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Beach reads: Andrew Harding’s ‘The Mayor of Mogadishu’

- September 1, 2017
“The Mayor of Mogadishu” (Photo courtesy Laura Seay)

How do you rebuild a country that’s suffered through 25 years of violence, whose governing institutions are dysfunctional if they exist at all, and where stark social divisions keep people from trusting one another enough to rebuild their country together? Where do you even start?

These are the questions that faces Mohamud “Tarzan” Nur, the protagonist of Andrew Harding’s fascinating new book, “The Mayor of Mogadishu,” when he took leadership of Somalia’s capital city in 2010. In the book, Harding skillfully and empathetically tells Nur’s life story in the context of the country’s trajectory from the colonial period to present day. In doing so, he examines themes of memory and loss, inclusion and cooperation, and the role of truth and evidence in a state with few public records and even fewer widely shared sources of public trust.

Nur’s story mirrors that of many Somalis. Born into desperate poverty in a rural area, Nur is taken to the capital by a distant relative as a child and is soon deposited into a government-run orphanage. This occurs shortly after independence, and so Nur grows up in the then-thriving city of Mogadishu, learning to defend himself from the cruelties of other boys in his school and to explore the city and its adventures widely, earning the nickname of “Tarzan” when he climbs out a window into a tree to escape a monitor’s watchful eye. He is a teenager when Siad Barre came to power through a military coup in 1969 and witnesses both the early years of euphoria as Barre revolutionized life in the country through mass literacy campaigns and significant development efforts in the capital. It was also during this time that Nur met the woman who would become his wife, Shamis.

Like most Somalis of their generation, the Nurs watched with dismay as Barre became increasingly authoritarian, resistance from Somalia’s powerful clans and sub-clans grew, and it became increasingly obvious that the country would have a civil war. The Nurs fled the country, eventually ending up in London, where they established a home with their six children and tried to rebuild their lives, all the while remaining active in the Somali Diaspora community. Nur returned to the country periodically when doing so was possible and in 2010 moved back to Mogadishu to assume the mayor’s position upon the invitation of Somalia’s president.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-look-inside-the-unfolding-nightmare-in-somalia/2017/07/17/aceb0ec0-6b12-11e7-b9e2-2056e768a7e5_story.html?utm_term=.fac95ba3759c”]Opinion: A look inside the unfolding nightmare in Somalia[/interstitial_link]

Harding uses Nur’s life story to explore a wide variety of themes. One is the tensions of identity. Somalia is one of the world’s most homogeneous countries. Almost everyone is of Somali ethnicity, Muslim, and Somali-speaking, but within these similarities lie significant divides through clan and sub-clan forms of social organization. When the Somali state collapsed in 1991, clan identities became more important than ever. If one couldn’t trust the state for protection, they could trust their clan. Nur is interesting, for while he knows his clan identity, he is from a tiny sub-clan that lacks much influence or power, and his upbringing in an orphanage left him much less tied to his sub-clan’s identity than is the case for most Somalis.

These questions of identity were further complicated when Somalis started fleeing their country en masse. Does clan identity matter if you are one of a few hundred early migrants to London or Minneapolis? Most Diasporans didn’t have the luxury of trying to rebuild their lives only through clan connections and support. They had to embrace their broader identity as Somalis. But when a state of relative peace returned to Somalia in the 2010s and Diasporans like Nur started to return, they found that clan and sub-clan identities were as important as ever to Somalis who stayed through the violence. They also found that they were resented by Somalis who stayed, even as billions of dollars in remittances from Diaspora members were often the only source of income that many who stayed in Somalia had during the darkest years of the conflicts. Somalia’s middle and upper class are essential to rebuilding the country, particularly as they are the ones with money to invest in businesses and hire employees. But that class is almost entirely composed of people who spent a decade or more in exile, or of their now-adult children who barely remember the Somalia of their early childhoods. At one point in the narrative, Shamis comments that she feels like a second-class citizen in both the United Kingdom and Somalia, never fully accepted by or belonging to either place.

This sense of loss and the role of memory are another theme that permeates Harding’s book and includes some of his most beautiful writing. Shamis is much less enthusiastic about returning to Mogadishu than is her husband, and they eventually work out an agreement that she will spend three months at a time in Somalia, returning to London for most of the year, the place she now considers her home. Shamis is much less optimistic than Tarzan that Mogadishu can ever be as safe and idyllic as he remembers from his childhood.

Whether the country can be rebuilt and how to do so are key questions for Nur as he assumes the mayor’s job. Nur is an enthusiastic, can-do guy who sets out to normalize life in Mogadishu as much as possible, even as violence, now largely conducted by the al-Shabab Islamic extremists, is still a major problem in the city. Early in his tenure as mayor, he organizes a street festival, which is attacked by militants shortly after he leaves the event. The security problem is compounded by the issue of corruption — money disappears from state and city coffers, or never arrives there at all, seemingly stolen by members of the government.

Whether Nur himself is corrupt — as many accuse him of being — and whether it is possible to rebuild Somalia without engaging in corruption is a question Harding handles deftly. He confronts Nur directly about the accusations near the end of the book, and Nur denies them. But as Harding notes, it’s virtually impossible to prove innocence or guilt given the absence of records, a functioning and fair court system, and general agreement on what it takes to complete a task. Is it corruption if paying protection money to al-Shabab makes it possible for governing institutions to reopen and begin to function? Or if dividing resources between the different clans is the cost of maintaining harmony and progressing forward in the president’s cabinet? There are no easy answers to these questions, and Harding allows the reader to live in that tension along with himself and Nur. Nur is eventually ousted from office in 2014, and Harding’s narrative ends with Nur hoping to become president one day, even as his optimism about the country’s future is fading.

Harding’s writing in “The Mayor of Mogadishu” is beautiful. He builds a strong sense of place for the reader, helping us to understand what Mogadishu is really like and how rapidly it can change. Most notably, he manages to convey both the seriousness and terror of violence in Mogadishu with the normalcy of life there — people still go to the beach, eat at restaurants, and visit with friends — while avoiding stereotyping or condescending to his subjects. Harding doesn’t gloss over the realities of violence, but he also doesn’t allow it to become the sole, defining characteristic of life in Mogadishu as far too many other journalists do. “The Mayor of Mogadishu” was a refreshing read about a place that has far too long been reduced to nothing but terrorism and death. There is more to Mogadishu, and there are people like the Nurs and the other Somalis to whom Harding introduces us, doing their best to rebuild their city and their state under incredibly challenging circumstances.