Writers & Company

Nadifa Mohamed imagines the life of a Somali man wrongfully executed in her novel The Fortune Men

The Somali-British novelist and Booker Prize finalist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about uncovering the real story behind a tragic miscarriage of justice.
Nadifa Mohamed is a Somali British writer whose latest novel, The Fortune Men, was a Booker Prize finalist. (Sean and Seng)

When a shopkeeper was murdered in Cardiff, Wales, in 1952, police soon turned up at the boarding house of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali seaman who'd arrived in the U.K. five years earlier. With little evidence against him, Mattan was tried and executed in a blatant miscarriage of justice. His eventful life and tragic death are the subject of Somali British writer Nadifa Mohamed's compelling new novel, The Fortune Men, which was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize and Costa Best Novel Award. 

Mohamed was born in 1981 in Hargeisa, the capital of a region now known as the Republic of Somaliland. Her family moved to London in 1986. Mohamed's father was a seaman himself and the inspiration for her prizewinning debut novel, Black Mamba Boy. Her work recovers the intimate lives of men and women caught up in the tumult of history. 

Mohamed spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from her home in London. 

What my father did

"My dad's own backstory is incredible. He had been born into a nomadic family in 1925 and then joined his mother when he was six, after she'd moved to Aden to look for work. He had been a street boy in Aden, a child soldier in the Second World War in Eritrea, a farmer, a troubadour and an illegal immigrant. 

"He was arrested in Egypt and deported to what was then Palestine. He said he walked back from Palestine to Egypt across the Red Sea. There, he joined the merchant navy. His very first ship wasn't a typical merchant ship. It was actually carrying Jewish refugees from Europe, who had tried to enter Palestine over the quota that was allowed by the British at that time. There were 4,500 of them and the British had forced them into these prison ships. My father was told to work on one of those prison ships.

"When I was writing about my father, it made me think of Forrest Gump, where he just kind of keeps stumbling into history."

Migration and displacement

"Somalis had already gone to work in local hubs of the British Empire, such as Aden and Bombay (Mumbai). When the Suez Canal opened in the 1860s, it meant that British shipping could expand even further into the Far East and Australia. To work in the engine rooms was a really terrible job; it was dirty, it was physically hard, it was demoralizing. Many British sailors didn't want to do it, which created a vacuum that was filled by Somalis, Yemenis and Bengalis. 

"They were sequestered into particular areas and were highly controlled by the state. They had to live in boarding houses owned by the shipping companies where they were put with their countrymen — Somalis had to live with Somalis, Malaysians with Malays. Everyone was segregated like that. They were not British citizens, but subjects. They had a nominal right to work in this country, but it was resented, especially by other white British sailors, who thought that these workers were being used to undercut their own wages. There was a two-tier system in place, which allowed white British sailors to have double rations when it came to water, bread, meat and tea.

I can't imagine what it would have been like to know that you're only entitled to half as much water as one of your colleagues at sea.

"I can't imagine what it would have been like to know that you're only entitled to half as much water as one of your colleagues at sea. There was bullying and violence toward these men. On land, they were often harassed by local British people or by the police. They were often deported. The most famous incident is actually with the Chinese sailors from Hong Kong, who, in the 1940s, tried to campaign for equal wages and conditions to white British sailors. Two thousand of them were rounded up and immediately and forcibly deported to Hong Kong, leaving their wives and children not knowing where they had gone.

"It was capitalist exploitation of typical order. But they did also create families here, create districts of their own, such as Tiger Bay in Cardiff, which became a multicultural hub where everyone married everyone and you had all of the religions there. It was a precursor to the kind of multicultural Britain that I know now."

The othering of Mahmood Mattan

"I think he was someone with a lot of pride. When you see his photo in his seaman's card when he arrived in the country in his early 20s, his face is so happy, he's beaming. He's got his broad shoulders in his suit and his head tilted up high. He looks fantastic. By the time you see his mug shots in prison, his cheeks have hollowed, his eyes aren't looking at the camera. He looks so defeated.

"Prison partly did that to him. Being a minority in those days, particularly, could wear your spirit down. He was someone who didn't actually commit crimes. He'd been law-abiding up until his wife left him in 1950 and that's when his life starts to go off the rails. He commits petty crimes and he pickpockets. He steals money from the mosque. He becomes more alienated from the rest of the community.

To have your humanity questioned by everyone, including people in authority — doctors, lawyers, teachers, your employer — it does start to destroy you.

"I can't help but think that when you're being constantly 'othered,' people are thinking that you're dangerous, you're bad, you're evil. They're jumping when they see you, they're holding their bags away from you.

"To be treated as a savage, to have your humanity questioned by everyone, including people in authority — doctors, lawyers, teachers, your employer — it does start to destroy you."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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