Harding has been visiting Somalia since 2000, and was in Mogadishu during the height of the battle against the Islamist militants of Al Shabab and during the famine of 2011. He is one of the very few foreign journalists to have traveled into territory controlled by Al Shabab and met their commanders, or to have visited (twice) the pirate town of Eyl.
Harding applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Mayor of Mogadishu: A Story of Chaos and Redemption in the Ruins of Somalia, and reported the following:
Perfect. Page 99 in the UK edition of The Mayor of Mogadishu is about a wonderful old black and white photograph [inset below; click to enlarge] showing seven young Somalis standing in a field somewhere in the countryside south of the capital city in 1974.Visit Andrew Harding's website.
It’s one of those images that reveals itself slowly. The first time I saw it I simply registered the fact that the girl in the back row on the right was obviously Shamis, a key figure in the story I was trying to tell about the life of a Somali family caught up in their country’s spectacular unraveling.
But a few weeks later I looked again at the picture and noticed the girl sitting in front of Shamis. Like the key to a lock, the significance of the photograph was suddenly revealed.
The picture shows five schoolgirls (accompanied by two unidentified young men) on their first trip outside Mogadishu. They were part of a youth “army” dispatched by Somalia’s military dictator Siad Barre, to teach the country’s brand new script to nomads and villagers – a bold, ambitious attempt to drag the nation into the modern era..... kneeling in the front row is a girl who seems to have wandered in from another era altogether. Her black curly hair cascades – yes, that’s the right word – down past her right shoulder. She’s wearing a tunic over an elegant long-sleeved shirt and the most enormous, glamorous sunglasses that reflect the sun, the horizon, and a smudge that must be the photographer.The photo captures what I hope is the spirit of my book – an attempt to look beyond the clichés about Somalia, and its wretched recent past, to explore the sort of country it once was, and still hopes to be. A while later, I Tweeted the photo with the caption “Meet the Kardashians.... of Somalia. Mogadishu’s bright young things back in 1974.”
The girl with the curls is Samiya, and as she breaks into a half pout, half smile, the figures around her suddenly seem to catch a glint of that same city swagger. It’s as though everyone in the picture has just woken up, and my eye flits from languidly folded arms, to another fashionable pair of sunglasses, to a hint of flared trousers, to something in Shamis’s casual poise.
They’re “Beizani,” of course. The offspring of Mogadishu’s cosmopolitan elite might have been roughing it on their very first adventure, but they could still flaunt their Italian clothes and urban sophistication.
My Book, The Movie: The Mayor of Mogadishu.
Writers Read: Andrew Harding.