In 1952, a young Somali sailor named Mahmood Mattan was arrested for the murder of a Jewish shopkeeper in Cardiff, Wales, a crime he did not commit but nonetheless was convicted of and hanged for. This true story is the inspiration behind Nadifa Mohamed’s masterful Booker Prize short-listed novel, The Fortune Men, a powerful evocation of one man’s life and a harrowing tale of racial injustice.
In the 1950s, the Tiger Bay area of Cardiff is a multiracial, multilingual community of Somalis, Arabs, Jews, West Indians and West Africans. It’s also the home of Mattan, his Welsh wife and their three sons. When Violet Volacki is stabbed in her shop, her sister, Diana, thinks she sees a Somali at the door. A gambler and petty thief, Mattan tries to ignore the tidal wave of suspicion flowing from the police, his landlord, even the men at his mosque. But he grossly underestimates the racism of the local community, which wants to punish not only him but also his wife for marrying an African immigrant. Mattan’s protestations of innocence and his belief in the British justice system are no match for the prosecution’s fabricated testimonies and false witness statements.
Mohamed brilliantly re-creates Tiger Bay’s bustling world of racetracks, milk bars and rooming houses, filled with diverse characters who range from the bigoted detectives to the sheikh from the local mosque. Part of the novel is told by Diana, whose family immigrated to England to escape antisemitic violence in Russia and who never names Mattan as the man she saw, despite pressure from police. The Fortune Men is a reminder of a particularly egregious example of injustice and prejudice, but by including Diana’s point of view, Mohamed suggests that Mattan’s experience is not an isolated incident but one that was and is repeated wherever systemic racism exists.
In the real-world case, after decades of campaigning by his family and the wider Somali community, Mattan was exonerated. His name was cleared almost 50 years after his death, and the wrongful conviction and execution was the first miscarriage of justice ever rectified by the British courts. But these events happened decades after the action in Mohamed’s novel. She instead focuses on Mattan’s childhood in Hargeisa, his globetrotting years with the merchant navy and his final weeks in a Welsh jail, where a renewal of faith leads to a new assessment of life. Mohamed’s command of both Mattan’s place in the historical record and the intimate details of his life makes for a remarkable novel.