translated by Anne Milano Appel
I’ve complained – most recently to Lisa at ANZLitLovers – about the indifferent (literary) quality of the audio books I get from my local library, and I listen to more than 100 each year, but good ones do pop up from time to time and this is one of them. Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid (2016) might have been problematic in a number of ways, it is the ‘true story’ of a Somali woman, written in the first person, ie. in the woman’s voice, by a male Italian journalist. Unforgivably, the name of the translator, Anne Milano Appel, appears nowhere on the front or back covers of this Penguin Audio edition. The reader, Adjoa Andoh, who is good, creates her own problems as she is quite recognisably also the reader of McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (set in Botswana) and so we are asked to accept the same accents and intonations for characters from diagonally opposite corners of sub-Saharan Africa.
Unfortunately for this review I don’t have access to a paper version so I have only my memory, and guesswork, for names and spellings; and of course, no quotes.
This is the story of Samia Yusuf Omar born in 1991 into poverty in, to use an apt cliche, war-torn Mogadishu. Her parents and brothers and sisters live in a two room hut in a compound containing another couple of huts and a large eucalypt.”Don’t tell me you’re afraid” is the family mantra – if you don’t acknowledge fear then you won’t feel it, but they live in an environment where fear is often the only rational response.
We begin when Samia is eight years old, inseparable from her friend and blood-brother Ali, who is the same age, and who lives with his father and older brothers in another room in the same compound. The two fathers, who are friends but of different tribal backgrounds, support their families by selling fruit and clothing in the markets. Samia, underfed and skinny is already a very quick runner – we are asked to believe that over the next couple of years she competes on equal terms with adults – and dreams of being an Olympian. Ali gives up trying to beat her and instead makes himself her coach.
The war in Somalia is between the various clans who are all attempting to obtain/assert control over at least a part of the country, and the sound of gunfire is a constant background to everyday life. The fundamentalist Islamists Al-Shabaab are gaining in influence. Samia’s mother and sisters cover their heads in light, brightly coloured veils, and Samia herself understandably prefers to train dressed only in shorts and t-shirt, but with the rise of Al-Shabaab she, and all women, must eventually be covered at all times by the burqa, and Samia resorts to training at night, after curfew, in a deserted stadium with a tartan track pock-marked with bullet holes.
After victories in a couple of amateur races Samia is taken up by the Somali Olympic Committee and in 2008, ‘for experience’, is one of two Somali athletes selected to attend the Beijing Olympic Games. Here she is pitted in a heat of the 200m against one of the world’s great runners, Veronica Campbell-Brown; a skinny girl in a borrowed t-shirt up against tall, muscled women in lycra. Of course she finishes well adrift, but to tremendous cheers in a packed stadium (YouTube).
Samia returns home, having for the first time travelled by air, stayed in a luxury hotel, competed at the Olympics, and seen although not spoken to her hero British/Somali runner Mo Farah, and this is the end of the feel-good story. The other half of the novel is the story of impoverished people everywhere forced by conflict, religious oppression and yes, the wish for a better life, into making their way to countries of the ‘first world’ as refugees.
Ali, who has been increasingly withdrawn, leaves Mogadishu only to reappear briefly as a soldier with Al-Shabaab. Hodan, Samia’s favourite sister and a talented singer, is forbidden to practice and eventually leaves home to undertake ‘the Journey’, the perilous crossing of the Sahara to Tripoli and hence to Italy and safety. She succeeds and is accepted as a refugee by Finland. Abe, Samia’s father is caught up in a shooting at the market, is wounded, unable to work and eventually dies. Samia, who has sworn to stay in Somalia and fight for women’s rights, gives in to the inevitable. She is assisted to move to Ethiopia, but is unable to gain permission from the Somalis to be accepted into a coaching programme there.
In a last desperate attempt to get the coaching she needs to be competitive at the 2012 London Olympics, Samia too commences the Journey.
In an Afterword, Catozzella says he has spoken extensively to Hodan and to a woman who was with Samia for a time, after becoming aware of Samia’s story from a report in Al Jazeera. He makes a good fist of the story although he largely ignores aspects of Samia’s life which may have seemed more important to a woman writer (and to Samia) such as the onset of puberty and the ongoing threat of rape both in Mogadishu and on the Journey.
I prefer to concentrate in my reading generally, and in this blog more particularly, on books which are Australian or at least of relevance to Australian life or literature. In this case it seems to me the more we know of the personal stories of refugees the less likely we will be to put up with their indefinite confinement in concentration camps on reaching Australia. I know we are like-minded on this issue, but it fills me with anger and despair that Abbott and Dutton and their willing collaborator and poodle, Malcolm Turnbull, continue to speak and act so despicably in our names.
Giuseppe Catozzella, Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid, Penguin Audio, 2016 (7 1/2 hours). Translated by Anne Milano Appel, read by Adjoa Andoh