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

Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Sixth Hargeisa International Book Fair - Day Two

"It is a marvellous thing"

The day started with readings in Somali and English of the great Somalia poem Daalacan or 'Clarity' written by Hadrawi. The hall was packed. Those who couldn't fit in crowded around the windows or gathered around a big screen outside which had a live feed of the event.

Books for sale at the fair 
The Scottish/ British poet W. N. Herbert, who helped translate Hadrawi's poems for the book 'The Poet and the Man', started by saying that it was a "marvellous thing" that "poetry is at the heart of Somali culture" in a way he had never before encountered. He said he had come to Somaliland on a 'poet's pilgrimage'. 

Bill Herbert said he could access the spirit of Daalacan because what was happening to him now was, in some ways, similar to what was happening to Hadrawi during the time of Siad Barre. He talked about a government that didn't care about its people, about corruption.  

Hadrawi then stood up to read the poem. The audience flew with him, as this gentle, humble man spoke fire and wisdom. Like Bill Herbert (who is also humble and gentle), his voice rose and fell, soft then strong. I cannot say Somalis revere Hadrawi because Somalis are irreverent. But I can say they love him.

Hadrawi reciting Daalacan
Bill Herbert then read his English translation, which was equally strong and beautiful. At the end Hadrawi banged the table with both hands to show his appreciation.

Bill Herbert recites Dalacaan/ Clarity
We were then treated to a photo exhibition by the Dutch photographer Petterik Wiggers who has been taking pictures in Somalia and Somaliland for more than twenty years. He showed us photos from refugee camps in Ethiopia where Somalilanders fled to after civil war broke out in the late 1980s. Many of the people in the audience were young, and visibly shocked by their history shown in black and white.

Hargeisa is ruins after it was bombed from the air by the Somali government. Hargeisa was called 'The Dresden of Africa'
Wiggers also showed us photos from the early 1990s where he said there had been a bit of misunderstanding in Somaliland. I was in Somaliland at the time. The 'misunderstanding' led to violence. The lady in this photo is holding a gun.

Petterik Wiggers in action

Book fair organiser Ayan Mohamud saying thank you to the investor Coco Ferguson, who champions and helps fund the event 

Book fair lunch at Guled restaurant
In the afternoon, the Nigerian author, poet, lawyer, editor, publisher, blogger, goodnessknowswhatelse, Chuma Nwokolo read some poems and excerpts from his short stories. The audience loved them all.

He also told us that when he told the staff at Lagos airport that he was flying to Berbera, the had know idea where it was. They asked 'Is it in Asia?', 'Is it in Africa?'. 

He said he hoped to open the floodgates, so that next year there would be at least three Nigerians and two Ghanaians at the seventh Hargeisa International Book Fair.

Then the British author, Michela Wrong, who has written books on Zaire (now DR Congo), Eritrea and Kenya, gave a talk. She read a passage from her book about Zaire, and showed us a picture of President Mobutu. 

Lots of people asked questions including one young man who asked about a point Michela had made in Chapter 17 of her book on Eritrea. The book fair director, Jama Musse Jama, showed me how the hairs were standing up on his arms because Michela's book had only been put on sale the day before. This young man was already on Chapter 17, such was his enthusiasm for the book.

Friday, 16 August 2013

The Sixth Hargeisa International Book Fair - Day One

This year's Hargeisa International Book Fair is bigger than ever. The theme is 'Journey'. Kenya is the guest country. There are Somali authors, academics, poets, singers, dancers, photographers and artists in abundance. Plus those from many other parts of the world
including Nigeria, Djibouti, Kenya, Holland, Italy, and the UK. And a supermodel from Czechoslovakia. 

Click this link to see the programme of events: Hargeisa Book Fair 2013 

The first day started with the national anthem and a welcoming speech by the organiser of the fair, Jama Musse Jama. And the Nigerian author, Chuma Nwokolo, noticing what some of the Somali men were wearing: A Sartorial Hargeisa

There was standing room only as the great Somali poet, Hadrawi, recited Sirta Nolosha (Life's Essence).

Standing room only for Hadrawi
Hadrawi in full flow

Some funny looking men appeared, thick set and wearing earpieces.

Confused looking man arrives at the book fair
Photographing the confused looking men
It turned out these confused looking men were bodyguards for the new British ambassador to Somalia, Neil Wigan, who turned up with a delegation from the British government's aid body DFID. He gave a speech in Somali.

He then spoke in English, talking about the deep links between Somaliland and the UK. He said the Somali community was one of the oldest in Britain, with its roots going back more than a century. He said "we in the UK are enormously proud of the Somaliland community", mentioning the journalist Rageh Omar, the runner Mo Farah and the author Nadifa Mohamed. He said the book fair was an example of the energy and talent in Somaliland, and its encouragement of reconciliation and cooperation across the region. He added that it gave a "hugely positive image" of Somaliland to the outside world.

Organiser of the book fair, Ayan Mahamoud, then stood up and said she had two requests, even though she understood that the ambassador couldn't give any comments.

1. The ambassador's support in resolving the crisis facing Somali remittance companies in the UK due to Barclays' decision to withdraw banking services.

(Someone in the crowd shouted out that Mr Wigan should comment on this issue, and there was a general sense of stirring in the room)

2. The ambassador's recognition of the peace and development in Somaliland.

The British ambassador speaks Somali

There's that confused looking man again

Monday, 12 August 2013

Nairobi airport - post fire

On Wednesday 7 August 2013, Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport caught fire. The huge blaze destroyed the arrivals hall in what is the busiest airport in East and Central Africa, handling six million passengers a year.

The BBC website put up some dramatic pictures of the fire: The airport blaze 

I flew into Jomo Kenyatta airport early on the morning of 12 August. I didn't know what to expect, but was delighted to see some beautiful white tents as I emerged bleary-eyed and bewildered from my overnight flight.

My fellow passengers on the tarmac

Immigration was in an enormous white tent. It was lovely to stand in much shorter queues than usual. The air was fresh and crisp. The light was natural. Much better than the usual sticky, smelly lines inside the airport's musty arrival hall, fluorescent lights casting ghastly flickers on people's tired and crumpled faces.

The immigration officials worked efficiently, with fiery lamps to keep them warm
We then went into the 'baggage collection' area. It was more like a wedding party, with posh silken chairs for us to sit in.

The baggage collection area
We waited in the 'wedding hall' until our bags were brought off the plane and lined up neatly outside on the tarmac, in different areas for different flights. We were then instructed to fetch our bags and take them to be x-rayed. The process was civilised, painless and pretty quick.

Jomo Kenyatta airport's 'baggage hall'

Then came the frustrating bit. After our bags were x-rayed, we had to wait inside a small hall as a fierce-looking lady in a leopard print scarf re-checked everybody's passports in what seemed to be a deliberately slow manner. This caused a bottle-neck as trolleys overloaded with luggage banged into people's shins. I didn't see the point of this exercise, as our passports had already been thoroughly checked and stamped by the immigration officials.

After the over-zealous passport re-checking we emerged into the customs area. That went very quickly. We then spilled outside, where tiny tents had been set up for mobile phone companies, food shops and airport taxis. The blackened airport building stood behind us.

The blackened airport building

Of course, there have been some negative effects from the fire, not least the alleged looting of cash and booze by police and airport workers: Police questioned over looting

And a big hit on airlines (especially Kenya Airways) and the wider economy: Will Nairobi fire hit Kenya's economy?

But, all in all, this was one of my most pleasant experiences at an airport for a long time. Fresh morning air, pretty white tents, posh silky chairs, and just one long and frustrating queue. Maybe other airports have something positive to learn from the Jomo Kenyatta fire.

The Departure Lounge

A few days after my arrival in Nairobi's 'tent city' airport, I passed through its 'departure lounge' on my way to Somaliland.

Once again, I was there very early in the morning. It still had the 'wedding party' look, but the atmosphere was a little sadder as many people were leaving their loved ones and their safari/ beach holidays.

One thing I forgot to mention in the earlier part of this blog is that all the airport staff I spoke to said they were very, very cold. Even those wrapped up in thick coats with hoods. Nairobi has been unseasonably chilly, and these poor people had to stand about outside, herding confused passengers from tent to tent. I felt especially sorry for the smartly dressed 'flight announcers', who came to the departure lounge to shout out the flights that were ready for boarding. Their thin red skirts and jackets did little to protect them from the cold.

Jomo Kenyatta International Airport departure lounge

Inside the departure lounge

The snack bar

The toilet

Washing facility

As I left the airport, I wondered for how long those glossy white tents would stay glossy and white. It is going to take months (at least) to build new passenger halls. I imagine that once the shine wears off, the 'wedding party' airport might start to resemble a refugee camp.

Bad picture of the airport 'fire services' (what were they up to when the fire broke out?)

Even worse picture of airport 'fire services' - nice red fire trucks which couldn't put out the fire.

Mount Kenya (from my plane) in the early morning light