Sharks prowl the surf that breaks gently beside this desert city. They were lured to Mogadishu's beach about six years ago when the Russians, then patrons of Somalia, built a seaside slaughterhouse just north of town. Several times a year these sharks, excited by the blood and offal that slithers down the beach and into the sea, eat citizens of Somalia.
At the Anglo-American Beach Club, a seedy, hospitable establishment on the beach, expatriates spend their afternoons drinking Danish beer, sunbathing, snoozing, not swimming and reminiscing about shark attacks.
"With my own eyes," testified a British geologist who works for the United Nations in Somalia, "I've seen three people killed. One had his leg bitten off, another both legs and three months ago I saw one young man reach for a football that had been kicked into the surf. He lost both arms up to the elbows."
An American diplomat confirms the report of the youth who lost his arms (and later died) fetching a soccer ball. The Somali ministry of health says there have been two fatal shark attacks on the Mogadishu beach in the past seven months.
"You can always tell when there's been an attack," said the geologist, who did not want to be identified by name, fearing what he calls the Somali government's "sensitivity" to sharks, "because people come running to the beach from all directions."
SHARK ATTACKS aside, there is precious little running, brisk walking or expeditious movement of any kind in this steaming city on the Indian Ocean. Somalis here have perfected a deliberate, dignified pace that allows them to stroll the crumbling, sand-swept streets of this 1,000-year-old city without breaking into a sweat.
Unless one adopts this Mogadishu saunter, one sweats miserably and steps on the (often bare) heels of the locals. There is little point, anyway, in rushing around this town of 1 million people. For when one arrives on time for an appointment, the object of that appointment often is not in.
The workday begins, allegedly, at 7 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m., when offices close and everyone saunters home for a nap. Many government offices, however, are empty all day, as evidenced by endlessly ringing telephones.
Behind this ringing emptiness stands the abysmal pay scale of Somali civil servants. They have not had a pay raise in 26 years. Department heads earn only $30 a month, barely enough to feed a family of four here for a week. Many civil servants, therefore, have outside business interests. And, since Mogadishu sleeps in the afternoon, these bureaucrat-entrepeneurs would go broke if they did not take care of business by ducking out on jobs in the morning. "IT IS ONE of the odd characteristics of the climate . . . that it is practically impossible to remain both immobile and conscious."
Evelyn Waugh wrote this a half century ago of Aden, a city north of here on the southern tip of the Saudi Arabian peninsula. But the observation fits contemporary Mogadishu.
In the city's central market, a sandy, fly-infested sprawl of goat carcasses, cassette tapes, ravishing Somali woman and great mounds of overripe bananas, infectious somnolence lurks behind every tea stall.
Market teamsters, who drive donkey carts into the city at dawn, sack out on the empty beds of their carts as soon as they have unloaded the day's haul of mangoes or mutton. They snore contentedly as their donkeys, still in harness, stand immobile, slowly blinking their long eyelashes in the ferocious morning sunlight.
Afternoon finds shoe-shine boys asleep on shady sidewalks, their heads resting on piles of brushes, shoe polish and rags. Polio cripples, their spiny legs splayed beneath them, sleep, too, on the sidewalks. At the Mogadishu duty-free shop, which only opens in the afternoon and only sells to customers with foreign passports, the music on the store's stereo is Dave Brubeck's "Take Five."
Even when Mogadishu is mobile and conscious, the city's routine business is performed adagio. Consider, for instance, the cashing of a traveler's check.
I attempted this transaction at 8 a.m. at Mogadishu's largest financial institution, the Central Bank of Somalia. At the sight of my check, a clerk slowly turned away from the foreign exchange counter and commenced a languid and extended search for four sheets of carbon paper. He calmly swiped an ancient adding machine from another clerk's desk. It needed to be plugged in, however. This necessitated a slow-motion wrestling match with the Central Bank's primary power source: A long black extension cord snaking across the center of the bank's marble floor.
After 30 minutes of logistics and calculations, the clerk said, "Go sit on that bench and wait." How long? "Some minutes more." Twenty minutes later, the clerk directed me across the marble floor to teller window number nine. There, behind a bullet-proof window, was a perfectly blank ledger book, no money, no human being.
Ten minutes later, a second clerk walked into the booth, dropped off my traveler's check and, without saying a word, walked away. After 10 more minutes, a third clerk came in and cheerfully gave me my money.
THE CASUAL approach to business in Mogadishu extends also to religion. Wild-eyed Khomeinism and gun-toting Shiitism do not wash in this officially Islamic state. Women on the city's streets wear no veils. Loose-fitting wraps of cotton and silk expose their faces, their arms and a goodly portion of their backs. In 1975, when 10 fundamentalist mullahs protested a new law giving property rights to Somali women, the mullahs were shot. Liquor is sold here every day.
"All of us are nomads or the descendents of nomads. A nomad does not know if tomorrow the water well will dry up or if his goats will be eaten by hyenas. This gives us an instinctively pragmatic approach to life," explains Ibrahim Mohamud Abyan, president of the Somali Institute for Administration, Development and Management.
It does a Somali no good, Abyan says, to be a fanatic.
It is, therefore, nomadic fatalism, not Islamic fanaticism, that explains why teen-age Somali soccer players continue to cool off in the late afternoons by swimming naked among the sharks.
One evening, just before sunset, I watched them play soccer and swim in the sea. Fatalistic or not, they approached the surf skittishly and no one stayed in the water very long.