Of the many countries that Andrew Harding has covered in his journalism career, Somalia is the one that really got under his skin.
The Mayor of Mogadishu is a captivating account of the lives of Mohammed Ahmed “Tarzan” Nur’s family. Nur was Mogadishu’s mayor from 2010-2014.
Mayor Nur was a charismatic, outspoken man of action who became widely popular for his efforts to provide basic services in a country divided by clan politics and increasingly terrorised by Al Shabaab militants. Yet he attracted enemies too in equal measure who accused him of corruption and political machinations.
“He was an incredibly good figure for journalists,” said author Harding, an award-winning journalist with the BBC. Upon further investigation of Nur’s personal life, Harding found the makings of his first novel.
Born in 1956 into a small, poor clan in the Ogaden region, Nur was abandoned at a Mogadishu orphanage at a young age and saw little of his mother after that. He grew up in the heyday of Somalia, with Italianesque cafes, open cinemas and women wearing miniskirts. But the streets were no easy place for an orphaned youngster, and Nur was frequently caught up in fisticuffs that earned him the nickname Tarzan.
At the overthrow of the Siad Barre regime, Nur and his family join thousands of others fleeing the ensuing chaos and ended up in London for the next 20 years. While on a visit to Somalia in 2010, the president of the new transitional government offered Nur the job of mayor of Mogadishu.
From thousands of transcribed words, Harding creates a family drama played out in a flourishing country reduced to a failed state. It tells of one brave soul who leaves a comfortable life in the diaspora and reinvents himself because he is determined to prove that Somalia is worth going back to. The risk to his personal safety and psychological health are set aside for the greater ideal of rescuing a beloved country.
Harding has been a foreign correspondent for 25 years, covering wars in Eastern Europe, Iraq, Burma, Sudan, South Africa, Uganda and Somalia. In this book, he has combined his journalistic acumen and a vigorous writing style.
The Mayor of Mogadishu is based on first-hand accounts from Nur’s Somali friends and family, especially those familiar with his early life, which forms the bulk of the story. The period in which he served as mayor features close to the end of the book because, said Harding, “It was less interesting than discovering all this stuff about the city.”
Through closer acquaintance with Nur, Harding developed a healthy respect and frank relationship with the former mayor. “I think there are questions that he has to answer and I put them to him in the book,” said Harding.
Harding has experienced scepticism from Somalis wanting to know his motive for writing the book, and his authority to comment on a country he has visited several times but never lived in.
“It’s this thing about cultural appropriation and a colonial perspective. I get that a lot, and I welcome it. The only thing you have to bear in mind is to be sympathetic, try to put yourself in the shoes of the people you’re listening to and to feel their perspective” said Harding.
He says an outsider can present an alternative standpoint free from the pressures that may encumber a local journalist in an unstable country.
“I had this privileged access for 15 years and not many journalists had that. Also, outside of one or two books about Somalia, there was more space for more books,” Harding added.
With a fascinating protagonist and the riches-to-rags story told in an intimate and sympathetic manner without whitewashing the chaos of one of the most dangerous cities in the world, the book is a great read. It resonates in light of the ongoing European migration crisis.
The book was launched at the Mogadishu Book Festival in May, and has since been critically acclaimed. Michaela Wrong, author of the Kenyan whistleblower story,It’s Our Turn to Eat, says, “In bold, vivid brush-strokes, it captures all the charm, colour, contradiction and menace of contemporary Somalia.”
Dr Idil Osman, a Somali research associate at the University London, describes it as, “A necessary book for all interested in Somalia who wish to have an understanding that goes beyond the headlines.”