The Woyingi Blog

Short Story Review: Government by Magic Spell by Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi

Government by Magic Spell is a fascinating short story written by Somali feminist writer Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi. This short story is not easy to find here in North America. If you have an edition of the Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories edited by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, published in 1992, then you might be in luck.  This collection brings together 20 short stories written between 1980 to 1991. However, the story is well-known among Kenyan high school students as it is part of a compilation of short stories from North and East Africa which is mandatory reading for English Literature students. This complication also contains Herzi’s other well-known short story, Against the Pleasure Principle, which confronts the practice of female circumcision. I had hoped to find out more online about Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi, but unfortunately, like so many African authors of her generation, I cannot.

But, thanks to the BBC, more people outside of East Africa, will be familiar with this short story as it was chosen to be read as part of the BBC’s The Human Cradle Series, which featured readings of three contemporary short stories by writers from the Horn of Africa. The other short stories included Saba by Eritrean author Suleiman Addonia. According to the BBC site:

In Sulaiman Addonia’s new short story ‘Saba’, a former cinema employee decides to create a ‘cinema’ of his own inside a refugee camp. Read by Abukar Osman.

The first of three contemporary stories from the Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Produced by Emma Harding

About the author: Sulaiman S.M.Y. Addonia was born in Eritrea to an Eritrean mother and an Ethiopian father. He spent his early life in a refugee camp in Sudan following the Om Hajar massacre in 1976, and in his early teens he lived and studied in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He has lived in London since 1990. His first novel, The Consquences of Love (Vintage) was published in 2009.

The second story, The Invisible Map, by Ethiopian writer Maaza Megiste, is described on the site as follows:

In Maaza Mengiste’s new short story, ‘The Invisible Map’, a young Ethiopian woman, hoping for a better life in Europe, finds herself trapped in a Libyan prison. Read by Adjoa Andoh.

The second in our series of contemporary stories from the Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Produced by Emma Harding

About the author: Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. Her debut novel, the critically acclaimed ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’, has been translated into several languages and was a finalist for a Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. She teaches at NYU and currently lives in New York City.

Government by Magic Spell is the last in the series. It is wonderfully read by British Somali performance poet Yusra Warsama.

It is important to keep in mind that the story was written some time between 1980 to 1991. Described as a “satirical parable of power and corruption”, the story exposes the machinations of Somali clan politics but also holds lessons for anyone concerned about justice and democracy.

The story begins with Halima at the age of 10, who we learn, has been possessed by a jinn, better known to Westerners as Genies.  Halima had been ill for several months, but the local religious healer, or Waadad, soon discovers that the origins of her illness are supernatural. An infant jinn which she had accidentally stepped on one night in front of the bathroom has possessed her. Luckily for Halima, and soon her village, the jinn is benevolent and helpful. The people of the village soon believe that Halima’s jinn can give her the power to foretell the future and heal the sick. Halima is able to acquire a great deal of power and autonomy for a woman because of her family and clan being in awe of her jinn. Halima is able to refuse all the men who proposed marriage to her, including the Waadad. Halima’s jinn is perceived to be the reason for her clan’s worldly success and she is seen as a blessing to her family. For that reason, she is summoned from her village to the country’s capital, Mogadishu, where many of her fellow clan members have gained the most powerful positions in government. As Herzi describes:

It had all started with one of their men who had become very powerful in the government. He had called his relatives and found big government jobs for them. They, in turn, had called relatives of theirs until the government virtually had been taken over by Halima’s people. And that had meant quick riches for everyone concerned. Nor had they been very scrupulous about getting what they wanted. Anything that stood in their way had to be pushed aside or eliminated.

Halima’s fellow clan members want to use her powers in order to consolidate their political power, which they have established over a short 10 years, despite many of them being illiterate, although still taking up government positions. The capital’s water system is consolidated so that Halima can placate the jinn but also cast a spell which cures all of the capital’s residents of their curiosity, so they will no longer ask questions about the current state of their government and the actions of Halima’s clan.

We learn from the story about the belief in the power of jinn within traditional Somali Culture. The story discusses ritual sacrifices made in honour of the jinn, in order to keep them placated and for the entire clan to benefit from the jinn’s benevolence. Based on my own experience, I can vouch that belief in jinn and their ability to possess people is quite commonplace among contemporary Muslims, and still strong amongst members of the Somali diaspora. But it is interesting to conjecture how the role of jinns in traditional Muslim African cultures could be seen as a throwback to earlier pre-Islamic beliefs in ancestor spirits. In the story, we learn that the parents of Halima’s jinn even come to visit her in order to advise her on the proper care of their child. What I find truly compelling about the story is how Halima manipulates people’s fear of her jinn in order to gain power, both over her own life, which as a woman would have ordinarily been quite limited, and then political power within her clan.

Further Reading:

Government by Magic Spell by Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi available online

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Book Review: Ignorance is the Enemy of Love by Faarax M. J. Cawl

Posted in African Literature, African Love Stories, Countries: Somalia, Novels, Reviews, Somali Literature by the woyingi blogger on June 15, 2010

Ignorance is the Enemy of Love by Faarax M. J. Cawl

Translated by B. W. Andrzejewski

Published by Zed Press, 1982

Ignorance is the Enemy of Love by Faarax M. J. Cawl is considered the first literary publication in the Somali language, which had no official orthography until 1972. The novel, whose Somali title is Aqoondarro waa u nacab jacayl, was published by the Somali Ministry of Culture and Higher Education in 1974. The translation into English is by Russian linguist B.W. Andrzejewski and was commissioned by UNESCO. Unfortunately, the English translation of the novel is currently out of print.

The author of the novel, Faarax Cawl, was born in Laskory in the Sanag Region of Somalia in 1937. In 1958, the British withdrew a scholarship awarded to him for study in the UK because he had taken part in a play, written by an Arab author, which they regarded as seditious. According to B. W. Andrzejewski’s introduction to the novel, Cawl joined the Somali Police Force in 1964 and in 1979 was seconded to the National Transport Agency ad became its General Manager. In 1978 he wrote a second novel entitled The Shackles of Colonialism. In 1991, he, along with several members of his family, were killed during the Somali Civil War.

The British would have found Ignorance is the Enemy of Love even more seditious as it follows the ill-fated love story of Calimaax, a dervish with the Muslim Brotherhood of Sayid Maxamed Cabdulle Xasan (1856-1921), often referred to by the British as the Mad Mullah, who fights against the British colonizers of Somalia. While traveling from Aden back to Somalia, Calimaax’s ship ends up sinking and he saves a young Somali girl named Cawrala, herself returning from Aden where she has been studying the Koran.

Cawrala falls in love with Calimaax although she has already been promised to a rich and elderly man by her father. The character of Cawrala is a classic example of the strength and spiritedness of Somali women. She is a poet who does not wait for signs of Calimaax’s affection but instead writes a poem to him herself declaring her love. Unfortunately, Calimaax can neither read nor write. Not knowing that Cawrala’s note is a love poem, he asks his brother-in-law to read it, thus insulting his wife’s relatives unintentionally. This incident inspires Calimaax to learn how to read and write. As he says:

It is now clear to me that not being able to read and write is a matter of great ignorance, in which stupidity and disgrace are combined. I’ve seen today that ignorance is like a moonless night, like the darkness which screens off from you the world and the light of day-there’s no doubt that whatever a man’s inborn abilities may be, whatever his manly qualities, if he is ignorant his true manhood is flawed and incomplete, as I witnessed in this incident today, when I brought trouble and disgrace on myself and made a fool of myself in front of my wife’s relatives (p. 35-36)

It is Calimaax’s ignorance of reading that is “the enemy of love” referred to in the title.

Cawrala’s poem causes Calimaax to fall in love with her but before he can return to her he is injured in battle and left for dead. Cawrala is forced to marry against her will and dies of grief. Calimaax sums up their tragic love story as follows:

You sent to me at Taleex a precious letter of love-you know this well-and there was nothing in its sweet art and wisdom nor in its mode of expression that could have been ignored or rejected. It created in me a love, ardour and affection that I had not felt for you before. But it was my ill fortune, Cawrala, that because of my ignorance I could not read your letter, and instead I handed it to my new neighbours, who did not want us two to come together. The discovery of my secret led to my being hurried away to a remote part of the eastern region, so that I would be kept far away from Xiis, where you lived. There in the east I played my part in a noteworthy way in the Dervish offensive against the British, but before I could reach the coast and seize some of their ships I was wounded and left for dead. For a long time I could not deliver myself from that empty, deserted place, where for sustenance I had only the berries and leaves which grow on the Cal mountains. I had beasts of prey for company-all of them-and one night the accursed leopard attacked me, tearing a wound in my flesh, when I already had a broken thigh and was holding on to life only by God’s mercy. Nevertheless, in spite of all I had to go through, God rescued me from all the troubles that had come upon me. What I am trying to tell you is that my delay in coming to you was caused by all this-that this is why I did not get to you in time before you were taken to the wedding against your will. O Cawrala, how bitter I feel, how deeply sorrowful I am, how stricken with impotent anger from which I get no respite, that you had to die because of your love for me! (p. 82)

This story is considered to be true and contains poems that Somali oral tradition considered to have been originally composed by Calimaax and Cawrala. Faarax Cawl’s weaving of Somali poetry into the novel form connects this modern, “Western” literary form with the deep-rooted oral traditions of the Somali people.

Faarax Cawl also uses this novel to promote the reformist aims of the Somali Government at the time, particularly in their promotion of literacy and women’s rights. Calimaax suffers great embarrassment because he can’t read and write despite his skill as a fighter. Cawrala is a gifted poet and free spirit whose love and life is ruined by the greed of her family who wish to marry her off for profit to a man who is believed to have beaten her sister, causing her death.

Excerpt from the novel:

About Richard Burton’s attempt to deceive the Somalis

Now among the passengers was a learned cleric, Sheikh Araye Ceelaabe, who was born in Seylac and still lived there; he had been on a short visit to Aden. He it was who had exposed the man who, some time between 1854 and 1860, had been sent by the British government on a reconnoitering mission to explore the Somali territories. This man’s true name was Richard Burton, but he told the Somali people that he was Sheikh Cabdalla, and disguised himself so that they would not know that he was a swindler whose intentions towards the Somali people and their land were robbery and oppression. This British infidel was in truth well acquainted with the Muslim faith and the Arabic language, and sometimes led the prayers in the mosques of the town of Seylac. It seems that most of the time he wore a long robe such as clerics wear, and he never moved very far from the places frequented by learned clerics and students, so that no one else could find him out or even notice him. But one day it happened that Sheikh Araye came upon this Briton when he had gone to relieve himself on open ground, and the Sheikh, hiding behind a tree, saw clearly that the man who was thought to be a sheikh had not been circumcised and that on his body there was the visible mark of being an infidel. Sheikh Araye proclaimed the news loudly and informed the whole town that the apparent sheikh who was staying among them was a hypocrite and then this disguised Briton was driven from Seylac. He went to Harar, whish is also in Somali territory and inhabited by Muslims but was eventually driven from there as well. (p. 15-16)

Further Reading:

Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayid Mahammad ‘Abdille Hasan by Said Samatar (History)

Remembering B. W. Andrzejewski: Poland’s Somali Genius by Said Samatar (Article available online)

Culture-Bound Tropes in Somali Poetry by B. W. Andrzejewski (Academic essay available online)