Journalist and author Hassan Ghedi Santur's second novel, The Youth of God (Mawenzi House), is a moving portrait of a young man caught between two worlds. Nuur is 17-years old, whip-smart, and at a crossroads as he grows up in Toronto's Somali community.
On one side, a radical imam urges him towards a deeper connection with his Muslim faith, while a kindly Somali schoolteacher points him towards academic greatness. Brilliant and bursting with possibility, Nuur lives in contrast - he has huge potential to achieve, but he lives surrounded by instability, crime, and discrimination. A keen, thoughtful examination of modern Islam and the experiences of the Somali diaspora, The Youth of God is harrowing and powerful, centred on an unforgettable young character.
We're extremely excited to bring an exclusive excerpt from The Youth of God to our readers today, courtesy of Mawenzi House. Here we see Nuur at home in a complicated family moment where, over a family dinner, he realizes his relationship with his parents is forever changed.
Excerpt from The Youth of God by Hassan Ghedi Santur:
Ever since his father left and took a second wife, Nuur had come home from school to find his mother Haawo usually still in her baati, the long, formless cotton dress that she loved to wear to bed. She would be sprawled on the overstuffed olive-green living room couch, talking on the phone with one or more of her three sisters who were scattered around the world. Her calling card gave her five hundred talking minutes for just ten dollars, and she went through several cards a week. These two- or three-way calls spanned the globe, with his Aunt Jamila in Stockholm, Aunt Zaynab in Dar es Salaam, and Aunt Luul (his favourite) in Dubai. They consoled her and also admonished her for still crying over the man who had discarded her. The one who could be relied upon for admonishment was Aunt Luul. She was the strongest and feistiest of them, a no nonsense feminist who would be horrified, however, to be described as one. For her, a feminist was synonymous with a lesbian.
Most afternoons, when Nuur came home, his mother hadn’t made dinner. He would drop his knapsack and go straight to the kitchen and prepare the only dish he knew how: pasta and sauce, with ground meat from their neighbourhood halal market. But today, when Nuur opened the door, he was met by the intoxicating scent of his mother’s cooking. There, in their small kitchen with its oppressively dark brown cabinets and beige linoleum tiles was his mother, standing by the sink, peeling potatoes. On the stove were three pots. Nuur smelt a heady mixture of basmati rice, broiled goat meat, and sautéed vegetables.
“Hooyo, seetahay?” Nuur asked. This was his standard Somali greeting for his mom. She turned around and greeted him with a radiant smile he hadn’t seen in months. Haawo came towards him and hugged him, keeping her arms stretched wide so as not to smear him. Nuur felt the warm perspiration on her cheek when she pressed it against his. “What’s all this?” he asked.
“Dinner,” Haawo replied.
“You’re cooking again,” Nuur said in a tone that represented at once a statement of fact and a question.
“I’m making your favourite, rice with goat meat,” his mother said.
“That was dad’s favourite, actually.”
“You love it too,” Haawo insisted.
Nuur hated to contradict her so he let it go. He heard the sound of the shower running. “Ayuub is back?”
“Your father is home,” she said nonchalantly, as though he’d just walked in from a long day of work. She turned her back to Nuur and resumed chopping vegetables on the cutting board.
“He came to his senses and has returned to his family. Praise be to Allah.”
“Yes, praise be to Allah. But when did he come back?”
“This morning, after you went to school.”
“Mom, you’re divorced. You asked for a divorce and he granted it, remember?”
“Your father talked to an imam in Minnesota. The imam told him the divorce wasn’t valid. It was done out of anger.”
“Of course it was out of anger. Happy people don’t divorce.”
“He only granted me the divorce because I demanded it, out of anger.”
“That’s ludicrous. What kind of imam has he been talking to?”
“Nuur, don’t be like that. You’ve always been a baari boy.”
To hell with being baari, he wanted to say, but kept quiet. He had so fully accepted himself as baari, the obedient son, that he found it impossible to be anything else. He had to be baari. Even though he felt like walking to the washroom and dragging his father by what little hair he still had and throwing him out of the apartment.
As he stood in the little hallway outside the kitchen, he felt consumed by a kind of rage that at once scared and thrilled him. He heard a sound and turned his head to see his father, Ismail Adan Farray, standing outside the washroom. Everyone who knew him called him Farray on account of his index finger, half of which had been cut off in a work accident in the early eighties in Casablanca, where he had been studying during the day and working as a carpenter at night. He had a towel wrapped around his waist, and his thinning hair was brushed back to reveal the sculpted features of his face and his big, bushy eyebrows that Nuur and Ayuub would brush with a tiny comb when they were little.
For months after his father left, all Nuur had heard from his mother was a torrent of curses, calling on Allah and all the prophets to make Ismail Adan Farray’s new wife barren. That frantic cursing gave way to bitter resignation to the fact that no amount of praying for his testicles to fall off would bring him back. Now, just when Nuur had gotten used to that, his father had returned.
“I don’t get a hug?” his father said, approaching him. He came and stood before Nuur, who was now inches taller than him. They stood in silence as though sizing each other up for a fight. Then all of a sudden Nuur felt his father’s arms, still warm from the shower, engulf him. After a moment’s hesitation, Nuur lifted his arms and embraced his father and for a brief moment he felt like a little boy who knew nothing of life but the simple and joyous sensation of being hugged by his dad.
Nuur couldn’t believe how light his father’s body felt pressed against his own strengthening chest. Gone was the stout belly of previous years. Significantly diminished were the broad, muscular shoulders that he used to ride on as child, his little legs dangling on either side of his father’s chest. In the midst of the embrace, Nuur couldn’t help the thought that his father had returned to fatten and restore himself before returning to his new life in Minnesota.
“How are you, my boy?” his father asked. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Good to see you too,” Nuur said, hoping that if he forced himself to utter the words, Allah would make them true. Ismail touched his son’s beard as though they were the feathers of an exotic bird.
“What’s happening here?”
“It’s the Sunnah of the Prophet Mohamed. Peace be upon him,” Nuur said firmly.
His father gave a sarcastic chuckle, with that touch of venom he reserved for the sanctimonious imams who loitered about the courtyard of their apartment complex asking him why they hadn’t seen him at Friday prayers. He turned to his wife and said, “You forgot to tell me our son has joined the Mujahedeen.”
Nuur was relieved to see his that father had not changed, that he still possessed a fear of religion, which manifested itself in his contempt for anyone who displayed overt piety. Nuur believed that his father also envied the certainty with which the pious moved about in the world, a certainty he must’ve secretly yearned for.
Nuur sat down with his parents at the dinner table. With little appetite for food and even lesser desire to be sitting facing his father, he moved his food around on the plate, trying to eat out of politeness. His eyes finally met his father’s and they held each other’s gazes.
“Is this a temporary fashion thing or do you plan to keep it for the rest of your life?” his father asked, putting down his fork with deliberation.
“The beard. Your beard.”
“Forever, Inshallah,” Nuur said rather proudly.
“You think you’re going to find a professional job with a beard that big?”
“Why not?” Ismail turned to his wife. “Talk some sense into your son.”
“Maybe I will be so good at my job that they won’t care how big my beard is.”
“Don’t be naïve,” his father said. “Cadaan people will always care about how big your beard is.” He used the generic word Cadaan for all white people the way some white people said blacks—not as mere description of skin colour but as a category of people who shared a particular character defect.
“Cadaan people will always want you to look like them, talk like them, think like them. They like to surround themselves with people who are just a little different, to make life a bit more exotic, add a bit of colour to their bland lives, but not so different that it challenges their sense of the world. Cadaan people don’t like to be challenged with the presence of too much difference. It scares them.”
Ismail spoke with the confidence of a man who had known these Cadaan people intimately all his life. “Their tolerance has a limit,” he continued, emphasizing tolerance sarcastically.
“Really?” was all Nuur could come up with, in the face of his father’s confident assertions.
“Yes, really,” his father said, pushing away his plate.
“When was the last time you were around these Cadaan people?” Nuur asked.
“Meaning, you don’t know any, Dad. In all the years we lived here, I’ve never seen you so much as shake the hand of a Cadaan person. You don’t work with them. You don’t socialize with them. You live in a self-imposed ghetto—”
“What’s your point?” His father snapped. There was a limit to how much challenge, rhetorical or otherwise, Ismail Farray was willing to allow from his son.
“My point is, you say their tolerance is limited when in fact your tolerance is even more limited.”
“Come on, you guys,” Haawo interjected. “Let’s just eat and enjoy each other’s company?”
Nuur sat back. “So how long are you staying, dad?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s just a question.”
“Why don’t you say what’s really on your mind, son?”
“It’s a simple question really. How long do you plan to stay? Three days, a week, a month, forever?”
“Watch it, boy!”
“You guys, come on!” Haawo said impatiently, glancing back and forth between her son and her husband.
“You must’ve been spending too much time with your brother. You’re becoming just like him.”
“And what’s that, exactly?”
“Too clever for your own good.”
“Have you heard from your brother lately?” his mother asked Nuur, desperate to change the direction the evening was headed.
“No, mother. I haven’t seen Ayuub in four days.”
“Does he do that often, disappear like that?” Ismail asked.
There was a long pause.
“Well?” Ismail asked.
“Sometimes,” Haawo said meekly. Nuur noticed his mother reverting back to her old self around his father. Meek. Hesitant. Deferential. Sometimes Nuur wished Auntie Luul was his mother. She would’ve known how to put his father in his place.
“And you just let him...” Nuur’s father paused, as if searching for the right word, “...roam free. Let him come in and out like it’s a hotel?”
“What’s she supposed to do, tie him to his bed?”
“I’m talking to your mother!”
“Sometimes he stays at his girlfriend’s house,” Haawo said at last.
“So this is what Somali parents have come to now, allowing their daughters to have boys sleeping over?”
“She’s not Somali,” Haawo said with a sigh.
“Her name’s Lisa,” Haawo said in a soft voice, as though not to let the neighbours find out that her beloved son had gone off and shacked up with the dreaded Cadaan girl. This had been, in fact, Haawo’s worst nightmare, that one of her sons would end up bringing home a white girl. Nuur knew that his mother wasn’t too worried about him bringing a white girl home. Or any girl for that matter. She believed he was too awkward around girls and the task of choosing a wife for him would eventually fall on her. And like any good Somali mother, it was a task she more than looked forward to. She longed for the day when her son would sit across from her and utter the words, “I’m ready, mother. I want a wife.” She would clasp his face in her soft, hennaed hands, kiss him on both cheeks and say, “Mashallah! I know just the perfect one for you,” and she would start making frantic calls to relatives all over the world to spread the news. The news of a young Somali man looking for a young Somali wife traveled faster than CNN’s breaking news.
Nuur watched as his father fumed in his seat, but he tried not to show his delight. “Look what happened,” Nuur wanted to say to his father. “You go off for one year and your beloved Ayuub has shacked up with a Cadaan girl, probably giving you a little mixed grandchild even as we speak, and your other son, the one you barely speak to, has joined the enemy—those pious, holier-than-thou, mosque-going, qamiis-wearing simpletons you’ve spent your entire life mocking.” He wanted to say all those things that would hurt his father the most and demonstrate to him his inability to make his two sons in his own image. Whatever respect and affection he had once felt for him had vanished. As a boy, Nuur had gone to pathetic lengths to make his father notice him. He had struggled to be allowed into the warmth of the exclusive club of his father, mother, and older brother. It came like a revelation now that there was no club anymore. All that was left of it was a mother who had surrendered her pride and dignity, a father who had abandoned his family for the tits of a girl young enough to be his daughter, and an older brother who changed girlfriends like socks.
Nuur was overcome with a longing to get up, put on his shoes, and walk to the mosque. He could still make it to evening prayer if he walked fast enough. He yearned for a feeling of... he didn’t know what exactly, except that he wouldn’t find it sitting at this table with his mother and father.
Excerpt from The Youth of God by Hassan Ghedi Santur, copyright 2019. Reproduced with permission of Mawenzi House Publishers.
Hassan Ghedi Santur emigrated from Somalia to Canada at age thirteen. He has a BA in English Literature and an MFA from York University, and an MA from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He has worked as a radio journalist for CBC radio and his print journalism work has appeared in the New York Times, Yahoo News, and The Walrus, among others. In 2010, he published his debut novel Something Remains, followed by Maps of Exile, an exploration of the plight of African migrants in Europe. He is currently working on his third novel, Other Worlds, Other Lives.