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

Monday 7 January 2013

The Jaipur Literature Festival

I was lucky enough to be invited to take part in three talks at The Jaipur Literature Festival in India. The festival took place from 24-28 January at the Diggi Palace in the pink city of Jaipur.

The list of speakers was long and impressive.

Here are the discussions I took part in:
  1. 25th Jan – 2:15pm to 3:15pm
Heaven on Earth: On Sharia Law 

Sadakat Kadri, Tom Holland, Ali Asghar Engineer, Ian Buruma and Mary Harper, moderated by Reza Aslan

Almost 1400 years after the Prophet Mohammed first articulated God’s law – the Sharia – its earthly interpreters are still arguing over what it means. Hardliners reduce it to amputations, veiling, holy war and stonings. Others say it is humanity’s only guarantee of a just society. In Heaven on Earth, Sadakat Kadri, a London-based criminal barrister and prize-winning writer, sets out to see who is right. Tom Holland, Ali Asghar Engineer,Ian Buruma and Mary Harper will examine Kadri’s ideas in a discussion moderated by Reza Aslan.
  1. 26th Jan – 3:30pm to 4:30pm 
Out of Africa

Aminatta Forna, Mary Harper and Anjan Sundaram in conversation with Kwasi Kwarteng

Sometimes Africa seems to make news headlines around the world only for wars, famines and poverty. Four leading writers on the new Africa would beg to differ. Aminatta Forna, Mary Harper and Anjan Sundaram will be in conversation with Kwasi Kwarteng.

Out of Africa panel
  1. 26th Jan - 6pm to 7pm
Falling off the Map: The Question of Failed States

Mary Harper, Reza Aslan, Laleh Khadivi, Selma Dabbagh and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, moderated by Barkha Dutt

American right-wing rhetoric makes much of the danger posed by ‘failed states’. Do they exist, or is the whole concept just an excuse for Western neo-colonial intervention? Mary Harper, Reza Aslan, Laleh Khadivi, Selma Dabbagh and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy discuss the concept with Barkha Dutt.

There was media coverage of some of the events I participated in. Here's a sample:

I was interviewed by The New York Times - you can read it by clicking here.

The Hindu newspaper wrote about the Sharia Law panel - read the article here.

Radiance Weekly also covered the Sharial Law talk - read it  here.

And here's an article that I don't understand:

Here are some photos from the festival and elsewhere in Jaipur:

Entrance to the Jaipur Literature Festival
My beautiful hotel in Jaipur
My book for sale at the festival

Hundreds (if not thousands) of people came to my talks
I was invited to speak to students at a local university


Inside the pink city of Jaipur

Festival organiser and author, William Dalrymple, and Oscar winner, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Enjoying the talks at the festival