Friday, 4 March 2022

This was not the face in the doorway

The Fortune Men Nadifa Mohamed's The Fortune Men was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and praised as an excellent example of historical fiction that explores present day issues, in this case, racism and injustice. But it's more than fiction. The characters are real people whose voices have never been heard, and the story is taken from a real life incident that happened 70 years ago.

The year is 1952, and the event concerns Mahmood Mattan, a Somali seaman who was arrested, wrongly convicted with false evidence, and hung for a murder he did not commit. It takes place around Cardiff docks, although if you're familiar with the area today, The Millennium Centre, The Senedd, and the location for Torchwood, you probably won't recognise it as the book's setting. Before the area's regeneration, "the fog curls around the mournful street lamps, their wan glow barely illuminating the cobblestones". This is Tiger Bay, where Mattan is one of many "Somali sailors [who] look somewhere between gangsters and dandies in their cravats, pocket chains and trilby hats". The docks community is a mix of races and nationalities: Somali, Welsh, Jewish, Jamaican, and Indian. There's even a mention for Tiger Bay's most famous daughter, Shirley Bassey.

The story is told from Mattan's point of view and that of the murdered woman's Polish-Jewish family. Nadifa Mohamed is British-Somali and her father was in the merchant navy. He also knew Mattan, and so it's no surprise that his perspective is the most engaging. He marries a local girl and they have three sons, but the colour of his skin makes it difficult to find work, so to make ends meet he turns to gambling and petty theft. He's a chancer, the "police know him by name", but he's not a murderer.

Some will find the book 'harrowing', especially following Mattan's arrest. The murdered woman's sister and niece, key eye-witnesses, are sure it "was not him, they agreed on that, this was not the face in the doorway". Transcripts of the trial used by Mohamed show that Mattan's defence lawyer described him as "Half child of nature. Half semi-civilized savage". The British system of justice failed an innocent man. Even tho' his death is inevitable, when it happens it is sudden and shocking. Knowing Mattan was exonerated in 1998 makes it more poignant.

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