A Land In Limbo Hopes That Books Will Keep It Going

Aug 16, 2016
Originally published on August 17, 2016 3:38 pm
At 16, Roda Hassan was the top scoring girl student in her high school exams in all of Somaliland. Her dream is to finish her trilogy of motivational books for youth — compiling advice learned from her mom and other mentors.
Gregory Warner / NPR

Somaliland doesn't have any embassies around the world. Its passport isn't accepted in any country. It's a republic, population 3.5 million, that broke away from Somalia in 1991, and it's never received official recognition.

But it does have an annual book fair — and the event, held in late July this year, is more than just a gathering for authors, academics and others to discuss their latest work. It's also a way to promote the written language of Somali, which wasn't granted official status until 1972.

For many centuries, the Somali culture was oral, with traditions and history passed down from generation to generation through poems and songs.

"The orality failed," says Jama Musa Jama, a Somali writer and founder of the Hargeisa Cultural Centre, which sponsors the Hargeisa International Book Fair, now in its ninth year. "Written history, written literature ... In Somalia, the written word [is at] a crucial time."

Books are also seen by some as crucial for the economic survival of this breakaway republic.

Somaliland's lack of official recognition means that it hasn't received the World Bank loans and international aid dollars that most developing countries depend on. Contributions from the Somali diaspora make up a third of the republic's roughly $1.5 billion GDP.

But the money flowing in from the diaspora — from places like Minnesota, Toronto and Dubai — is in danger of slowing, as the connection to the homeland fades.

"The diaspora [who've] been helping left this country as refugees," says Hussein Bulhan, a clinical psychologist who left his post at Boston University to return to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, and help rebuild the education system. He says many in that generation fled Somaliland's long failed war of independence against Somalia.

"The younger ones in the diaspora are disconnected from the reality [in Somaliland]," he says. "They were born [abroad]!"

That's where the book fair comes in. The biggest annual event in Somaliland, drawing 11,000 attendees this year, it's an advertisement for a republic that showcases itself as a kind of "anti-Somalia." Whereas Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, is beset by terrorist attacks, Hargeisa is peaceful. You can drink tea in an outdoor cafe until three in the morning because of strong community policing.

The book fair also represents an attempt to encourage Somalis to read and write in the Somali language. Somali is a major language — spoken by 15 million people — but the fair's founders argue that speaking alone can't bind a people scattered around the world as well as literature can.

At times it seems that the fair has been almost too successful at opening the writing tap. In the audience at the book fair, I met 18-year-old Farah Dayaxweer, a college student in Hargeisa who tells me she just finished writing her third book about the role of women in Islam. Her seatmate, 16-year-old Roda Hassan, is already composing the second volume of a motivational trilogy for youth — with advice gleaned mainly from her mom. (I'm guessing it must be good advice — Hassan scored third-best in Somaliland on her high school exams and was the top-scoring girl.)

It's not just the new authors who aspire to be onstage. The prize-winning Somali author Nuruddin Farah, whose books have been translated into 20 languages, was only this year translated into his own, native Somali, thanks to a joint effort by the author and the Hargeisa Cultural Centre.

Feedh Qalloocan, the Somali translation of Farah's novel From a Crooked Rib, was released this summer. The novel is written from the perspective of a Somali teenage girl who flees an arranged marriage. It was published, in English, in 1970, when Somali did not even have an official written language.

Farah, who was born and raised in the area that is now Somaliland, was exiled from Somalia in 1976 by the then-military dictatorship. He didn't return home for two decades, during which time he secured his reputation as the pre-eminent English-language Somali novelist. He now lives in Minnesota and South Africa.

His Somali translator, Abdisalem Hereri, says that the author's international appeal made crafting his Somali version a challenge. "Nuruddin tries to tell the rest of the world about Somali culture, and what he sees as [its] weaknesses," he says. If literature is a glue that can bind a displaced society, it's also a window to peer through to that society's failings. Hereri says that "to translate that back into Somali, for Somalis, wasn't easy."

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Let's go now to a book fair. The Hargeysa International Book Fair takes place in a country that is not internationally recognized. The Republic of Somaliland is a self-declared state. To the rest of the world, it is an autonomous region of Somalia. It has a president and a police force but no passports or embassies. NPR's Gregory Warner reports that in a place like that, books can become an economic lifeline.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah has been translated into 20 languages but never until this year into his own native Somali. I met that translator in an echoey main room at the Hargeysa International Book Fair.

Why did you want to do this?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He asked me to do it. How can you say no to Nuruddin Farah?

WARNER: Now, it's not so unusual for a novelist to write in his second or even third language. But when Farah's first novel was published in English in 1970, Somali did not even have an official written language. They got that in '72 because Somali has always been an oral culture. This book fair aims to change that.

JAMA MUSSE JAMA: Written word, the written history, written literature, in Somali, written word, it's a crucial time.

WARNER: Jama Musse Jama is co-founder of the fair now in its ninth year. It takes place in Somaliland, which you won't find on most maps of Africa, except as a dotted line carving off the northwest chunk of Somalia. But step around this city and it does not feel anything like Somalia.

HUSSEIN BURHAN: You can walk anywhere in Somaliland. You can drive anywhere in peace.

WARNER: Dr. Hussein Bulhan is president of one of the dozens of universities cropping up here. And he points out the patent differences between Hargeisa and Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. While Mogadishu, just 500 miles to the south, is beset by terrorist attacks, here, you can drink tea in an outdoor cafe until 3 in the morning if you want because of strong community policing.

But another difference is while Somalia has been showered with international aid, he says Somaliland has had to rely on itself for the last 25 years.

BURHAN: Not because of loan, not because of aid, not IMF, not USA, not World Bank - sheer people effort.

WARNER: Now, Somaliland does get help from one group, though they don't have a fancy acronym. Somalis in the diaspora, in Minnesota, Toronto, Dubai, contribute about $500 million a year to Somaliland's economy. That's about a third of the country's GDP, and that's where this book fair comes in. This fair is the biggest annual event in Hargeisa.

And it's a gathering spot timed for diaspora summer vacations.

BURHAN: And the diaspora, that has been helping, the diaspora that left this country as refugees. You understand, they were still linked up with the community here.

WARNER: But their children don't have that direct link.

BURHAN: The younger ones in the diaspora at the present time are disconnected from reality here. They were born there.

WARNER: Fifteen million people speak Somali both here, in Africa and around the world. But the founders of this book fair argue that speaking is not enough, that a primarily oral culture cannot be the glue for a people spread out around the globe. The aim of this event is to encourage a culture of reading and writing in Somalia.

FADDAH DEHOWER: I'm a writer.

WARNER: You're a writer?

DEHOWER: I write three books.

WARNER: Faddah Dehower (ph) is a college student in Hargeisa. She's just 18 years old.

You're 18 and you've already written three books?


WARNER: All right.

Her three books explore the importance of women in Islam. But then I meet her 16-year-old seatmate Roda Hassan (ph).

RODA HASSAN: I am preparing three books.

WARNER: She's also writing three books.

HASSAN: And one of them is finished but two still there is.

WARNER: Wow, three books is like the minimum, right? Now, you have to start with three books.

HASSAN: But all of my books talks about motivation.

WARNER: It's a motivational series for Somali youth with advice that Hassan has gleaned from her mom. And I'm guessing it must be good advice because this 16-year-old, I find out later, got the third best score in Somaliland on her high school exams. She was the top-scoring girl. And, frankly, if I had not met her at random, I might think she was a plant put there by the book fair because she's one of the smartest high school students in the city nursing a dream to be on stage at this book fair talking her self-help books.

Somaliland has come far with its own self-help, but it's banking its future on being more than just an oasis of peace in a war-torn country, but a crossroads of written culture for a people scattered by war around the world. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Hargeisa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.