By Hassan M. Abukar
They came in droves: youth, writers, poets, educators, and government officials. All were jubilant, excited, and eager to hear, learn, or share.
This was the scene at the Mogadishu Book Fair (MBF), held in the capital of Somalia from August 15 to August 17, 2018.
Mogadishu is a major cosmopolitan city, with a population of over two million, but it has no single public library and no commercial bookstore. This is a city in a recovery mode, following more than two decades of civil war, in which many major institutions were destroyed. That’s why this book fair was a real cause for celebration.
The last four years have seen an annual book fair in Mogadishu, held in part to remind the world that there is more to the city than guns, Al-Shabaab, and the oppression of violence and fear.
Hundreds of new books were on display, addressing countless subjects, from history, literature, literacy, and politics, to arts, self-help books, and studies of contemporary affairs. These books covered an immense range of topics, from love, courtship and family matters, to war, conflict, and migration.
The book fair attracted hundreds of youth—90 percent of attendees were between the ages of 16 and 25—who came to stand in the security lines early in the morning to enter the event. They came to hear what their guests at the fair had to say, and they were not disappointed. Their enthusiasm for knowledge that they expressed was unparalleled, their love for reading knew no rival, and their desire to share their impressions of the book fair on social media was infectious.
One young woman boasted on Facebook that she was so excited with the book fair that she bought 100 books at the book fair. Her striking claim will not be investigated, but then again no one will invalidate her unbridled enthusiasm and exuberance.
Mahad Wasuge, a researcher at the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, a panelist at the fair, keeps a verifiable account of the number of books he purchases. Every year for the past four years, Mahad said, he has been expanding his modest personal library at the fair. This year alone, Mahad said, he bought eight books there, bringing the total number of books from the fair to 40.
Wasuge, who grew up in Beledweyne, recalled that his hometown had only a small library, established by a Somali man from the diaspora. It gave youngsters like him books to read and a safe place to gather. Moreover, he recalled the library volunteers handing out free pens and paper to the patrons.
The organizers of the event recognized the power of social media and its impact on the youth. They set up tables staffed by a dozen young people, who shared the events unfolding at the book fair with the outside world. The announcers constantly urged the audience to share their impressions with their friends and followers. A live broadcast of the entire event was beamed across the globe.
Professor Paul Williams of George Washington University became a minor celebrity at the fair and was constantly accosted to appear in selfies.
“I don’t know why I am popular,” he quipped.
One young man took a picture with Williams and then turned to him and said: “Who are you?”
Williams’ book-length study, War and Conflict in Africa, was on display at the book fair. While he was talking to the writer of this article, he saw a young man who had bought the expensive book. Williams asked him why.
“Why do you want to know?” the young man asked.
“Because I wrote the book,” Williams said.
“Good, because I have a few questions for you,” the young man said. Then he began to grill Williams about specific lines in his book.
“I am impressed,” Williams said, laughing.
The writers, poets, panelists, and educators who attended the book fair were interesting in different ways. Many young people, both men and women, presented their own books or participated sessions on reading, literacy, education, and literature. One young lady, 19 years old, had written an interesting book titled Qaran-Dumis (Nation-Destroying).
The legendary poet and educator Said Salah Ahmed was among the literary figures present. His presentation pulsated with passion. His commanding presence, tart tongue, and breadth of knowledge of Somali literature was electrifying. Euphoria was pervasive in the hall as Ahmed energized the young audience, and showed them the way to be proud of their language and heritage.
Equally impressive was another teacher from Hargeisa, Ahmed Badal, whose two short speeches about literature were captivating and incisive.
The artist, Osman Abdinur, from Las Anod, was also there, a former broadcaster with Radio Mogadishu before the civil war. He captivated the audience. A high-octane man with certain swagger, and a razor-sharp sense of humor, Osman gave an informative talk about certain peculiarities of the Somali language. The audience kept applauding in a frenzy of cheers and laughter.
Some Somali government officials descended on the book fair and rubbed shoulders with the crowd. The mayor of Mogadishu, Abdirahman Omar “Yariisow” the deputy prime minister, Mahad Guled, performed opening ceremonies of the fair on the first day, and Prime Minister Hassan Kheyre concluded it. In between, luminaries such as Abdi Hashi, the speaker of the Upper House, Ahmed I. Awad, the foreign minister, and Gamal Hassan, minister of planning, appeared. Some of these officials bought books and encouraged the audience to read, write, and appreciate the golden opportunity of having such an important event in their city, after so many years of war and conflict.
The Mogadishu Book Fair was a celebration of reading, writing, and sharing. Over the years, clamorous voices have said, with obvious relish, that Mogadishu was too dangerous to host an elaborate event such as a book fair. The youth who attended the event presented a different narrative—one that showed a Mogadishu with lots of possibilities that the doubters never imagined. They showed a narrative wherein the young could celebrate books and appreciate literature instead of wielding guns. They displayed openness, not narrow-mindedness, reinforcing inclusiveness while shunning exclusion. They showed that what unites Somalis, from Hargeisa to Kismayo, from Cadaado to JigJiga, from Garissa to Bossasso, is not only their language and heritage but also the celebration of books and literature.
The mood of the book fair’s organizers was not self-congratulatory. They were already looking ahead at a bright future. They want to expand the length of the event, from three days to a week, and to hold the fair in different parts of Mogadishu, including Lido, the national library when it is completed, and the main stadium. The book fair is a testament to the cultural rebirth of a once-dead city rising from the ashes—it could not have scripted it better if you were writing a movie. Stay tuned.
Hassan M. Abukar
Hassan M. Abukar is a writer, a contributor to Wardheernews, and the author of Mogadishu Memoir. He can be reached at [email protected].
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