Somaliland: Hargeisa Book Fair, Day 1, 2 & 3 with Mary Harper


“My book has sold out at the fair but we are hoping more copies will arrive from Nairobi”-Mary Harper

By: Mary Harper

HARGEISA – The Hargeisa International Book Fair is far more than a book fair. It is now in its fifth year running and hosts authors, poets, musicians, film-makers, artists, playwrights, actors and circus performers, both Somali and non-Somali.

The book fair is being held in the Working Men’s Club in central Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland which declared itself independent from the rest of Somalia in 1991. The territory has built itself up from the rubble of war, has a growing economy and a functioning democracy.

The book fair is the brainchild of Jama Musse Jama, a Somali who fled to Italy during the civil war which broke out in the late 1980s, has lurched through various incarnations and is still not over today. Jama lives in the Italian town of Pisa where he has a publishing house, a vibrant website and a family. He is the author of several books. He was until recently a lecturer in Mathematics at Pisa University. Now he works as a computer scientist. Oh, and he invented a computer game based on a traditional Somali board game called Shax.

Ayan Mahamoud is the other force behind the book fair. She organises numerous Somali events in the UK and elsewhere, including London’s Somali Week.

Day Two started with the British-Somali writer Nadifa Mohamed talking about her novel Black Mamba Boy. She also spoke about her second novel which is now in its final stages. Its working title is ‘Milk and Peace’. It focusses on the lives of two women and a little girl during Somalia and Somaliland’s decline into civil war.

The book fair seemed even more crowded on day two. Young people from Readers’ Clubs from all over Somaliland came to read and buy books, meet authors, watch films, listen to music and engage in the debates.

Day Three

This was the day for the environmentalists:

Amina Milgo presented her book on the environment and showed a film about how charcoal making is wrecking the environment, as are the plastic bags and other rubbish.

Helen Conford of Penguin Books spoke to the crowd about how local authors can write for an international audience. Nadifa Mohamed and I were on the panel, and shared our experiences:

Dr Laura Hammond of SOAS presented a new book on diasporas called ‘Politics from Afar’. She said many Somalilanders are ‘part-time diaspora’ people as they spend equal time in the diaspora and in Somaliland.

Then it was time for me to speak about my book Getting Somalia Wrong?. It was the first time I have spoken about it on Somali soil. I broke the news that the Somali translation of the book has just been completed. This has been made possible by some generous Somalis, who have contributed their time, money and other resources. After it is thoroughly checked by Somali intellectuals from different parts of the Somali territories, it will be made available online for free by my generous publishers Zed Books.

It was a wonderful experience especially because my former BBC colleague, the great Somali journalist and thinker, Maxamuud Sheekh Dalmar, did the translating. This is his first trip home to Somaliland in 36 years. He has been receiving a hero’s welcome.

Day Three ended with a screening of Iara Lee’s film, Cultures of Resistance.

Read full Days 1,2 & 3report by Mary Harper posted at her

Some Reviews of Mary Harper’s book, Getting Somalia Wrong?

Getting Somalia Wrong?

Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State

Mary Harper

Somalia is a failed state, representing a threat to itself, its neighbours and the wider world. In recent years, it has become notorious for the piracy off its coast and the rise of Islamic extremism, opening it up as a new ‘southern front’ in the war on terror. At least that is how it is inevitably portrayed by politicians and in the media. In Getting Somalia Wrong? Mary Harper presents the first comprehensive account of the chaos into which the country has descended and the United States’ renewed involvement there. In doing so, Harper argues that viewing Somalia through the prism of al-Qaeda risks further destabilizing the country and the entire Horn of Africa, while also showing that though the country may be a failed state, it is far from being a failed society. In reality, alternative forms of business, justice, education and local politics have survived and even flourished.

Provocative in its analysis, Harper shows that until the international community starts to ‘get it right’ the consequences will be devastating, not just for Somalia, but for the world.


‘This has done what books on Somalia rarely do — it outlines the hidden Somalia that has survived the decades of turmoil. Accessible and enlightening, this is an important book not just for the international reader but also those shaping global policy.’ – Rageh Omaar, journalist and broadcaster

The most accessible and accurate account available of the contemporary Somali world – pirates and all.’ – Ioan Lewis, author of Understanding Somalia and Somaliland

‘Somalia is one of the most neglected and misunderstood casualties of the war on terror. If you want to understand more, this is your book: succinct, perceptive, judicious, it traces a compelling narrative which brings vividly to life an extraordinary country and its turbulent history. Its scope is wide, ensuring that there are many questions here relevant to places far beyond Somalia: issues of how a people and culture adapt to the challenges of globalisation with ingenuity, as well as how they suffer from its impact; of how Western interventions pursue their own agenda. This was a book which urgently needed writing.’ – Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian

‘Mary Harper’s informed, perceptive and empathetic book on Somalia could not be coming out at a more apt time. A work that demonstrates the importance of engaged but impartial journalism and clear, uncluttered thought and writing, it should make a big impact on the understanding of what is happening in Somalia and why.’ – Keith Somerville, lecturer in journalism at Brunel University, BBC World Service from 1988 to 2005.

‘Mary Harper has written a brilliant book that will completely change the way you look at not just modern Somalia but also much contemporary journalism. So much reporting today divides the world beyond Britain into goodies and baddies. Mary Harper’s book cuts through that simplistic naivety in a fantastic way. She vividly shows how the cartoon nightmare vision of Somalia as a failed state is wrong. It’s like being lifted up in a helicopter and looking at something you thought you knew in a completely new way.’ – Adam Curtis, maker of The Power of Nightmares

‘The best contemporary introduction to Somali politics and humanitarian issues on the market.’ – African Affairs

Table of Contents


  1. Clan and Country

  2. History

  3. Islamism

  4. A Failed State?

  5. Piracy

  6. Somalia and the Outside World


About the Author:

Mary Harper is a BBC journalist specializing in Africa. She has reported from Somalia since the outbreak of civil war in 1991 and from other war zones across Africa, including Sudan, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She has written for several publications including The Economist and The Washington Post.

Mary Harper