Somaliland – Mary Harper Sees a Country in Microcosm At the Hargeisa International Book Fair


At the fair Nadifa and I in our new outfits. We are sitting with Cambridge PhD candidate Ridwan OsmanBy: Mary Harper

Shortly after I posted a blog about a book fair in Somaliland, I received a comment from a contributor to a highly respected international magazine. He asked whether it was a joke. As if I was making the whole thing up.

The Hargeisa International Book Fair is most certainly not a joke. It is now in its fifth year running and, as its name suggests, is truly international.

It is international in the sense that Somali authors, poets, artists, musicians and intellectuals from all over the world were invited to the event, reflecting the truly globalised nature of the Somali people. They have always been outward looking due to their geographical location and long seaboard, but the past two-and-a-half decades of conflict have forcibly displaced about a third of the Somali population, scattering them far and wide across the globe.

Handing out BBC proverb booksThe international Somalis invited to the book fair included the young British-Somali author of the prize-winning novel, Black Mamba Boy, Nadifa Mohamed, the US-based Somali poet, Said Salah, and the respected Somali journalist and thinker, Mahamoud Sheikh Dalmar, who returned to Somaliland from Britain for the first time in thirty-six years.

The book fair was also international in the sense that a truly global mix of non-Somalis was invited to take part. The Brazilian-Korean film-maker, Iara Lee, screened her film Cultures of Resistance, complete with Somali subtitles. The New Orleans jazz clarinettist Evan Christopher made his first trip to Africa to work musical magic with the King of the Somali lute, Hudaydi, who flew in from London.

The Russian academic, George Kapchits, who speaks fluent Somali, launched his new book ‘Somalis do not Lie in Proverbs’. A representative from Penguin Books, Helen Conford, came to sub-Saharan Africa for the first time to talk about international publishing. And I was invited to do the first launch on Somali soil of my book Getting Somalia Wrong? The book has been translated into Somali and is being checked by Somali intellectuals before being released.

There was an unexpected international visit on the sixth and final day of the fair. A heavyweight foreign delegation, headed by the British ambassador to Somalia, Matt Baugh, popped in to look at the books, art and other items on display, and listen to presentations by young representatives from regional Readers’ Clubs. They arrived in a quiet, relaxed way, without obvious security.

The organisers of the book fair told Mr Baugh in no uncertain terms that they considered him the ambassador to Somalia and Somaliland, and presented him with a Somali pot, some books and a shiny new red, white and green Somaliland flag. He told the audience that the book fair was ‘magnificent’ and announced that a British office would soon be opening in Somaliland, which would in time offer consular services.

The Hargeisa International Book Fair was far more than a book fair. It went on for six days, and every day seemed better than the one before. It was a feast of books, poems, songs, games, music, plays, art and film. On the last day there was a circus complete with human pyramids, tumbling and juggling with fire.

Books on sale at the fair included Somali translations of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and, new this year, a collection of short stories by Chekhov. There were Somali children’s books and a Somali-English-Arabic Physics book. There was also a mini-library where people could borrow books and read them in a specially designated quiet area.

Nadifa and I took a ride on a busThe fair was packed-out every day. There wasn’t enough room to accommodate everyone in the large hall of the Working Mens’ Club in central Hargeisa, so a big screen was set up outside for the overspill to watch and listen to what was going on inside. A few soldiers strolled around, chatting to people or eating mangoes under the shade of trees. They helped check people’s bags as they entered the hall, or politely turned people away when the place was full. One word kept springing to mind when I thought about the book fair, ‘gentle’ – a term not usually associated with Somalis.

One reason why the book fair was so packed is that there is not much for young people to do in Hargeisa. As the book fair’s organiser, Jama Musse Jama, says, there is no theatre or cinema in the city. He is keen for the young to engage in cultural activities, partly because it keeps them out of trouble. And there is a lot of trouble around in the region, not least piracy, other forms of crime and the violent Islamist militia Al Shabaab, which is merged with Al Qaeda.

The King of the Somali lute HudaydiI have over the past few years been visiting Hargeisa every six months or so. It changes every time I return. This time I noticed new yellow cab services in the city, with shiny gold signs and smart sunflower yellow taxis with black lettering. Hargeisa is packed at this time of year as many diaspora Somalis spend their summer holidays here. There are long traffic jams and it is often difficult to get a table in the many hotels and restaurants opening in the city. There is a real holiday atmosphere in town. One evening, I even saw a stretch limo decorated with green, red and white lights. The driver told me it is mainly used for weddings. I was told the Hummer I saw belonged to a wealthy businessman.

The Somali intellectual, Mahamoud Sheikh Dalmar, who has returned after decades away, told me one of the main changes he has noticed is the way people walk and talk. He says they move and speak freely, whereas during the dictatorship of former president Siad Barre, they kept their heads down and voices low. He also noticed all the different languages being spoken. “Everybody spoke Somali before,” he said. “Now I hear Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Arabic, American English, Canadian English, London English, Cardiff English….”

The book fair is itself a sign of freedom. The dominant voices in the Somali media are usually those of the politicians and religious leaders. The organisers of the book fair have given a voice to everybody but them. The young, women, poets, writers, artists, environmentalists, scientists, historians, linguists and members of the business community all gave presentations.

During the short time I was in Hargeisa, a number of Somali stories hit the international headlines. China helped rescue a ship taken by Somali pirates, the UN declared the number of Somali refugees in neighbouring countries had reached the one million mark, Oxfam warned of a pending food crisis in Somalia and Somaliland, a UN report described massive corruption at the heart of the transitional government of Somalia, and a former minister was blown up in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. Such stories show how troubled things are in the Somali territories, but they do not tell the whole picture of what is happening in the region.

The organisers of the Hargeisa International Book Fair, Jama Musse Jama and Ayan Mahamoud, are a bit like Somaliland itself. They are plucky, creative, entrepreneurial and independent-minded. The do not take no for an answer and are very good at doing things for themselves.

Mary Harper is Africa Editor at BBC World Service News and the author of Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State, Zed Books, 2012.