From Mogadishu to Toronto

The novel The Youth of God offers fresh perspectives on Somali assimilation and struggle in Canada's largest city.

Toronto. Image credit Mike Hewitt via Flickr (CC).

Partway through Hassan Ghedi Santur’s new novel The Youth of God, eighteen-year-old Nuur sits alone in an empty playground at night, staring up at the lights of the apartment complex that is home to his and numerous other Somali families in the neighborhood of Dixon in Toronto. Dixon is a neighborhood that, outside the world of the novel, is consistently portrayed in the media as a breeding ground for violent gang activity and is notoriously associated with late former mayor, Rob Ford, and his illicit drug activity. One of two Somali émigré protagonists, Nuur is reminded of a book he has recently borrowed from the library, “From Mogadishu to Dixon: The Somali Diaspora in the Global Context. [Nuur] found it interesting but dry and academic, full of statistics and lacking life.”

By contrast, Santur’s new novel foregrounds the lived experience of multiple inhabitants of Dixon as they negotiate their varied Muslim and migrant identities in the 21st century. Rather than statistics and graphs, readers are taken on a journey through the Somali diaspora in a literary narrative that engages with the abuse, exodus, and regret of numerous characters who “had nomad blood surging through their veins. It was in their DNA always to seek a better place, to find it, and make it their own.”

While readers saw Santur give voice to harrowing accounts of African migration across the Mediterranean in his 2017 reportage “Maps of Exile” for Warscapes, in the The Youth of God we are privy to the affective experiences of resettlement and its aftermath in a deeply convincing work of fiction. It is convincing, no doubt, in part due to Santur himself having left Somalia to Canada at the age of 13. He appears to draw on this personal experience in setting the novel in Toronto, a city more often associated with being a home to Canada’s liberal democracy than with the struggling migrant communities we encounter in this novel.

In a contemporary climate rife with Islamophobia, Santur humanizes the radicalization of Nuur, a remarkably bright and motivated high school student who is alienated from his peers and family by his unwavering faith. Born in Toronto after his parents escape civil war in Somalia, Nuur flees school bullies and his abusive father, seeking refuge in different homes that he carves out for himself, particularly once his older brother moves away to work the oil rigs in western Canada. Nuur turns into himself and his “consciousness was as vivid as a dream and as welcoming as home” as he disappears into his schoolwork and extra-curricular reading.

Santur alternates the narrative focus between Nuur and his second protagonist, Nuur’s biology teacher Mr. Ilmi. The middle-aged Ilmi returns to Somalia after a 25-year absence, enacting a form of migrant return that has been the focus of a number of contemporary African literary works (prominent in fellow Somali writer Nuruddin Farah’s work but also works by Chimamanda Adichie, Sefi Atta, Teju Cole, Fatou Diome, Yaa Gyasi, Okey Ndibe, and Taiye Selasi). Mr. Ilmi, like many of his fictional contemporaries, returns to an all-too-familiar but foreign environment that fulfills his sense of nostalgia at the same time that it departs from his cherished childhood memories. In the recounting of his travels home to Mogadishu before an audience of academics at the University of Toronto, Mr. Ilmi feels uncannily “like a novice reporter from some Western country, on his first foreign assignment, stringing together seemingly important facts for the edification of an ignorant reader.” His inability to publicly call out the causes of conflict or the failure of the international community to provide adequate help stands in direct opposition to his prowess to immediately recognize and name “Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major” when he walks by a student rehearsal. The shame he feels in such moments of assimilation at the expense of his Somali identity compounds with his guilt for having left Somalia in the first place. Like his favorite student Nuur, Mr. Ilmi also struggles to belong.

The migrant struggle that Mr. Ilmi and Nuur face is also articulated through the experiences of those who come with them. The Somali-Canadian experience—similar to migration narratives—is one of disillusionment, in terms of employment, standard of living, and personal relationships. When Nuur’s parents flee Somalia, his father is a successful and fairly-renowned architect while his mother, Haawo, is a respected flight attendant. In Toronto, however, his father is forced to drive a taxi cab while Haawo works at Walmart, downward shifts in status that are so common to the diaspora that Santur doesn’t emphasize the point. Their relationship suffers when Nuur’s father moves to Minnesota to marry a second wife but returns home to assert his authority at will. Mr. Ilmi’s wife, Khadija, on the other hand, is forced to abandon Kismayo and her feelings for a local man when she marries the biology teacher in an arranged union that takes her to Canada but enables her to send remittances home to support her sisters. Mr. Ilmi, whose life in Toronto is marked by a “litany of regrets,” abandons his youthful fantasies of what love and marriage would be like to marry Khadija.

While Santur provides compelling and complex characterizations of Nuur and Mr. Ilmi, the depiction of the fanatic Imam named Yusuf is more straightforward, to the point that the homophobic and misogynistic imam who celebrates the 2015 terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo embodies a stereotype of Islamic fundamentalism. The contrast between Nuur’s two main mentors, Mr. Ilmi and Imam Yusuf, represents a general good versus evil dichotomy that Santur (as narrator) himself critiques as simplistic through his verbal undressing of Imam Yusuf who “tak[es] it for granted that there were only two paths in life.” Unfortunately, the risk of not humanizing the imam further in a book that is bound to circulate in the West is that the character potentially feeds into what is already an Islamophobic and vilifying discourse on the subject.

Santur has a clear interest in foregrounding moments of education for his characters who, in their yearning to belong and understand the world, demonstrate a clear passion for learning. The relationship between migration and education is illustrated through several instances in which Nuur or Mr. Ilmi are introduced to new anatomical, philosophical, and religious ideas and concepts that in some scenes are referenced at length. Here, Santur gestures to the notion that there is always more to be learned and perhaps always more to a story. Such a point is certainly underlined by the end of the novel as narrative closure is foregone in favor of remaining authentic to the world that Santur has so meticulously carved out for readers.

Such a world, and the characters that inhabit it, evokes the work of Santur’s Somali contemporaries. In writing The Youth of God, Santur has carved a space within what is an expanding canon of Somali literature written in European languages, a canon he shares with the likes of Nuruddin Farah, Cristina Ali Farah, Nadifa Mohamed, and Diriye Osman.

The Youth of God is a compelling narrative of Somali assimilation in an Islamophobic western world. Santur eloquently depicts various struggles of the Somali diaspora that cut across generations, genders, and geographies as he simultaneously humanizes but does not justify a radicalization that transcends borders.

Further Reading