So­ma­lia on the edge

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The Mayor of Mo­gadishu by An­drew Hard­ing St Martin’s Press 304 pages R206 at

This book by An­drew Hard­ing, one of the BBC’s most ex­pe­ri­enced for­eign cor­re­spon­dents, makes for fas­ci­nat­ing read­ing. The ac­count of the un­rav­el­ling of So­ma­lia homes in on Mo­gadishu, the cap­i­tal, and the life of Mo­hamed “Tarzan” Nur and his fam­ily, but there is a large cast of char­ac­ters and the book roams widely over space and time. Right off, we are in­tro­duced to the “beasts still prowl­ing the streets of the cap­i­tal: ter­ror, cor­rup­tion, clan con­flict, ex­trem­ism and, chas­ing at their tails, the lin­ger­ing fear that So­ma­lia is merely flirt­ing with sta­bil­ity”. And the sus­pi­cion is borne out when, in 2014, a par­tic­u­larly vi­cious at­tack takes place.

Tarzan has just walked through the doors of a mosque full of wor­ship­pers when an at­tack be­gins. As mayor of Mo­gadishu, Nur is no stranger to at­tacks and as­sas­si­na­tions, and he makes his way to the front of the mosque, con­vinced that the shoot­ing is “out­go­ing”. But the shoot­ing is in the mosque and a man right next to Tarzan is killed. The at­tack is claimed by fun­da­men­tal­ist group al-Shabaab as a move against “in­fi­dels”, while the pres­i­dent as­serts de­fi­antly that the group re­mains “on the brink of ex­tinc­tion”.

This mi­cro­cosm of many such in­ci­dents is the reader’s in­tro­duc­tion to the chaos and anx­i­ety of life in So­ma­lia, and Hard­ing clev­erly an­chors it in the per­son of Tarzan, who some see as a “cal­low, cor­rupt sur­vivor”, and who oth­ers see as a kind of saviour. But for Hard­ing, “his story is a thread that weaves its way through decades of up­heaval – a glint worth fol­low­ing in a dark maze”.

The book is hugely in­struc­tive, draw­ing you into the com­plex his­tory and cul­ture of the coun­try through the nar­ra­tive in a com­pelling man­ner. Hard­ing also in­cludes a map, so the reader is re­minded ex­actly of So­ma­lia’s lo­ca­tion be­tween Ethiopia and Kenya. There are also nos­tal­gic black and white pho­to­graphs from old of­fi­cial guide­books, Hard­ing’s own pho­to­graphs and those of other jour­nal­ists and friends to add to our un­der­stand­ing of the time and place.

Tarzan’s brother, Yusuf, a univer­sity pro­fes­sor in the US, says of So­ma­lia: “There are no records. So you can claim what­ever you want.” And crit­ics of Tarzan say that is pre­cisely what he does, start­ing with his al­leged birth in San Martino hos­pi­tal in Mo­gadishu, when in fact he was born to no­mads liv­ing in the Ogaden in Ethiopia who were “dirt poor”, ac­cord­ing to Yusuf, fol­low­ing the rains and the fresh grass and tend­ing their live­stock.

Hard­ing ex­plains that it is the no­madic spirit that is key to un­der­stand­ing So­ma­lia and the peo­ples’ proudly in­de­pen­dent fam­i­lies, sus­pi­cion of out­side au­thor­ity, clan al­le­giances and ar­ranged mar­riages.

How does Tarzan be­come mayor of Mo­gadishu in 2010? Through a long se­ries of dis­lo­ca­tions, years spent in ex­ile in Lon­don and, fi­nally, his re­turn in June 2006 to do what he thought he could af­ter years of an­ar­chy and rule by com­pet­ing war­lords, when, for the first time in 15 years, the fight­ing stopped in Mo­gadishu. “You see, I was now the leader of the di­as­pora,” was Tarzan’s an­swer. The book fol­lows no clear lin­ear pat­tern and the oc­ca­sional dis­lo­ca­tion mir­rors the sense of what most So­ma­lis must have ex­pe­ri­enced in this pe­riod, and prob­a­bly still are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. Hard­ing is re­al­is­tic about So­ma­lia to­day. He says it has be­gun to make mea­sur­able progress in that it has an army and a gov­ern­ment, and that piracy has been stopped. Also, al-Shabaab con­trol less ter­ri­tory, there is oil off­shore, and a tal­ented and wealthy di­as­pora.

He ends on a pos­i­tive note, say­ing that pes­simism would seem like a crime, and that the worst must surely be over. The book leaves us in­trigued, and so much more in­formed, as well as sym­pa­thetic to the strug­gles of or­di­nary peo­ple in the wake of greed and cor­rup­tion.

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