How do we negotiate the spaces in which cultures meet? How do we balance our desire for tradition with an increasingly global world? What do we do when the understanding and support of a loving family isn’t enough?
In North of Dawn, Nuruddin Farah takes as his premise the threat of violent extremism in Norway, looking at the dangers posed by Wahhabi sects of Islam as well as Norwegian terrorists that use violence to advocate for ethnic purity. But instead of dwelling on the threat of terrorism on a national level, he has written a story about family, both the families we belong to by blood and the ones we forge for ourselves out of circumstance.
North of Dawn is another one of Farah’s forays into the Somali diaspora — a beautifully and compassionately told history of Mugdi and Gacalo, Somali refugees that gain Norwegian citizenship and raise their children in Oslo. While Timiro, their daughter, grows into a well-adjusted adult, their son Dhaqaneh feels torn between Norway and Somalia and struggles to make a home for himself in the world. When Dhaqaneh is unable to adapt to the pressures and expectations of either country, he falls in with a radical Islamic sect and participates in a suicide bombing.
Prior to his death, Gacalo tells Dhaqaneh that, should anything ever happen to him, she will assume responsibility for his widow and stepchildren. In the depths of mourning for her son, Gacalo brings Waliya, her son’s widow, and her children, Naciim and Saafi, to live in Norway. Mugdi is fervently against this plan (“Why would I sponsor the wife of a son whom I forsook first and then denounced as a terrorist?”) and the ensuing rift between Mugdi and Gacalo grows wider as the book goes on, providing us with a portrait of what it feels like for the ground beneath you to be constantly shifting, to never feel safe or secure, even in a country that has adopted you as a citizen and been your home for decades.
North of Dawn is, ultimately, a hopeful story about the desire and ability of youth to adapt. On the flip side, Farah’s older characters struggle to adjust to the myriad demands of being foreign nationals in an overwhelmingly homogenous country. He renders the balancing act of Somali-Norwegians with incredible deftness — the constant tightrope walk of holding on to their religion and customs while acknowledging and taking advantage of the rituals and traditions of the country that has taken them in.
Farah has a masterful way of sitting his characters down at the dinner table and watching them struggle to sort out the threads of their lives. Much of North of Dawn takes place in the domestic sphere, focusing on the fallout from violence, on how it permeates the fabric of our everyday reality. He also looks at the difficulty of navigating cultural and religious differences in spaces where various systems of belief interact. In one notable scene, Mugdi is frustrated by his Norwegian friends’ insistence on hiding their alcohol consumption in deference to his family’s Islamic faith. However, since Farah’s characters desire a better world and are prepared to help construct it, they are able to engage in a dialogue and move past the initial discomfort of discussing difficult-to-raise topics.
North of Dawn is devastating in big and small ways, and I can’t help but cling to Naciim and Saafi as my guiding lights throughout this story. Both children adjust to Norway and end up calling it home, learning the language and making friends while carrying their pasts and identities as Somalis with them. While Naciim pushes against his Islamic faith, Saafi carries it close, maintaining her beliefs and customs while also using her newfound freedom and safety to take advantage of life’s offerings. Both children, along with the various children of the Somali diaspora featured in this novel, demonstrate immense strength and versatility, leaving the reader with the pervasive feeling that the future is in good hands.
Which brings us back to the idea of hope. Even in the wake of staggering violence and ignorance, which is meant to engender fear, Farah’s characters are able to stand in this fear while managing to treat each other kindly, which is where the hopeful core of this novel comes from.