Nuruddin Farah's sixth novel Maps (1986) is a novel about war: war from the backdrop against which Farah explores the life of his main character Askar Cali-Xamari and Askar's relationship to his past, his people, his country and his future. Maps is framed as the traumatic testimony of colonial occupation: the novel represents, in a fragmented postmodern narrative style, the traumatic nature of daily life for colonized male and female bodies during a postindependence regional liberation struggle under a despotic regime.
In the novel, as anticolonial tensions in the Ogaden slowly organize into an armed independence struggle, Askar’s growing nationalism increasingly compromises the unconditional nature of his love for Misra, an Amhara- Oromo Ethiopian immigrant who adopts him at birth. Askar is said to be "a child of the age's spirit" (130); the spirit of the age is war and Askar's growing up is inseparable from it. Born in Kallafo, a small town in Ethiopia, Askar is orphaned by war: his father has died in prison for his active role in the war and Askar's mother has died shortly after giving birth to Askar.
For the first seven years of his life (1970-1977) Askar, a Somali, is raised by Misra, an Ethiopian woman of the Oromo people. Askar's early childhood is spent in the Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia that is being contested in the on-going war between the Somali and Ethiopia peoples. When this war intensifies (in 1977), Askar is abruptly separated from his "mother" Misra, evacuated to Mogadiscio, the capital of Somalia, where he spends the next ten years of his life in the care of his maternal uncle and aunt.
In the capital city, Askar lives a life of pampered luxury, with his own room, complete with radio, mirrors and maps, a private tutor, the best schools, and unending attention from his aunt and uncle who arethemselves childless and ho are both highly educated academics and members of the elite of Mogadiscio. The war continues to loom large for Askar as he follows news from the front and writes letters to Misra that cannot get through the "lines" (17). As he grows older, Askar relates intensely to the war with some prompting from his tutor: "You must return to the Ogaden as a fighter, as a liberator" (165), says Cusmaan.
Askar seriously considers joining the guerillas and at age 14 comes close to returning to Kallafo to explore his roots and to fight for his country (19-2.2). At age 17, having just completed secondary school, Askar stands at a crossroads (172): should he register to study at the National University or should he join members of the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) fighting to reclaim the Ogaden? Askar is a son of war, a product of war, and for Farah war is not simply logistics, bombs, body counts;
Farah wishes to sketch the inner landscape of war; the maps here are maps drawn in the heart and soul. It is through Askar, through Askar's mind journey, that we come to know the reality of war. Askar's mind whirls in a state of turmoil and uncertainty, filled with images of pain, fear, paralysis and guilt. In many ways Askar's mental hell reflects the world of war outside of him; however, the suffering, the anxiety and pain that Askar experiences can also be seen as the struggle of a child to grow up.
Thus Farah’s Maps can also be read as a coming-of-age novel, the story of a boy struggling to become a man. The "real" war between the Ethiopian and the Somali peoples can be seen to serve as a metaphor for the difficulty, even the torture it is for some young men to leave behind the dreams of their childhood, to embrace their adult selves. Maps depicts changes to geographic and ideological perimeters as reshaping the contours of the native body. Characters’ mutilated bodies are both metaphors and substitutes for the mutilated nation of Somalia, whose wounds continue to fester well into the postcolonial moment.
The two stories reflect and serve as metaphors for one another: the coming of age of Askar and the on-going war in the Ogaden are so intimately intertwined that the two cannot be separated. It is through Askar that the reader is made to think through the war in the Ogaden, to feel the agony and the despair of Farah, of Somalia and of her peoples. It is through Askar that we are made to acknowledge the contradictions inherent in war, to question the sacrifices of war, and to re-examine the truths about which war is being fought.
On the other-hand, much of the turmoil that so pervades the novel can be interpreted not simply as war-connected but as self-generated and as a process of letting go. Askar experiences feelings that many children experience- anxiety, confusion and guilt- as in the struggle to grow he must assert himself, he must seek and establish an identity of his own separate from that of his parents. Askar's guilt and the theme of betrayal that pervades the novel seems to obsess Askar with the supposed Misra's betrayal.
As he waits her arrival, his mind spins and whirls. Askar (now 17) works himself into a state of near madness so focussed, so insistent is his sense of betrayal: "Why did she become a traitor? She had sold her soul in order to save her body- but was this true?" (48), the "fire of disgust" burns inside of him (53); if she had betrayed, the cosmos disintegrates (172); His world is shattered (178); he sees himself as broken into pieces, in fragments (58, 154, 181).
In along dream, Askar (age18) sees a young woman's body being dismantled, feels parts of his body mingle with hers (she is "half you and the other half herself') (60) and the sound of a chainsaw fills his head with its incessant noise (62). However, as a child of war, Askar, also is a child of joy, enveloped in a mother's strong and loving arms: :'You tasted Misra’s motherliness... in whose tight, warm embrace you felt joyous:.. in her company, you were ecstatic" (5); Misra was "always there- motherly, lovely and good" (65, 172).
The Askar of these early years lives out his days in story- book bliss, eating, sleeping, playing, getting dirty and being washed by Misra, his "mother," who plays with him, makes him feel secure and safe, rubs oil on his body, showers him with kisses (23), sings to him (15), fulfils his every need. Misra and Askar live in a hut with an earthen floor (water will spring forth from faucets only later in Mogadiscio) but as Askar stands in the tub shivering with anticipation (87), the water Misra pours over him is for this little child a ritual of innocence and of purification. In contrast to this, the world of Kallafo is not as tender and as forgiving as is Misra, as Askar discovers when he is enrolled in Koranic School and begins to learn Arabic and to memorise verses from the Holy Koran.
His teacher Aw-Adan beats Askar viciously as he beats his other pupils (77) and the pain drives Askar to murderous feelings against both Aw-Adan and against his Uncle Qorrox who has formally handed Askar over to the priest to be taught the word of God. Askar plans "three-hundred-and sixty-five ways of killing Uncle Qorrox" and thinks up the same number of reasons for murdering Aw-Adan (83, 125). The strength of his feelings confuses Askar and produces in him a physical response: he tastes blood in his saliva and he explains this as "I tasted someone else's death inside me" (83).
The taste of blood in Askar's mouth can be seen as a rush of guilt at the thought that he, a boy, might really harbour such violent forbidden impulses. Eventually he has to become a man, and break the bond with Misra. Askar says: "Not only can I wash if choose to, but I can kill; and not only can I kill but I can also defend myself against my enemy" (108). With these words, Askar rings down the curtain of his childhood. Misra responds: "like one who is looking over the edge of a cliff" and asks him "Kill? Kill whom?" (109).
Askar in Maps remains a young man caught between poles of love, fear, and guilt: love for the mother whom he has in part invented-"a queen, on a throne leading a procession" (238); fear that this love is wrong and somehow dangerous: she will make him weak, keep him from venturing forth into the world -"the small of the back, the back of the neck... a mother... soaps them all" (109). He must destroy this dragon. He must leave home and he does-"To live, I will have to kill you" (57; 37, 108). The battle Askar fights can also be seen as reinforced and reflected on a different level as the war of the Somali people to reclaim the Ogaden, their struggle to be united- secure, strong and at peace- by the integrity of nationhood.
But the five stars, symbols of a reuniting of the disparate Somali people, are not returned to the national flag in this novel. The anguish Askar feels and his confusion can be seen as the anguish of the Somali people as a whole. locked- in battle with their brothers, their sisters, their fathers and their mothers across the land. Are not the peoples of the Horn (Askar's people, Misra's people) members of the larger African "family"? But just as Askar's struggles remain unresolved, so, too, the battle between the Somalis and the Ethiopians remain on- going.
At the end of Maps, Askar stands on the threshold- "Awake and washCd, handsome, shaven... big, tall, clean" (47). If we looked into the mirror, we might think that this young man, poised on the brink, holds the future (both his own and that of his people) in his hands. If he would but reach out his arms, look ahead or look up, he might so easily see the blue heavens above, the sun shining, the stars aglow with potential and with promise in a wide clear African sky. Instead, despite Askar's strength, despite his heroic efforts to grow and to understand, Farah blocks out his future; Farah arrests Askar both literally and psycho logically.
As the policemen swarm in, surround As1car and lead him off, the shadows fall, clinging about their ankles in the form of question mark(246). Misra, now dead, visits Askar in one final dream, knocking on the doors of Askar's sleep, hoping only to be remembered to be kept alive somehow in Askar's mind, and to be allowed from time to time to revisit Askar, "to enter into bed and be with you" (237). The son cannot let go; the son still harbors dreams of sharing his bed with the mother.
Askar, now 18-"taller, bigger and handsome", with a man's voice (184) -will not or cannot take the final step forward into the darkness, the loneliness of adulthood. He cannot forget Misra. He cannot forget what she once was and what she will always. be to him. It addresses colonial as well as postcolonial trauma, depicting a Somalia that continues to suffer in the so-called postcolonial moment. The historical Somalia, even 2015, continues to bleed from new wounds continues to bleed from new wounds continually inflicted by postindependence military and civil unrest.
In the end, Maps divorces the broken body of the mother from the divided homeland specifically by casting the corpse to sea, ungendering and cleansing its wounds of blood in the process. Maps thus represents bodily testimony as a psychological process of introjection that reconceives postcoloniality outside geographic, biological, and ideological boundaries of colonial discourse. I wold suggest that while characters in Maps map the possibility of an alternately conceived postindependence community by remapping the contours of their native bodies, the changing body’s testimony also redraws the boundaries of the territory that comprises the self.
Simon Gikandi evokes this idea when he suggests that writing is a territorial act of claiming one’s text, space, and identity. The novel’s testimonial bodies function not only as recording narratives of self and national discovery, but also as physical markers of spatial possession or repossession. The testimonial body that walks through an oppressive space is subversive. By remaining in a Somalia that has savaged her, Misra uses her testimonial body to claim that oppressive space, reconfiguring notions of potential Somali personhood and charting the potential for a changed future. Askar remains behind after her death to record and reveal her story. END