of government, a new president has taken power, they have an army, police, hospitals, schools, universities, it’s a completely functioning state, but it’s not recognized by anyone else in the world.

SK — Why not?

NM — Because they say that to preserve national integrity and so on, Somali and Somaliland have to come to an agreement. Somalia has to secede land to Somaliland, like the Ethiopians did with Eritrea. But there’s no government to negotiate with in the South, there are just factions. So they’ve just had to wait. They’ve been trying to get unilateral independence, because they are actually an independent state, but the Italians don’t want Somaliland to be independent, the Egyptians don’t, the Saudis don’t, no one does. It doesn’t suit anyone else. They enjoy having the influence that they have in Mogadishu. But the British seem ambivalent, they would probably support Somaliland. But the reasons are basically political ones. And people are hopeful - it’s been eighteen years now, and they’ve proven themselves over and over again. The elections this year were considered free and fair by the election monitors. They’re doing better than Iraq, Afghanistan, all the places that they’ve been trying to democratize, or do whatever to. So it’s becoming more and more ridiculous to let the situation carry on. Especially as there’s a government in Mogadishu - which is recognized as the government of the whole of Somalia, including Somaliland - which only controls one small block in Mogadishu, and it barely controls that, it does that with African peacekeepers. So it makes no sense.

SK — You mentioned that you’ve been back there recently. Why did you go back?

NM — There was a book fair in Hargeisa. It’s the third year they’ve had it, it’s called the Hargeisa International Book Fair and Mooge Festival, and I was the headliner. There were maybe 2,000 people at the talk. The best way to become famous in Somalia is to go on the radio, because everyone has a radio. So when I went on the BBC Somali Service, the BBC World Service, that was it! Literally. It was amazing. I was also there to do research for my second novel, and I met loads of amazing people, went to the hospital I was born in and did an interview there, and tried to find some of the records, see if they had been left from when I was born. But it had all been looted and destroyed. So: two reasons, really, for going.

SK — And did you go back while writing this book as well?

NM — Yes. So that was the first time I returned actually, 2006.

SK — When did you first go to live in England?

NM — ’86.

SK — How old are you?

NM — I just turned 29.

SK — Okay, so you came to England when you were about...

NM — Four and a half.

SK — I’m very curious to know about your connection - or maybe it’s a non-connection - to Somaliland, the place you were born. I’d also like to talk about how you and your father worked on this book together. Obviously he told you many stories when you were growing up, but at what point did you think, this should be a book, and I’m going to involve him in the process! How did that come about?

NM — I’ll answer the first one first. I think the link with Somaliland… it’s really strong, but it’s shapeless, because I don’t know that much about life there. I have my family there, my extended family, so that has always meant that there’s a bond. You care about what happens to the country because your family are there.

SK — You hadn’t met them?

NM — No. But family is family. People like my mum’s brother, my cousins, people that you know what happens to them will have an effect on your family. So that’s probably the primary bond. And then I think I was already quite a Somali child when I came to the UK. I spoke only Somali, back home I knew my neighborhood, I used to run around and there was a hotel opposite my house and I was friends with a lady there and I’d run around the hotel and I remember, I can actually remember bashing into doors and opening people’s doors… I was active, you know? I was part of that environment. And I remember feeling… apparently when I came to the UK I was very quiet, and I kind of became withdrawn, and I always had the feeling that it was a temporary move and that we’d go back. I don’t know where that idea came from. Maybe my dad told me once and it stuck with me and I thought, we’re going back, we’re going back, we’re going back!

SK — And you wanted to go back.

NM — I wanted to go back! I wanted to see my grandmothers, because I was very close to them, and I didn’t like school - it was my first experience with school - and I was cramped in a room with people I didn’t know, no language…

SK — How did that go?

NM — I remember not knowing English and then suddenly knowing it. But I remember struggling with the alphabet and just not liking it. It was cold, I didn’t like the milk, I didn’t like anything. And my very first day at school I ran home. I said ‘This isn’t for me,’ and I found my own way back. My mother just opened the door and said ‘How on earth did you get back?’

SK — Independent, just like your father!

NM — I think so, yes. And I think in Somalia you were encouraged to be independent. I remember negotiating with my mum for siestas - she’d say, ‘It’s time to sleep now,’ and I’d be like, ‘If I have to sleep, you have to sleep.’ My life was set around that kind of routine. But then eventually the war broke out and it was clear we weren’t going to go back, and I kind of got used to England, developed friendships… But even then, you never really felt as if you belonged. I don’t know why, but I always felt as if I belonged somewhere else. So after I finished university I was desperate to find out more about my background and my roots and I think this whole book maybe came out of that sense of feeling disconnected. I studied English history - to death - I knew it inside out, I knew it better than most English people, but I felt as if I never knew anything, there was no opportunity to find out about Somalia, or even East Africa, it was a complete kind of blank for me. The things I would read would be so depressing and you’d see images of the famine, or I remember seeing pictures of Shidane, his murder, and the Canadian peacekeepers who did it -

SK — Pictures of his murder?

NM — Yes. They took pictures while they were doing it.

SK — My god.

NM — This battered and bruised boy, and they’re posing with him. So things like that stuck with me. There was another picture of Belgian peacekeepers holding a Somali boy over a fire, and these things actually really do disturb you. There was a kind of disconnect for me that I had to somehow connect.

SK — So this book is your father’s search for something, but also your search for him.

NM — Definitely.

SK — You say you were desperate to find out more about your background. That’s pretty strong. That’s a real deep feeling.

NM — I was desperate. Not so much to find out about my own personal family history, but more generally. But then… my dad’s old, he’s eighty-four, eighty-five, and I remember doing one interview with him, I don’t know why I did it, I think it was just for the sake of posterity, I started that in 2001 while I was still at university, and I sat him down one Sunday afternoon and just recorded him talking about his life a bit.

SK — Did he enjoy that?

NM — He did, yes. He did. For a long time he’d been saying, ‘My life is so interesting! You’d never believe what I’ve seen! You’d never believe what I’ve done!’ I don’t think he expected a book out of it, but he knew that his life was extraordinary and he wanted the world to know about that. So I think I did that first interview for my nieces, my first niece was born that same year and I thought she should know about her grandfather. And then, jump another three years, I worked for a film company and that came to an end, but it made me realize I enjoyed writing. So that was a complete, came-out-of-nowhere type of job. I started scriptwriting and I had no experience of scriptwriting, but I realized I really enjoyed it and the director said I had a talent for it, so I thought, hmm, I quite like this! And I thought I’d write a script about my father’s friend, Mahmood Mattan.

SK — Who was that?

NM — He was a Somali sailor, he lived in Wales and he married a Welsh girl called Laura. They lived in Cardiff, I think, and they had a huge Romeo-and-Juliet type love affair. They couldn’t live together.

SK — Feuding families?

NM — Almost. Him and the feuding Welsh people, I think, because they didn’t want her marrying a black guy. They were married, but they had to live in separate houses. My father knew them when they came to live in Hull, but then they moved back to Cardiff, and there was a murder, in a local shop, a local jeweler’s, and the woman had her throat slit, and someone said they saw a Somali man at the scene. So within about three months, Mahmood was arrested, tried, sentenced and hung, in 1952, in Cardiff. It was a complete travesty of justice. They said things like, ‘Well how would you expect a half-civilized savage to behave?’ That was his defense lawyer! So he didn’t have a chance. His wife couldn’t stop him being hung. She tried to appeal to Parliament, she did so much. Fifty years later, she managed to get him pardoned. So it was an amazing story, and it was one of the few cases that involved Somalis at that time, and I thought wow, who was this Somali guy living in Wales in 1952? And when I realized my dad knew him I said, OK, Dad, I want to interview you about Mahmood and see how much you know about him, and see why you all ended up here.

SK — What a coincidence that he knew him! Or was it not a coincidence?

NM — They all sort of know each other. But it’s still a coincidence that of all the Somalis in the country… they lived quite far apart, in Hull and Cardiff. So he said OK, so I went around with my MP3 recording thingy and I said OK, tell me why you ended up in Hull? What were you doing there? And he said, ‘Well! If you want to start this story we need to go back to Aden.’ Then he went back from Aden to his own birth, to his parents, and we even ended up talking about a guy who lived in the 1500s, who was another Mattan, he was an ancestor of my father’s who apparently had fought in this massive battle between a Somali general and an Ethiopian king. They’re very famous. The Somalis took over a big patch of Ethiopia and this ancestor was meant to have fought with the Somali general, and we were trying to locate him. So it was this huge spread of time.

SK — And your father placed himself in that line of -

NM — Yes. Somalis generally can count seventeen, eighteen, nineteen generations back. They know a little bit about this person and that person, and it’s really fascinating. But he really started with his parents, how they got together - they eloped, they ran away together…

SK — That’s in the book, isn’t it?

NM — Yes! Where she meets him in the moonlight.

SK — He’s wearing this white gown and he looks like the angel Gabriel…

NM — Yes, that’s right! (laughs) So then the family is struggling and struggling, and they lose all their livestock. So the father sends himself off to Sudan because everyone says you can find work there. And the mother says, What can I do? OK, he doesn’t come back so she has to go to Aden and try and find work there. So my dad was eager to tell me precise, precise details. He wanted me to record. I don’t think he had the idea that I would write a book about it, but he was quite keen that I record all of this, in perfect detail.

SK — When did you know that you were going to write about it?

NM — I think when he started saying the really surreal things, like when he was arrested with the tortoise. I thought, that’s so strange! That’s a book! And there was always this luck around him, so when he survives the bombing of the cave in Keren, and when he walks across the Red Sea, it’s just so surreal and you think, this is the book that I would love to read. This is no ordinary family story, it’s extraordinary. So that’s when I first thought, maybe I’ll make a film about my dad, or maybe I’ll write a book about him instead, because I know books better. But it was a very slow realization, and for a long time I kept telling myself, well, I’ll only really write it down for my nieces, and then I’ll put it away and they can look at it when they’re older and I’ll have everything down in nice prose. But when it got to fifty pages, a hundred pages, a hundred and fifty, I realized that I wasn’t able to just write it as a straight description of the events. I wanted to say, look at this! This is incredible! And I enjoy describing places and creating situations, getting inside his inner life, which he wasn’t actually able to help much with, because he just said ‘I didn’t think. I don’t remember.’

SK — So how did you manage?

NM — It was hard. Especially because there’s a huge age difference between us, and he was a little boy, and he also is very different in character, in terms of, I would probably mull things over and dream and think, while he says he never did any of that. He was very practical.

SK — Do you believe him?

NM — I didn’t believe him for a long time. I found it hard to believe that a child could just wake up and think, OK, what am I going to eat? And I’d say, ‘Well what did you think after you’d eaten? When you’d sated every basic physical need, what did you think?’ ‘I didn’t think anything! I would just walk.’ So I really don’t know whether to say, OK, that’s just the way it was. But I think it would have pained him that his father wasn’t around, and he did have this very combustive relationship with his mother, so I can’t help but think a child would think about that. It’s there in your mind. And you think about your friends, but he said he never had any friends, he could never rely on anyone. Things that are actually quite hard to get your head around.

SK — What about the two boys, Shidane - who I know was a real person - and the other boy, Abdi? Was he real? Weren’t they friends of your father’s?

NM — They were both real, and they were his friends, but they had a fight and broke up.

SK — For a while they were like a little family, of their own making. They seemed to be very important to each other.

NM — Yes. And I think that’s me stepping in and saying, ‘Look, you did have friendships among with Somali boys now and again, for certain periods of time. What was it like? And you know, when children have a lack of parental care, they become like a family of their own. One person takes charge, you have the dynamics of a family, and so on. So I couldn’t help but think that must have been the case. And it must’ve been really painful when they fought. The other two have each other but you’re alone. And all the other kids know that you’re alone. And it’s painful. And when I looked at other sources for other street children, or child refugees who live alone… they feel so much, they’re not numb. They’re not numb. But my dad prefers to think of himself as numb. And I think there is a shock, there is something that happens that just makes you not think too much at the time about things, but then suddenly when you stop, that’s when you start thinking. So I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. It reminds me of something I once read in a book by Primo Levi, where he was very depressed when he lived in Italy, he led a very comfortable life, there was no clear reason for his depression, but he was suicidal. But when he was taken to Auschwitz, he said that he never thought about suicide there. I think psychologically, physically, you change. And only afterwards, back in normal life, did he suddenly start feeling depressed, and it wasn’t really connected to the camp experience. There’s something about trauma, your body turns everything around. I have family, young family, who lived in refugee camps - it’s not as horrifying as concentration camps, but you’d think that there would be telltale signs or habits that have developed to survive, but they’re just ordinary people! I think that under huge stress, your mind looks after itself, it does something else. Hopefully.

SK — Well yes, to get through that period. And hopefully, if and when you get out of it you can somehow regain some of the strength you had before. That doesn’t always happen, obviously.

NM — No. But for a surprising majority of people, it does. I find that amazing. I think I’d be broken by an experience like that, even a fraction of that. But some people aren’t. The majority of people aren’t. They go back and they live normal lives, they have their families, there’s a strength there that is really quite hard to believe. Anyway, I generally just tried to go with what my dad said. So if he said he would walk… like, I remember one scene when he was describing his life in a little village in Ethiopia, and there, there was really nobody around. He was really very alone. He was a tea-shop boy, so he would walk around with a little mug and some cups and give people tea. When it rained, he said, he would seek shelter, and when the sun came back out he would walk. There was a kind of really sad simplicity to that life. There’s no desire, no hopes, just basic life. I think that was the saddest point in his life - other times, there’s people around him, there are dynamics that would engage him, in terms of society. But the idea of a child just waking up and walking around is very sad.

SK — Has he ever talked about what his life might have been like if he’d had a different kind of childhood?

NM — Yes, he has actually. I remember interviewing him for a little extra thing we put in the English paperback. I asked him - I think it was a comment I made - that with sixty or seventy years between us, I have had so many opportunities that would have been beyond his wildest dreams, and even most English people couldn’t go on to further education, they just go and do whatever their father did. And what do you think you would’ve done if you’d had my life? My opportunities? And he goes, ‘Oh, I could’ve been a doctor, I could’ve been an economist…’ He really feels as if he could’ve done anything.

SK — What an age gap between the two of you!

NM — It’s huge, huge.

SK — What about your mom?

NM — I was the last child of five. He married my mum twenty years after the end of this book, so she was much younger than him.

SK — Oh, so it wasn’t the woman in the book?

NM — No, it wasn’t Bethlehem. It was a Somali lady from Hargeisa. I was their last child. I think he’d already given up his child-rearing days, and then I popped up.

SK — Is she still alive?

NM — Yes. She’s in London as well.

SK — Has she played any role in this book at all? In this process?

NM — Yes, in terms of actually allowing me to live off her for four and a half years, without paying any rent (laughs). But she was really quite supportive. I think my brothers and sisters were kind of like, hmm, you should get a job, sort yourself out.

SK — Interesting. Have any of them actually read the book?

NM — My father has. My brother says he’s waiting for it to come out as an audio book. Sister started it, and my sister-in-law started it. So it’s only my father who has read it from beginning to end.

SK — I assume that they were quite a bit older than you when you all went to England. Have any of them ever expressed a desire to re-connect with their homeland, as you have?

NM — No. Maybe because they felt more secure in their Somaliness, and they were like ‘definite’ immigrants -

SK — They’d had more time back there.

NM — Yes. So when they came to England they went straight into work, or school, at an older age. I think maybe one of my brothers might have felt something similar. He definitely felt like his life was better in Somalia.

SK — How old was he?

NM — Thirteen. Tricky age. And he went to a hard school, in England, quite rough. The others didn’t seem so bothered by it. They’re all very connected. Like, my oldest brother is very interested in what’s going on in Somalia, and in Somaliland as well. It bothers him on a day-to-day basis. But I think only I had that kind of ‘where do I belong’ crisis. I didn’t really feel like I belong anywhere, didn’t know that much about Somalia, knew quite a lot about England but I never really felt English…

SK — Do you feel you’ve found what you were looking for?

NM — I think so. I think I feel more confident in my Somaliness now. I feel like I’m engaged with it, but on my terms, because I think the pressure is to just do what everyone else does. Dress like them, live like them, think like them.

SK — You mean, even though you’re living in a new country?

NM — Yes. And also in the home country. I think even stronger from the home country, and the home culture. In the sense that, if you’re a Somali living somewhere else, outside of Somalia, especially in the West, people are very quick to identify you as either someone who has stayed true to the culture, or someone who has rejected it. Those are two huge extremes, neither of which I’d find fitting for me. I don’t want to reject the culture and I don’t want to completely absorb and accept it. I’m an individual. Similar to the way my grandmother didn’t want to compromise. I don’t want to compromise. I don’t feel like I owe anyone anything. I’m a person, this is the life I’ve led. I’m an amalgamation of different experiences now, and what I know is that I’m an individual, with these two different influences. I feel much more like: that’s me! I’m glad. It makes life kind of simpler to know who you are.

SK — (laughs) Now there’s a good line! Makes life simpler if you know who you are. Think I’ll tattoo that on my arm.

NM — (laughs) But you know, it takes a long time. Some people jump around trying to work out who they were, who they are. I don’t think I had to do that too much. I accidentally went on a course that helped me find out.

SK — And you had the primary source right there. Your dad.

NM — Yes. One of the things I didn’t realize until I was writing the book is that I’m actually a third-generation migrant. Maybe even fourth-generation. Definitely my father’s parents: his father died in Sudan, and his mother lived in Aden, then in Eritrea, then went back to Somalia and died in Ethiopia. I know that my grandfather’s father died before my grandfather was born, but then there’s a mysterious guy who just walked away. I talk about him in the book. Ambaro tells Jama he had a great-grandfather who was a jinn, he just deserted his family, walked away and disappeared and no one ever heard of him again. And it’s true, no one knows where he ended up, he just disappeared! That’s quite rare for Somalis. Wherever you end up, you normally send word back somehow. There’s a real network - it’s hard to stay hidden. So we don’t know whatever happened to him. But at least three consecutive generations have lived outside of Somalia. And that’s us. We’re migrants. That’s our culture.

SK — You mentioned the jinn, and that reminded me of a theme that runs throughout this book: of living with magic, with spirits. I think a lot of readers may associate this with Africa, maybe without even thinking about it.

NM — But in a way that probably doesn’t have any nuance. Witch doctors, black magic, and so on and so on. For my family it was actually a belief system, intermixed with Islam. So another thing I realized after writing the book was that when my grandmother saw the snake go over her belly, that wasn’t the end of it. She ran home to her husband, my grandfather, and was like, ‘Guess what happened to me!’ And his reaction was, ‘Really?! I think that was a visitation of my father!’ He thought that his father, who he’d never met, had come as a black mamba and passed over his unborn child, and I think he even sacrificed an animal to mark the event, to celebrate it. To them it was really real. My grandmother believed in this. It wasn’t something silly she dabbled in. She was in touch with something. The saar ceremony, which I describe in the book, when the women get together and perform a kind of exorcism - the language is different, but what they’re doing is something very simple. The women are getting together as a community to let someone flush out her problems, and to physicalize them, and to acknowledge difficulties that in normal life they probably want to suppress. They’re simple things, which are actually quite complex, psychologically, and they work! They do work. And in Somalia now people still talk about jinns, a lot of people will say they’re possessed by jinns. I think most of the time it’s a way of not saying what’s really wrong. They can’t say, ‘I’m angry,’ or ‘I’m jealous,’ or ‘I just feel unhappy for no reason.’ So they say, ‘I’m possessed by a jinn.’

SK — They attribute it to an outside force.

NM — Exactly. Which is less painful. They’re like metaphors. I remember another story that my dad told me, that he knew someone in Eritrea, or maybe he himself was in town one day, when two Eritrean men were walked into town. They were arrested, people were grabbing at them, they had blood down their front. And they were accused of having turned into animals and eaten someone’s livestock. There were even witnesses who said they saw them turn into animals and eat the livestock. It was all deadly serious.

SK — What happened to these men?

NM — I’m not sure. I’m not sure how serious an offense that would be (laughs). They were taken to the police, that much I know. But often the police would believe it, too! And the strangest thing is that there were actually eyewitnesses. I guess if you have a very set way of looking at the world - there are things that happen and things that can’t happen - then it’s hard to believe, but these places kind of mix everything up, you never really know what’s real and what’s not. And I think the more extreme lives people lead, the more extreme their way of thinking will be, a very heightened and creative way of looking at the world. So even in Somalia now people will say to you: there’s this man, he has red eyes, and he goes out at night and eats people. And I sometimes go, oh don’t be silly, of course he doesn’t. But I think things lend themselves… when you go out into the desert, anything’s possible. It’s so lonely, it can be so dark, it can be so frightening that people are often driven out of their minds. Even camel boys used to sometimes be returned to Hargeisa because they had gone mad in the desert. There’s a reason that those places are the birthplaces of jinns and prophets! It’s reality, it’s real life to them. An eleven-year-old would be left out there, or even a ten-year-old, they would sleep in a cave or a tent, all by themselves, they would hear a hyena or maybe a lion…

SK — And I’m sure their imaginations would run wild…

NM — It’s an intense life, it’s an admirable life. I remember when I read Beloved, by Toni Morrison, I wondered at first why she had added this kind of supernatural, ghost-y thing to a really intense slave story. But then it made perfect sense, when you think that that life was so unrecognizable. Anything was possible, any type of horror was possible, you witnessed it. And when the lines have been blurred, why not believe? Why not believe that the child you’ve killed - maybe because you didn’t want them to grow up as a slave or because you couldn’t love them as a product of rape - why not believe that that child still exists? Everything is possible, your mind, I think, becomes really malleable. Life itself is malleable. You see such evil things that life and horror, everything, is intermingled. I remember one of the characters in Beloved talks about who had a ‘hard death’ and who had a ‘soft death.’ If you had a hard death, it couldn’t be left at that - you were restless. These were probably African ideas that were also maintained through the whole experience. I loved that book.

SK — Let’s talk now about how you and your father worked together on Black Mamba Boy.

NM — He was very involved. When I first started out I wanted to stay very close to real life. I wanted to make it a novel, but have real events, real characters. But then, as I said, there were gaps in what my father would tell me about his emotional life - there wasn’t much there, all his relationships with people, for instance, as I described in the book, Jama would tell his wife Bethlehem ‘I went here’ or ‘I went there,’ but he’s always alone, he traverses these places alone, there’s no one around him. And my father was a bit like that when he was telling me the story. But I thought, you can’t have been alone. So I had to step in to create the relationships around him, and also his inner life. But then, we talked about it regularly, maybe even every week - I’d go to him and ask him some questions. Sometimes he wouldn’t be in the mood and all he wanted was his cup of tea and to watch some TV. Other times we’d sit there for an hour, an hour and a half, and he’d tell me in massive, massive detail exactly how he got from A to B in Palestine. His memory is incredible. He’s not forgotten anything. Sometimes he’d give away things, he’d say (whispers) ‘I’ve not told anyone this, but…’ And then we’d discuss whether I’d put it in or not.

SK — Were there things he really objected to you using?

NM — Well, sometimes he’d say, ‘This isn’t for the book.’ And it was never anything really terrible or shocking, but I think he needed some sense of privacy, some things that were untouchable, and I respected that. I never wanted it to be a hatchet job, where I’d take his story and just do what I liked with it. I needed for him to feel proud of the book, and to be happy with the book, so when it came to his mother and his father, I tried to make them rounded characters, with good and bad. She gets angry with him sometimes, she’s really rude to him sometimes, but there’s an intense love for him. I felt it was my responsibility to show that his mother was a good person. His father - because he didn’t know him, I had to create him, which meant taking liberties with his character and who he was. I had to imagine him, for my father and for the book. There was no need to make them particularly problematic people - they were simple people.

SK — Maybe there was a fictional need? To give their characters different facets?

NM — Yes. So the father is very dreamy, not practical, while Ambaro has put her life on the sideline, she is now working for her son, and even he can’t interfere with her work for him. It’s something bigger than herself, while Jama’s father just bumbles along, trying to do what he can. Apart from that, I think the fact that my father was so supportive helped me finish the book. He was one of the few people who felt positive about it from the very beginning. When I told him that it was actually going to become more fictionalized, it wasn’t going to be just him, I think there was a sense of, ‘Oh! But my story is good enough, isn’t it?’ But in the end he always said, whatever you think is right. It was a very intense relationship. We learned more about each other as individuals, rather than just as parent and child.

SK — Almost grandfather and grandchild, age-wise at least!

NM — Oh, definitely. So now I know him as a person, and before he was quite a remote figure. I always wonder how he ended up so gentle, because so many men have a front, hard, not too emotional, ‘this is right, this is wrong,’ very unbending sometimes. But I think he’s much softer inside. For instance, at the moment he really doesn’t like me killing insects. ‘Leave them alone! Don’t hurt them!’ He gets very anxious about that. And he believes in love and peace. He’s very sensitive. But he also appreciates male attention, male conversation and company - because he was so often stuck with women, whether he liked it or not (laughs). His mother was such a huge influence on him. Even now, at the age of eighty-five, he puts her on a pedestal. She was everything to him, it was them against the world. And even though they hardly spent any time together, he would go traveling and sometimes not communicate for two, three years, when they got back together it was as strong as ever. She would go to her fortuneteller and find out where her son was, and he would send money back… They had a very intense relationship. I think his relationship with her was the most formative in his life.

SK — That, actually… when you look at the title of the book, it contains so many elements of the book: that mystical, spiritual quality, your father’s connection with his mother…

NM — And there was a really blunt reason for it as well. They would give the name ‘Black Mamba’ - Goode, in Somali - to children who were born with very dark skin. There are other names as well, and they’re often related to snakes. It was really rather remarkable - his mother saw his dark skin as a sign of luck, while in the rest of the world it was a sign of something negative, something threatening, something wrong. But for her it was: this dark skin is symbolic of something, a kind of strength.

SK — Your book is filled with beautiful descriptions of skin, skin tones, different shades of brown and gold and raisin-black… I don’t think I ever realized there was that much variation.

NM — Somalis can range so drastically. I think in other cultures it can range, too, but normally pale-skinned families will have pale-skinned children, dark-skinned will have dark-skinned, and so on. When a Somali baby pops out, it’s always a surprise. My grandmother was very yellow-skinned, but her child came out very dark. I remember reading that in the south of Somalia, some religious rituals were only for dark-skinned people, and it’s like a reversal. I like that. In lots of other places, dark skin signifies a kind of inferiority - in China, India, Sudan, lots of places.

SK — Jama, is searching for his father, but halfway through the book he finds out his father is dead. What is the rest of his journey about?

NM — I think there is a period of doubt, where he doesn’t know the purpose of his life. He is just living day to day because he’s alive. He wakes up and he’s alive, so he’s alive.

SK — It was a real blow, of course, finding out his father had died.

NM — Oh, massive. My dad went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, about ten years ago, when he was seventy-five. But he did the pilgrimage for his father as well. You can do that. You pay a man and the man does it for your father. His mother did it herself - like six times! It’s really quite powerful that sixty years later he’s still thinking, what can I do for my father? And the man has been gone for seven decades. So there’s that period when Jama doesn’t know what to do with his life… and then I think this hunger reignites, the sense of, well, other people are happy, they have families, they have futures, they have hope - why don’t I? So when the Italians almost destroyed him, it gave him that kick he needed. He wasn’t going to die for nothing. His friends died for nothing. It didn’t happen exactly like that in real life, but I think my father was very lucky. He deserted there and then: he left the army after he survived that bomb attack. I think it suddenly woke him up. And the women in Gerset and Focka… he really did go live in those matriarchal villages. I have a feeling they put him back together. Here’s this little boy, clean him up, give him some land, what can we do with him? And he was suddenly successful. He suddenly had eighteen employees and land and best harvest ever. He was debonair and suddenly completely changed, and that made him think, wow, my life can be really good! And he’s, what, seventeen? Eighteen? He’s tiny! He’s already had a taste of this success, and everyone is telling him: Somalis can make so much money in the Merchant Navy, everyone’s going, oh God, do you know how much they’re earning? In real life it was his mother that said, ‘Here’s my life savings, off you go!’ At the time he had really long hair, was hanging out with his musician friends, and she was like, I don’t think so! Their version of ‘college’ was the Merchant Navy. So she sent him off and he made it, with her money.

SK — So that search…

NM — I think at first he’s searching for that completeness that a father would provide. Then it’s gone: he’s not complete. So then he starts accidentally filling himself with things, such as his farm and the people he gets to know - he ends up speaking three languages in Eritrea, and, you know, that’s quite an exciting place to be, it’s a peaceful place to be, and completely different to Somalia. It has a different atmosphere, completely serene, green, luscious, fat cows, lagoons…

SK — Land of milk and honey.

NM — It really is. I think there’s a romance to it. When my father talks about it he still says, ‘Oh, Eritrea! That’s where I really became a man.’ He speaks about it much more longingly than he ever talks about Somalia. That’s what made me think there must’ve been an intense relationship there. He’d been alone, he’d not had any real friendships, and sometimes it’s easier to make friendships with girls because there is less competition and aggression. Especially in Gerset, because they didn’t wear tops there, so you go from Somalia where in some places, like Aden, women had to be covered from head to toe, to a community where the women were completely different and he just took it in his stride. He said, why do I care whether they wear tops or not?

SK — It really does sound like Paradise!

NM — I think so. It’s a place where the women are nurturers and they create, there’s no distraction, they don’t have any hierarchies, there’s no Mr. or Mrs. I think it was a really good place for him to be, a healing place.

The Ledge
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht,
Thanks to: De digitale pioniers and
Het Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
Design: Maurits de Bruijn

Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author.