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Nadifa Mohamed: Black Mamba Boy

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Black Mamba Boy

By Nadifa Mohamed

Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Hardcover

Most Americans know Somalia only as a poor country ravaged by civil war, pirates, and Islamist militants. But as Nadifa Mohamed’s vibrant debut novel Black Mamba Boy portrays it, Somalia is a place with a venerable history and an intricate hierarchy of clans, where women’s faces are “a bright cruel yellow from beauty masks of powdered turmeric” and “[m]en chewed qat constantly to stave away the nagging hunger in their stomachs.” Somalia is the birthplace of Jama, a small boy with an intrepid soul, who—beginning in 1935—escorts the reader on an epic journey through Yemen, Eritrea, Sudan, Palestine, Egypt, and eventually Europe. Jama’s story, with some embellishments, is that of the author’s own father. “I wanted to memorialize the lives of people like my father who are often written about but very rarely have their perspective represented,” Mohamed said in an interview posted on HarperFiction’s YouTube channel ( Her novel is told from Jama’s point of view—though in the third person—and the colorful, tragic world he inhabits will be a revelation to many Western readers.

The book opens in Aden, Yemen, then a cosmopolitan city inhabited by numerous nationalities. Jama, a street kid, learns to take advantage of this diversity. He and his friends throw bones into vegetarian Hindu restaurants only to demand payment for retrieving them. They ambush Arab donkey carts for bread and honey and steal from Jews on the Sabbath, when they think they won’t be chased. So begins the story of a boy who not only survives by his wits, but succeeds in crisscrossing the Horn of Africa and beyond in search of his long lost father.

But Black Mamba Boy doesn’t traffic in nostalgia. Northeast Africa, already in the grasp of European colonizers, enters World War II shortly after Jama’s story begins. Colonization in wartime is the backdrop for his difficult life, and Mohamed’s descriptions are clear-eyed and harsh. In one scene, Jama’s friend Shidane is beaten by Italian soldiers who have caught him stealing. They shove “slick, gristled slices of pork” down his throat, break his kneecaps, knock out his teeth, and sodomize him: “They were relentless; they toiled over him like mechanics pulling a car apart for scrap.”

The world Mohamed evokes is palpable, and not only in scenes where bodily sensations are so central. She describes the “hot red dirt of Africa, scintillating with mica as if God had made the earth with broken diamonds.” The legs of a camel as it is lifted on a crane “stuck rigidly out like the points on a compass” and the Somali desert is dotted with “large matronly bushes.”

The book follows Jama as he travels, through his encounters with friends, foes, and Westerners—or “Ferengis.” The Ferengis are often ruthless, while those few with good intentions are soon stifled by the rigid discipline of their superiors. In contrast, Jama’s society is one in which he need only seek out someone from his clan to gain shelter and food in a strange land.

Black Mamba Boy is at times a brutal read, but it is also a beautiful, hopeful piece of literature that tells a story many have not heard. The sensation is a bit like something the ghost of Jama’s father—in one of the book’s occasional forays into magical realism—says: “The world has been broken open for you like a ripe pomegranate and you must swallow its seeds.”

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