Commencement Address by Nuruddin Farah: “A Fork in the Fork of the Footpath”

farahNuruddin Farah—among the foremost of contemporary African writers, author of numerous novels including the trilogies Variations on the Theme of An African Dictatorship and Blood in the Sun, and recipient of the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature—delivered this year’s English Department commencement address at the Greek Theatre on May 16. You’ll find the text below the fold.

A Fork in the Fork of the Footpath

I will approach the topic at hand from the perspective of a Somali, born in Somalia and into the oral tradition. To this end, I take the liberty to seek out the wisdom of a fabulist named Sheeko-Xaiir – in Somali, the teller of silken tales.

A Somali fable has it that while the wordsmith and magician is on a soul-searching journey, Sheeko-Xariir comes to a road with several trajectories. Uncertain as to which fork in the road to follow, he lights upon a most original idea after giving the matter serious thought: he rolls up the other forks of the road into a very giant one and wears it like a belt as an Indian conjurer might wear a snake around his neck. He ventures forth, spurred by the creative courage that is of a piece with his commitment to going beyond the world known to his peers. He is eager to meet the people residing in other lands that are foreign to him in his desire to explore the unexplored, get to know the unknowable – unafraid.

He walks and walks and walks, bent on getting to the end of the road stretching before him. Whenever he comes to the end of one of the forks of the road, he unfolds the next giant fork on which he walks on and on. Motivated, in part, by the huge need to come to terms with the many-sidedness of his ambition, he is surprised that he ends up on the very spot from where he set off: in the land of his creative imagination. He reasons that all journeys start before the traveller has become aware of it; they begin in the mind.

I find this fable fascinating in its potential, because I believe that young people are fabulists too. Like a golden silk spider boasting a larger than usual body length, they too produce an elegance of a universal-wearable similar to the spider’s, ceaselessly dreaming into the future. The young imagine what it feels like to travel the silk route linking the world of the Orient to the world of the Occident, the route on which goods and ideas were ferried back and forth between two great civilisations. That the young graduates have, in their journey, taken the right forks in the footpath is implicit in the fable. After all, you have made your choices, in each of which you could have pursued different trajectories or followed dissimilar routes, with every fork likely to lead them to a different destination.

You have done a lot to get to where you are today – as graduates. This is the first of many of your ports of call to make of your life what will, a life by which you’ve done well so far. Now you’ve come to another fork in the footpath, where, after all the celebrations, you will look at your future, stare into it eyeball to eyeball and interrogate it. Dare I ask what you wish to do with your life – from today on? Dare I inquire how you think you have fared so far in your life? In what direction will you move? Where do you wish your journey to take you? I doubt I need to tell you that anyone who journeys will maintain the bright ardour burning in the eyes pursuing a vision in conformity with one’s ideals.

A word of congratulation is in order, because you’ve earned it. Measure it how you will, but you have done a great deal to get where you are today. Yours has been a long tedious journey, starting with nursery, through a school system, which many of you may not have found it inspiring enough, then through university – and we know what it is like: assignments to be submitted on their due dates; a calendar of academic commitments to meet; exams to sit. You are here today to harvests what you’ve sown, reap the benefits of the hard work you’ve put in. Every step you’ve taken from as far back as the first day when your finger was in the secure clasp of an adult taking you to your playschool, have been as important as learning to walk. Because every activity in which the young participate has something or other to do with learning: learning about the environment in which one is brought up; learning about one’s own potential and honing it, now with the help of one’s parents, now with that of one’s teachers, now with that of one’s peers, neighbours, and the larger community. Life has been made easier for you by dint of someone else’s hard labour, someone who has made sure there are no comforts lacking so you may perfect your inborn talent, supplementing it with the acquired book-based knowledge, which in and of itself is insufficient until one throws in the experience, that is to say, the act, the processes, which lead one ultimately to one knowing oneself a little more after one has studied oneself – the study of the world is the study of the person living in it, with the life of the person taken as the perimeter of our achievements and our failures, young and adult.

You dwelled in an in-between time as you gained your education and worked your way through life’s experience until you became an adult in years and in ‘knowledge’ too. It was to this end that you apprenticed yourselves to those hired for the purpose of guiding you, your teachers, your tutors, your instructors, and your professors – many of whom have also admittedly learnt many things from you. The teachers helped you learn about the world in a more organized way, different to a large degree from the way you were taught things at home. In a manner of speaking, the purpose of learning is to master your way out of crises and into solutions – via texts, literary or linguistic appreciations, through the act of training your rhetorical powers, through writing, reading and researching.

As graduates, and because you’ve now attained your degrees, this is the first of many stations at which you will call, each visit bound to expose you to demands unlike the ones with which you have been familiar, each demand defining you and your place in society, on occasion assessing how well you’ve coped with the challenges you face each step of the way – from choosing your profession and succeeding in it, putting into a practice the things you’ve learnt at school and university to charting your own route to professional success – in short, meeting the new challenges that you will perforce face. There are a series of stations at which you will bivouac, even if briefly beginning with one in which you will play a subordinate roll to some someone who is possibly senior to you in age and rank, and therefore experience. How you deal with the status of being subordinate to someone not equal in terms of education; someone of a different colour, someone of a different gender, someone, whom you think, is less intelligent than yourself: these will act as markers of your character, and whether you can make claim of belonging to UC Berkeley, a noble institution, which prides itself in being the lighthouse meant to penetrate the impenetrable entanglements of every villainous act known to humankind. You will come to a series of forks in the footpath. In fact, it is from the vantage point of being at the first fork of a crossroad that will prove one of the great challenges of your life.

But wait a minute. I keep talking about your life, making assumptions and I asking you questions about your life, as though your life is yours to do with it what you please. In all seriousness, however, let me wonder aloud and put this question to you: how much of a young person’s life is his or hers – to do with it what they please and let the res
t be damned? Has it ever occurred to you that your life is as much yours as the bank in which you deposit your pay checks, your savings and pension will have made that bank yours, just because you entrust your earnings and all your savings to its vaults? Have you ever considered that you are a mere custodian of your life and that it belongs to many other persons, in fact, it belongs, in part, to those who have invested in it: your parents, your guardians, your relations, your peers, those of whom you’re enamoured and to whom you’ve committed yourself; it belongs to anyone who has invested in your well-being from the instant you opened your lungs at the moment of birth, broke into the groans of a mother moaning out pain, to the moment when as a grownup, you are self-sufficient.

What of the matrix of our neuroses born out of our uncertainties, considering the labyrinths at hand, for the journey continues, and you continue walking until you reach another cul-de-sac, with no more road to negotiate. You may think wrongly that you’ve done everything required of you now that you’ve graduated. Happily but also sadly, you are nowhere near that status. All you have done is migrate between different stations of your life, with the reality of a classroom situation replaced by another life-station at which you either join the work force in some capacity or pursue a life-long ambition – to register for another course at this or another institution.

You are at crossroads, ready to brave the unpredictable nature of the unknown, the untried. There is no need for you to fear, however, no need to close one of your eyes to enjoy a depth perception. You know there is a wrong and a right way of looking into a binocular – in one, you hardly see what you want to see; in the other, which is the correct way, you view things in their proper perspective from the proper distance which you select. A correct binocular vision points one to a life in an imagined land, a land marked out with a continuous filament within the cocoon. The fabled silk route then beckons yet again and one journeys forth. There is something exciting about embarking, unafraid and unperturbed, on your new journey past many life’s crossroads, along an unexamined road leading to an unknown destination, with you not knowing what is in store for you or where you may end up or what you may find.

You are lucky to be where you are, young, with a degree, your life of possibilities ahead of you, and so many crossroads waiting for you.

In conclusion, I’ll quote a poem by the great Greek poet in full, because I feel as though Cavafy wrote it with journeyers like you in mind. Here it is:

As you set out for Ithaka
Hope your road is a long one,
Full of adventure, full of discovery.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
Angry Poseidon – Do not be afraid of them:
You will never find things like that on your way
As long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
As long as a rare excitement
Stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
Wild Poseidon – you will not encounter them
Unless you bring them along inside your soul,
Unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.

May there be many summer mornings when
With what pleasure, what joy.
You enter harbours you’re seeing for the first time

May you stop at Phoenician trading stations
To buy fine things
Mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony
Sensual perfume of every kind
As many sensual perfumes as you can
And may you visit many Egyptian cities
To learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind
Arriving there is what you’re destined for
But don’t hurry the journey at all
Better if it lasts for years
So you are old by the time you reach the island,
Wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way
Not expecting Ithaka to make you rich

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey
Without her you wouldn’t set out
She has nothing left to give you now.

If you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you have become, so full of experience,
You will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.