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The Blackhawk Downers 

A turbulent homecoming

The American image of the tragic, brutalized nation of Somalia consists largely of its portrayal in the popular action movie, Blackhawk Down, which shows the ghastly end of the attempts by American armed forces to intervene in the country's civil war in 1993. Since that time, Somalia has fallen off the international radar screen, supplanted by more pressing crises, threats, and attacks. But the Somalian people who downed the Blackhawk are still there, still engaged in civil war, and still suffering. Naruddin Farah, a Somalian exile who, since his receipt of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1998, has come to the front rank of African writers, endeavors to tell their story in his new book, Links.

Farah was forced to exile himself from Somalia in 1976, when his trilogy of novels, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, predictably aroused the ire of Somalia's then-dictator, Siad Barre. Yet, just as the Irish expatriate James Joyce wrote all of his best works about his country after leaving it, Farah continually revisits Somalia in his novels, examining both the politics and the psychology of his people. As he has said in interviews, "My goal is to keep my country alive by writing about it. . . [and] to provide an alternative to the cliches offered in the Western media."

Links takes place in the late 1990s, when Jeebleh, a Somalian who emigrated to America, returns to Mogadishu, Somalia's capital city, to find his mother's grave, pay her proper homage, and "settle old accounts." What he finds is a post-apocalyptic nightmare in which youth gangs shoot people randomly for sport, emaciated animals gnaw on discarded plastic and filth in the streets, and the bodies of the recently killed are harvested for transplantable organs to be sold on the international black market.

There are some signs of hope in all the horror, though. Jeebleh's old friend Bile, a physician, has established a combination clinic and school called The Refuge that offers a few basic services to at least some of the people displaced by the war. The two have some fence-mending to do, however. Both Jeebleh and Bile had been arrested by the dictator years before, but Jeebleh had been freed and was allowed to leave the country, while Bile languished in prison until he escaped when the dictator fled and civil authority broke down. What they still have in common is a mutual loathing for Caloosha, who had also grown up with them, but had become a member of the former dictator's staff, probably had been behind their arrests, and now is operating a shadowy "cartel" profiting from the ongoing civil war.

Of a novel rich in distinctive characters, the most singular is the child Raasta, Bile's niece. Born on the day the government collapsed and anarchy swept the country, she has special, precocious powers of language and a charismatic personality. To Bile and his sister Shanta, her mother, Raasta has become the embodiment of all their hopes for return to peace and amity. By the time Jeebleh arrives, though, Raasta has been abducted, probably by Caloosha's henchmen. Raasta hovers like a presence over the events of the novel, as Bile and Shanta tell one story after another about her special gifts, and of course Jeebleh cannot help but add recovering her to his agenda.

Apart from the inherent fascination of being convincingly immersed in an utterly alien culture, Farah documents the Somalian side of Blackhawk Down. The story the Somalians tell has a number of elements common to almost all indictments of American intervention tactics: cultural insensitivity, indiscriminate use of overwhelming force, and blustering impatience. But Farah's portrait of the Somalians hardly shows them as passive victims, particularly in terms of their clan conflicts, exploited by both the dictator and the warlords for their own ends. Also, Farah is relatively uninhibited about presenting the less appealing aspects of his culture: superstition, sexual repression, and an almost willful inability to discuss personal feelings.

Links is not a tightly plotted novel, but given the chaotic environment it brings to life, there is really no way that it could be. This is a rhapsodic search for hope and closure in the midst of anarchy, and the reader with the courage to be swept into its unpredictable currents will learn much.

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