The city of Hargeisa in Somaliland is not well known to the outside world. Once left in ruins by a long ago civil war, the city gradually underwent a lengthy process of reconstruction, and most of the devastated commercial and residential homes have been rebuilt. Now when the sun rises over Naasa Hablood, (“the Maiden’s Breasts,” as the conical twin hills overlooking Hargeisa are known,) it sheds light on a different kind of city; peaceful and prosperous.
In this backdrop, the Hargeisa International Book Fair has been celebrating Somali literature, poetry, film, music and theatre. The fair was established by former mathematics professor Jama Musse Jama in 2008 and was joined by Ayan Mahamoud from Red Sea Online a year later. The annual event is supported by Oxfam.
“One of the motivating factors behind the fair is to ensure that Somaliland’s oral tradition endures,” says Jama. Together Jama and Ayah make a veritable creative and hard working team that ensures the seven day event goes smoothly.
At the fair
In the scorching hot days of summer, the fair took place at the Working Men’s Club in central Hargeisa. This is the fair’s fifth and undoubtedly biggest edition to date. When the fair first started in 2008, it was a two day affair with two panels and about 100 books on display. Today it has grown to span seven days, with numerous panels, far more books, and thousands of attendees.
Presentations were given in a colourful, packed conference hall, and if the numbers were too great, a big screen was set up outside, so that people could watch and listen to what was happening inside.
Meanwhile, the atmosphere outside was also very busy. Within the temporary stalls, young Somali men and women displayed traditional, locally made textiles and perfumes. There was a myriad of books in Somali and English; old paperbacks and newer books from both local and international writers.
Nearby, in a dusty yard, sat a traditional Somali house made with sticks and woven grass mats called an aqal hoori, where visitors were welcome to peruse various Somali artefacts sold by young women wearing hijabs. Just outside the aqal hoori, large watermelons, lemons, mangoes and soft drinks were available for sale under bright red umbrellas that shielded buyers from the sun.
Why have a book fair in Hargeisa?
Jama started the book fair to promote the culture of reading and writing in Somaliland, which had been somewhat lost. “If 100 people come to the fair and at the end one person buys a book and reads it, then that is a job well done,” Jama said. He also wanted to bring Somali literature to the wider world, and international literature to Somalis.
“When I first started out, people would laugh at the fact that there was an ‘international’ in the title of the fair – as no one ‘international’ recognized the book fair. Also in Somaliland, no one that was ‘international’ would attend. I intentionally put it there not only to spell out my intentions, but to show the potential of the fair,” Jama said.
There may have been many reasons to start the book fair, but one that resonates is the need to fill a growing cultural void within Somali youth. Jama expressed his frustration that there is no national theatre and no cinema, that there is little for young people to do. 70% of Somaliland’s population is estimated to be under 30, and Jama is eager for the young to engage in cultural activities, partly because it keeps them out of trouble.
Because of the Hargeisa book fair, July is now known as the month of literary enlightenment. Some activities include interactive creative writing sessions attended by youth, and led by accomplished writers. In these sessions, the young writers learnt basic writing skills and discussed the future of writing in Somalia. Furthermore, mobile libraries promote readers’ clubs across Somaliland as a way of pressuring regional leaders to build libraries. As a result, two regions have pledged buildings for library use.
Ayan Mahamoud, co-manager of the fair since its second year, believes that a nation can’t only be built on an army and the police; the arts are just as crucial. “Through books you change people’s minds,” Ayan said. “You need a culture of peace and tolerance. The book fair provides a space for our youth to engage and discuss with each other.”
Writers and artists in attendance
The fair has become a major annual event in Hargeisa with the number of visitors reaching new heights every year. Apart from extensively inviting the public to attend the fair and buy books, no effort was spared in organising exciting performances, and a slate of talks and seminars to attract audiences from various parts of the Somali community.
This year’s theme was aptly titled ‘Reflections on The Future of Somaliland’ and was introduced by the world-renowned poet, Mahamed Ibarahim Warsame (aka Hadraawi). During a discussion he said that he admired Oxfam greatly because it was, “one of the first organizations that to come to Somalia and become a permanent member of the civil society.”
Among those at this year’s event were Georgi Kapchits, a Russian broadcaster to Somalis during the cold war, who was here promoting his new book: “Somalis Do Not Lie in Proverbs”. Others present included Nadifa Mohamed, the young British-Somali author of the prize-winning novel, ‘Black Mamba Boy’, the US-based Somali poet Said Salah, and the respected Somali journalist and thinker, Mahamoud Sheikh Dalmar.
Also in attendance was Brazilian-Korean film-maker Iara Lee, who screened her film ‘Cultures of Resistance,’ (complete with Somali subtitles,) Helen Conford from Penguin Books and Mary Harper, author of ‘Getting Somalia Wrong‘ among others. Many of the invited authors presented their books to the audience and held plenary, taking questions and comments from the packed hall.
The Book Fair also included an historic event; New Orleans-based clarinettist Evan Christopher, known for his personal brand of “contemporary early jazz” performed two Somali infused jazz sessions with Faysal Mushteeg, a Somali vocalist, lute player and pioneer of Qaraami music.
Hebaq Abdulrahman is a unique author at the fair. The first female dentist in Somaliland, she started writing when she was nine years old. At this young age, she knew two things for certain; she was going to be a writer and a dentist. “This is the first time I am attending the fair and also the first time reciting poetry in public. This is a very important forum for young people like myself to share our work,” Hebaq said.
What needs to be done
Barkhad M. Kaariye, 24, is a journalist, and would like more training, and the festival expanded. “There needs to be a school of journalism to train on basic grammar and sharing of information,” said Barkhad. “HIBF is an incredible festival that should be put on the map to encourage more local and international writers to attend. This way, the other aspects of Somalia can be showcased, not just the bad.”
Oxfam’s continued support in the region spans over 40 decades. In addition to funding the Hargeisa International Book Fair, Oxfam supports various programmes in education, livelihoods, governance, accountability, women’s participation, humanitarian assistance and humanitarian protection.
This year, there is no doubt that there is an increased appetite for reading and literature in Somaliland and international interest about the Hargeisa International Book Fair. It has contributed to discussions among Somali people, and promotes development in Somaliland. It’s not only an event for entertainment, it provides a venue and platform for many sectors of Somaliland and Somali society.
“Initially it was very difficult to get support for the book fair but now that it has been on for four more years, the local community, international artistic and media communities are interested and willing to participate and help the local population to demand their rights for facilities to accommodate their needs” said Ayan. “It is now an annual event that has brought results and it is important that the support continues. This is an essential element in rebuilding Somalia.”
“I’m very happy to have attended the book fair. I met one of the authors, Mary Harper who signed a copy of ‘Getting Somalia Wrong’ which I had just bought,” said Bashir Hashi of WASDA, one of Oxfam’s partners. “I am also excited about the sheer volume of Somali writers and readers in one place. The fair is important for improving the culture of reading and showcasing the better side of Somalia.”