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Crossbones Reader’s Guide

By Nuruddin Farah

Crossbones by Nuruddin Farah


Questions and Topics for Discussion


In the African nation of Somalia, the setting for Nuruddin Farah’s gripping novel Crossbones, airport security personnel are armed with whips. Children face summary execution for the crime of going to the wrong house. On the country’s dusty and forsaken streets, the men whom the outside world has condemned as pirates can appear to be a community’s best—though still unlikely—chance for wealth and social justice. The Somali government in Farah’s tale seems to exist only to lob provocative taunts at the country’s heavily armed neighbor Ethiopia, and to be a journalist means being a target for assassination.

Into this atmosphere of chaos and continuous threat come two brothers of Somali ancestry, both lured back to the country of their forebears in search of answers. Malik, a freelance journalist based in New York, has come to report on the doings of the country’s dysfunctional, religiously fundamentalist government, the Union of Islamic Courts. Although Malik has previously reported from Iraq, the Congo, and Afghanistan, nothing has quite prepared him for the reception that awaits him on the streets of Mogadiscio. For Malik’s older brother, Ahl, the search for information has a more personal, and therefore more desperate, character: his high–school–aged stepson, Taxliil, has run away from his comfortable, middle–class home in Minneapolis. Word has reached the family that Taxliil, under the influence of a jihadist imam, has traveled to Somalia, intent on training as a suicide bomber. The searches commenced by Malik and Ahl transform at once into a race against time. Will Malik be able to file his stories and leave the country before the tide of violence against foreign journalists reaches him? Will Ahl track down Taxliil before the young man can carry out his fatal mission? And will either brother achieve his aims before the region erupts into full–scale war?

Along the winding road that leads them toward the knowledge they seek, Malik and Ahl have many other lessons waiting for them. Malik will have his property confiscated by armed thugs in the name of “the good of all,” and he will help bear the casket of a murdered journalist to his grave. In the destitute, crime–infested region of Puntland, Ahl will form friendships of convenience with known pirates and will set himself continually at peril. Both brothers will discover that little in this land is what it seems and that, of all the things in short supply, truth can come at the most terrible price of all.

The climactic third volume of Farah’s internationally acclaimed Past Imperfect trilogy—including Knots and Links—Crossbones takes the series to a new level of intensity, both in the tension and violence of the story it tells and in the passion with which the author laments the state of his native land. A taut and compelling story, Crossbones is also indispensable reading for those who seek to know the dangers and the struggles of everyday life in the Horn of Africa, a place that, though distant, now wrestles with a destiny that may not be so very separate from our own.


The son of a merchant father and a poet mother, Nuruddin Farah was born in Baidoa, Somalia, in 1945. Throughout a literary career that has spanned more than forty–five years, Farah has been an outspoken advocate for human rights and, in particular, the rights of women in postcolonial Africa. Because of his long insistence on speaking truth to power, Farah was at one time threatened with imprisonment in his native land. During a long self–imposed exile, he has taught in the United States, Germany, Italy, India, and a number of African countries. He currently divides his time between Cape Town, South Africa, and Minneapolis, where he occupies an endowed chair in liberal arts at the University of Minnesota. Crossbonesis his eleventh novel and it concludes his Past Imperfect trilogy.

  • How does the storyline of YoungThing relate to the remainder of Crossbones? How essential is this story to the mood and message of the novel as a whole?

  • Who are Farah’s most appealing and compelling characters, and why?

  • It is presumably one of Farah’s aims in Crossbones to educate his readers with regard to Somali politics and society. What lessons does he have to teach us about this distant and misunderstood culture?

  • Malik refers to the actions of the mob that desecrates the body of an Ethiopian soldier as “like theater. . . and a bit of fun” with a “rehearsed quality,” staged for foreign journalists (p. 330). In what ways do the journalists in Crossbonesalter the events that they are covering, even as they are reporting on them? Is this kind of distortion a problem in general with modern media coverage?

  • As in ancient Greek drama, much of the most violent action in Crossbones is not directly shown, but is instead relayed to the audience by other means. We often learn of calamities after the fact by a news report or a telephone call. What do you think of Farah’s choice of narrative style in this regard?

  • Nuruddin Farah has been compared both to immortal European authors like Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene and to great literary voices of the third world like Chinua Achebe and V. S. Naipaul. Do you think that the work of Farah, who was born in Somalia but now spends much of his time in America, falls closer to western literature or to the literature of the developing world? For what reasons?

  • At various points in his novel, for instance on pages 73–76, Farah attempts to draw a moral distinction between Somali pirates and pirates as they exist in the popular imagination. Do you find this distinction persuasive? Why or why not?

  • Farah attempts a similar distinction between “terrorists” and “insurgents.” To what degree does he persuade you regarding this distinction?

  • Readers of novels sometimes expect good characters to be rewarded and bad characters punished. However, the moral mathematics of Crossbones is not nearly so straightforward. How does it make you feel as a reader that Farah’s novel does not make a point of punishing evil and rewarding virtue?

  • Although Farah’s book is a work of fiction, the kinds of suffering described in his Past Imperfect trilogy are absolutely real. To what extent, if at all, do you think the United States should take humanitarian or military action to help stabilize the region and improve people’s lives there?

  • From the Yankees cap worn by YoungThing to the pasta Bolognese that Ahmed–Rashid finds irresistible, the signs of westernization are rampant throughout Crossbones, even among characters who support the eradication of western influences. How do you think a nation should (or shouldn’t) respond to perceived threats to its traditional culture? Are there valid arguments in support of cultural separatism?

  • One of the many moral debates in Crossbones concerns whether dogs, which are considered unclean by some Muslims, should be used to rescue human beings whose lives are in danger. Which matters more: a practical morality that saves lives or a scriptural morality that preserves respect for traditions and for God? How does one presume to know?

  • A prominent theme in Crossbones is the breakdown of understanding between generations. Why is it so hard for characters like Ahl to reach understandings with characters like Taxliil?

  • No doubt aware that his American readership is unlikely to know a great deal about Somalia, Farah includes a lot of factual information along with his storytelling. How does Farah present all the necessary information about Somalia while preserving a novelistic flow to his narrative?

  • Women tend to exert a calming, rationalizing influence in Farah’s novels. In what ways do the men in Crossbonesdepend on the women? What do women see as their role, and how do they play it?
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