Dispatch

Brain Food in the Land of Khat-Chewers

Can a book festival mend wounds created by war and perhaps even counter religious extremism in an isolated corner of the Horn of Africa?

Photo via hargeysabookfair.com
Photo via hargeysabookfair.com

HARGEISA, Somaliland — The literary festival opened with a bang. Nuruddin Farah, a spry, 68-year-old writer whose permanent expression seems to be one of quizzical amusement, delivered a speech in which he chided Somali society for its harshness, from the violence men routinely inflict on women to the blows parents casually rain down upon children.

"Because there is no loving communication, Somalis live in secret, separate universes where they do not share what is bothering them, and therefore no one can offer them solutions," said Farah, whose novels often have a strong feminist message. Other societies have already gone through similar stages in their histories, he said, and education had changed them. It is time Somalis did likewise. "I love Somalia; I’m proud to be a Somali," said Farah, who fled his home country in the 1960s and now divides his time between South Africa and the United States, "but let us unlearn the things that make us cruel."

It was a characteristically challenging opener to a thought-provoking event. The effect on the audience was galvanizing. One young woman politely queried whether Farah wasn’t indulging in a bit of gratuitous Somalia-bashing. A veteran local journalist took issue with the list of derogatory terms Farah had cited as examples of contemptuous male attitudes to the opposite sex, reading out a list of alternative, affectionate terms — "my darling," "my sister," "my love" — to loud clapping.

Then an elderly doctor unexpectedly raised the subject of female genital mutilation (FGM), a topic Farah tackled in his controversial 1970 classic, From a Crooked Rib. The doctor said he had found the novel so explicit that he had been unable to finish it. FGM, he argued, is in fact no worse than male circumcision, recognized as an effective means of protecting against disease. At this, Edna Adan Ismail, a former foreign minister of Somaliland and the feisty founder of a Hargeisa hospital that often deals with birth complications caused by FGM, could not contain herself. "I’m sorry, but I have to speak," she said, rising regally to her feet. "In male circumcision, no organ is excised. An organ is excised in female circumcision." Cue thunderous applause from women in the audience, with some men awkwardly joining in.

Surveying a hall now alight with excited opinion, abuzz with conversation, Farah gave a mischievous smile. "I am very happy that the debate has started in Hargeisa," he said.

This event, the Hargeysa International Book Fair, has transformed during the seven years of its existence from a two-day experiment of book presentations, music, and readings for children into a weeklong cultural celebration, attracting as many as 1,200 professionals, university students, high school pupils, and unemployed youth to its events. Arguably the Horn of Africa’s most lively intellectual forum, it is the brainchild of two members of the Somali diaspora, Jama Musse Jama, a former mathematics professor who recently gave up his job in Pisa, Italy, to focus exclusively on the festival, and Ayan Mahamoud, a former social worker who also runs a Somali cultural week in London each year. The two were brought together by their shared belief that art and culture are the best ways of uniting people and their concern that Somali traditions are in danger of being engulfed by Western influences.

The capital of the self-declared republic of Somaliland, located to the northwest of Somalia, Hargeisa is not, at first glance, the most obvious location for an international book fair. A sun-blasted city of 800,000 inhabitants sprawling across thorn tree-studded plains, it may have witnessed a flurry of recent, diaspora-funded construction, from glass-fronted office buildings to trendy cafes to air-conditioned gyms, but it still has the feel of a ramshackle market town: charming, perhaps a tad dull. The wandering livestock clustered at the foot of traffic islands and snoozing under parked lorries are a reminder of the Somali community’s nomadic roots — there’s still a lively local camel market — while the donkey-drawn water tanks trotting alongside the four-wheel drives hint at just how much work still needs to be done to restore an infrastructure shattered by the war that ripped apart the Somali nation-state in the 1980s. The torn plastic flapping from shrubs (litter from the bags used to wrap bundles of euphoria-inducing khat) betrays how so many local men choose to escape the humdrum — not reading, but chewing with their friends during afternoon-long bonding sessions.

For invited writers, who often find that their travel insurance doesn’t cover them for this destination, Hargeisa is not the easiest of cities to get to. Visitors fly in via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, or Nairobi, Kenya, spending long hours in transit. Given the region’s porous borders and the proximity of the militant group al-Shabab, still locked in combat with African Union peacekeeping troops to the south in Somalia, security is a nagging concern. (Al-Shabab’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was killed in a recent U.S. airstrike, was born in Hargeisa.) Festival-goers get checked for weapons at the gates every time they enter the decidedly modest venue, which clusters around a former civil servants meeting hall at the end of a dirt track just off Hargeisa’s main avenue.

The rubbish-strewn plains are hot and dusty — every breath seems to contain a hidden quota of sand — and because Hargeisa is "dry" in another sense too, Western visitors can’t look forward to the consolation of an ice-cold beer in an air-conditioned hotel lobby. It’s the only place in Africa I’ve visited where I’ve been asked to wear a scarf and where the trousers and long-sleeved tops that constitute my usual working outfit have been deemed insufficiently modest. (My role at the conference was to take part in several panels and discuss my career as a nonfiction writer. As of this summer, I am also the literary director of the Miles Morland Foundation, a private charity in the United Kingdom that helps fund the festival.)

The festival’s emphasis on the written word — it does include film screenings, slideshows, photography exhibitions, and poetry readings, but it is above all a book fair — is also, perhaps, surprising. The Somali language, which to Western eyes looks packed with superfluous "a"s and "o"s, only acquired Roman orthography in 1972.

Yet each year, Jama and Mahamoud and a team of hardworking volunteers do their thing, and the festival gets bigger and better attended. It is an event intimately entwined with a traumatized society’s need to recover from a devastating civil war and the determination of a fractured community to bridge the divide that conflict and exile opened up between a diaspora and locals, the middle class and the not-so-well-off, the religiously devout and the moderate. Staged in the capital of a would-be nation-state still yearning for international recognition, it is also a defiant gesture of intellectual chutzpah.

***

Ubiquitous in the West, literary festivals are only just beginning to catch on in Africa. The festivals I’ve attended in Nairobi, Cape Town, and the Nigerian town of Abeokuta each had their own flavor and raison d’être. Some were intent on claiming international relevance; some were trying to break down still-toxic racial divisions; some were determined to put little-known regional hubs on the international map.

The event in Hargeisa, which I have twice attended, receives no government funding, yet it comes imbued with latent political content. However independent its credentials, however broad its vision, the event cannot quite separate itself from its native land’s overriding obsession: the dogged quest for statehood.

Somaliland, a former British protectorate, has never forgiven the "south," as Somalia is known here, for the 1988 bombing of Hargeisa by dictator Mohamed Siad Barre’s MiGs, which famously took off from the local airport, circled, and returned to carpet-bomb the city. The region declared independence in 1991 and has been pushing ever since for recognition, but no international organization or foreign government has obliged. Despite a series of peaceful elections, despite an innovative model of democratic government, despite a refreshing absence of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks — the last major incident was in 2008 — Somaliland remains nominally part of a nation-state with a huge image problem.

For frustrated government officials, the literary festival, held each summer, represents something of a secret weapon, a form of "soft" diplomacy aimed at convincing the world that Somaliland has little in common with its violent, dysfunctional neighbor and deserves a seat at the international table. Foreign Minister Mohamed Yonis spelled it out at a lunch thrown this year for visiting writers by President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud Silanyo, in a complex bunkered against al-Shabab by bougainvillea-draped walls and rows of cement bollards.

"Please be our advocates and our emissaries; act as our ambassadors," he said, addressing a collection of writers that included the New Yorker‘s Jon Lee Anderson, Kenyan columnist Rasna Warah, Nigerian short-story writer Chuma Nwokolo, Malawian poet Jack Mapanje, and the photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher. "Tell the world that Somaliland is an oasis of peace and tranquility and that we are open for business."

The foreign minister knew that the chorus of tweets, Facebook posts, and articles generated by this year’s group of American, British, Djiboutian, Ugandan, and Italian intellectuals (among others) could probably do more to challenge preconceptions — "a book festival where?" is the incredulous reaction met by each guest on his or her return home — than any number of government delegations.

Harking back to a prewar period when Hargeisa boasted a huge Chinese-built theater (since flattened) and was known for the richness of its cultural traditions, the organizers of the festival are happy to meet that political need if it frees them to do the deeper, more complex work they are about. And that work involves addressing the community traits that many intellectuals feel played a part in the internecine violence that reduced Hargeisa, swaths of Mogadishu, and Kismayo (a port city) to rubble, pitting one warlord against another and later unleashing the radicals of al-Shabab. "Somalis have one of the most intolerant societies in Africa, but we aren’t conscious of that fact," says Jama. "It’s a subtle thing, rooted in the fact that when we are growing up, we are taught by our parents that that we are all the same, all equal. One language, one people, one culture, one religion. It makes us very closed off to outside influences. Then, when young Somalis grow up and encounter clan divisiveness for the first time and realize that unity isn’t actually there, they get confused."

He compares the Somali mindset to Italy’s figlio unico phenomenon, which treats its only sons like pampered princes. "Somalis are the same. They feel they are unique, the world revolves around them," Jama explains. "Our aim is to encourage them to open up, to acknowledge and tolerate the bare minimum of difference. We’re trying to make a non-diverse society more diverse, which is a hard thing to do." He has set up a publishing company, Ponte Invisibile (Invisible Bridge), that specializes in Somali texts and translations of works that he thinks are socially or politically relevant to youth, and its books feature among those launched at the festival.

The festival’s cast list and program reflect this determination to fling open the windows of the Somali mind, both geographically and ideologically. Anderson talked about his encounters with Latin America’s leftist guerrilla movements and the differences and similarities between those idealists and the fighters of the Islamic State, currently ravaging parts of Syria and Iraq, for whom "the love of killing" becomes religion in itself. Harvey Morris, a former foreign editor at the Independent and a Middle East expert, drew analogies between Somaliland and another would-be state surrounded by violent neighbors: Kurdistan. When my turn came, I spoke about the sleaze of Kenya’s elite under former President Mwai Kibaki and the importance of exemplary leadership when fighting corruption. "What you are describing is what we have here," a middle-aged Somali told me afterward, as we stood in the courtyard savoring the freshening evening air.

It was hard to know how much of these information-packed events the largely youthful audience, for whom English is usually a third language, can absorb or how much they find relevant. But many had initially been drawn by the chance to present their own poems, stories, and memoirs, penned during a series of popular writing workshops held in the run-up to the festival, and they stayed on to see what else was afoot. Entry was free, after all, and unemployment among the young stands at 75 percent. What’s more, Hargeisa does not have much to offer in terms of extracurricular entertainment. One sensed a simmering curiosity on the part of both sexes, an enormous hunger: to conquer English, a passport to the larger world, and to engage with new ideas.

***

The organizers must tread a cultural tightrope. In a region a mere boat ride from Yemen and Saudi Arabia, any fight for diversity raises the risk of friction with radical Islam. Right next door in Somalia, al-Shabab at different stages has banned smoking, television, music, dancing, movies, the Internet, and even football with varying degrees of success, driving celebration indoors. And though Somaliland has followed a different itinerary than "the south" has, its society has not proved immune to the zeitgeist shifts of the 21st century either.

Locals note a steady drift toward conservatism in Hargeisa, a city where, in the 1970s, unmarried women went about with heads uncovered. Street kiosks no longer sell music cassettes; the music that once blared from tea shops and cafes has been silenced; and severe black abayas (robes) are beginning to nudge out colorful Somali diracs (kaftans). Following complaints from Islamic fundamentalists, music has been dropped from the local university’s culture week, at which students each year showcase poetry, dance, and football tournaments.

The determination not to offend explains the festival organizers’ request to Western female authors to don the scarf. Daily programs are also designed never to clash with prayer time, when festival-goers head en masse out of the hall to genuflect at the mosque next door. The various speakers may have explored many daring themes, but as if by tacit agreement, religion was never one of them.

While showing due respect for local norms, Jama and Mahamoud continue to press gently ahead, shoring up traditions too precious to be lost and also coaxing natural curiosity, the most optimistic of human instincts. And the festival is only part of their work: This year’s event was timed to coincide with the formal unveiling of Hargeisa’s new cultural center, located in a former vice president’s villa on the banks of a dry riverbed a short drive from the festival hall. A room in which dignitaries once used to gather to chew khat is now a hushed lending library. A small theater has been created and so has a gallery to display local artists’ work.

The opening ceremony featured a troupe of dancers of both sexes, but once again, propriety was carefully observed. The female performers wore what were essentially ankle-length textile editions of Somaliland’s green, red, and white national flag, and the song they danced to, repetitive but catchy, was an exhortation to live up to the ideals of Somaliland’s May 18 independence day. Elderly Somalis supporting the festival and cultural center, many of whom fled their country in the 1980s and 1990s and are now returning with increasing frequency, see their role as reminding local participants — too young, too geographically isolated to know different — of a cultural legacy that predates recent puritanism. "The singing, the dancing, is an integral part of sustaining our traditions," says Said Jama Hussein, a founding member of the Somali chapter of Pen, the well-known writers’ association. "This is the single most positive thing we in the diaspora can contribute to our country."

In the process, they also hope to counter the brash new consumerism of four-wheel-driving, smartphone-wielding diaspora Somalis, which is creating the beginnings of a class system in a society that until recently was characterized by rare levels of economic equality. "Hargeisa is changing; you can feel it," says Nadifa Mohamed, author of the semiautobiographical novel Black Mamba Boy, published in 2009, who left as a baby and now lives in London. "People are a lot more closed off, less open to one another."

The response to the festival and the cultural center has been fervid. The intensity of the enthusiasm shown by Somaliland’s youngsters, exposing as it does vast unmet appetites, is slightly panicking Jama. "When we announced that we were opening a cultural center, we got 200 registrations in the first week. Now we have 400," Jama said in August. "I am a little worried it could get too big before we’ve put down firm foundations."

***

Nuruddin Farah’s talk may have drawn a large audience, but he was comprehensively upstaged by Hadrawi (Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame), widely regarded as the greatest living Somali poet. If sedentary lifestyles are conducive to written narratives, nomadic lifestyles naturally give rise to incantatory recitation, verses easily memorized and passed mouth to mouth by people on the move. Nothing gets Somali hearts pounding quite like poetry.

Packed three-deep at the back of the hall, the audience stood rapt as the old man — a frail septuagenarian who seems all cheekbones and elbows — told the story of a rebel fighter who arrives on a friend’s doorstep sweaty and grimy from the battlefield. He is met by the friend’s daughter, to whom he was once in the habit of administering avuncular advice. Regarded as one of Hadrawi’s masterpieces, Life’s Essence is a poem that moves from a discussion of social etiquette to a wider denunciation of greed and an exploration of what it means to live a compassionate, moral life.

As Hadrawi became more ardent in his delivery, the audience began laughing at the word plays, nodding in satisfaction at the pounding rhymes, applauding rhythmically at the end of each verse, which the poet underlined with a footballer’s triumphant shout, finger raised to heaven. Muthoni Garland, a Kenyan writer who runs Nairobi’s Storymoja culture festival, also now in its seventh year, turned to me, rolling her eyes in wonder: "This is incredible. I’ve never seen a crowd respond to a poetry reading like this."

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that one of the festival’s drivers, who had spent the week ferrying writers between the Maan-Soor and Ambassador hotels and the event’s venue, had joined us. Nothing was going to stop him from catching Somaliland’s version of Homer, performing live. Gaze fixed on the stage, lips parted in an appreciative smile, he was literally hugging himself with pleasure. How many book fairs, I wondered, watching him, could claim to generate such pure delight?

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