Nuruddin Farah Hiding in Plain Sight: A Novel

ISBN 13 : 9781594634109

Hiding in Plain Sight: A Novel

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9781594634109: Hiding in Plain Sight: A Novel
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PROLOGUE

On his desk in the office, Aar has three photographs, one of each of his two teenage children and a third, the photo of a very beautiful woman, which occupies center stage. Unless he tells them who the woman is, nearly everyone assumes she is his wife, the mother of his children. But if they ask and he tells them that she is his sister, their faces turn sad, as if they are sorry that she is not his woman.

In a dream just before dawn, Aar keeps trying to corral a dozen ground squirrels into his apartment. Time and again, he fails miserably. In spite of this, he doesn’t give up, and eventually he rounds up quite a few of them. But just as he attempts to shut the door on the last of the lot, he discerns in the hallway the presence of a familiar figure: Valerie, whom he thinks of as his former wife, although they have never actually divorced. But what on earth is she doing here? And why are the ground squirrels gathering around her, looking eagerly up at her as if she might offer them treats?

Indeed, Valerie is wearing an apron with huge pockets, from which she begins extracting seeds, nuts, dead insects, and other tidbits that she feeds to the rodents. Enraged, he utters a few choice expletives under his breath. Then he resumes his efforts to rally those nearest him, but he feels he hasn’t a chance in hell to lure away the ones that are happily feeding around her. He doubts if he will succeed in doing what he has set out to do.

Aar hasn’t set eyes on Valerie since she disappeared from his life and that of their children’s a decade ago. Why would she make this sudden reappearance here in Mogadiscio, where he is living for only a short while—or, rather, in his dream there? And come to think of it, what have ground squirrels to do with her, or with either of them, for that matter? He watches in bemusement as some of the creatures, having eaten their fill, pirouette for the others, who applaud as squirrels do, rising on their hind legs and touching their palms together. Why is Valerie back in his life at just the point when he no longer misses her?

Aar’s heart expands with great sorrow, yet he won’t admit defeat. He triples his endeavor to pen in as many squirrels as he can, singling out the sated ones, who surrender more easily to his will. But when no more snacks are forthcoming, they look confused, and some manage to give him the slip while others come and go, entering the room at his behest and departing again at Valerie’s insistence. In the ensuing chaos, with neither Valerie nor Aar willing to back down, frenzy sets in, and the poor things begin pushing and shoving one another, looking helpless and lost.

Just then, Aar feels the quiet presence of someone else on the periphery of his vision. A woman, elegantly dressed all in black, is placing a tripod within shooting distance and mounting a compact digital camera on it. Busy attending to the squirrels, Valerie does not take notice of her, but Aar recognizes Bella and wonders how come his sister did not bother to e-mail or phone to alert him to her arrival. How bizarre, and how unlike her! They had last met in Istanbul, when he was on his way to his current posting in Somalia. She had flown in from Brazil and they had spent nearly a week together. But here she is, in her birth city, where she hasn’t set foot since 1991, when the two of them fled the fighting in Mogadiscio with their mother, first to Nairobi and then to Rome.

Silent, he watches Bella as she approaches and adjusts the position of her camera, her shadow lengthening, her face widening in a knowing grin as her eyes encounter Aar’s. He is relaxed, no longer worried. Bella, more than anyone, gives him comfort. And Bella, more than anyone, discomfits Valerie, because if there is anything Valerie hates, it is having her picture taken when she hasn’t prepared for it.

And lo and behold: The minute Valerie’s eyes fix on Bella’s camera and its attendant paraphernalia, she begins to make ponderous, ungainly movements. Hardly has another moment passed before she beats the undignified retreat of a vanquished rival, slinking away without so much as a word of self-justification or apology.

And Aar herds all the squirrels in.

Unsettled, his confidence shaken, Aar waits for his breathing to even out. He rubs his eyes until they are sore. For a moment, he has no idea whether it is night and he is still dreaming, or whether it is daytime and he is coming out of a deep reverie. He looks at the ceiling and studies the walls. Then his eyes focus on his feet, and he notices the jagged edges of his badly trimmed toenails. He looks at them as if for instructions as to what to do, as if they might tell him the answers to his many questions.

Aar has been in Mogadiscio for three months, seconded to the UN office in Somalia as logistics officer, charged with the task of facilitating moving the UN’s Somalia staff back to Mogadiscio for the first time since Somalia collapsed into civil anarchy. In the interim, UN personnel assigned to Somalia have been operating out of Nairobi, flying up in the morning and returning before nightfall once or twice a month. Not surprisingly, it’s been impossible to achieve viable results this way, and yet the staff is resistant to leaving Nairobi, where they and their families feel safe. Even Aar, Somali by birth, is happy to have his children boarding in a school in one of the Nairobi suburbs, and these days he too feels more secure in Nairobi than he does in Mogadiscio.

Yet his home here is a spacious studio apartment with a view of the sea and much of the international airport. At first, Aar lived in a sublet, but when his continued presence became necessary, he rented this apartment in a well-guarded, recently built complex, twenty apartments in all, each with two access points, one serving as a fire exit with steps leading down to a basement shelter in the event of a terrorist attack, the other facing a parking lot. Three-quarters of the occupants of the complex are foreign, and the remainder of them are of Somali descent, albeit with alien passports. A number of the studios accommodate multiple part-time residents who take turns living here. It makes sense to share because the cost of living in a secure place like this comes to an exorbitant two hundred U.S. dollars daily, including breakfast, buffet lunch, and a simple evening meal delivered to one’s room. Residents of the larger apartments pay considerably more. And lately the UN and some of the embassies based in neighboring Kenya have taken to paying heavy retainers so they can have rooms, suites, or apartments of their choice available on short lets, sometimes for only half a day, where they can conduct a meeting and leave and not risk an overnight stay.

Hounded by the memory of his dream, Aar feels disconsolately hot one moment, and in the next, despondently cold, as if a life-threatening chill coursed through his blood. His life unfurls before him like a straw mat curling at the edges. But when he tries to smooth it out, his hands shake, and he hears a thunderclap in his head. Aar is a man a little past his midpoint in life and therefore unable to decide in which direction to move. He knows this is what the dream was about.

He makes an attempt to push his worry aside, walling off the nightmare and sidestepping his disorienting sense of dread. But what emerges instead is a memory from the evening before, when one of the UN drivers passed him a sealed envelope as he got out of the car. He’d thought nothing of it at the time, simply accepting it and stuffing it into the back pocket of his jeans. Undoubtedly it contained a request for a loan or a salary advance, he imagined, this being something of a daily occurrence with the workers. Often they ask Aar, as the only Somali of high rank here, to intercede with the Indian moneyman to facilitate these transactions.

But now he is full of anxiety to know the contents of the envelope. He gets out of bed, totteringly eager to satisfy his troubled curiosity. He finds his jeans on the floor where they have fallen and his shaking hand retrieves the envelope, which he tears open with his forefinger. And before he has given it much thought, he is staring at a single word, and a misspelled one at that: DETH!

He doesn’t know what to make of the lone word. Did its author mean to write DEBT and misspell it? Or is Aar meant to read it as DEATHwith a missing A? Aar is no fool. He is fully aware that among the UN’s Somali staff there are Shabaab recruits, hordes of them, who will carry out a threat to kill on behalf of the terrorist organization. They go for soft targets, aiming for a publicity stunt. And nothing works better than killing foreigners—never mind their nationality, so long as they are of the infidel variety—in the name of Islam. On many an occasion, they’ve killed fellow Muslims, but do they care? The UN is a particular magnet for terrorist groups because of the huge international coverage any damage inflicted generates. Aar remembers when, back in 2003, al-Qaeda operatives used a bomb-laden cement truck to target the Canal Hotel in Baghdad where UN Special Representative Sérgio Vieira de Mello was staying, trapping him in the rubble for hours before he lost his life, as did twenty-one members of his staff.

He drops the envelope to the floor and, with his knees knocking, manages to pick up his mobile phone and ring Bella. He needs to speak to someone, not necessarily to discuss the letter and its brief but disturbing contents, but just to touch base, to share a moment of amity, evidence that he is still alive. But Bella does not answer.

Aar knows that further action will have to wait until tomorrow. He wonders if the driver who gave him the envelope will be back on duty then. He may already have reported to one of the terrorist cells to share his reconnoitering with Shabaab intelligence, who would most probably assign him to other duties elsewhere now that this part of the mission has been carried out.

Of course, Aar has expected threats from Shabaab to come his way since the day he arrived in Mogadiscio. And in a way, it annoys him that the menacing missive has come just when he is a couple of days from departing for R&R and a celebration of his son’s birthday in Nairobi. If he manages to leave, he knows he won’t be returning to Mogadiscio soon, maybe ever.

And now that he is deciding what his next step is to be, he feels a surge of further fear. His hands all of a sudden become conscious of each other and the uses to which he can put them. He secures the door and the windows, and he sets the alarm in hope that it will bring help if somebody breaks in. At eight in the morning, he is not sure if he is safer staying at home, where the alarm is now on, or going to work, where there is comfort in knowing that he is not alone. Then the trilling of his mobile phone startles him.

It’s Keith Neville, the UN’s local chief of security, an Englishman, who wants to call on him. Aar doesn’t bother to ask why, and Keith Neville doesn’t volunteer an explanation. Does he know about the letter from the driver? As soon as Aar rings off, he is seized by an urge to phone his children, Dahaba and Salif. He dials their numbers, feeling that it is essential for him to hear their voices, and they his. But, like Bella, they do not answer; and so he leaves them messages, in which he informs them that he is coming home to Nairobi a day earlier than previously arranged. He encounters the same worrying silence when he calls the home of the principal of their school and his wife, two generous souls who have been playing host to Dahaba and Salif in Nairobi. Again he leaves messages, telling Mr. and Mrs. Kariuki of his plan to arrive on the morrow.

In his desperate need to reach someone close to him, Aar rings Gunilla Johansson. Mercifully, she answers and, hearing the worry in his voice, wonders aloud if everything in Mogadiscio is well.

Gunilla is a colleague of Aar’s back in Nairobi, and the two of them have recently become secret lovers, seeing a lot of each other when Aar is home and his children aren’t around. The children have met Gunilla twice, the first time when they camped out together in the Rift Valley and the next on the one time she came to dinner. Undemanding, generous to a fault, Gunilla is the sort who understands Aar’s predicament as the father of two teenagers who are difficult to please, immodestly possessive, and given to asking if there is something going on between him and any woman he greets. Still, he is unsure why he’s kept the true intimacy of his relationship with her a secret, not only from the children but also from Bella, whom he’s often told about his other women. He ascribes this to his general wariness about making a serious commitment after what happened with Valerie.

And yet it was she, not Mahdi or Fatima, his closest Somali friends in Nairobi, whom he took into his confidence on his last visit home, requesting that she store his essential documents, including the notarized photocopies of his passport, his most recent will, and the details of his bank accounts and other assets, in her safe box. She agreed and also insisted that he provide her with Bella’s coordinates, just in case, along with those of Valerie and her lover. Bella’s details he could readily provide, but as for Valerie, the best he could do was to give his former mother-in-law’s e-mail and phone number.

Not only did he do all this, but he also gave her power of attorney over all his assets before he left for Somalia. He did not tell this to either the children or Bella. Perhaps this was because Aar leads a compartmentalized existence, and no one person, not even his sister, has access to the sum of his secrets.

Now Gunilla is asking why he sounds so feverish, on edge. He tells her that his days have been hectic lately and that he’s been returning home exhausted. But he doesn’t tell her about the letter. Nor does he tell her that he’s been so restless that one day last week he woke up to find his feet on his pillow and his head where his feet ought to have been.

She says, “I am glad you’re coming to Nairobi. It will be great to see you and for you to see the children.”

They chat about this and that, and then he rings off to wait for the chief of security with the serenity of a man awaiting a pizza delivery.

The calmness doesn’t last long, however. Keith Neville calls back to advise Aar not to open the door to anyone until he gets another call from Keith, which he should not answer, and then a text message from someone called RatRoute. Aar waits, his heart beating loudly in his ears, especially after the missed call from Keith. He draws gulps of nervous air into his lungs.

When Keith finally arrives, he is accompanied by a man who, like him, is wearing a sky-blue UN uniform and helmet, though the companion has larger feet, which Aar can make out through the peephole. The men carry themselves with a professionalism that sets them apart from the local ragtag soldiery. Aar deliberately keeps them waiting at the door until, growing restless, the other man draws close to Keith to say something. This affords Aar a glimpse of the man’s face.

It’s Cadde, Keith’s deputy, who once s...

Revue de presse :

Praise for Hiding in Plain Sight:

“This novel — Farah's 12th — takes us deep into the domestic life of a sophisticated African family, with great emotional effect… Each of the kids…becomes starkly real in their intelligence, ingenuity, anger, and grief. Even their outrageous mother (and her selfish choices) seems credible …This family, our families, Africa and Europe and America, have never seemed closer in the way we live now — and this engaging novel, from its explosive beginning to its complex yet uplifting last scenes, shows us why.” —Alan Cheuse, NPR

“Absorbing and provocative… [Farah’s] characters are given heft through personal histories and anecdotes, and he writes evocatively about everything from Nairobi traffic to Kenyan game reserves to, importantly, how Somalis are seen not just through the eyes of others, but through their own.” (4 stars) — USA Today

Hiding in Plain Sight may begin with a terrorist attack…but this is not a novel about violence...The rewards of reading Hiding in Plain Sight lie in Farah’s sensitive exploration of grief and his depiction of a family’s love for one another…Farah is particularly adept at evoking the way in which the sight of a familiar face or place can trigger painful memories and how comfort can come to us from unexpected sources.” — New York Times Book Review
 
“A rich exploration of political and social crises…[and] a sensitive story about living in the shadow of grief, learning to forgive and trying to answer the question, “What does it mean to be Somali in this day and age?” — Washington Post

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