Majnun Ben-David

New Yorker Note: The Start of the Affair

Among new short stories, those published each week in The New Yorker likely have the largest readership. My idea is to post a few thoughts on each New Yorker story as they are published. We’ll see if this idea solidifies into a weekly habit or dissipates into an “I-used-to.”

This week’s story is
“The Start of the Affair” by Nuruddin Farah, the celebrated Somali author perhaps best known for his Blood in the Sun trilogy.

On the surface, this is the story of a slow-starting affair between South African James MacPherson, a retired professor of political science who now owns a restaurant, and a much younger Somali man, Ahmed Ali-Mooryaan. The story is told from MacPherson’s point of view as he methodically induces Ahmed to become increasingly beholden to him.

There is no indication that Ahmed has any feelings for MacPherson, who is described as not just old (almost three times the age of Ahmed), but decrepit and obese. Furthermore, MacPherson makes several faux pas in his first meeting with Ahmed, embarrassing and offending him. While MacPherson is kind to Ahmed, we do not see any kind of an emotional bond develop, not even much of a friendship. Instead, MacPherson undertakes a careful campaign of gifts and material support in order to render Ahmed increasingly dependent on him, with the ultimate aim of converting his gratitude into a sexual relationship.

An older/wealthier/unattractive person using material inducements to coerce a younger/poorer/attractive person into a sexual relationship is, of course, neither a new nor unusual story. What makes this telling of that sad old story different is the questions it raises about displacement, power, and inequality in Africa today. Ahmed being a Somali is not simply a convenient choice for the author, a Somali himself. Instead, it is the Somali displaced to South Africa that is, in my reading, the heart of the story. Or, at least, that’s the angle I find most interesting, even though the majority of the story details the interactions between MacPherson and Ahmed.

As a relatively wealthy South African citizen, MacPherson has lived in several different African countries, and visited many others. While doing so, he likely retained a considerable amount of agency -- he was the one making most of the decisions that impacted his life. Even so, MacPherson became “beholden” to a Somali family in Tanzania as a result of them assisting him during a medical emergency. As a consequence, he refrains from molesting their young son, to whom he is attracted.

In contrast, Ahmed’s journey from his native Somalia to South Africa involved a complete loss of agency. Passing through Tanzania, he and his companions are imprisoned and several of them, perhaps including Ahmed, are raped. One of his companions is said to still be in Tanzania as the “second wife” (not even first) of the prison warden. They have a similar experience in Malawi, before Ahmed alone makes it to South Africa.

Here we can compare the different consequences for MacPherson and Ahmed that come from them being “beholden” to others in Tanzania: MacPherson declines to molest a child, Ahmed is imprisoned and likely raped.

And yet the very different experiences of MacPherson and Ahmed in their movements across the continent are not entirely due to economic differences. Ahmed, it seems, is the son of a powerful and wealthy warlord in Somalia. He was taught English by a private tutor that his father “imported” from (wait for it) Tanzania and paid $200 US dollars a month. (This reappearance of Tanzania is unlikely to be coincidental, as Somalia does not share a border with Tanzania, and the much more obvious source of an English tutor would be neighboring Kenya.) Ahmed thus comes from considerable wealth and power in Somalia. Yet as soon as he leaves Somalia -- apparently for political reasons -- he is largely at the mercy of others, an ironic reversal for the son of an apparently rapacious warlord.

In another irony, it was once South Africans like MacPherson who had difficulty in traveling the continent during the apartheid era. Yet despite the brutality of apartheid, the difficulties faced then by South African travelers pale in comparison (pun intended) to what Ahmed experiences. While it might be a reach to draw that history into this story, the first words of the story tell us that MacPherson was “known for his seminal work on the Frontline States’ war of attrition against the apartheid regime.” One way the Frontline States (those bordering South Africa) waged that war was by forbidding entry or passage to South Africans. Nor do I think it an accident that the story is set in Pretoria, one of the central cities of the (white) Afrikaner movement and named after a leader of the Boers in warfare against the Zulu people. But I may well be reading more into this aspect of the story than was intended.

Once in South Africa, Ahmed’s tenuous immigration status and limited means render him vulnerable to exploitation, though this is well-explored terrain.

I think it’s important to realize that Ahmed, while poor, is definitely a number of rungs above the bottom of the ladder in South Africa -- he manages his own small shop, albeit without making much money it seems (he sleeps in the shop and subsists on leftovers from MacPherson’s restaurant). From the perspective of many Somalis (and South Africans), Ahmed is quite fortunate indeed. And yet once displaced from Somalia, he is easy prey for the likes of MacPherson.

The disparity in power between MacPherson and Ahmed manifests itself in a number of ways, but one angle I found interesting is the differential access to knowledge. As part of his efforts to draw Ahmed to him, MacPherson checks out books about Somalia from the university library and meets with a visiting professor from Somalia, learning more about Ahmed’s background in the process. But knowledge about MacPherson’s background (a widower, albeit one who has seemingly been in relationships with men before) is not accessible to Ahmed.

I think it’s also worth noting that the shop Ahmed runs exists due to capital provided by his father who, we are told, got rich by looting the national wealth of Somalia. So neither of Ahmed’s two main options for subsistence (the shop or MacPherson) come with much in the way of integrity or morality.

Ahmed slowly but surely comes to rely on MacPherson for his support, eventually realizing (it seems) the intended transactional nature of the relationship. At that point, Ahmed begins neglecting the shop -- presumably because he feels he now has a new and more lucrative job -- to the point that it is robbed and then looted, a fitting end for a shop started with looted capital.

Overall, this story fascinated me by sparking a range of questions about power and displacement in Africa, though that might be due to the years I spent living and working in Africa. I confess to being less moved by the characters, neither of which I found particularly sympathetic or compelling. Instead, I was struck by how a seemingly “stock” interaction (old rich person tries to bribe young attractive poor person into a sexual relationship) could, in the masterful hands of Farah, tease out such a range of thoughts and questions about much larger issues in Africa today. I think this story is a great example of how one can learn much from literature, not in a didactic way, but in a deep way.
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