Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Sixth Hargeisa International Book Fair - the rest

The fair went on for several more days - to get an idea of the variety of events, please look at these photos taken by the young British photographer, Kate StanworthSomaliland goes crazy for books

And listen to my From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Radio Four: Book Fair FOOC

The book fair team

Here's the script for my From Our Own Correspondent:

(INTRODUCTION: Think of Somalia and what springs to mind? Perhaps pirates? Famine? Violence inspired by Al Qaeda? The country has come top of the list of the world's most failed states -- compiled by the US Fund for Peace -- for six years in a row. But in one corner of Somalia -- the north-western territory of Somaliland -- Mary Harper found the situation to be strikingly different:)

Macbeth. Crime and Punishment. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. War and Peace. 

No, I am not standing in the Classics section of a bookshop in London or New York. I am standing on Somali soil -- or should I say sand -- at the Hargeisa International Book Fair, now in its sixth year.

There are titles like Why Somalis Don't Lie in Proverbs and The Somali Translation of Chekhov's Short Stories. All are selling swiftly.

One of the volunteers at the fair is a plump-cheeked, smiley young lady in a headscarf with a baseball cap balanced precariously on top. I ask her which of the Western books is the most popular. "War and Peace", she says, without hesitation.

It's an appropriate title. War has torn Somalia apart for more than two decades. But peace has come to Somaliland, this breakaway territory that is invisible on maps and in the United Nations. Somaliland is recognised by nobody, but functions as if it were an independent country, with elections, a government, an army and a currency.

Britain this year warned UK citizens to leave Somaliland  immediately, because of what it described as a specific threat from terrorists and kidnappers. But people from all sorts of countries, including Britons, ignored the warning and attended the book fair. Even a Czech supermodel, who has graced the covers of Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Sports Illustrated. 

But she attracts far less attention than the poet, Hadrawi, known as the Somali Shakespeare. This humble, gentle man takes to the stage with an equally humble, gentle Scot -- the poet Bill Herbert -- to launch the first ever English translation of his work. 

It is like a rock concert. The hall is packed, with people sitting, standing, squeezed together -- all clapping in rhythm. Those who can't fit inside cling to the windows to get a peek at their hero. Boys and girls throng around big screens outside.

For this is one of the amazing things about Somaliland. Young people love poems. They are crazy for books. They adore the book fair, and pack it out every day. After one event, the director of the fair, Jama Musse Jama, shows me the hairs on his arms. They are standing up on end. "Did you hear that young boy", he says, "asking the British author, Michela Wrong, about something she wrote in Chapter 17 of her book on Eritrea? That book only went on sale yesterday, and that young man is already on Chapter 17!"

It is young men like this who, just a few hundred kilometres to the south, blow themselves up as suicide bombers. Who as teenagers take up arms for the Islamist group Al Shabaab and the dozens of other militias that prowl around Somalia. It sounds like a cliché, but in Somaliland people really have exchanged their swords for pens, and rejected suicide vests for books of poetry.

Many of the visitors to the fair are Somalis on their summer holidays. Somaliland is a tourist hot-spot for members of the diaspora. Families from Canada, Norway, Australia, Holland and Dubai gorge on camel meat and fresh watermelon juice in the many outdoor restaurants of Hargeisa. Romances blossom between young Somalis from Cardiff, London, Birmingham and Liverpool.

Some find it difficult. I meet one teenage girl weeping in the ladies room of a hotel. I ask her what is wrong. "I hate it here", she sobs, "I miss London". A few days later, I bump into her again. She's giggling away with a crowd of friends. "I don't hate it anymore", she says in a Cockney accent. "I love it."

And there is a lot to love and enjoy in Somaliland, despite its precarious international status and proximity to the complex, seemingly never-ending conflict in Somalia. Every time I go there, I notice new things in the territory that twenty years ago was reduced to rubble in a civil war.

Multi-story glass buildings - shopping malls, hotels, new business headquarters. Yellow taxi cabs. Gyms adorned with giant pictures of muscle-bound men. Beauty parlours with secret women's worlds going on inside. A Toyota showroom. A Coca Cola factory in the desert. A Turkish company prospecting for oil. 

It is almost unbelievable that all of this is happening in a territory that does not officially exist. That unlike the rest of Somalia, has not had billions of dollars thrown at it by the outside world. That has not had foreign interventions and endless, expensive international conferences. It is extraordinary that, for the 22 years of its existence, something has not gone terribly wrong for Somaliland. That it has not caught the Somali diseases of war, terror, piracy and famine. 

The answer perhaps lies in the spirit of the book fair. To hold such an event requires imagination, determination and courage. Somaliland is far from perfect, but it is a plucky place, with a plucky people. Who prefer books to guns.

The Nigerian writer, Chuma Nwokolo, was like a pop star - everybody loved him

Harlem-bsaed Somali author, Abdi Latif Ega

WIth the Kenyan poet, Phyllis Muthoni

With BBC Burao Somaliland correspondent Xagar

Coffee stall at the fair - it also sold scrumptious waffles with syrup

The fair received local, regional and international media coverage: 

Somaliland Press

The Spectator

The Economist

The Huffington Post

The British Foreign Office also put up some photos of the visit of the new UK ambassador to Somalia, Neil Wigan: FCO pictures

Click on the following link to see photos of the closing ceremony - please scroll down to see pictures of the young actors performing short plays written and directed by the Somali playwright Artan: Closing ceremony


  1. I would have loved to be able to come to this, even more than TEDxMogadishu.

  2. Your Blog is very good, I like it! Thank you for sharing!
    We loved the combination of the onsite and online bookfair. The combination was easy to use and gave our parents more flexibility to support our bookfair. I loved the option of having our online orders delivered to our school free of shipping. This service was greatly appreciated by many of our families, allowing them to feel they could order more books through the online book fairs

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