Ahmed Ismail Yusuf’s The Lion’s Binding Oath and Other Stories, presents an insider’s view of everyday life in Somalia during the mid to late 20th century. Yusuf had fled his birth country in the late 1980s during the Somalia civil war, and has since lived, educated himself, and worked in Minnesota.
He starts us off with “A Slow Moving Night,” the tale of brothers Doogle and Taahe, who are in charge of the family’s sheep and goats. The heat is oppressive in the mountainous Sanaag region of Somalia, and the boys must protect their herds from predators. All goes well until Doogle is distracted watching insects: “And then it hit me,” Doogle realizes, “that I had committed the cardinal sin that all herdsmen must avoid: you should never let your herd out of your sight.” This leads to a tug of war with a leopard, only instead of a rope, picture a sheep.
So many of Yusuf’s characters resemble interesting, everyday people who might populate any country at any time. Except his people, in addition to dealing with Somalia’s war, must contend with the clan caste system. This is revealed in the five-part novella “The Mayxaano Chronicles” that Yusuf tucks into the middle of his collection.
The first chronicle, “A Man of Means,” introduces teenaged Mayxaano, her friend Bilaal, and their relationship. They are having an argument and she tells him:
I am tired of the self-righteous kind that all of you are born into. I am tired of this clan privilege that you have been taught to live off, so much that you make sure that you don’t stand on your own legs but on other people’s [ . . . ].
Bilaal wants to make peace, saying, “OK, OK, we are in the sixties. Obviously, America has arrived in the Horn of Africa with its feminist fever.” She replies, “Oh, I forgot; you Somali men are denying me my existence but adoring my sexuality.” Mayxaano walks away, but Bilaal has the last word: “‘I think I am in love with this woman,’ he said so softly that he almost didn’t hear himself speak.”
In the chronicle titled “A Thorn in the Sole,” we learn of the country’s obsession with beloved Somali singer Cumar Dhuule. Mayxaano, planning to compile a book, enlists her friends’ help in collecting:
a very specific style of songs. These are songs that subdue, serenade, and sedate women. [ . . . ] I feel pity for women around the world, wrapped up in romance novels without Dhuule’s hypnotic, healing voice [ . . . ]. My God, how I would love for the world to have a taste of the romantic poetry in the Somali language!
But keep in mind also Somalia’s history of violent friction. Yusuf doesn’t ignore acts of wickedness that happen during the years he covers in the chronicles. The Hargeisa student uprising of 1982 ushers in civil war, and by 1990, “Somalis are leaving their country in droves,” he writes.
Among those who stay, in a standalone story called “The Vulture has Landed,” is a newlywed woman named Ayaan who must hide her nine-year-old sister Amran in a makeshift attic room. As Yusuf writes: “The militia was capable of callously raping the child and, for that matter, Ayaan herself right in front of her husband, before wasting them all.” The suspense heightens when “As usual, the militia did not try to knock on the door, but bombarded it with vicious, simultaneous kicks. [ . . . ] they shattered the front door to pieces and came inside.” Help may be on the way when a soldier named Warsame realizes a childhood friend, Ayaan’s husband, has been taken prisoner, and Warsame must make a choice.
I found the most devastating story, however, to be “A Delicate Hope.” It centers around college-aged twin brothers Aar and Arbaab awaiting news of Aar’s full scholarship. A missed flight to the university leads to unforeseen events that I won’t reveal, except to issue a cautionary note to readers: Listen to your mother.
Yusuf wisely ends his collection on an upbeat note with the title story, “The Lion’s Binding Oath.” It’s 1990, and hearing shots of firearms, Hassan, his mother, and his sisters must leave their home for safety. Hassan wanders in the wrong direction where, “in a split second, there it was: the deadliest creature of all. The king of the jungle, the ‘God of death,’ was prowling toward him on the same path.” Though the story is suspenseful, it’s a lovely way to wrap things up.
While Yusuf’s book is fiction, he incorporates significant facts into his storytelling. In this way, The Lion’s Binding Oath becomes not just entertainment, but also a creative disclosure about Somalia’s people, culture, and history.