A Miscarriage of Justice in the Case of Mahmood Hussain Mattan

7 March, 2022


The For­tune Men, a nov­el by Nad­i­fa Mohamed
Pen­guin Ran­dom House 2021
 ISBN 9780593534366


Rana Asfour


At the heart of two of British Soma­li author Nad­i­fa Mohamed’s nov­els is a deep-seat­ed admi­ra­tion for her father and risk-tak­ing Soma­lis like him, peo­ple who uproot­ed from their home­lands to seek their own oppor­tu­ni­ties and sur­vive despite the odds stacked high against them. In the author’s stun­ning debut nov­el, Black Mam­ba Boy (2010), her young protagonist’s jour­ney from Aden to Soma­lia and then north through Dji­bouti, war-torn Eritrea and Sudan, to Egypt and then to the UK, was loose­ly inspired by her father’s own account of mak­ing it to Britain.

Mohamed’s lat­est and third nar­ra­tive, The For­tune Men (longlist­ed for the 2021 Book­er Prize, mak­ing her the first British Soma­li author on the Book­er list), is based on the real life sto­ry of Mah­mood Hus­sain Mat­tan, aka Moody — the last man to hang in Cardiff in the 1950s, after being wrong­ly con­vict­ed for the mur­der of Jew­ish shop­keep­er and money­len­der Lily Volpert (Vio­let Volac­ki in the novel).

After com­ing across Mattan’s sto­ry in a news­pa­per arti­cle in 2004, Mohamed decid­ed to fur­ther research the top­ic in hopes of cre­at­ing a screen­play for a film. At the same time and while con­sult­ing with her father on the par­tic­u­lars of Soma­li life in Britain, she dis­cov­ered that her father had very briefly known Mat­tan. They were born in the same city, and both were Soma­li sailors who’d arrived in Hull in 1947 before tak­ing sep­a­rate paths. In fact, in an inter­view with author Rabih Alamed­dine, the author revealed that it was while inter­view­ing her father about Moody’s case that the details of her father’s life became so inter­est­ing that she end­ed up writ­ing Black Mam­ba Boy first.

It would be anoth­er ten years before she’d return to the Mat­tan case, dur­ing which time, as though by a stroke of fate, the case files at the nation­al archives had been opened to the pub­lic, allow­ing Mohamed insight into Mahmood’s entire jack­et, from his first arrest all the way through to the prepa­ra­tions for his execution.

The nov­el­ist begins her sto­ry in Tiger Bay (now Bute­town), Cardiff’s dock­land dis­trict and Wales’ old­est mul­ti­eth­nic com­mu­ni­ty at a time when it was still feel­ing the after-effects of WWII. King George IV had died and a young Eliz­a­beth returned from her hon­ey­moon to assume the throne. The Bay was the place “where you would find sailors car­ry­ing par­rots or lit­tle mon­keys in makeshift jack­ets to sell or keep as sou­venirs … where you could have Chop Suey for lunch and Yemeni Salatah for din­ner and find pret­ty girls with a grand­par­ent from each con­ti­nent,” where the entire com­mu­ni­ty joined in the cel­e­bra­tions of the “Mus­lim Christ­mas” of Eid al Adha, and Kosher meat was “as good as halal reli­gious­ly speaking.”

But Tiger Bay was also a sin­is­ter tough place to live “with­out mon­ey in your pock­et,” where “they think a man stu­pid because he talks with an accent.” A place rife with street gam­blers, half-caste chil­dren and pros­ti­tutes in tum­ble­down bars and where a mixed cou­ple like Moody and his wife Lau­ra Williams were denied State lodg­ing, forced to set­tle for “black-walled, squalid places to rent,” ostra­cized by a com­mu­ni­ty that treat­ed her as a pari­ah woman, one “too stretched out for a decent white man.”

Mah­mood Hus­sain Mat­tan was born in the year of famine in Qorkii, in British Soma­liland. After a drought that last­ed three years, fol­lowed by an out­break of Rinder­pest in live­stock import­ed from Europe fin­ish­ing off the family’s live­stock and camels, his father turned to trade in Aden. Not long after, the fam­i­ly moved to Hergeisa where their finan­cial sit­u­a­tion improved considerably.

As with most Soma­lis, Moody’s fam­i­ly belonged to the apo­lit­i­cal Sal­i­hiyya order of Sufi Islam and as a high­ly respect­ed mem­ber of the com­mu­ni­ty, his father was asked to adju­di­cate reli­gious cas­es. It isn’t until his father befriends the Haji, a char­ac­ter that might be based loose­ly on the order’s most renowned leader Muham­mad Abdille Has­san (who trans­formed the order into a mil­i­tant anti-colo­nial move­ment), that Moody decides that his father’s life is not one for him and he leaves to seek his for­tune else­where. He ends up in South Africa where he joins the mer­chant navy and trav­els the world. He learns to speak four lan­guages, before set­tling in Cardiff after falling in love with Lau­ra. The cou­ple had three chil­dren, David, Mervyn and Omar, but by the time of the mur­der they had ami­ca­bly sep­a­rat­ed and lived in sep­a­rate hous­es in the same street.

We don’t get much detail about Laura’s life, except for the snip­pets we learn from her con­ver­sa­tions with Moody. How­ev­er, it serves well to note at this point that although this part of the nov­el offers inter­est­ing back­ground details into Moody’s ear­ly child­hood and young fam­i­ly life in Soma­liland at a time when the British and Ital­ian pow­ers were seek­ing fame and for­tune in Africa through mil­i­tary expe­di­tions, between 1900 and 1920, the actu­al details are, by the author’s own admis­sion, most­ly imag­ined and refash­ioned accounts due to the scant infor­ma­tion avail­able. How­ev­er, born in Hergeisa, the author com­bines her knowl­edge of the place along with her father’s, writ­ing of accu­rate his­tor­i­cal events and cul­tur­al myths and prac­tices, to give us a dis­tinct and vibrant blend of his­to­ry and fic­tion regard­ing the preva­lent sen­si­bil­i­ties in Soma­liland in the decades pre­ced­ing Moody’s depar­ture. The nov­el offers insight into the weary­ing effects of racism on the minds and bod­ies of the colonized.

Through­out most of The For­tune Men, Moody is in jail, and so it is through flash­backs, con­ver­sa­tions with Lau­ra who vis­its him reg­u­lar­ly in jail with the chil­dren, and inter­views with the prison doc­tor and the lawyers as well as the full tran­script of the tri­al, that the dif­fer­ent lay­ers of Moody’s char­ac­ter mate­ri­al­ize and we dis­cov­er a dap­per, if com­plex and often times dis­lik­able man with a tem­per, who stole mon­ey from the mosque, was estranged from the Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty who regard­ed him an apos­tate, and used Laura’s body to “avenge him­self of every laugh, ‘nig­ger’, and slammed door.”

Nad­i­fa Mohamed was born in 1981 in Hargeisa, Soma­liland. At the age of four she moved with her fam­i­ly to Lon­don. She is the author of Black Mam­ba Boy and The Orchard of Lost Souls. She has received both The Bet­ty Trask Award and the Som­er­set Maugh­am Award, and in 2013, she was named as one of Granta‘s Best of Young British Nov­el­ists. Her work appears reg­u­lar­ly in The Guardian and the BBC. A fel­low of the Roy­al Soci­ety of Lit­er­a­ture, she lives in London.

Moody was a man who in the Law Courts of “Bilad-al-Welsh” felt the blows of the racist lying com­mu­ni­ty and biased judi­cia­ry sys­tem “like a man shot with arrows,” blind to his man­i­fes­ta­tions as “the tire­less stok­er, the pok­er shark, the ele­gant wan­der­er, the love-starved hus­band and the soft-heart­ed father.” We also encounter a defi­ant char­ac­ter who con­trary to his folk in the 1940s and 50s, was very vocal about his con­tempt for the police, defi­ant in the face of their big­otry and racism, mak­ing him a known fig­ure to the police which may have put him at a dis­ad­van­tage from the begin­ning as “a wild sav­age need­ing the chas­ten­ing of the law,” well placed to pin a mur­der on. In his clos­ing speech, Mattan’s own lawyer described his client as “half-child of nature, half semi-civilised sav­age” — com­ments that may have prej­u­diced the jury and under­mined Mat­tan’s defence. Fur­ther, what is shock­ing is that dur­ing the tri­al, the pros­e­cu­tion was not oblig­ed to share their evi­dence with the defense.

Look­ing back on his life a few days before the exe­cu­tion, Moody laments that his chil­dren will one day hear that “he was a nomad, a chancer, a fight­er, a rebel, but not from him, and there­fore they will know the price of being all that, the potion and the poi­son tak­en together.”

What emerges towards the end of the book are the indis­putable con­nec­tions between Britain’s his­to­ry of colo­nial­ism in Africa and a con­fronta­tion with a her­itage of bru­tal­i­ty. It is only with the arrival of British dom­i­nance in Africa that the death penal­ty came into exis­tence. This was a form of pun­ish­ment unheard of in Soma­li cul­ture, in which com­mu­ni­ties lived by a form of medi­a­tion or repar­a­tive jus­tice sys­tem, head­ed by the elder­ly devout mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty that would adju­di­cate on set­tling feuds between war­ring indi­vid­u­als or tribes. “If only I could set fire to all your walls,” Mah­mood com­ments on the mis­car­riage of jus­tice that haunts the entire nov­el when all appeals to over­turn his con­vic­tion have been exhaust­ed, and he and read­ers have arrived at the point they both fore­saw yet remained help­less to change: “I would burn this prison down and let every­one go free, what­ev­er their crime, no one should steal their free­dom. Soma­lis have got the right idea, you wrong some­one and you’re forced to look over your shoul­der for the rest of your life unless you make amends. You deal with each oth­er face to face. Only cow­ards live by pris­ons and cold hangings.”

Mat­tan was exe­cut­ed in 1952, six months after the mur­der. He was denied the pres­ence of any fam­i­ly mem­ber or acquain­tance. His con­vic­tion was quashed 45 years lat­er, on the 24th of Feb­ru­ary, 1998 — being the first case to be referred to the Court of Appeal by the new­ly formed Crim­i­nal Cas­es Review Com­mis­sion. The fam­i­ly pur­port­ed­ly received a £1.4m pay out in com­pen­sa­tion. In 1996 the fam­i­ly was giv­en per­mis­sion to have Mat­tan’s body exhumed and moved from a felon’s grave at the prison to be buried in con­se­crat­ed ground in a Cardiff cemetery.

The epi­taph on his tomb­stone reads: “KILLED BY INJUSTICE.”



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