The emotional debris of a suicide attack: North of Dawn tells a rare story
North of Dawn by Nuruddin Farah offers an unusual but much-needed premise; the grief and upheavals experienced by a family upon discovering that their "radicalised" son has killed several people in a suicide attack.
We seldom get to read stories set in the aftermath of a suicide attack, particularly those experienced by the family of the terrorist. While the attacker is not the victim, his or her family can often be very far removed from the violent ideology, and hence go through grief and shock as well.
Farah's novel provides an intimate portrait of one such family situated in Norway.
In North of Dawn, Gacalo and Mugdi are an elderly couple who discover their son Dhaqaneh has killed himself in a suicide attack at the airport in Mogadiscio (Mogadishu), Somalia. Gacalo and Mugdi moved to Oslo decades ago; it is where their children were born and grew up and where they, as nationals of Norway, intend to spend the rest of their lives with a small set of close friends and family who regularly enter the orbit of their private, comfortable life.
While their daughter Timiro grows up to become an ambitious young woman and a mother, Dhaqaneh, their son, strays off the right path and becomes a militant associated with the terror clan al-Shabaab in Somalia.
In the prologue, Mugdi, the man whose perspective dominates the novel, makes his position clear: he cut ties with his son the moment he realised the path his son had chosen. In a later chapter, Mugdi asks: "How can I mourn a son who caused the death of so many people?"
As a retired diplomat whose passion project is to translate his favourite Norwegian novel, Giants in the Earth, into Somali - Mugdi is described as "culturally a Muslim" - he finds it impossible to harbour kindness for the kind of person his son had become.
Gacalo, on the other hand, is driven by a mother's love and, though repulsed by the reality, is unable to cut her son off, and secretly maintains contact. She promises Dhaqaneh she will take care of his wife and stepchildren if the need ever arises - perhaps not realising the plans in which her son was already involved. Soon after this promise is made, Dhaqaneh commits his attack, jolting the family into shock and repulsion.
The story picks up with the arrival of Waliya, the widow, and her children Naciim and Saafi. As these three enter Norway and the lives of Gacalo and Mugdi, they appear themselves to be a ticking time bomb, a small family that come from violent associations and ideologies. The couple spend thousands of dollars and work with the hospitable immigration system of Norway to arrange the family's move to Oslo, hopeful that by showing them kindness and opportunities they will be able to help their son's wife and children reform.
Mugdi fears "what may become of us if Waliya turns out to be a troubled person, or, even worse, a terrorist". Will Waliya and her children leave behind the hostility of their former associates and embrace a new, more secular lifestyle? Naciim is a young boy conditioned by a "tradition that pampers the male species" to believe that he, as the mahram, is both the "protector" and "punisher" of his mother and sister.
Will he grow up in Oslo to become a healthy and hard-working young man? Will Saafi, a young girl brutalised by rape, ever recover from the trauma and become comfortable and confident in her own skin?
The arrival of the refugees is accompanied by uncertainties for the future; unpredictability is introduced into the otherwise peaceful life of Mugdi and Gacalo. Gacalo, who feels most responsible for helping them settle in, remarks that "each [comes] with a different set of demands and interests".
North of Dawn is a novel driven by its characters. The unfolding of the story is subtle, taking place through small developments and exchanges between characters, often on topics related to immigration, intolerance and the politics of prejudice. Through the characters he has created, Farah brings up the question many of us have discussed or thought about: "Isn't it curious," asks Mugdi's younger brother, "that when a native European is responsible for such a rampage, every attempt is made to prove that he was suffering from some form of mental disorder or is emotionally impaired?"
Events in the final quarter of the novel highlight the violent ideologies that exist in both "Muslim radical" groups and among "native-born right-wing extremists". Gacalo remarks "the victims will be the innocent folks, who belong to neither group… We must all beware of provocateurs, no matter their allegiances, who are enemies to the nation at large and of peace everywhere."
Undeniably, North of Dawn is a novel that examines the vulnerabilities to which a law-abiding and peaceful couple like Gacalo and Mugdi are exposed as a result of the violence of others. Gacalo's sense of responsibility drives her to provide support and a second chance to her son's widow and her children. Yet, Waliya stubbornly refuses to respect the generosity shown towards her and insists on attaching herself to the same violent ideology that caused so much hurt and disruption in the world - while claiming to be a God-fearing Muslim.
What makes North of Dawn a truly devastating and thought-provoking novel is that some of it is based on real events, and the grief and mourning that the characters experience in the book are based on the author's own loss and grief.
In 2014, Nuruddin Farah's younger sister Basra was killed by the Taliban in Kabul. She was a nutritionist working for UNICEF. The attack resulted in the deaths of at least 20 other people.
In the acknowledgements at the end of his book, Farah writes that many of the characters are imagined, with the exception of a few, notably Anders Behring Breivik, a Norwegian terrorist who killed 69 participants in a youth summer camp in 2011.
North of Dawn is an exceptional read on love, loyalty - to family and the state - identity and the reality of assimilation, the cost it comes with and the doors it opens.
The novel offers a look at the Somali diaspora settled in Norway, exploring in particular the sense of confusion and even self-loathing that has come as a result of the disintegration of Somalia in 1991. This raises intriguing questions on national identity and belonging. Mugdi, as a thoughtful character, adds a lot to these discussions.
Throughout the novel he connects the events in the book he is translating to what he or Gacalo are experiencing. The dreams they have, and their possible significance, are also frequently recounted between the couple, who are described as a "self-contained unit". It is the nurturing nature of their relationship, and their resolve to protect the peace in their community that makes their relationship, which is grounded in love and respect, a compelling force in the book.
While Farah's prose is clear and often introspective, the dialogue exchanged by characters sometimes comes across as a little artificial. For example, the following response by Timiro, part of a conversation with her mother, about focusing on her pregnancy feels robotic and rather devoid of emotion: "Nothing is as important as the current job I am doing, and I must concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else."
Whatever polishing the novel lacks in terms of dialogue, it more than makes up for in its subject matter and topical capacity. The author takes his time to unravel the ground reality experienced by the characters, focusing on the unique nuances of life in such a situation, taking things day by day, rather than inducing a quick reaction in readers by pumping the story with a stiff plot. North of Dawn is a novel that demands to be read, but with patience and an open heart.
Order your copy of North of Dawn here.
Sumaiyya Naseem is a Bookstagrammer and freelance writer and editor who specialises in Middle Eastern and Muslim stories. In 2019 she joined the Reading Women Podcast as a guest contributor to talk about South Asian and Middle Eastern narratives.