In Heat of War, a Literary Refuge

The Mogadishu Public Library has about 7,000 members and a donated collection of about 31,000 books.
The Mogadishu Public Library has about 7,000 members and a donated collection of about 31,000 books. (Photos Courtesy Of Zaylai Foundation)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 28, 2007

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- It is difficult to find books in the Somali capital these days, but one place with a dozen shelves of them is the Mogadishu Public Library, which amounts to a single room behind a solid steel gate in a neighborhood of goats, mosques and electronics shops.

The manager, Hirsie Mohamed Hirui, had the place open one recent Sunday, even as the occasional AK-47 assault rifle popped off in the distance and the city remained locked in an edgy standoff involving clan militias, Ethiopian troops and Islamic fighters.

The Somali capital has been caught up in the country's civil war for most of the past 16 years, but gun battles might rage in one part of the city while other areas remain calm. So outside the library, at a table under some trees, seven men sat reading, mostly technical business books such as "Making Groups Effective" or "The Multinational Construction Industry."

Although the Somali language and culture are infused with poetry, literature is harder to come by in Mogadishu than, say, "The Handbook of Metal Treatments and Testing."

"The man who is reading a novel is rested and not worried about anything," Hirui said, offering an explanation. "The man who lives in Mogadishu works 13 or 14 hours a day."

The privately funded library has about 7,000 members, most of them students and intellectuals. On its walls are posters with sayings such as "A man without knowledge is a house without foundation."

About 31,000 donated books are divided into such subjects as chemistry, biology, African women and technology, though not literature or philosophy.

Still, a book of William Blake's poetry was on a shelf with "Methods and Perspectives in Geography" and "Stone Age Economics." "The Confessions" by Jean-Jacques Rousseau was filed alongside "Another World Is Possible" and "Social Welfare in the Soviet Union." "The Field of Consciousness" was there with "Food Irradiation."

Hirui said it was slightly easier to find novels during the dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre, who was overthrown in 1991, plunging Mogadishu into years of internecine clan warfare. He recalled a slight craze in the 1980s over two books in particular, Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days" and Franz Kafka's "Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared."

"Everyone wanted to learn a little English," Hirui said.

Lately, some worn copies of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" have been circulating from house to house.

But generally speaking, Western books appear these days like so many messages from distant worlds. On a shelf in the third-floor office of the Somali-based Center for Peace and Democracy, there was "Mastering Windows 2000," Louis L'Amour's "Last of the Breed," and oddly, another Kafka work, "The Trial."

There are a couple of bona fide bookshops in Mogadishu, but those were closed recently, perhaps because of the escalating violence in the city. Mostly, books are sold at stationery stores.

In a shop selling fans, sandals, phones, folders and cologne, for example, a glass case displayed several volumes like so many jewels: the revised and enlarged second edition of "Who Is a Terrorist?" by Jama Mohamed Ghalib; a few paperback copies of Dale Carnegie's "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living;" and, in a country of long memories and old grudges, "Defending History: Recounting Hassan Kite's Attempted Coup D'etat in Hergeisa 1961" and "Pseudo-Distortions."

None of them really thrilled Ibrahim Mo'alim, a computer teacher perusing the shelves.

"I read romances mainly," he said. "I can't remember all the titles."

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