The Los Angeles Review of Books
Thursday December 6, 2018
By Bhakti Shringarpure
TWO NEW STORIES about terrorism — 22 July, a film by British director Paul Greengrass, and the novel North of Dawn by Somali author Nuruddin Farah — enter our imaginations by way of Norway, known more for its majestic fjords and white nights than for its fraught politics. The Greengrass feature looks at the 2011 massacre that stunned the world, in which far-right Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people, including 69 children attending a summer camp. Farah’s novel also engages the Breivik massacre but through the eyes of Somali migrants in Oslo.
In Greengrass’s film, the brutal attack and ensuing events are presented through the perspectives of Breivik, then-17-year-old survivor Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli) and his family, and Breivik’s defense lawyer, Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), eventually coming to focus on the complicated dynamics of the trial that gripped the country. In a discussion following a recent screening of the movie in New York, Greengrass said that he was originally looking to tell a story about the masses of migrants voyaging to Europe and the ways this migration has mobilized the far right across the continent. He was struck by the anger Breivik expressed at “enforced multiculturalism,” which Breivik saw as a threat to his white Norwegian indigeneity, and settled on this story as an early marker of right-wing extremism, seen as marginal at the time but soon to ignite like a fire across Europe.
If 22 July is about how terrorism tests the individual spirit, family relationships, and the national psyche of Norwegians, Farah’s novel is the opposite side of the coin. What happens once a migrant has escaped war and terror, made it to Europe, and then has to experience these traumas all over again? It is not only the original home that is the “mouth of the shark,” as British-Somali poet Warsan Shire has written, but also the journey, the landing, and life in the new country.
Farah’s North of Dawn opens on a mild-mannered, cosmopolitan Somali couple, who have spent the majority of their lives in Oslo following their arrival in 1988. Their son, who had seemed well assimilated to Norwegian life, is inexplicably seduced by the radicalization efforts of the al-Shabaab terrorist network. Here, we are meant to recall the story of real-life Somali-Norwegian Hassan Abdi Dhuhulow, who was one of the perpetrators of the 2013 Westgate Mall terror attack in Nairobi.
In the novel, the news that their son, Dhaqaneh, has died in a suicide attack plunges Gacalo, his mother, into a state of perpetual mourning while his father, Mugdi, buries himself in the task of translating an epic novel about 19th-century Norwegian immigrants on the Dakota prairie. This saga — O. E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth (1927) — details the hardships of a Norwegian family as it attempts to settle the land and cope with the challenges of cultural assimilation. The nested novel-within-a-novel scenes in North of Dawn become a clever device reflecting Mugdi’s desperate and often futile attempts to grapple with the contrasting realities of alienation, relief, stability, instability, loss, nostalgia, joy, and trauma that make up migrant life.
The couple’s depressed peace is soon shattered by Dhaqaneh’s widow and her two children, who arrive in Oslo via circuitous migrant routes. We are immediately thrown into typical Farah territory: in particular, his visceral allergy to Islamic allegiances and the ways in which religion, particularly the version currently being practiced in Somalia, ruins everything and everyone. Farah’s new novel emerges, like its predecessors, from an urgent engagement with Somalia’s tumultuous history. The most prolific writer Somalia has ever produced, Farah has indeed kept his country alive in our collective imaginations for the past 40 years. Yet he is also Somalia’s most acerbic critic, and his anger at Somali politics — the country’s embrace of fundamentalist Islam, clan rivalries, and piracy, and the emergence of al-Shabaab — has recently made Farah quite harsh in his depictions of his country and its people. His irritation with Islam, particularly as it is practiced by women and exemplified by the veil and the burqa (which he insists on referring to as a tent), has become a bitter and touchy subject in his recent novels. In North of Dawn, this religiosity is shown tearing the Somali diaspora apart; Oslo just before the Breivik incident becomes the complicated setting within which these tensions play out.
The three new Somali refugees turn Mugdi and Gacalo’s life upside down. Their son’s widow, Waliya, is a devious and difficult woman, unyielding in her religious views and resistant to any form of adaptation to Norway. She is accompanied by her son, Naciim, an oversmart teen thrown into the inadvertent role of the man of the family, and her daughter, Saafi, a silent and frightened young girl who had been raped in a refugee camp in Kenya. As the years pass, Naciim and Saafi slowly transform into even-keeled adults, comfortably slipping in and out of their Norwegian lifestyles while retaining an intimacy with all things Somali.
The story is uneasily suspended between two terrorist attacks — the first carried out by Dhaqaneh in the novel’s early pages and the second being Breivik’s massacre, which comes toward the end of the book and takes the life of a Somali-Norwegian teen. (Farah explains in an afterword that his novel is, in part, an homage to one of the two Somali-Norwegians who died on that fateful day.) The implications are clear, as the couple’s family friend, Himmo, laments: “We are caught between a small group of Nazi-inspired vigilantes and a small group of radical jihadis claiming to belong to a purer strain of Islam.” The migrants of the Somali diaspora find no respite from violence and trauma even in their new home.
North of Dawn beautifully articulates the pervasive anxiety and nervous condition of being a migrant. Mugdi reflects ironically on the characters in Giants who do not seem particularly “concerned that they, the Norwegian homesteaders, are the ones who have dispossessed the Indians and pushed them off their land.” Such a sense of racial privilege is not available to the Somali immigrants in Norway. Mugdi recalls that, when he came to Oslo, he was immediately told about the 1985 attack on the Nor mosque by a far-right extremist. Mugdi, his family, and his circle of friends have always been marked by terror. Farah’s novel exposes the constant micro-aggressions and xenophobic attacks Somali immigrants experience, while also highlighting the disturbing umbilical cord that links them to Islamic fundamentalist terrorist activities in their land of origin. The novel ponders the aftermath of terrorist acts and asks how one can build a meaningful communal life while always shadowed by the specter of violence and death.
Greengrass’s 22 July also works through such aftermaths by exploring the challenge of recovery and rehabilitation, and by emphasizing family as a site of geopolitical strife. Archetypes of depressed mothers and stoic fathers cross the screen and the page. Gacalo, mother of Farah’s fictional Somali suicide bomber, and Wenche Behring, mother of the real-life Breivik, are haunted figures. Both have been somehow complicit, we can infer, and this suspicion seems to have overtaken their lives. Behring (Hilde Olausson) rejects Lippestad’s request that she speak on her son’s behalf during his trial, and her feeble comment is revealing: “He’s kind of right, though, isn’t he? The way the country is going, it’s not like it used to be.” This statement seems less an expression of political ideology and more a last-ditch attempt to come to terms with a beloved child’s views — to love him in spite of it all. For her part, Gacalo is portrayed as having a blind devotion to her son: she offered no correctives to his rotten behavior as a troubled youth, which eventually led to his joining al-Shabaab.
Stereotypically stoic and wise fathers are pillars of the two narratives. Mugdi, a staunch ethicist, will not allow a proper funeral for his deceased son, nor is he given to any overt displays of grief or anger. Viljar’s father, Sveinn (Thorbjørn Harr), is similar in his restrained irritation and martyr-like disposition. As snow whips across their faces in remote Svalbard, Sveinn’s wife, Christin (Maria Bock), passionately asks her husband whether Viljar should speak at Breivik’s trial; an implacable Sveinn carries on placing caged ducks in the back of his truck, finally allowing himself an outburst: “I don’t care about Anders fucking Breivik and his trial. I just want us to get on with our lives, that’s it.” Politics is more than events in the public sphere, it is deeply imbricated into family intimacies. Sibling relationships also go through various ups and down in both stories. Though Viljard’s family does “get on” with their lives, it is not before doors are slammed, frustrated words exchanged, and heavy silences pervade the home.
Both stories are focused on the healing that comes in the wake of a terrorist event. North of Dawn spends quite some time making space for its young characters to heal. Farah paints loving portraits of Himmo, a nurse, and Qumman, a particularly talented psychologist who helps traumatized Somali refugees. We see rape victim Saafi slowly come into her own — she even starts working at a store, having overcome a paralyzing fear of strangers. The older generation shows immense kindness to Naciim and Saafi, and this allows for an emergence of trust and, by extension, a suturing of community.
Transcending the thrilling shaky-cam action that has marked his previous works, Greengrass’s film displays a deep urge to understand how communities get through traumatic events. The anti-climatic, understated nature of the narrative has disappointed some reviewers, but I believe this is the film’s greatest strength. After its grueling first third, in which a bomb explodes, gunshots ring out through Utøya island, and a frenzy of life-saving efforts fill the screen, the audience, like the characters, begins to slowly heal from all the shock and noise.
Viewers are allowed to step back, to try and understand how a country might respond to these events, and how individuals might try to stitch their lives back together. The audience heals along with Viljar — it is no coincidence that scenes featuring doctors and physiotherapists are well developed rather than dispensed with in montage. Viljar’s frayed relationships with his brother, Torje, and with another survivor, a Norwegian-Iraqi girl named Lara Rachid, mend slowly as life in the aftermath of the attack inches along.
The rule of law emerges as a major theme in both stories. Greengrass’s film flirts with the notion of putting Norway itself on trial. When Lippestad, the defense attorney, tells Breivik: “Norway isn’t on trial. You are,” Breivik retorts: “Are you sure about that?” Greengrass is not necessarily clear on this question either. Realistically putting the country on trial would mean much more than offering an exuberant portrait of its resilient, law-abiding, and liberal citizens. Greengrass depicts a largely innocent Norway, suddenly ruptured by a cruel and spectacular attack that seems to come out of nowhere. At the start of the film, Viljar gives a passionate speech to his fellow campers stating that all migrants would be welcome in Norway if he were leading the country. Yet the reality of Norwegian attitudes toward migrants is more complex, as the ensuing attack demonstrates.
By contrast, North of Dawn makes clear that Norway has never been wholly innocent when it comes to far-right extremism, but it has historically been immigrants who have borne the brunt of these tremors. Mugdi persistently recalls such moments in the 1980s, ’90s, and after. As is typical in Farah’s fiction, there are lengthy debates between the characters on political issues, conversations that range from the intense to the pedantic. Two such scenes punctuate the narrative: the first debate, which focuses on national identity and the history of attacks against immigrants, takes place as the trio of new refugees learns about May 17, the Norwegian national holiday; the second unfolds during the funeral of Breivik’s Somali victim, when a white Norwegian friend of the family, Johan, leads the charge against Norwegian innocence:
“Us innocent? Where have you been, my darling?” Johan says. “This hate has always been there. Even the so-called Progressive Party has expressed visceral hate of liberals, immigrants, and Muslims. We’ve always seen ourselves as uniquely generous to the immigrants we have hosted, to whom we’ve been kind and welcoming. The fact is, there is no truth to the claims we make.”
This debate rages on at the funeral, addressing the history of Norway’s complicated encounters with migrants, from the Jewish refugees who arrived after World War II through the current so-called migration “crisis.”
For the most part, I was willing to buy into the innocence so lovingly portrayed by Greengrass, but reading Farah at the same time put necessary brakes on this romantic vision. But while Farah provides a sobering counterpoint to Greengrass, the novelist also plays unabashedly into the trope of good versus bad refugee, a binary that is promoted again and again in mainstream understandings of migration. Somalia is put on trial in North of Dawn, and the book is likely to stir a host of complicated and uneasy feelings in Somali readers. Farah, an advocate of ethical, grateful integration into the European welfare system, seems unwilling to take into the account the long history of uneven power relations between the West and the rest, and the ways in which this inequality is related to radicalization, terrorism, and migration.
Whether it is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s campaign claiming that “immigrants […] get the job done,” or the liberal adage that migrants are good for the economy, or the preoccupation with whether a particular refugee was really persecuted, the migrant must be either extraordinarily industrious or a noble victim — or, worse, a supremely talented soccer player — to justify being saved by a benevolent government. While we must remain firmly committed to a migration that embraces the misfits, the losers, and the unemployables, Farah’s story taps into the racial anxiety that plagues members of the diaspora everywhere. “Please let’s hope this terror attack didn’t involve someone brown or black or Muslim” is a common fear that grips nonwhite folks on a daily basis. Add to this the stress of whimsical immigration policies, which tally the numbers of unemployed dependents or insist that the cultural fabric of society is damaged by a stubborn resistance to assimilation. If this book were a secret text that circulated among Somalis, it would probably be a useful tool of communal self-reflection, but as a book out in the world, it buys into the flawed and draconian discourses of assimilation and integration, especially as they are expressed in Europe.
I recently visited Oslo after a gap of over a decade, and I did find the city changed. Scores of Somali women in flowing black burqas rode local buses alongside tall, blond hipsters in tight jeans and cross-body bags. On school playgrounds, the teams seemed to have several East African children. As someone who has a large number of both Norwegian and Somali friends, I thought I was imagining two groups of people I deeply care about blending in a multicultural reverie. But the truth is that the large influx of Somali migrants to Oslo and the rest of Norway over the past 10 years has starkly etched out racial and cultural differences: both the Somalis and the Norwegians seem intensely steeped in stringent codes of dress and conduct. But this apparent clash of identities is in fact falsely framed, and it is imperative that we begin to reconceive our deeply embedded vocabulary of difference. Unfortunately, Farah’s novel reads way too much into Muslim women’s clothing choices and thus reinforces the lens of difference.
In their defense, both Farah and Greengrass are desperately seeking to build cultural bridges and foster visions of meaningful integration in a small, insular Scandinavian society that feels shaken up by migration. Farah addresses Somalis while Greengrass seems to be speaking to Europeans, haunted by Brexit and the global rise of the far right. Both narratives use interracial friendships and romances to advance their agendas. Viljar and his Norwegian-Iraqi friend, Lara, exchange coy glances during a soccer match and eventually become close confidantes as the Breivik trial progresses. Lara recounts coming to Norway as a war refugee, delivering a gut punch during her testimony at Breivik’s trial when she poignantly states: “I don’t understand what is so frightening about me.” Naciim gains a firm friend in his Norwegian schoolmate, Edvert, and even enters into a romantic relationship with a Norwegian girl.
These two narratives converge in exploring the tensions between the sweetness of youth and the burdens of youth. Both film and novel have faith that creating a world free of terror and extremism is a choice, and this choice lies with the young. Farah seems to believe that, with time and patience, the current generation of migrants can be taught to reconcile and embrace the best of their two identities. Greengrass insists that there is no left or right anymore, but only a choice between open and closed. Today’s youth — and their children to come — must decide between a provincial, narrow nationalism and a generous world without boundaries. Both storytellers espouse a naïve faith in existing structures of democracy and secularism, categories that will require a radical reworking if a new world is to emerge.
In the end, novel and film elegantly complete and fulfill one another, acknowledging as many uncertainties for the future as answers. In the film’s final scene, condemned terrorist Anders Breivik is shut in his tiny cell, the steel door locked, thus reflecting the myopic, closed world he has chosen. Immediately afterward, Greengrass cuts to young Viljard etched against a vast and beautiful expanse of snowy mountains, gazing into the Arctic horizon. The answers, it seems, might lie somewhere to the north of dawn.