The Very Long Novel That Saved a Man’s Sanity

For decades, Somalia has been a center for political turmoil. That was particularly true in the Somaliland region in the late 1970s and early 1980s; Somaliland’s citizens wanted independence from Somalia, and Somalia wasn’t willing to oblige. In April of 1981, war broke out in the region, claiming the lives of as many as 250,000 people and displacing perhaps as a million others. But before the region reached the point of war, the government of Somalia had already begun cracking down on dissidents. That’s how Dr. Adan Yousuf Abokor ended up in prison. 

And it’s also how he — and the 1878 Leo Tolstoy novel “Anna Karenina” — likely saved another man’s life.

Abokor was born in Hargeisa, the largest city in Somaliland. After earning a medical degree in Poland, Abokor returned back to Somalia; at first, he practiced in Mogadishu, but in 1980, he made his way back to the city of his birth. He quickly became the chief of the hospital and immediately thereafter found the situation desperate. As recounted in this November 2020 obituary, Abokor “began to realize the extent to which his home region of Somaliland had been neglected by the government in Mogadishu: ‘I discovered Hargeisa hospital was in a very bad situation. It had been completely neglected by the Ministry of Health. And, this I realized was part of the government’s policy of oppressing people in the North.’” So he undertook efforts to improve the situation, in part by “educat[ing] people in Somaliland about the oppression they were living under,” and in doing so, became an enemy of the state. 

After a sham trial, Abokor was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He was placed in solitary confinement in a cell only a few feet long and wide, with all sorts of insects and vermin as his only roommates. To add insult to injury, the inmates were not allowed to speak to one another, so they rarely did, and only when it was clear the guards were not around. But the need for human connection is overwhelming, and the prisoners developed a work-around. In a brief memoir (pdf here), Abokor explained:

[One of the prisoners] wanted to communicate with his colleague in the cell next to him. So, they started knocking on the wall between them, not saying anything, but to show each other they were still alive and alright. That man was called Yusuf and he started thinking of a way of communicating with his colleague next door. He thought about the Morse code and realised he could use the knocks as a form of alphabet which his friend could ‘read’ so they could communicate. So, he started creating an alphabet from those knocks. He made the alphabet out of two different knocks. He started from A up to Z, making a combination of knocks. When the guards were not around he had to shout and explain to his friend in the next cell that, “What I am knocking on the wall is the alphabet. Please write it down and learn it by heart.” His
neighbour in the next cell got the message and wrote down the alphabet from those knocks which he learnt them by heart. He got rid of his note because our cells were checked by the guards every afternoon before they locked the doors, to see if we writing on the walls or digging holes.

This language of wall knocking was the breakthrough for us. We all learnt this alphabet from A to Z and started communicating with each other by knocking on the walls. This actually saved our sanity. Once you can communicate with the others and talk and make jokes and laugh and reminisce and share memories of childhood, of when you were young, or when you were in Hargeisa or Burco, or in Europe, it gives you a great relief.

But being in solitary confinement, one runs out of things to talk about rather quickly. Abokor was concerned that one of his fellow inmates, a geologist named Mohamed Barud (whose crime was writing a letter to the government to complain about the conditions at the very same hospital Abokor worked at). Barud, a newlywed, not only feared he’d never be freed from the prison but also worried that his wife would be forced to divorce him even if, somehow, he were released. Abokor was concerned that Barud wouldn’t survive much longer without some sense of hope. 

As luck — and Abokor’s sense of empathy and purpose — would have it, that was about to happen. Per NPR, “two years into their prison sentence, the doctor is called into the warden’s office for his first change of clothes. Somehow, he catches the warden in a generous mood, and the warden lets him take a book back to his cell, a precious commodity in solitary confinement.” Abokor chose the longest book available — Anna Karenina. At roughly 350,000 words, the story could take a lifetime to tap out letter by letter, but unfortunately, both Abokor and Barud had plenty of time on their hands. Abokor, again per NPR, “wrap[ped] a bedsheet around his hand to protect it” and began knocking out each word, one letter at a time. 

As it turned out, it didn’t take a lifetime to finish “reading” the book. And, as Abokor surmised, the experience gave Barud a newfound sense of connection and humanity. It made all the difference in the world to Barud, as he told NPR:

It definitely helped – definitely, definitely. In a place like that prison, people become very selfish. You think, everybody has forgotten about me, and nobody cares about me like that. But when you think about other people’s situation, then you – it helped me survive. It helped me even sleep better.

That was enough to carry Barud through his lifetime sentence — that, and political change that brought him, Abokor, and the others their freedom. In 1989, the government released the prisoners. Abokor started up a relief organization in Somaliland, retiring in 2019. As for Barud, he was pleasantly surprised to learn that his wife never divorced him, despite government pressure to do so. The couple reunited and, as of 2017, are still together.

Bonus fact: Tolstoy, at some point during his adulthood, adopted a vegetarian diet and became an advocate for vegetarianism on ethical grounds. But as the Toronto Vegetarian Association explains, he “did not use his wisdom as a sword with which to behead his peers. Two of his children quickly followed suit and became vegetarian, but his wife and aunt, also living with him, did not. He put them under no obligation to abandon meat.” He did, however, have some fun with the non-vegetarians in his home. Per that same website, “one dinner time, his aunt came to the table to find a carving knife and a chicken upon her chair. Her fluster was answered by Tolstoy, in the manner of ‘we knew you wanted chicken, but none of us would kill it.'”

From the Archives: What Happens When a Convict Doesn’t Actually Go to Prison: Imagine you’re arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison — but the government forgets to actually pick you up and put you behind bars. What happens? This.