Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Mogadishu Then and Now

Review of Mogadishu: Then and Now by Rasna Warah, Mohamud Dirios and Ismail Osman

When I was writing my book about Somalia, the only way I could get a sense of what the capital, Mogadishu, was like before it was destroyed was by reading the novels of the Somali writer, Nuruddin Farah, looking at a few scratchy pictures on the internet and speaking to people who had known it before all hell broke loose in 1991.

Mogadishu: Then and Now changes all that. The book – which describes itself as ‘a pictorial tribute to Africa’s most wounded city’ – is a treasure trove of photographs and other images, protected and preserved for years by the former curator of the Mogadishu Museum, Mohamud Dirios. Thanks to this book, I can now ‘see’ the city as it used to be.

Several of these precious pictures are juxtaposed with photos of the same place, taken years later by the Kenyan photojournalist, Rasna Warah, who made a brave trip to Mogadishu in 2011. There is a shocking contrast between the original grand, graceful structures and their bullet-scarred, shattered remains. But at least there is now a visual ‘memory’ available, which will doubtless be an invaluable resource for reconstruction work. If the situation in the city continues to improve, and the rebuilding continues, maybe one broken building should be left as a reminder of what war can do.

One of the most striking photos in the book is of Lido Beach in 1983. Scantily clad Europeans bronze themselves in the sun, relaxing with Somali friends on the beach. The city has taken a long and painful journey away from this liberal, cosmopolitan culture. But, as Warah points out at the end of the book, there are ‘glimmers of hope’ as a ‘fragile peace’ returns to the city.

Another remarkable photo taken by Warah is of Somali athletes training for the London 2012 Olympics in a smashed-up stadium. Everything is battered and broken apart from freshly painted lines marking out the running lanes.

Mogadishu: Then and Now is more than a book of pictures. In just a few pages of beautifully written text, Warah gives us the history, politics and culture of the city. She does not shy away from difficult subjects such as the possible roles of the clan and nomadic culture in the destruction of the city. She casts a critical eye on the ‘many foreign journalists and international aid agency staff who quite often tell their horror stories about the city from the comfort of their plush offices in Nairobi, without ever setting foot in Mogadishu’.

Warah takes us on a fascinating journey from the birth of the city more than one thousand years ago, describing the involvement of many different cultures to make it what it is today. She also wrenches the Mogadishu narrative away from what she calls ‘The Black Hawk Down Syndrome’, whereby descriptions of the city ‘as the “world capital of things-gone-completely-to-hell… ravaged by some fatal urban disease” would inform all discourse on Mogadishu and Somalia from then on.’

The book helps to give a more complete and balanced picture of Mogadishu and its inhabitants, past, present and future.

Mogadishu: Then and Now by Rasna Warah, Mohamud Dirios and Ismail Osman was published in 2012 by Author House. ISBN 978-1-4722-2903-3