The Miscarriage of Justice

In a perfectly functioning society, justice is objective and fair. Everyone wants to believe that the judicial system will repair any injury done towards another. We want to put our faith in its its fairness, that the system will scrutinize the pieces of evidence in order to come with a verdict fairly reflects the events that have transpired. However, as many of us have already realized, there is no perfect system and the justice system is no different. Like most systems, the justice system have become vulnerable to external factors that inevitably influences the outcomes of several legal cases. Injustices have become so ubiquitous that it has also become a recurring theme in the world of literature.

However, Somali-British writer Nadifa Mohamed’s latest novel, The Fortune Men is no mere fictional account. In conjuring her third and latest novel, Mohamed took inspiration from the real life story of Mahmood Hussein Mattan. Mattan was born in 1923 in British Somaliland and lived a peripatetic life, and at one point in his young life, he walked from the Horn of Africa down to the southern end of the continent. However, it was the vocation he chose that would take him to more places. After serving as a stoker in the merchant navy, Mattan finally settled in Tiger Bay in the docks district of Cardiff, Wales: “You’re a man of the sea, aren’t you? You shouldn’t cling to this piece of flint they call a country. Warm yourself up beside a nice furnace somewhere in the Indian Ocean and come back with a clean slate and money in your pocket.”

With his years at the sea, Mattan, despite his young age, has gained so much street smarts and cunning that he can manage to survive even in the direst straits. In contrast to his time-tested demeanor, he can also be naturally charming. A smooth talker, he was able to capture the heart of a local woman, Laura Williams, a paper factory worker. Despite the palpable opposition of the people around them, the couple got married. A multiracial couple, they made heads turn and was even the subject of racial discrimination from their community. Their marriage life, whilst not the picture of perfection, bore three sons, who Mattan was extremely proud of.

“His life was, is, one long film with mobs of extras and exotic, expensive sets. Long reams of film and miles of dialogue extending back as he struts from one scene to another. He can imagine how his movie looks even now: the camera zooming in from above on to the cobblestone prison yard and then merging into a close-up of his thoughtful, upturned face, smoke billowing out from the corner of his dark lips. A colour film, it must be that. It has everything: comedy, music, dance, travel, murder, the wrong man caught, a crooked trial, a race against time and then the happy ending, the wife swept up in the hero’s arms as he walks out, one sun-filled day, to freedom.”

~ Nadifa Mohamed, The Fortune Men

Mattan can wriggle out of tightest situation. However, despite his street smarts, he was neither invisible nor omnipotent. It would only take time before his luck would run out. As fate would have it, he found himself in this unexpected situation sooner than later: he found himself incarcerated, accused of a murder. On the evening of March 6, 1952, Lily Volpert, renamed in the novel as Violet Volacki, a Jewish shopkeeper, was brutally murdered. Her throat was slashed with a razor and £100 was unaccounted for. Because of the brutality of the attack, the policemen were pressured to act quickly, and perhaps, rashly. Relying solely on the representation of Harold Cover, a Jamaican carpenter, the policemen were soon looking for a 30-year-old Somalian. It didn’t take long for the policemen to zero in on Mattan. Cover’s eye-witness account clearly pointed towards Mattan.

The fictionalization of Mattan’s life story did take time to develop, commencing with a chaotic opening sequence. The first pages were preoccupied with recapturing the atmosphere of early 1950s Tiger Bay (Bae Teigr in Welsh) docks area. It was populated with a diverse set of of characters, each one with his or her own viewpoints. Post-World War II, sailors and workers from different parts of the world started pouring Tiger Bay where they eventually settled down. Amongst the nationalities who established residence in the area are Mattan’s fellow Somalis. Earning the distinction as the oldest multi-ethnic community in Wales, it has become a melting pot of different cultures but also one of its poorest.

Inscribed on Mattan’s epitaph are the words, “Killed by injustice,” and one realizes the wisdom behind this line as the narrative moved forward. When he was arrested, Mahmood was calm because he was confident of his innocence but it started becoming palpable that the odds were stacked against him. Racially profiled, all fingers pointed to him as the prosecution’s primary witnesses were motivated by a pecuniary reward. The pieces of evidence were sketchy but no one believed his cries of innocence. His own counsel even referred to him as “this half child of nature, a semi-civilised savage.” His demeanor, described to be “belligerent” by the court, did not help his case. In the end, he was pronounced guilty of the murder. His appeal was denied and, in the end, Mattan was the last man to be hanged in the gallows of Wales.

The years following his execution tested the mettle of his widow and children. In the closing pages, we learn how his sons were stigmatized, often called out as the sons of a murderer. “We don’t need sons of hanged men,” Omar Mattan, one of his sons, vividly recalled. For Laura, it was a challenging time but her faith in her husband never wavered. She never rested her laurels until the injustice was redressed. The events that unfolded after Mattan’s execution revealed a case that was built on speculation. Years later, it was learned that some pieces of evidence were withheld, the most crucial of which pertain to four other witnesses who were around the shop on the evening of the murder but were not able to pick out Mahmood on an identification parade. The coercion between the policemen and Harold Cover, the primary witness, also came to light following his life sentencing for his attempt to murder his own daughter with a razor in 1969.

“Yes. The highest paradise. I have learnt much in here, Sheikh. I have learnt the fear it takes to truly beg God for forgiveness, from the pit of the stomach. I have learnt how lonely a soul can be when all amusement and kindness and family are taken away. I have learnt how small and fragile this life is, and how everything in this world, this duniya, is a mirage that evaporates before the eyes. I have tasted the bitterness of injustice.”

~ Nadifa Mohamed, The Fortune Men

The long road towards justice for Mahmood Mattan was finally achieved in 1998, over four and a half decades after his execution. The Criminal Cases Review Commission, a body formed to review possible historic miscarriages of justice, quashed Mattan’s conviction on the merits of the pieces of evidence forwarded during his court hearing. Mahmood case was historical on two aspects .He maybe the last man to be executed in Wales but his case was also the first miscarriage of justice acknowledged and rectified by a British court. The family received compensation but no amount of money can pay for a life stolen. The damage done and the years of trauma can no longer be reversed. Unfortunately, the case of Lily Volpert remains unsolved until today.

Miscarriage of justice and institutionalized racism were two elements that made the narrative flourish. However, Mohamed’s direction for the narrative was less about the case and more on Mahmood Mattan. Mohamed drove the readers into the interiors of Mattan. He was a complex but flawed character, a shape-shifter who assumed different personas. At times, he is a petty thief, a gambler, basically a happy-go-lucky man who is unable to keep one job for long. We also see a man whose outlook was influenced by the social attitudes surrounding him. Cognizant of how he was viewed by the community, he has learned to meld into the background in order to avoid racial abuse and other forms of prejudice. It was a saddening reality for a man living in a city not his own despite his desires to belong and be recognized as British. This made him conscious of his environment, realizing that at any particular moment, he can become the victim of malice purely because of his color and appearance. At home, he is a doting father and a loving husband, charismatic and brimming with ambition.

In his incarceration, more layers of complexity was unveiled. It was in these bleak moments that we gain more insights into Mattan’s interiors. When he was arrested, part of his confidence in his innocence was his confidence in the British legal system carrying out its duties diligently. After realizing the fissures in the system, there was an internal shift that resulted into his spiritual growth behind bars. It was an experience many incarcerated individuals can relate to but it, nevertheless, was one of the novel’s most engrossing facets. The texture of the story was animated by evocative and intricate, albeit reimagined, details of Mattan’s peripatetic childhood in British Somaliland and his life working as stoker in the merchant navy. The novel was at its best bringing to the fore the facets that made Mattan an authentic character.

Interestingly, Mohamed’s father, who was also born in Somaliland, have once met Mattan when they both emigrated to Kingston upon Hull. Whilst the focus of the narrative was on Mattan, Mohamed also dedicated a space to the perspective of a Jewish family and the tragic losses that have haunted them. To establish an equilibrium, details of the Violet Volacki’s own story was juxtaposed on the vibrancy and complexity of Mattan’s world. The eldest of three daughters, Violet diligently ran a shop founded by their father four decades earlier. She lived in the premises with her widowed sister, Diana and Diana’s young daughter, Grace. The trio’s bond was unbreakable and, over the years, they managed to establish harmony with the community they settled in after emigrating from Eastern Europe. Their story, however, was slowly lost once their thread converged with Mattan’s.

“He, himself, could disappear from the world just as easily as the seagull winding an aimless path in the air, its bones falling apart one day somewhere hidden and mysterious, no one thinking to ask after it. He is a man, and there are other men, just as there are other seagulls, but what he can’t shake is the idea that the world will end in an tiny way without him. Everything will appear exactly the same but with a permanent shade where he should be.”

~ Nadifa Mohamed, The Fortune Men

The book’s title, The Fortune Men, was a reference to how Somalis called sailors who returned home with bag loads of wealth. Ironically, Mattan’s story was neither of fortune nor wealth. On the contrary, we see the story of misfortune that was further exacerbated by racism, discrimination, and prejudice. In her simple but evocative prose, Mohamed managed to conjure a vivid portrait beyond the images of a man who was characterized as belligerent and “semi-civilized savage”. The story did take time to soar as Mohamed had the tendency to digress. One can also find several Arabic terms interjected into the narrative. The lack of definition to the terms, however, undermined the impact of the story. Nevertheless, beyond the book’s flaws and Mattan’s own imperfections, we see a story that beacons with hope and humor, of aspirations and dreams.

Mattan’s story took place almost seven decades ago but his story still reverberate into the contemporary. Stories of miscarriages of justice have become ubiquitous. Racial profiling and institutionalized racism have become seminal points of conversation as we hear news of individuals who are erroneously accused of wrongdoings. It is in this facet of our reality that Mattan’s story remains seminal. Not until we overcome our inner prejudices does real justice truly prevail.

Ratings

77%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 20%
Writing (25%) – 18%

Overall Impact (15%) – 14%

As something that can be gleaned by now, I have never heard of Nadifa Mohamed nor have I encountered any of her works before this year. Thanks to the Booker Prize, I have come across an interesting writer and an even more interesting literary work. The Fortune Men was actually one of the first 2021 Booker Prize longlisted works that I have added to my reading list. I was curious what it has in store. I am lucky enough, I guess, to find a copy of the book without much difficulties. Without any more ado, I immediately commenced my literary journey upon receiving my copy of the book. Surprisingly, I struggled a bit at the start but I started finding my footing as I moved on. Overall, the narrative, based on a real story, reinforces what most of us have observed: the inequality of justice. I felt bad for Mahmood Mattan for being a victim of the circumstances. Whilst he did not help his case, it is still the function of justice to be fair. But that is not always the case.

Book Specs

Author: Nadifa Mohamed
Publisher: Viking
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 370
Genre: Historical Fiction, Biographical

Synopsis

Mahmood Mattan is a fixture in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, 1952, which bustles with Somali and West Indian sailors, Maltese businessmen and Jewish families. He is a father, chancer, sometime petty thief. He is a smooth-talker with an eye for a good game. He is many things, in fact, but he is not a murderer.

So, when a shopkeeper is brutally killed and all eyes fall on Mahmood, he isn’t too worried. It is true that he has been getting into trouble more often since his Welsh wife Laura left him. But Mahmood is secure in his innocence in s a country where, he thinks, justice is served. And at home his three little boys are waiting for him, as is Laura, fierce and full of love, ready to forgive his misbehaviour in a heartbeat if he can straighten up his act.

It is only in the run-up to the trial, as the prospect of freedom dwindles, that it dawns on Mahmood that he is in a terrifying fight for his life – against conspiracy, prejudice and the inhumanity of the state. And, under the shadow of the hangman’s noose, he begins to realize that the truth may not be enough to save him.

About the Author

Nadifa Mohamed was born in 1981 in Hargeisa, Somaliland, with a sailor for a father and a landlady for a mother. In 1986, her family moved to London temporarily but with the advent of the civil war, the family decided to permanently stay in the United Kingdom. Mohamed attended University of Oxford, studying politics and history.

Mohamed made her literary debut in 2010 with the publication of Black Mamba Boy, a semi-autobiographical novel about her father’s life in Yemen. It was a critical success, winning the 2010 Betty Trask Award. It was also nominated for numerous literary awards such as the Guardian First Book Award, the Dylan Thomas Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls (2013), was equally successful. It won the Somerset Maugham Award and was nominated for the Dylan Thomas Prize. Her third novel, The Fortune Men (2021) was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. Her works have also been published in prominent publications such as he Guardian and Literary Hub. 

Mohamed has also received a score of accolades. In 2013, she was named by Granta Magazine as one of the Best of Young British Novelists. She was also selected for the Hay Festival’s Africa39 list of the most promising writers under the age of 40 from Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2018, she was elected as Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in its “40 Under 40” initiative. In the same year, she joined the English Creative Writing faculty of Royal Holloway, University of London.

Mohamed is currently residing in London.