The skeleton in the closet

The novelist Nadifa Mohamed complicates Britain’s troubled, racist legal history through the personal tale of one otherwise insignificant person, a Somali immigrant to Cardiff in Wales.

Reflection of a block of flats in Cardiff Bay Docks. Credit Simon Rowe via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

There’s a crack in every pavement, underneath there is a beach
It’s been a long time longing as history repeats

— Girl from Tiger Bay, Shirley Bassey

In late December 2019 I heard of a new book that told the melancholic odyssey of Somali seaman, Mahmoud Mattan, to 20th century Tiger Bay, Cardiff where he was wrongly found guilty of the murder of Lily Volpert, and sent to hang in the gallows on September 1952. My great grandfather also lived in Cardiff during that period and it wasn’t long before I tracked down the author, Nadifa Mohamed, and inquired if he was in the novel. He is, she assured me, but “a very brief part though.” I would have bought it anyway but that news only increased my anticipation. It’s not everyday that one is accorded the flattering accolade of finding a kinsperson in a Booker nominated novel.

I was born and raised in Cardiff, and was surprised to find that my great grandfather, referred to in the book as “Dualleh the Communist,” was present at Mattan’s trial. He was a prominent activist and a thorn in the side of the South Wales police force who thought he was “unwittingly associating with Communists,” according to their archives. Did they actually think he wasn’t aware of what the hammer and sickle symbolized, I laughed, as I sifted through their records about him.

I still got through much of my life without any knowledge of the fact that the last man sentenced to death in Britain was Somali, hung where I grew up and probably knew a relative of mine. What’s more astounding is the manner in which it was quietly brushed under the carpet and willfully forgotten until Nadifa Mohamed dug it up and helped the story reach a global audience. Mattan was posthumously exonerated in 1998, but that would have been little consolation to his friend’s, children (one of whom took the revelations about his father very hard) and grieving wife, Laura.

Caution around spoilers are redundant in this story, as many knew how it would end for the protagonist, but the book still offers a lot to its readers and does two things with skill and insight. Mohamed pieces together Mattan’s life and forensically researches his trial, but also works hard to provide a snapshot of the stage upon which this drama played out to help us understand the context. Tiger Bay, Cardiff’s main port, early on became one of the most cosmopolitan places in Britain, with a dynamic, diverse, and textured community drawn from across the empire.

Mohamed’s own descriptions illustrate how Cardiff changed from a sleepy, homogenous city in South Wales, to a raunchy, culturally rich mini-metropolis:

A parade of hulking great Vikings with blond beards and ripped shirts bloodied from brawls, of Salvation Army bands looking for drunks to save, of robed Yemenis and Somalis marching to celebrate Eid, of elaborate funeral cortèges for the last of the rich captains of Loundon Square, of Catholic children clad in white on Corpus Christi, led by a staff-twirling drum major, of makeshift calypso bands busking to raise enough money to tour the country, of street dice games descending into happy laughter or nasty threats, of birdlike whores preening their feathers to catch a passing punter… Old maligned Tiger Bay, as tame as a circus lion.

The docks were only a square mile, hemmed in and isolated from the rest of the city, but contained the world.

The city hosted singer, activist and athlete Paul Robeson, gave us Shirley Bassey and Patti Flynn. Sheikh Saeed Ismail— “Wales’ best known imam”—born to a Yemeni seaman and English mother, served his community in Cardiff for over 50 years before he died in 2011. My own great grandfather, an early member of the Somali Youth League, which had an active chapter in Cardiff even before Mogadishu, was an acquaintance of prominent socialist and suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, who took an active interest in East African politics. The Fortune Men thoughtfully recreates this world and its eclectic assemblage of strange and fascinating characters, brought together by currents which they rode to Cardiff, but were beyond their control.

The backdrop of this story, however, is 1950s Britain, a deeply racist society where the word “nigger” was in common use, race riots often took place, and where the press spent as much time chastizing and taunting minorities as it did probing the actions of its government. The South Wales Daily bemoaned the “large influx of native races.” A bigotted police officer in the novel exemplifies the attitudes common in Cardiff about Tiger Bay at the time: “The ports are our broken skin” into which “queers, darkies, hoodlums, communists and traitors of every description” furtively wriggled in. After he was sentenced, Mattan’s own barrister described him as a “half child of nature, half semi-civilised savage.”

Mattan is a defiant and uncompromising character in the face of this racism. Ever the diplomat, when a prison guard denies him water—even as he possibly faces a death sentence—he obstinately tells him “Cocksucker, fuck you.” In a quiet moment of reflection he queries his attitude, his unwillingness to play the role of the quiet and grateful immigrant. “I get my pride, I get my revenge,” Mattan concludes.

Mohamed isn’t a ventriloquist though, pulling Mattan’s limbs, generating his thoughts and moving his lips. Her own positioning as an author allows her to get extremely close to him. Mohamed’s father—whose own story is fictionalized in her first novel,  Black Mamba Boy —was also a Somali seaman, who came to Britain at about the same age as Mattan. In that regard she is a part of this story and its many afterlives. Her father would have been familiar with the racism Mattan experienced, the cultural deracination, the insults and taunts, the struggle to build a life in an extremely hostile environment, in a world so different from the stagnant comforts of home in Somalia.

Mohamed describes Mattan’s philosophical bent as “the makhayad [cafeteria] school of thought,” a set of distilled nomadic maxims he’d heard old Somali men expound as they sat around drinking tea. Its key principles are as follows: life is full of hardship, nothing is permanent and don’t get too emotionally tied to this short but perilous ride. In that regard he wasn’t totally responsible for much of what had happened in his life. Every time he’d made an effort to get his act together and find stable ways of making ends meet, doors were slammed, his name was too exotic or complexion too dark.

Even with his renewed faith came as he gazed into the abyss of his mortality facing a death sentence. His last ditch attempt to pierce the concrete walls of his cell and speak to God in the hope of a miracle are left unaddressed as gravity brings his inflated ego back to earth:

He began to strut and blush his days away and completely forget that his life meant nothing and was as fragile as a twig underfoot. He had needed to be humbled … he can see God’s wisdom so clearly now.

But she makes very little effort overall to impute any good to Mattan or excuse his excesses; even his relationship with his mother wasn’t great. This book isn’t a militant crusade to restore his good name, quite the contrary, and that’s what makes the novel so compelling. Though Mohamed had been captivated by the story since she found the newspaper clipping about Mattan’s murder in 2004 (“Woman [Laura] Weeps as Somali is Hanged” was the headline), its release comes a year after George Floyd met his own premature end at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. In the city where the novel is based, Mahmoud Hassan died shortly after he was released from the custody of South Wales police blooded and beaten in 2020. An investigation of the latter case is ongoing. Like Mattan, both men were mistreated by authorities in whose trust they were but it’s in that recess between the man (whatever his deeds and racial background) and his rights (guaranteed by law) that we get a glimpse of the politics of this novel.

By excavating this story Mohamed brings Cardiff to life at a time when it was avant garde, putting it back on the map. She also complicates Britain’s history through the personal tale of one otherwise insignificant person. Mattan didn’t live his life like a man who thought his story was a globally significant one but “fate had ambushed him.” Mohamed describes him as a “ghost”, “a human silhouette in motion.” She colors that silhouette, gives his story profound meaning, and puts flesh on a skeleton that Cardiff attempted to hide in its closet.

Further Reading