Thursday, 1 January 2015

A Circus in the Sand

 Books for Peace

One of the most magical weeks of my life was the one I spent at the Hargeisa International Book Fair in July 2012. Like many things in Somaliland, I found it delightful, surprising and inspiring, a bit like opening a box of secret treasures.

I have chosen to write about the book fair because, in many ways, it represents in microcosm many of the good things about Somaliland. It also shows how challenges can be overcome because the very idea of holding such an event in Somaliland requires courage, imagination and determination.

When I wrote a blog post about the fair, a journalist from a respected international publication asked if I was joking, if I had made the whole thing up. For many outsiders, the idea of a book fair on Somali territory is impossible to imagine because for them the word ‘Somali’ is associated with piracy, terrorism, war and famine. Somaliland suffers from a similar image problem; most people don’t know it exists, and have no idea that it is relatively peaceful, with a functioning economy, society and political system.

Contributors to this book were asked to touch on some of twenty themes offered for discussion. They ranged from the environment to women’s empowerment, from youth employment to heritage and culture, from the diaspora to diplomacy. As I went through the list, I realised the Hargeisa International Book Fair embodied almost all of them.

One of my favourite sessions at the fair was the one entitled ‘The Future of Our Environment’. The environmental campaigner, Amina-Milgo Mahamud, showed us a film about how chopping down trees for charcoal is wrecking the Somali environment. There was a speech by the environmentalist, Ahmed Elmi, who looked quite the part with his enormous white beard and white cloth hat.

At the fair, I bought a wonderful book, written in English and Somali, called Environment in Crisis: Selected Essays with a Focus on the Somali Environment. I read about the precious resources of Somaliland, including the Zizyphus Tree, whose fruit makes a nourishing drink and whose leaves are used to make shampoo and face masks. The chapter started with a Somali proverb:

There is a big Zizyphus tree on the surface of the moon with leaves matching, at any given point of time, with the number of living people on the planet. When a baby is born, the tree brings forth a new leaf and when a person dies, his or her leaf withers away and falls from the tree.

I also read a chapter called ‘Me and My Toothbrush Tree’ about the Caday tree whose twigs are used to clean the teeth and freshen the breath. The next chapter was about Maydh Island, situated off the coast of Somaliland, which is rich in birdlife. I learned about the Dragon’s Blood Tree, which is so resilient that it can even grow out of vertical cliff faces. It gets its name from its red resin, which is used as lipstick, medicine and, to this day, as a varnish for violins.

The theme of ‘women’s empowerment’ was much in evidence as the book fair gave women more public space than they usually have in Somali society. Many of the presentations were by women, and several of the most intelligent questions and comments came from young women in the audience, who are often marginalised in Somali public life. Women also played a major role in activities taking place outside the main hall, selling books, refreshments, Somali handicrafts and clothes.

The Somali youth also had their day in the sun. Enthusiastic young members of book clubs from all over Somaliland were given the stage, as were young singers, dancers and actors. The Hargeisa International Book Fair was far more than just a book fair – there was also poetry, music, song, dance, theatre and more.
           
There was such enthusiasm for the fair that, from day one, there were far too many people to fit inside the large hall where the presentations were held. The organisers showed a typically Somali innovative spirit, technological know-how and ability to think on their feet by immediately setting up large screens outside the hall so people could see and hear what was going on inside.

The fact that so many young people came to the book fair revealed not only a thirst for knowledge, but also highlighted the lack of activity and entertainment for the youth of Somaliland. Being young and having nothing to do can be a dangerous combination. Just a few hundred kilometres to the south Hargeisa, many young Somalis were finding distraction by taking up arms and joining the various militia groups tearing apart Somalia.

I found myself thinking of this as I watched boys, dressed in animal print costumes, sailing through the air, forming giant human pyramids and throwing fire. They were members of the Somaliland Circus, which performed on the last day of the fair. They were the same age as those being forcibly recruited into the Islamist Al Shabaab movement and other armed groups, across the borders in Somalia.

The book fair, which by 2012 was in its fifth year, is the brainchild of the publisher, mathematician, computer analyst and inventor, Jama Musse Jama, who is based in Italy. As well as trying to revive Somali cultural life, much of which was destroyed by the long years of conflict, Jama says he also started the book fair for the youth:

“At the end of the day, I did it for young Somalis. Literature and culture give young people a wonderful way of growing up, and allow them to make their minds up for themselves. The book fair offers the Somali youth an alternative to guns; it gives them a platform to come together and express themselves. It helps fills the vacuum left behind after the war.”

Like so much in Somaliland, the book fair only works because of volunteers, from those who give their time to plan and organise the events, to the contributors who fly in from abroad. Young Somali volunteers ran the book stalls with great professionalism, writing out a neat receipt for every purchase. I ended up with many such receipts, as I could not resist the books on sale. Among my purchases were a trilingual Physics book, in Somali, English and Arabic, Somali translations of Anton Chekhov’s short stories and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and a book called ‘Somalis do not Lie in Proverbs’, which was launched at the fair by the Russian Somali expert, Georgi Kapchits.

The Somali diaspora plays a prominent role in the book fair. Many of the organisers are based in Europe, and several of the speakers came from abroad, including the London-based author, Nadifa Mohamed, and the famous Somali poet, Said Salah, who is based in Minneapolis.

Much has been written about how the diaspora helps Somaliland economically, mainly through remittances. But the involvement of the diaspora in the book fair adds another dimension, showing how the global Somali community can enhance cultural life in Somaliland. However, the diaspora can also play a negative role by meddling destructively in politics from abroad, or running irresponsible media operations.

‘Those who stayed behind’ sometimes feel resentful towards members of the Somaliland diaspora who jet in from overseas to take up political posts or flash their money around during the summer holidays. But such feelings were not much in evidence at the book fair, when both ‘sides’ seemed to bring out the best in each other. As one of the main organisers of the fair, London-based Ayan Mahamoud, explains:

“The diaspora has both something to give to and something to learn from the book fair and Somaliland in general. We members of the diaspora should be humble enough to learn from those who have worked harder than us and have done the legwork. We are there to give people a platform to determine their own future, to bring together youth groups, women activists and members of the diaspora, who usually work in isolation from each other. The book fair brings together youth from different regions of Somaliland so they can learn from each other.”

The passionate engagement of the diaspora in the fair and other activities, and the amount of time it spends in Somaliland, suggests the word ‘diaspora’ is in some ways misleading in the Somali case, as so many people have a foot permanently in both worlds.

The book fair plays a significant diplomatic role for Somaliland. Jama Musse Jama says it is a good advertisement for the territory because it “shows that Somaliland exits and that Somaliland is cool”. The 2012 fair was treated to a surprise visit by the British ambassador to Somalia, Matt Baugh, and other senior European diplomats. Mr Baugh could not hide his delight as he listened to the presentations and wandered around the stalls. Security was discreet, a sharp contrast to the armoured vehicles and heavily-armed bodyguards he is used to in Mogadishu. The ambassador’s smile turned to slight embarrassment when he was presented with a huge Somaliland flag; Britain, like all other countries in the world, does not recognise Somaliland as an independent nation.

It was not only foreign diplomats who came to the fair. Other foreigners also took part, including an editor from Penguin Books, Helen Conford and the Korean-Brazilian film-maker, Iara Lee.

Helen Conford:

“When I arrived in Somaliland it didn't feel much like London (beside the
numerous English accents on the plane) but the Hargeisa Book Fair feltjust like the best Book Fairs and Literary Festivals I've attended. Iwas struck by the range of publishing and the palpable energy aroundculture; the mix of events and live performances, authors and debate. Itwas very professional - in the best sense of the word - and exhilaratingto be a part of.”


For the jazz clarinetist from New Orleans, Evan Christopher, who played with the ‘King of the Somali lute’, Hudaydi, his trip to Somaliland was the first he had ever made to Africa:

“In America, most people don’t know what Somaliland is, let alone where it is. The country is much greener than I expected. I thought it would be a desert! I didn’t expect to find so many similarities between the culture of Somaliland and the culture of New Orleans. It’s strange but both locales are dealing with a large exodus after, in our case, the devastating flooding or our city, and, in the case of Somaliland, of war. But, remarkably, in terms of the role of culture in the rebuilding process, I have found a lot of similarities.

The book fair has led to constructive dialogue and idea-sharing between Somaliland and Somalia, despite the often tense and unresolved relations between the two territories. The director of the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, Abdi Aynte, has been to the Hargeisa book fair twice, and was so inspired that he wants to try out the same thing in Mogadishu:

“The message I got from the events was that of peace, prosperity and civility. As I returned to my native city of Mogadishu after almost 20 years in the diaspora to start a think tank, I thought that a book fair would restore the cultural prowess of the Somali capital, and would promote a culture of learning and inquiry. More importantly, the book fair would contribute to the peacebuilding efforts, and would create a platform for civil discourse and engagement.” 

As the title of this book suggests, Somaliland is at a crossroads. With so much international attention, time, manpower and money being focused on Mogadishu and other parts of southern and central Somalia, the issue of Somaliland risks being pushed into the backs of people’s minds.

There does not seem to be much room for manoeuvre in terms of its status. The new president of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has said unequivocally that he believes in the unity of Somalia, and that this includes Somaliland. Somaliland, however, says its independence is non-negotiable.

Somaliland is under increased risk from Al Shabaab, which has moved northwards after withdrawing from many of its southern strongholds in Somalia. In January 2013, Britain urged British citizens to leave Somaliland, warning of a ‘specific threat’ against Westerners. The warning has already had an impact, with some Westerners leaving Somaliland or cancelling planned visits to the territory. Even if the ‘specific threat’ never materialises, the warning in itself has done significant damage to Somaliland’s reputation, which has for many years been considered to be the safest part of Somali territory.

Somaliland is also at a crossroads in terms of its domestic politics. The government in 2012 took the bold step of further opening up the democratic space by allowing more political parties to compete in local elections, with the winning three allowed to contest national polls. This resulted in a clan-related violence and a number of deaths, showing the vulnerability of the political situation.

Somaliland is facing a new set of challenges, but it has faced numerous obstacles before. The theme of the 2013 book fair is ‘The Journey’, and Somaliland’s journey over the next few years is likely to be difficult, but not impossible. The book fair shows how much people can achieve with a little money and a lot of passion, imagination and commitment. In this way, it resembles Somaliland, which in a space of just 20 years has built itself up from the rubble of war into a functioning polity. It also shows what a crucial role art, literature and culture play in society, not just as a form of entertainment, but in the case of Somaliland, offering an alternative vision and choice to violence.

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