Can a book save one’s life? I used to think so when stationed in Mogadishu, avoiding thoughts of murder or suicide in that sunburnt madness only by immersing myself in Gerald Hanley’s Warriors (1971). Day after day I would throw myself on to my bed after another utterly fruitless, pointless day in the president’s office, and lie down, sweating beneath squadrons of flies and mosquitoes, and try to forget about it all.
I found the best way to preserve my sanity – after obsessive diversions with Trollope’s Palliser and Barchester novels and some calming doses of Marcus Aurelius – was to turn to the man who survived a marathon posting to the remotest desert outposts of Somalia in the 1940s and, years later, wrote one of the most remarkable accounts in English of this fiery country and her extraordinary people.
Hanley was an Irishman serving in the British Army in Africa and perhaps it was this perspective that lent a greater empathy to his relationship with the Somalis than an Englishman of the time might have provided. Hanley’s voice is a world away from the trenchant colonialism of Douglas Jardine’s The Mad Mullah of Somaliland (1923), a product of its time.
Warriors, originally published as Warriors and Strangers, relates the turbulent and little-known story of the hardy British Army officers and the hardier Somali nomads among whom they soldiered in the desert during the Second World War. It chronicles their astonishingly testing tours and the harsh lives of the wandering Somali warriors who have made this most inhospitable land their own. Hanley also offers an alternately humorous and disturbing examination of the psychological effects of prolonged cultural dislocation and profound isolation amid the desert furnace.
Surrounded by endlessly feuding tribes bent on bloodshed, deprived of all but the most basic supplies, isolated for months at a time in thousands of miles of ferocious wilderness, hollowed out by solitude, harassed by malarial fevers, broken by introspection and desiccated by the African sun, a number of Hanley’s fellow officers eventually succumbed to mental disintegration, raised a pistol to their temples and blew their heads off.
Hanley did not. He was the toughest, most resilient of Irishmen. You’d have to be to survive the Somalia he experienced. While I used to mope about in Mogadishu complaining about the lack of food, the relentless heat and the surrealist dystopia of living and working in the Somali equivalent of 10 Downing Street, Hanley was on an impossible mission to keep the peace between perennially hostile, raiding warriors. The absurdity and hypocrisy of his task was not lost on either Hanley or the Somalis. While the British Army was attempting to put a lid on the ‘little tribal killings’ of Somalia, dispensing high-minded live-and-let-live advice and administering colonial justice to the proud nomads, Europeans were engaged in industrialized slaughter, killing millions with bombs, machine-guns and gas ovens. Hanley put it down to mankind’s ‘ineradicable savagery’ and longed to walk away from the ‘muck and blood and lies’ that was war.
It can be difficult to preserve mental balance and equanimity in places like this. Frustrations have to be submerged, patience maintained, self-loathing put on hold. From the vantage point of the 1960s, when he returned to Mogadishu, Hanley came to the conclusion that ‘the years I spent on that silent burning moon did me more harm than good’. Somalia had taken its toll, but it was a nuanced verdict nonetheless. ‘I knew I was still lacerated inside by most of the life in that wilderness which I still loved, even though one had gone nearly insane in it.’ He also came to understand that some people are made for solitude and are happiest within it, hinting that he was one such man. One of the most striking aspects of the book is his ability to surmount such extraordinary trials and tribulations, and still preserve his admiration for the Somalis.
You can never think of those wildernesses without thinking of daggers and spears, rolling fierce eyes under mops of dusty black crinkly hair, of mad stubborn camels, rocks too hot to touch, and blood feuds whose origins cannot be remembered, only honoured in the stabbing. But of all the races of Africa there cannot be one better to live among than the most difficult, the proudest, the bravest, the vainest, the most merciless, the friendliest: the Somalis.
I used to mention the book sometimes to my Somali colleagues. Mostly they were not interested in what a white man had to say about their country. Somalis are fantastically racist. One of my best friends, a brash Somali-American from Ohio, used to call me his ‘white nigger’ in public. It took a bit of getting used to. The Somali world-view sets Somalis at the very top of the global pecking-order. ‘We are the most unrealistic people in the world,’ a Somali ambassador once told me, chuckling. Non-Somali Muslims are tolerated but looked down upon. Black Africans are openly mocked, white Westerners are contemptible. All foreigners are lower life forms, essentially. The harshness comes from the pitiless environment that would have destroyed lesser people.
Lying is a Somali tradition and can be greatly admired when deployed against an adversary with elegance and wit. I used to get angry when colleagues lied to me, which was often, frequently over the most mundane and insignificant things. When I read Hanley I calmed down and started to admire their sheer unsquashable chutzpah.
One of the most memorable passages in Warriors is about lying and describes Hanley’s difficulties in deterring his Somali soldiers, or askaris, from the dangerous practice of stuffing rags into their rifle muzzles to keep out the dust. Despite repeated instructions, one askari keeps on doing it. One day this soldier returns from a patrol with his right eye and a great chunk of his cheekbone missing. He is in incredible pain but refuses to show it.
‘You think it was a rag in the end of the rifle muzzle, don’t you, Effendi?’ he said. The other askaris standing round the bed smiled and looked at me to see what I would do with the possibilities of this piece of brazen nerve.
The soldier denies having had a rag in the muzzle but the smashed rifle with its shattered breechwork and split muzzle tells a different story. The corporal reveals to Hanley that the askari has already admitted he had had a plug in the muzzle when he fired but is determined never to concede that to the Irishman. The savage pain of his wound is as nothing compared to the humiliation of admitting he is wrong. Hence the imperative to lie.
‘Don’t believe the corporal or the others,’ he said to me. ‘They’re all against me in this. There was no plug in the rifle. You told me never to use one, didn’t you?’
‘Haven’t I always been an obedient askari?’
‘Always,’ I said, ‘except for that plug in your rifle.’ He turned his face away, disgusted, weary of me and the whole effort of the miserable business. The other askaris, like hawks about the truck, listening to this final passage, looked sharply at each other as the truck drove away and left us there in the sand outside the fort.
‘You won there,’ the corporal said to me.
‘It’s not a question of winning,’ I said. ‘It’s a question of discipline.’ (A lie. It was a question of winning.)
‘No, but you won. You beat him. You got him right down there with that last bit. He thought you were going to give in. But you won.’
‘And he was a good liar too,’ an askari said, thoughtful and admiring.
Hanley’s torments over food also helped sustain me during low moments when Faroole, the ebullient young man responsible for delivering our supplies, either failed to appear or arrived with a plastic pot containing a few scraps of fatty goat meat clinging dispiritedly to a giant chunk of bone on a mound of sweaty rice. One morning I thought a colleague, who was prone to periods of black dog depression and had wild staring eyes that day, was going to brain himself at the sight of it. ‘We used to talk about lettuce and beetroot and fresh eggs in increasingly burning and passionate words,’ Hanley remembered. ‘Nobody could remain sane in that arid world.’
Somalia shrank into a ‘blazing yellow coast on which one . . . thirsted and yearned, and dreamed of onions and salad and bread and beer, and even of drinkable, living water’. The relentless diet of army rations, biscuits and bully beef, camel and goat when those ran out, did little to sustain spirits or mental equilibrium. Distant Mogadishu, ‘headquarters of the vast insane asylum we had been lost in’, became an almost mythical oasis for R&R: women, bars, cold beer, fresh food, clean sheets.
The Irishman is resolute in his denunciation of colonialism, with its history of taking other people’s countries, ‘the setting up of in-comprehensible governments’, the governing and policing, and ‘the memoirs detailing the failings of the governed’. The criticism was one reason his publisher Billy Collins, a man of a more imperialist bent, refused to publish it. It gathered dust in a drawer for six years before Hamish Hamilton leapt on it. Hanley may not be a household name half a century later, but Ernest Hemingway at least considered him the foremost writer of his generation. The prose is sublime, whether he is describing the searing heat of the desert, the humanity and inhumanity of the Somali tribesmen, the folly of war or the absurdity of his predicament.
It is Hanley’s finest work. In it he emerges from the fire of Somalia as a survivor grown wise through adversity. At once damaged and fortified by his time in the desolate interior, he has somehow managed to conquer the challenge of solitude and wilderness but remains irrevocably bound to both. I can’t thank him enough.
© Justin Marozzi, Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 50, Autumn 2015.
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