Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed review / A miscarriage of justice revisited


‘Mohamed’s solidarity with Mahmood’s community is made explicit’: Butetown, Cardiff, in the early 50s. 
Photograph: Hulton Deutsch

The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed review – a miscarriage of justice revisited

Ashish Ghadiali
Tuesday 25 May 2021


ollowing the success of her 2010 debut, Black Mamba Boy (winner of the Betty Trask prize), and its follow-up, 2013’s The Orchard of Lost Souls (winner of a Somerset Maugham award and the Prix Albert Bernard), Nadifa Mohamed’s third book, The Fortune Men, a fictionalised retelling of the story of Mahmood Mattan, one of the last men to be executed in Wales and for a crime he didn’t commit, confirms her as a literary star of her generation.

Mahmood, as he’s referred to by Mohamed throughout, was a Somali seaman, father of three and resident of Butetown, Cardiff, who, in 1952, then in his late 20s, was hanged after being convicted for slitting the throat of pawnbroker and moneylender Lily Volpert. He was arrested within hours of the murder and convicted in spite of having alibis confirmed by four separate witnesses. Police were later discovered to have paid the key witness on whose testimony the case against him stood. Four other witnesses failed to pick Mahmood out in an identity parade, but this evidence was suppressed. After decades of campaigning by his family, his name was cleared in 1998, 46 years after his death, and in 2001, a payout of £1.4m was offered by the Home Office as compensation. To this day, his name looms large in Butetown, where he is regarded by many as a symbol of racial injustice.

Mohamed’s solidarity with Mahmood’s community is made explicit. “This is a story that belongs to Butetown,” she writes in her acknowledgments. She also documents, in a poignant epilogue, the ways in which injustice has lived on: through the stigmatisation of Mahmood’s offspring who were branded in their youth as a murderer’s children; through the struggle of his wife, Laura, to clear his name; and through the fate of one of his sons, Omar, found dead on a beach in Caithness, Scotland, in 2003, “dressed in black with nothing but a whisky bottle in his possession”. Just months before his death, Mohamed notes, Omar had described [in an interview] how association with his father’s notoriety had plagued him all his life, like a “cancerous growth in [the] head”.

The author’s approach to the material, though, is less about the details of the case and its intergenerational impact and more about delivering us deep into Mahmood’s inner world so that, through the power of imagination, we inhabit the mind of a lovable rogue – a small-time petty thief with a big heart who talks a good game and is in his element among the Somali and West Indian sailors, the Maltese businessmen and Jewish families of Tiger Bay. When he is arrested, an event that, to his mind, will merely confirm his innocence, what emerges is a portrait of resilience.

Mahmood’s impulse to try to fit in at his trial is, absurdly, what seals his fate. He mimics the language of the barristers, but so ineptly that he’s perceived by the court as “belligerent” and “shifty”. Consolation is found in the fruit of self-knowledge: “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,” he says to the imam who comes to console him following his conviction. When Mohamed’s prose – simple and full of soul – illuminates him, Mahmood emerges as a beacon of humour, hope and endurance. “Extending his arms in front of him,” she writes, “his shoulders and elbows cracking loudly, he listens to his heart beating out a rhythm. ‘I will wrap the road around my waist like a belt,’ he sings, ‘and walk the earth even if no one sees me.’ Then he holds his palm out as if the sun is a ball he can catch.”

 The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed is published by Viking (£14.99).


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