Almost two decades ago, Somali-British author Nadifa Mohamed was interning for a film company in London when she came across the story of a Somali sailor named Mahmood Mattan from the Tiger Bay port community in Cardiff.
She didn’t know at the time, the discovery would lead her to write what has now become the first novel written by a Somali person to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
In 1952 Mr Mattan was the last man to be hanged in Cardiff – his case has been described as a wrongful conviction and execution.
Mr. Mattan’s story struck Mohamed, who later found out that his father and Mr. Mattan had known each other in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
âAnd then their lives were sort of gone in these two very different directions,â she said.
The findings led Mohamed to take an interest in the Somali diaspora at Tiger Bay in Cardiff, which is among the oldest Somali communities outside of Africa.
She described Tiger Bay as one of the places where multiculturalism has pioneered.
âBut it wasn’t until 2015 that I really put my other job aside and decided to find out more about Mahmood Mattan,â she said.
Unfortunately, at that time, the people who could have told Mohamed what had happened had died.
But luckily, the archives, which contained previously sealed documents on Mr Mattan’s case, had just been opened.
âIt was kind of losing something and gaining something so that I could read exactly what happened in the 1950s,â she said.
Mohamed described the novel’s research process as an obsession as she sifted through the new material available in the archives.
She had spent most of nearly two decades piecing together a fractured story about a black Muslim immigrant whose story had not been recorded in full before.
âOne thing about this book that surprised me was that it took a long time to research. But when I sat down to write it, it was so fluid,â a- she declared.
How the Somali community in Cardiff supported Mahmood Mattan
Mahmood Mattan was a sailor in Tiger Bay, which had a growing Somali community in the region that began immigrating in the late 1800s.
Mohamed said there was something about the Somali diaspora in Cardiff that set it apart from other booming communities in Europe.
“They stayed there, they got married … While I think maybe in other communities if the Somalis hadn’t brought their wives and had no children, they were very itinerants and they left a little mark of themselves, âshe said.
But in Cardiff, their impact was visible as they helped set up some of the port city’s oldest Islamic institutions. It was a tight-knit community, which came together in particular on issues it deemed unfair.
“They actively supported Mahmood, they were the ones who raised the funds for his legal defense while he was eligible for legal aid. They said, ‘Don’t take it, we’ll pay for you'”, a- she declared.
“So they paid for everything. They paid the lawyer, the barrister and all the different appeals.”
Mohamed said it would have been a significant sum for an impoverished community that worked as sailors with limited hours.
“[They were] deliberately kept poor in some way by the shipowners because they wanted them to be used as almost a threat to the white sailor, âshe said.
How Somalis in Tiger Bay Became Political
Feelings of discriminatory behavior have led some to adopt an anti-colonial and Pan-African policy that has seen members of the community rub shoulders with prominent names in British history.
“And that’s also part of the reason they were under police control,” Mohamed said.
Dualeh Mohamed later became the leader of the Somali Youth League (SYL) UK branch. SYL was the first political party and the first government in post-colonial Somalia.
“When you go to the archives, there are letters from Somali sailors who have been arrested in Mogadishu or Hargeisa, who are calling for help with the contacts they have in Britain, including Sylvia Pankhurst,” he said. said Mohamed.
Mohamed believes the Somali community in Cardiff posed a threat to the status quo due to the fact that Somalis were not only Africans but also Muslims.
âThey were difficult to fit into a particular box. They traveled between Arabs and among other African groups,â she said.
“It was a group of active, political and confident people.”
“I felt an obligation” to Mahmood, says Nadifa Mohamed
Since his first encounter with Mr. Mattan’s story in 2004, Mohamed had developed a sense of responsibility in telling it, even in a fictionalized novel.
âI felt an obligation to him, I thought, if I take his story, I have to give something back,â she said.
Mohamed wanted to invoke a sentiment of Mr. Mattan in his recounting of his story.
She wanted to allow him to speak for himself in the novel – which is why many of the words attributed to Mr. Mattan come from the archives.
âI hope some of her own feelings came out in the novelâ¦ and her own character,â she said.