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Reaping time and freedom

Based on a true story, The Fortune Men explores the wrongful execution of a young Somali sailor

By Khizer Asif |
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PUBLISHED January 23, 2022

The Fortune Men is an excruciatingly good novel. Excruciating in a sense, where the chapters’ titles (mostly numbers in Somali) create a countdown to the irrevocable demise of the story’s protagonist. The author of the novel, Nadifa Mohamed, sheds light on Mahmood’s trial, revealing, all so obvious, racial profiling and the close relationship with time. Mohamed was inspired by a chance encounter from a newspaper article, and through interviews she reveals her father had known Mahmood in person. The author provides a story that gives both a social commentary and teaches the reader the same patience that Mahmood was forced to have.

In the Realm of Equality

The historical fiction, set in 1952, starts the story with the racist predisposition of Mahmood’s world in Cardiff, Wales, as he enters Berlin’s Milk Bar. The story depicts him as quiet and, “always appearing and disappearing silently,” and how the other patrons in the bar held their possessions closer, reacting to Mahmood’s presence. This initial moment at the bar sets the tone of the story and the development of the almost conspiracy in the conviction of Mahmood. The author uses this moment to emphasise the impression that Mahmood has on people and that it is an inescapable reaction he has to deal with daily.

Mahmood’s life is shown to be mistreated. He hasn’t been able to find work for three years, developing a gambling addiction, being kicked out by his wife and unable to see his three sons. This makes the reader sympathise with the character as he lives his life with self-pity and sadness. Mahmood’s description doesn’t paint him as a hero with no imperfections rather a human being that has flaws.

The momentum steadily increases with the arrest of Mahmood. Mohamed’s writing of Mahmood’s world; with how it reacts to him and how he reacts to it. This reactionary trait is best described when he is on his way back from the bar.

As Mohamed writes, “Mahmood had learnt to do the black man’s walk early on in Cardiff: to walk with his shoulders high, his elbows pointed out, his feet sliding slowly over the ground, his chin buried deep in his collar and his hat low over his face, to give nothing away apart from his masculinity, a human silhouette a motion.”

Setting up defences such as the ‘black man's walk’ is the crux of this story, as reasonably passing through the night fearing the harassment of the cops highlights the issues in the beliefs system of the society that Mahmood resides. It is almost like a role he has to play in order to appease those around as being himself would cause too much suspicion. Although, as it was previously seen in the very beginning of the story, acting the part may not advert the eyes of racism. As he is arrested and sent to Cardiff Prison, Mahmood questions the reasons for his arrest, where the author writes, “there’s something personal brewing there, they speak his name too freely, and want to believe he is capable of anything.” The narrative of him being a criminal is already believed in officers’ minds in and outside the prison. With them already considering his conviction, it sets up biases which will later add to the difficulty of proving Mahmood’s innocence. The sense of exhaustion could be found in the description of this scene as if Mahmood is tired of being blamed for crimes. He is tired of being blamed for those crimes because he is black.

Between the Lines


Some readers might find the story progression a little slow however this adds to the aesthetic of the novel. The reader is faced with experiencing the same Kafkaesque reality that Mahmood had to face.

The tediousness of completing a simple task is a metaphor for the bureaucratic callousness in the judiciary system.

There is an altered sense of time, where the reader may feel that only a couple of seconds have passed, but for the characters, it feels like an eternity. In chapter 4, Afar, there is an extensive usage of “Monday.” The denotation of the word represents the start of the week—as it is for bureaucrats. Monday evolves from its original meaning and is personified where it is said, "Monday's heavy steps and then the creak of the door." This referment to Monday in this context serves as the transition for the conflict (suspicion of murder) knocking on Mahmood’s door. The process in which they arrested Mahmood took no time at all—not enough time to put his pants on. The questioning appeared monotonous as well as pointless—hence Kafkaesque. Where Mahmood only gives ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers. This, however, doesn't ease any suspicion that officers have, nor does this ease the tension between him and the officers. His arrest seems fatalistic, where after this interaction with the police, he is walking at night and upon hearing footsteps running towards him, fearing for his life, he runs. Apprehended, the men chasing him revealed themselves to be officers. Where once running away was a way to protect himself from harm ends up adding another nail to his coffin-like conviction. Which prompts the question of why the officers didn't announce themselves prior to chasing him?

Contrary to his impression of the police, Mahmood has an ardent belief in the justice system. He doesn’t show any worry or concern with being charged with murder, being sure it will take a moment for the system to prove his innocence. Therefore the reader might recognise an echo of Kafka with the exasperating procedure of how the system that Mahmood believes in, gutted and sentenced him to hang. “You'll hang, whether you did it or not” were some comments that lingered during his time in the prison. Yet this hasn't deterred him; instead, he was convinced that people would realise the misunderstanding. He likens this experience as like one of the movies he has been watching, where Mohamed writes, “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,…” This fantasy that Mahmood is having is of him in solitude within the cell walls of Cardiff Prison. The author portrays Mahmood as a daydreamer, like anyone, who seeks an escape from the harsh realities of life, yet harshness wouldn’t be the best description for Mahmood rather an injustice. This moment in the story showcases the author’s mastery of creating depth even with the most mundane—like sitting and looking out the cell window. By seeing this moment in Mahmood's eyes, you can't help feeling caught up in the fantasy, and it's normal to fantasise about a deus ex machina moment, where almost in a blink of an eye, all conflicts are resolved with a practically unexplainable solution. The novel continues to narrate the story like a film from beginning to end, with it saying, “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.”

The Inevitable End

Over four decades had passed since Mahmood’s execution, and this is a fact, not a spoiler.

So much time has passed, yet no time went into killing him. Mohamed’s novel is informative while being imaginative with the way she writes Mahmood’s life, personality and tragedy. The story is a combination of history and fiction, which gives a voice for not only Mahmood Hussein Mattan but also those who faced similar situations. In 1996, through the persistence of his family and supporters, Mahmood was acquitted of his crimes and his family was awarded £725,000. However, this isn't justice but accepting the facts, as the time for justice that had long passed and the chance to prevent his death. There was such urgency in executing Mahmood that his wife had only learned her husband was executed on the same day she did her regular visits to the prison.

The fortune that men like Mahmood search for in the west obscured reality. It is impossible to know what went in the mind of Mahmood Mattan and his experiences towards his execution. Nadifa Mohamed has given a looking-glass for viewing and feeling the anxiety and fear that flooded Mahmood's mind.