Hope rising from the ashes of despair: Mogadishu Book Fair

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Ahmed Ismail Yusuf is the author of The lion’s binding oath. As a youngster, he had fled Somalia to escape the civil war. Thirty-four years later, he flew back to the country of his birth, the country so vividly described in his book, to address the Mogadishu Book Fair. This is his account of an emotional journey.

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In mid-July, I was about done with the USA Midwest region book tour of my book The lion’s binding oath, but was on the verge of planning another tour to the Northeast and West Coast of the USA, when Mohamed Sheik-Ali Ahmed (Diini) – a man on a mission, with the organisational ability to match – messaged me with an invitation to the 4th annual Mogadishu Book Fair. Without hesitation, I hollered and hooted my affirmation. It had been 34 years when I last flew from Mogadishu to the USA. The opportunity to go back, and for a book fair with a book of my own, was irresistible. In minutes, my past broke the dam of memory and dared me on. A simple but must-see list of locations began to emerge. In other words, besides the Mogadishu Book Fair, I sensed an urgent call to survey the war-time damage sustained by the city once called “The White Pearl of the Indian Ocean”. How had it fared in the civil strife? What is left of my last marked memory? And what future is on the horizon?

Despite my bare minimum notice from afar of how Mogadishu had been battered, pained and robbed by civil war; the warlords’ war; and the maggots of the mind, Al-Shabaab’s war; I still sought solace in the fact that the city refused to lie dead.

On 12 August, I flew from Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the United States, where I live now, to my motherland, and to the capital city of Somalia – Mogadishu, to be exact. The emotional burden I carried waged war in me. I wanted to see, smell, touch and talk to places where I had walked, sat and eaten. I wanted the landscape of what I knew to be Mogadishu in the late 1970s and early 1980s to remain there, to be visible, to be places I could once again find.

So, of course, the first place I wanted to visit was the house where I had lived; second, the Statue of Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan (the first Somali freedom fighter); third, Isbahaysiga Mosque (one of the largest on the continent at one time); fourth, the Mogadishu National Theatre (one of the best on the continent then); fifth, the Mogadishu Soccer Stadium; and sixth, Lido Beach. Other places were Hamar Weyne, Shangani and Arba’a Rukun, the oldest parts of Mogadishu. Each place I have mentioned had its recollection value for me, but I will address that later. Lido Beach was the exception, for I had never bothered to see it once.

Departing for Mogadishu, and after too many flight connections to count, on 14 August, about 7:00 am, we entered the Somali air space. As we approached Mogadishu, my anxiety drove me to the window to catch a glimpse of a familiar landscape. Alas, thick clouds refused to recede, thus sites on the ground were sadly not in view. It did not take us long to descend below the clouds, however, and soon the Indian Ocean broke before us with a broad smile. I sensed that my emotional ability to avoid an embarrassing outburst was not strong.

Unbeknownst to me and the other passengers, though, the pilot had his own issue, I imagine. His first attempt, he missed the runway, flew back into the air westward, then north, and finally he turned east where he tried again. Again, he aborted the landing. Once more, we were in the air. Minutes later, he manoeuvred the beast into position from the west, and we landed with a thud, followed by applause from the passengers. By then, my agitated nerves had settled, even as inquiries about what had gone wrong were never addressed.

When the other passengers alighted, I lingered a bit behind. I was the last person to exit the airplane. On the ground, I collected myself to make sure that I took a deep breath of fresh Mogadishu air. I braced myself to massage the mother-soil with a long-awaited, warm embrace. So, I left my suitcases off to the side to be alone with her. There, I made my intent to hold her firm clear and went on to give the best possible kiss I could. I am not quite certain that she appreciated it – for we were not alone – but I know I was in no mood to ask.

Consequently, I heard a few murmurs from a crew of young men manning the main area, who I was quite certain were not even in the creation process when I had left the country so many years ago. When I told them so, two of them held their hands over their heads; others seemed to say that they had seen it all and that my age was not that noteworthy. Nevertheless, they, too, feigned surprise.

I was goaded through the immigration gate alongside another Somali and two others (American and Swedish). We two Somalis paid the same fee in US dollars that non-citizens did. Ironically, carrying another passport makes you a foreigner in your country of birth if you are a Somali. Matter of fact, just to assure myself that I was one, I shouted, “I am Somali,” but no one cared to take the call!

Nothing, however, was so alien until we got to the first gate of the hotel where we were to stay. Soon, the grip that the terrorist group Al-Shabaab has on the city and the fear they put into the hearts of Mogadishu residents was quite apparent. We were ushered in through a maze of barricades. We walked through gate after gate of concrete barriers followed by metal detectors – eight, to be exact. Despite being guests of honour, we were thoroughly searched when we reached the high-end hotel entrance. This particular place housed a number of high government officials, unable to live in the city for security reasons. They were corralled into this protected fortress for their safety’s sake. For me, this was a grim reminder of how the terrorist group Al-Shabaab terrified the capital.

The next morning, we went to the venue for the 4th annual Mogadishu Book Fair, and though I should not have been surprised about the number of attendees, I was. I say I should not have been surprised because, in 2012, I went to a book festival in the northern city of Hargeisa (Hargeisa International Book Fair), the capital city of the self-declared independent-from-Somalia nation that likes to be known as Somaliland. In fact, the Hargeisa International Book Fair, launched eleven years ago, was the catalyst that lit this literary light of hope in Somalia. In that, two visionaries in Hargeisa, Ayan Mohamoud and Jama Musse Jama, paved the way and earned their due respect. Now, there are three annual book fairs in the country. Literary consumption as well as production of books rose with a rare speed, and annual book fairs are part of the vibrant voices of hope in Somalia today.

Thus, the Mogadishu Book Fair, with the help of the team entrusted to the hands of the competent Mohamed Diini, is now a major vessel, irrigating an artery of hope.

On 15 August, a full house in the 2 000-capacity hall began to pulsate with beaming curiosity and content applause. There, the young people of 17 to 26 years of age came to bless the scene with their presence. As though that were not impressive enough in itself, they took control of emceeing and allocating time. A line of young men and women kept the list of guests coming, another made sure that they fed the hungry social media followers around the globe minute by minute, and yet another made sure that order was maintained. Panel after panel, they dove into pertinent discussions of poetry, prose, fiction and nonfiction – all about Somalia’s need to rise. The young and the idealistic put the diagnosis of the nation’s illness on the table.

Here was the place that I did not hear, “Help me with this and that.” No! The young generation I saw there was ready. Armed with ambition, they showed that they are eager and willing to resume responsibility.

Hundreds of books, the overwhelming majority written by the same young generation, lined up in booths similar to those of any book fair around the globe, but these books were in the Somali language.

This young generation displayed an uncanny ability to inform as well as receive. They showed up with hungry minds ready to appreciate what books are known to offer.

Their ability to articulate their literary views in Somali was superior, their elucidation was artful and their intent to exercise judgment was measured. Of course, there were mediocrities in one panel or another, but those who excelled compensated for the weak. In the end, I saw a young generation ready to heal wounds the war had left if given the opportunity: the years that have gone by, the books that have been wasted, the thousands that have not been written and those that have not been read by the ambitious and eager minds. These things haunted me as I tried to imagine what could have been. Yet, I saw hope rising from the ashes of despair. As I stood at the podium to talk about my book, The lion’s binding oath and other stories, I saw a sea of young faces – young men and women in their late teens and early to mid-twenties – staring at me attentively, taking it all in. The few copies I had of my book did not last minutes on the ground. Within no time, I got messages that UK Amazon had run out of the book, too.

I was so elated about this young generation’s hunger for learning, but overjoyed by their ability to address the world.

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Now, back to my list of places to see, and why. I wanted to see the house I had lived in just to savour a sacred memory, my youth. I wanted to see the statue of Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan (the first Somali freedom fighter), or what was left of it. As a young person, almost every afternoon, on my way to my favourite hangout, Huteelka dabka, I would sit on the steps at the feet of the sage hero. Isbahaysiga Mosque was where I was introduced to my first verses of the Holy Quran’s interpretation (tasfir). Mogadishu National Theatre, a place for the most celebrated Somali artists of the day and home to first class entertainment, was where I had my first date. Mogadishu Soccer Stadium was where I saw my first professional soccer game.

The painful part of this trip was my must-see list of locations. I was unable to enter the area where the house I had lived in was located, or the neighbourhood of the statue, the mosque and the theatre – all less than a two square mile radius. It was curtained off for security reasons, I was told. The rest of the list was what most devastated me. I was unable to recognise a single relic of the ancient city of the Hamar Weyne, Shangani, and Arba’a Rukun area. This was the oldest Mogadishu neighbourhood, where one could find 13th century architecture. It was either damaged beyond my perception, or the landscape had changed so much that I was not able to see what was stored in my prime memory. Mogadishu Soccer Stadium was there, but barely. It was so defiled that I did not dare approach it, but viewed it from afar.

Despite the pain of seeing how war had destroyed the city of my memory, the Mogadishu Book Fair and the young generation running fulfilled my belief in hope on the horizon! It’s a fact that they need a heap of help, though they are not asking now. They need a politically stable environment, but they have to be a part of creating it. They need the old guards to be aware of them, but that means that they have to be loud to be heard. But I believe, because I saw, that they have the power to wake up the nation.

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Read more about The lion’s binding oath:

Press release: If one has read Arundhati Roy …

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