Book lovers from around the world gathered in Somaliland’s capital city of Hargeysa early August for the eighth edition of the Hargeysa International Book Fair. From its humble origins, the book fair has grown into the premiere cultural event in the country. This year’s fair on the theme “space” also featured a new partnership, as international organization Women of the World (WOW) partnered with the book fair to incorporate several women-centered panels into the event.
Hargeysa Book Fair has evolved into a unique cultural space where visitors sample both classic and contemporary Somali culture—books, music, and artefacts—yet intended primarily for a local audience. The 5,000 capacity main hall at the Guleid Hotel was regularly packed to the rafters with local book lovers queuing up to purchase copies of their favourite books in Somali, English and even French, and listen to some of the authors discuss their experiences and processes.
For the people of Hargeysa, the fair represents an opportunity to showcase the best of their culture without the shadow of the conflict that has defined international perceptions of the Horn of Africa for nearly 30 years. The fair represents a moment of defiance against the negative narrative that usually frames stories about the region.
The main attraction for outsiders is the legendary Somali passion for the spoken word. The rockstar welcome given to legendary poets Hadrawi and Hassan Ganay testifies to how highly Somali culture esteems poetry especially. Hadrawi simply turned up and it was enough to bring the large hall to a standstill and then to rapturous applause. It hints at what is perhaps the Book Fair’s greatest success—an ability to reach beyond age, gender or political categories and bring together passionate artists and their admirers for a week of hearty intellectual exchange.
Although the fair is nominally apolitical, with a young population in a country where politics remains fraught and highly contested, political discussions inevitably seep in. Visitors witnessed passionate exchanges about the relationship between Hargeysa and Mogadishu; about the status of women in public and private life; about the role of the writer in defining and propagating an idea of “Somali-ness”. The fair thus creates a controlled space where these difficult conversations can be had.
It would be naïve to suggest that the book fair did not have its problems. There was some complaint amongst local people that the English sessions should have been translated to be more accessible to the local audience, even though it’s unclear how this could be achieved without the massive expense of simultaneous translation. There was also one key demographic visibly absent in the audience – older women or mothers – who perhaps would have benefitted especially from the Oxfam-led discussion on the role of women in peace-building in Somaliland.
Limitations notwithstanding, the eighth edition of the Hargeysa International Book Fair was a triumphant testament to what passion and courage can do in the face of difficult odds. Ayan Mahamoud and Jama Musa Jama, the festival founders and executive directors, probably had no idea that when they set out to bring a book fair to Hargeysa they would become a vanguard of one of Africa’s most fascinating and complex cultures, bringing it to the world on it’s own terms and despite the Somali Civil war’s momentum of erasure. But that is exactly what they’ve done: true to this year’s book fair theme, they’ve created a space where Somali culture can be celebrated.