Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg

When Steinberg first meets Asad, the Somali man whose life Steinberg has chosen to help explain the extreme black-on-black violence South Africa experienced in 2008, Asad is living in Blikkiesdorp. Blikkiesdorp in English is called Tin Can Town because of its sixteen hundred identical one-room tin living structures laid out in sixteen identical square blocks. It was erected to house families evicted from homes they occupied illegally. Blikkiesdorp is thirty kilometers from Cape Town, separated by an expensive taxi ride.

Asad and his wife and child were placed in Blikkiesdorp in 2010, after living two years in refugee camps to which they fled after the mob violence in 2008. In the process of uncovering Asad’s personal history, Steinberg illuminates for us the roots of Africa’s history of economic migration as well as the means, and its turbulent history of violence and pervasive corruption. We also get flashes of understanding about human nature, mob violence, and the psyche of a Somali man. Steinberg had the instincts to capture this story of one man, the skill to tease out the important strands of his history, and the perseverance to complete this riveting and important work.

At the start of this non-fiction narrative, we see the origins of Asad’s story in Mogadishu, when his mother was shot in the chest as she clutched him, a victim to anti-Daarood violence by Hiwaye meant to unseat the Daarood president, President Mohamed Siad Barre. Asad was eight years old. An aunt and uncle whisked the five children across the city in preparation to fleeing to Kenya—the start of a lifelong journey of displacement. Steinberg thus begins with the history of lineages and clans and by the end of the narrative demonstrates the centrality of clan affiliation in a person’s life.
"That he was an Abdullahi and an AliYusef would disappear from his life for years on end; there are, he would discover, many ways of being Somali other than through one’s clan. And then, without warning, his lineage would burst back into his life and shape his fate. When it did so, he would feel that he had been asleep for years, reeling further and further from himself."
It is distressing, to say the least, to read of Asad’s early years once he is separated from his aunt and uncle in a continuation of the violence. He manages to eke out a living in a parade of cities, gradually becoming a young man on the basis of grit and cunning. He marries, and decides to improve his lot by trying to work in South Africa, where he will discover the hatreds against Somalis is resurgent in the anti-apartheid south. The inequities of life in South Africa among blacks in the new regime led some to strike out at those less numerous and therefore less powerful than themselves. The phenomenon of assigning blame for one’s inability to escape one’s condition is something from which we can all learn.

The mere process of recounting the thought processes of a young, unschooled but hardworking boy in duress tells us something of the conditions in which he operated, as well as how someone makes decisions in an environment of extremely circumscribed horizons: he held a very “now” worldview that held little past and an unknowable future. When he married, at nineteen, Asad's developed his grasp of concept of 'future':
"Something happened when I knew that I was going to have children with Foosiya...For the first time, I saw that my life was a series of decisions. I saw that each decision decided who I was going to be from now on. That is a big realization, brother. I felt dizzy and had to sit down. It is the sort of realization that can make you fall over."
Asad had a strong sense of right and wrong, of decency and fairness, of propriety and one wonders where it came from:
"My first feeling about [South African] blacks was that they have too much sex,” he recalls. "I have now adjusted a little. But back then, what I saw on the streets, to me was illegal, uncultural, a shame to one’s reputation. A man holding a woman who is not his wife, squeezing her bum, putting his hand up her skirt. I could not even look at them, I would look to the side…Even if you consider many different beliefs about the world," he says, "nobody allows that. Christianity, whatever, it is nobody’s culture. It is a democracy here. You say nothing. It is how they are. But I tell you, they do not get this from their religion. It is not in their culture either. But they do it. They have lost what their ancestors once knew. Christian, Jewish, doesn’t allow it. Nobody allows it."
One cannot help but wonder if most people, even those who persecuted Asad, would also exhibit such constraints on behaviors if questioned closely enough. Asad and his fellow entrepreneurial Somalis had contempt for South African blacks:
"We think of [South African] black people as teenagers," Asad tells me bluntly. "Their democracy is so new and precious to them, but it confuses them. When it does not bring them what they want, they get violent."
The blacks had reasons for their anger which eventually manifest in violence: much of the profit earned from small business initiatives owned by Somalis and other economic immigrants was thought to be repatriated and thus exported, sucking their communities dry. The reasons for the poverty of their communities undoubtedly had other larger and more pertinent causes, but the economic immigrants were easier targets than a political system or institutionalized societal inequalities. It is startling to discover, in this winding story set on a distant continent, ourselves. Such is Steinberg’s narrative skill: allowing us to see the general in the personal.

Writing a book about the remembered bits of a man’s life is fraught with difficulty, which Steinberg frankly acknowledges at several stages. His struggle alone is enlightening: the questions he puts to Asad are an attempt to help Asad remember how he felt at different stages of his life. Asad kept a Red Book, a kind of occasional diary in his teen years, which he eventually lost in his border-crossings:
"It was a record of the very best and the very worst. Like the day Foosiya agreed to marry me. I wrote down the date, the time. And on days when I had nothing and saw no future, I would write down the date on which I had that thought."
But often Asad simply did not want to divulge the depth of his feeling on a topic. It was too closely held and perhaps too easily misunderstood, but it formed his character. We have to make do with the man himself.

This narrative nonfiction is being released in paperback today by Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House. PRH currently has a 20% off pre-holiday sale (with free shipping!) until the end of the year, so don’t hold back on the opportunity to have a look at a fascinating, detailed, and unusual portrait of a man living on the second-most populous continent on earth.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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