Suicide bombings and political instability has long been the news coming out of Mogadishu, Somalia. But for three days in late August, it was books that dominated the news – a welcome change of narrative for Somalis who have long known that there is more to their nation than guns and bombs. The inaugural Mogadishu International Book Fair kicked off in the sun-drenched capital of Somalia and brought together Somali authors, poets, artists and motivational speakers from all over the world to the Indian Ocean city.
More than 30 authors participated in the book fair and over 3000 books were displayed in the historic book exhibition which its organizers say is intended to “celebrate books, literature and…foster a new generation of literate, creative and tolerant individuals keen to contribute towards the development of Somali society.”
“We want to restore the culture of writing and reading within our community and connect upcoming talents with Diaspora authors,” said event organizer, Mohamed Dini.
Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud graced the occasion during the second day of the three-day event. He even purchased books for the libraries of local universities in an effort to promote the works of Somali authors. The president called upon the participants, mainly students and young people, to never get tired of reading and writing, adding that he personally reads books on good leadership. “I read books by successful leaders like Nelson Mandela and Singapore founder Lee Kuan Yew. These are people who changed their societies,” the president said.
Many of the authors who showcased their work were Somali women including Muna Mohamed Dirshe, the author of two books Somali Women Yesterday and Today and The Tears of Women Who Care! She praised the role of Somali women authors in the first Mogadishu international book fair. “It is great to see Somali women leading [a] great book event in city that is famous for poverty, explosions and deaths,” she said. “No-one dreamt of a book fair event in Mogadishu but thanks to almighty we have achieved it,” Dirshe added.
Hamdi Mohamed Hussein, another woman author from neighboring Somaliland said she was happy to be in Mogadishu to promote her book to Somali people. “I am looking forward to displaying another new book in the next book fair,” she said.
During the three-day event, a panel composed of Somali academics, authors and artists discussed the impact of foreign influence on Somali culture among other topics while answering questions from the participants who were mainly young people.
University student Hashim Malaq couldn’t hide his joy and wanted more similar events to be held in Mogadishu. He said, “I expect more gatherings like this in future for university students in the country because it gives us courage and motivation.”
Social media platform such as Twitter and Facebook played a major role in promoting this historic book fair in the Somali capital for the last three days. The hashtag #MIBF2015 that was created by the organizers was one of the top hashtags trending in the region. The twittersphere was not without its conflict as outraged Somali twitter users vented their frustration at BBC journalist Mary Harper for what they saw as an unfair focus on the questions of security rather than literature in her coverage of the festival. The angry hashtag #SomeoneTellMaryHarper also trended during the length of the festival.
Participants shared photos of their experiences at the book fair through social media in an effort to lure their friends to join them and change the media narrative of Somalia from terror attacks and armed conflicts to books and culture.
The Mogadishu International Book Fair is modeled after The Hargeysa International Book Fair which in eight years since its inception has become one of the biggest cultural events in the capital of Somaliland, the breakaway northern region of Somalia.
Mohammed Kahiye is a Somali journalist and political analyst based in Mogadishu. Twitter is @MKahiye
All Mogadishu photos courtesy ©Mohammed Kahiye