Migrants’ Stories Are Too Much For Us: A Review of Jonny Steinberg’s A Man of Good Hope
The migrant crisis is a powerful example of why stories matter. The situation has grown so complex and desperate that most of us have little hope of getting our heads around the problem. Even governments, deciding who should receive asylum, don't try to understand the full complexity of migrants’ situations: their stories are reduced to simple statements of what motivated them to leave their country of origin. Those who make the cut for 'refugee’ status—people fleeing persecution—are more likely to be granted asylum than those deemed to have left because survival at home is a daily struggle. In the stories told by mainstream media, the former are depicted as helpless souls worthy of pity, protection and charity, while the latter are often seen as gritty opportunists who want more than their home countries can offer.
In reality, few migrants fit either of these categories. It is possible to be both downtrodden and industrious, to be fearful and adventurous, grateful and ambitious. While governments strive to collapse ambiguity, it is the painstaking job of writers to unspool the tangle of human stories collectively known as the migrant crisis. South African journalist Jonny Steinberg takes up this challenge in A Man of Good Hope, the true story of one man and his family's journey from Somalia to America via Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa.
Asad Abdullahi's story begins with the outbreak of civil war in Somalia. At six years old, he clings to his mother’s leg as she is shot in the chest through a hole chopped into the door of their home. With his father in hiding, young Asad has no choice but to flee the capital as armed militia prowl the streets. Thus begins a perilous journey down the length of Africa from Mogadishu to Cape Town. To reach South Africa, and adulthood, he has to survive an unending string of catastrophes: an exploding shell sends the truck that should ferry him to Kenya zooming off without him; he is forced into the role of nurse to his elderly relative Yindi when a bullet wound in her leg becomes septic; relatives abandon him in a strange city with no food, shelter or connections. And yet Asad survives. He lugs barrels of water across scorching sandy streets for cafe proprietors. He skivvies for a truck driver. In Addis Ababa he brokers deals between Somali refugees and inner-city businessmen. He opens a shop in a slum on the outskirts of Cape Town.
It is in a parked car keeping watch on this shop that Abdullahi relates his story to Jonny Steinberg. At this stage, Abdullahi has been waiting for months in Blikkiesdorp, or "Cape Town’s asshole, the muscle through which the city shits out the parts it does not want,” to find out whether his family will be accepted for resettlement in America. Initially, he sees Steinberg and his book as an opportunity draw attention to his plight. After many years spent internalizing and honing the form of the state-sanctioned refugee story, he downplays the role of his own agency to highlight his refugee credentials.
"For the fuel that burned inside him and that made him Asad Hirsi Abdullahi was drained from the story he related … The story he crafted whittled away at the flesh of his being, leaving only a stick figure, a hapless refugee."
Abdullahi paints a portrait of a man being ‘kicked through life like a stone’ but Steinberg hears a richer and more complex story. To him, Assad is not a hapless refugee, but the protagonist of an adventure story. Questioning Abdullahi’s motives at every turn, Steinberg notes that throughout Abdullahi’s life, he has taken risks, embraced challenges, wanted to prove himself. As a boy he chooses an anonymous skulking existence in a Nairobi hotel rather than live with the relatives he had been foisted upon. As a young man he spends the money he earns as a broker to keep an entire household of unemployed friends and marry a woman nobody thought him worthy of. He then throws away the life he has built to reach Johannesburg, a city whose streets are paved with gold. As a shop owner in Blikkiesdorp he knowingly incurs the wrath of hungry, xenophobic South Africans at a time when anti-immigrant violence is sweeping the country. Abdullahi’s story told by Steinberg is not a misery memoir. It is an adventure story, a coming of age story, a rags to riches tale, an epic. The Asad Hirsi Abdullahi in A Man of Good Hope is a hustler, an entrepreneur, a patron, a seducer, a guardian, a spokesperson, an activist, a dreamer.
When Steinberg and Abdullahi first meet, they see each other in terms of what can be gained from their collaboration. Steinberg offers Abdullahi 25% of the book’s proceeds in exchange for access to a refugee’s tale. At this stage Steinberg feels righteous in his journalistic approach: a quarter of the book’s proceeds will significantly raise Abdullahi's quality of life; all the man has to do is sit in a car and tell his life story. Probing Abdullahi’s memory for the vivid details that bring a story to life, Steinberg unwittingly forces him to relive moments of unimaginable violence and despair. He prods areas of Abdullahi's history that have been deliberately left alone, and reveals information to him that he has not sought out for himself. Steinberg feels entitled to a refugee’s story, and as Abdullahi tells it, all the while eyeing the rearview mirror for would-be attackers, Steinberg realises that he has asked more of Abdullahi than he thought. To satisfy Steinberg’s demand for the full story, Abdullahi submits to a storytelling schedule that keeps him away from his shop for hours on end. He has to leave his shop unsupervised, risking his livelihood and his life. Gradually it dawns on Steinberg that from Abdullahi’s point of view, their collaboration is just one more dangerous gamble undertaken for extra cash. To understand Abdullahi’s story and his role in it, Steinberg must reexamine the ethics of his work and the course his own life had taken.
A Man of Good Hope is a life changing book. Steinberg is changed by his encounter with a larger-than-life story, and any reader who enjoys relative privilege will be similarly asked to look at their life in the context of a global crisis. A Man of Good Hope confronts us with a difficult truth: refugees' stories are too much for us. Fully comprehending the stories of people like Asad Abdullahi would make it impossible for us to go on living as we do. The best that most of us can do is read the book and then try to forget it.