Books Over Bullets

Today, the first-ever international book fair was launched in Mogadishu, Somalia. These days, the Somali capital has become a city of firsts: the opening of the first laundry shop, the first flower store, the first automated teller machine (ATM), and even the TEDx talks, the global conference on ideas, was first held there in 2012. After a two-decade war that ravaged the country, signs of recovery are springing everywhere in the Indian Ocean port city. Many of the city’s residents and newcomers are looking for anything new and positive – a coffee shop, a pizzeria, a football game – with dewy-eyed enthusiasm.

The book fair is the latest addition to this fanfare, and it brings together Somali writers and artists from across the globe. Though the program of the fair was not released in advance – for security reasons, I presume – it features book signings, poetry recitals, photography exhibitions, guest lectures, film and documentary viewings, panel discussions and traditional dance performances, according to the fair’s website. By doing this, the organizers of the three-day Mogadishu International Book Fair (MIBF) aim to “celebrate books, literature and stimulate the revival of various kinds of human expression in Somali society.”

This has been a long time coming!

When we moved to Mogadishu in the late 1990’s, books were the only promise I had, the last act of defiance in a city under constant destruction. When human life was devalued, and everything around us was crumbling, books were the rare gifts that mattered. Books for me created a much-needed horizon, expanding my imaginations beyond our daily reality. Our parents, totally comprehending the capricious and brutal environment we lived in, did nothing short of filling our house with books and more books. And as the bullets whizzed by our neighborhood, my siblings and I became bibliophiles reading books and passing them onto one another. Books transformed the worst of times in Mogadishu into the best of times.

We read books from countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and the United States. I read about the travails of Egypt in Naguib Mahfouz and Naguib al-Kilani’s books; explored the meaning of chivalry and honor in Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote; devoured all the Secret Seven detective books; and remember sitting up blank-faced, lost in thought, when I finished Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. Books gave me a sense of belonging, of justice, of understanding that there was a world out there bigger and better than our decrepit, bullet-ridden cocoon of a city.

The world I became familiar with in books also became the gateway that allowed me to interrogate the world I lived in as a child. When we moved to Mogadishu, we lived in Casa Popolare, a neighborhood in the Hodan District that was once representative of a lush, opulent lifestyle. But that was no more when we got there. Our area had an array of contrasts that mashed up to create an uneven, somewhat forced cosmopolitan feel. There was a boarding school that turned into a camp for the displaced. There was the mosque, which made money by selling water from its well to the community because there was no running water. There was the local police station (it is now renovated and running!), which had turned into a base for a group of militia boys. There was the polite grocer lady who occasionally gave me sweets for free, while admiring how clean my white school shirts were. There was the madrassa teacher who also doubled up as an exorcist. There was also an ever-smiling donkey owner, who supplied water by day and chewed khat and beat his wife by night. Add to that the pharmacist who my aunts said had perfected the art of injecting by practicing on his patients.

Every day, as we either walked to school or the local market, I pestered my mother with questions about these people and places. Our life had become a jigsaw puzzle, and the pieces, at least for me, were not falling into one place. I wanted to untangle the stories of all these people, the rumors about them, their good and bad traits, and make this rigmarole disappear into a neat storybook: the storybook of my life, of their lives, of our lives.

It was around this time that my mother bought me a collection of diary books and told me to write “my book.” For her, it was maybe a way to lessen the urgency of all my questions. For me, it became a way of thinking through my life, to hold on to it as it was, and to survive in this war-torn city. Writing my diary became a way to mend the disintegration of the society and country around me. It was a way to heal and hope against all odds.

This is precisely why a book fair is very important for Mogadishu. It is a chance to show the younger generations that reading can create an alternative universe, one that is far from violence and brutality. It is a fact that not many youngsters had the opportunities I had back when I lived in Mogadishu. But Mogadishu of 1997 is not the Mogadishu of 2015: the city is in the heady days of post-conflict reconstruction, when the sap of both those living and moving back there is high.

And nothing defines that symbolism of hope and unity better than a book fair. A book fair shows that a city is reconnecting with its roots, that its people are involved in discussions bigger than themselves. Of course, MIBF has a long way to go before it becomes a source of inspiration and continuity for the people living in Xamar. But this gesture is already a step far away from the days when the guns and bullets and bazookas defined the city. It is time for books, the time to show that Somalia needs as much brain as brawn.

Follow Abdi Latif Dahir on Twitter @Lattif.

Image courtesy of Mogadishu International Book Fair.

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