It is a good question. Ahl, like other characters in Crossbones, has his reasons. "Maybe," he tells the prostitute, "there is a purpose to my visit."
Farah himself goes regularly to Somalia and never without purpose. Born there in 1945, he has been coming and going all his life, not least because he needs to keep tabs on that blighted country and its long-suffering people. Above all, though, he goes to observe and listen, roaming around Mogadishu, a "city without landmarks", where women in niqabs, veils and body tents go past, "treading with much care, in streets chock-a-block with minibuses speeding down the dusty roads."
It is not difficult to imagine Farah melting into the background amidst the tumult. He has the build and gait of a long-distance runner and the musical, imperturbable voice of a man who could charm birds out of trees and talk his way out of trouble. He last visited Somalia a few months ago. "Actually," he says, as if not quite able to believe what he saw, "it's never been more peaceful." That's not, I say, the impression one gets from the news bulletins. "Well," he says, "there's blowing up. You can't stop the blowing up."
Sitting in a hotel lounge in the middle of Edinburgh, where all we have to exercise ourselves over is the ongoing saga of the trams project, Somalia could be on another planet. Since 1991, it has had no central government and large swathes of the south of the country are under the control of Al-Shabaab, which has links to al-Qaeda. Consequently, it has been beset by civil war and famine and bedevilled by pirates who seize boats and hold hostages for ransom.
These are desperate, dangerous men, whom Farah portrays in his novel as "armed clan-based militiamen high on drugs" and who will kill with such casualness that it seems part of their everyday life, which it is. Al-Shabaab has enforced Sharia law and has a Taliban-esque attitude towards women. Moreover, its followers wear white robes, which gives them the aura of the Ku Klux Klan.
Farah, though, is careful not demonise them. In his depiction, Somalia is a country in a constant state of flux. Like him, several of his characters note with alarm the changes that take place, such as the sudden sprouting of beards among young men. But what does not change is the havoc and sense of lawlessness.
"The great tragedy about civil wars, famines and other disasters in the world's poor regions," thinks Farah's character Jeebleh, another returnee, "is that the rubble seldom divulges the secret sorrows it contains. The technology, the forensics to determine what is what, scientifically, is not available; the dead are rarely identified or exhumed. Often no-one knows how many have perished in the mudslide or the tsunami."
If this sounds like tub-thumping then that is perhaps inevitable. For, as Farah suggests, what most of the world knows of Somalia "is often no more than hearsay bolstered by scuttlebutt". While some prejudices may be confirmed by reading Crossbones, others need to be revised. For example, we're told that piracy began with Somalia fishermen trying to stop "foreign sea bandits" despoiling the coastline with toxic waste and overfishing the ocean.
I wonder whether Farah feels the guilt of the exile. Wouldn't he have more impact, more of an influence, if he was based in Somalia? He says not. "Though I have been physically away from Somalia for much of the time, I carry it inside my head, I write about it daily, and therefore there is a part of me that is forever attached, forever thinking."
He is, he says, an unabashed cosmopolitan, with a deep wanderlust. No one place can satisfy him. When he's London he longs to be in Paris. If he's in Cape Town, where he does most of his writing, he dreams of Milan and La Scala. He's never happier, it seems, than in a steel tube jetting from one continent to another. He's been to Scotland on many previous occasions and talks enthusiastically of friends, some of whom are now dead, such as the historian Angus Calder.
"The claim is that I live in Cape Town," says Farah. "That's the claim. The truth is I live out of a suitcase much of the time." In Cape Town he locks the door and doesn't answer the phone.
He can't imagine what it would be like not to write. He started early, he recalls. His family left Somalia when he was two years old, when his father was posted to Ethiopia as the interpreter for the governor. "I say nowadays, 'he was a lackey of the British Empire'," he says semi-seriously.
His mother was a minor poet, what Farah terms a "community" poet. She composed poems for special occasions, such as weddings and deaths. These were never written down because the culture was oral. Sometimes, when she couldn't deliver the poems personally, she made her son learn them by heart and sent him to recite them. On the way, he recalls, he often couldn't resist changing them. Inevitably, his mother discovered what he was doing. "If I got it right, there was no fuss. If I got it wrong she would say, 'If you must change it, do a good job. Otherwise you'll give me a bad name'."
There were few books to hand. The first he read was Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, encouraged by an older brother who said he'd buy him a football if he finished it. Another was Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy. His, he adds, was a multi-lingual world. Somali did not exist as a written language until the 1970s. "You could speak it," notes Farah, "but you couldn't write it." Thus, "we received our education in as many languages as there are in the world."
English is his fourth language, after Somali, Arabic and Amharic. "It's very handy if you come from a small, poor country. It's very handy to be able to speak a number of languages," he says.
He started to write in English while at university in India, where he chose to go rather than America, driven by interest in Hinduism and Buddhism. In any case, as he reasoned at the time, "there is always the possibility of going to America." His first novel, From a Crooked Rib, was published in 1970, since when there have been 10 more. In 1976, he published A Naked Needle, which drew the ire of the Somali government, who threatened to arrest him. This led to him spending some two decades out of the country.
In those years he travelled widely and held several passports but Somalia was always at the heart of his fiction, a place of constant concern and sorrow. Like several of the characters in Crossbones he must keep going back to his "ancestral home", to reassure himself of his identity or to satisfy nostalgia or to sort a problem in his personal life. It is a curious way of viewing a country most of us would avoid at all costs – seeking solace in a place that has known none for so long.
Crossbones is published by Granta at £16.99
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