Literary Culture in Somaliland: An Interview with Jama Musse Jama

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THT-It is not an exaggeration to say that one of the longest running literary festivals on the African continent, the Hargeysa International Book Fair held annually in Somaliland, is one of the most talked about and immediately fascinating literary phenomena of the last decade.

Coverage of the HIBF invariably adopts a somewhat colonial tone of discovery and wonderment—set in a country that is not a country; that paradoxical landscape of high culture alongside goats wandering freely on the streets; unending debates on media freedom and censorship; irritable chatter about women guests who must be covered; and lots of security talk arising from Somaliand’s post-war identity. Yet every single person who has shown up for the fair will unequivocally attest to have had a great time. With authors having their books sold out, unprecedented amounts of attendance for all variety of panels, and an exciting buzz of literary camaraderie all around, the one available non-alcoholic beer that barely pretends to be beer goes down pretty easy after the long hot days.

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Jama Musse Jama is the person behind the magic. He has a diplomat-like persona—immensely genuine and down-to-earth while also being savvy, cautious and hard to pin down. Without doubt, he has not slept for over a decade with the kind of energy, rigor, funding and networks he has brought to bear in order to successfully run the HIBF. There are many historical twists of fate that have led Somalis to disperse all across the globe, and Jama’s own life is, unsurprisingly, lived in many places at once. Indeed, he embodies the kind of patriotic and fervent anchoring that the diaspora often feel towards the places they were torn from; and he has harnessed this energy in himself and the many dozens whom he leads to bring the extraordinary HIBF to life.

A gorgeous Hargeysa Cultural Center has sprung up in the past years and comprises a library, Jama’s own cassette archive, a room for exhibitions, classrooms and a large open air arena for the book fair. I can attest to the fact that despite the bustle and crowds and the dozens of book stalls, the breeze here is exceptionally cool on the many relaxing stone verandas. HIBF is a real mood, and in this interview, Jama returns to the moment the idea was born and narrates the story of a heady marathon that shows no sign of slowing down.

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[The interview has been edited for clarity]

 

Bhakti Shringarpure

Let me start with a simple question. How did all this begin? I know you’re trained as a mathematician and you were not necessarily from the world of literature. How did you have the idea of starting the Hargeysa International Book Fair?

 Jama Musse Jama

Actually, almost by chance! What I mean is that I had no plans to start the book fair. It’s not true that being a mathematician meant I was not close to the world of literature, and I had published a book before. It started in 2007 when they restricted a journalist for the first time in Somaliland. The media that had started in 1992 or 1993 was really vibrant and always upheld the freedom of speech, a flagship for Somaliland society.  But the big government was getting stronger and when they arrested a journalist, I chaired the diaspora pressure group called the Somaliland Forum. We campaigned for Article 32 of the Somaliland constitution which is an article on the freedom of expression. The group’s name was “Gobannimo Bilaash Maaha” which meant that freedom is not free.

The campaign went really well, and I wrote a book on the meaning of freedom in the new Somaliland. The book did very well in the western market; we launched it in London and in Sweden. It won an award for a Somali book written in the Somali language. This all felt euphoric, and I got the idea to present the book in Hargeysa in 2008.

Since I had already started a small publishing house in Italy, I did wonder if we could go beyond my book launch. I wondered also about the fact that Somali people are viewed as an oral society where reading is not important. I went to Hargeysa with a colleague from Canada, Abdishakur A. Jowjar, a medical doctor who has since, unfortunately, passed away. He said, come on, let’s do a book fair. So the idea just came, we never planned anything. It was fantastic because we started it on a weekend, an extended 3-day weekend. And a couple of hundred people showed up. From the beginning, I understood that young Somali people wanted to read. But also that there were no books circulating in the country. So we were missing the raw material, and that was the first discrepancy.

Bhakti Shringarpure

How was the atmosphere in the country at the time?

 Jama Musse Jama

This was the end of the Somali conflict. Somaliland had come out from a long Somali conflict and also its internal disputes. It was a society where schools were coming back. Young people were finishing their secondary school, and there was a momentum around people wanting to read. We wanted to go with that and made “Freedom of Expression” the theme that year. And the freedom in the government was linked to that. I sensed very strongly that this was a project for young people. And they grabbed it, and they loved it. My book was, of course, an excuse. But around the book, we added dance, art, and other forms of cultural celebration. That day, I also understood that continuation would be the challenge. I knew that I would immediately get criticism from many different groups.

Bhakti Shringarpure

What kind of criticism was this?

 Jama Musse Jama

The main criticism was that people need water, shelter, food much more than books. They told me that this is not the right moment. They said they didn’t disagree that there is a need for reading but that this is not the right time. And I said, okay, that is probably true, but I can’t help people with food and shelter. But I can help them by providing books and reading, which is equally important. So this is how it was in the beginning, but I immediately understood that it would be a good project. The last thing they would say was that we took on a really big name by calling it an international book fair. There was nothing really international about me and others who came from Hargeysa. It started locally and then people came from all over, and it became quite an international fair.

Bhakti Shringarpure

But I think if it’s something Somali, it’s always international. Somalis live everywhere.

 Jama Musse Jama

Exactly! But this is really a Somaliland project in the sense of resilience and support for each other when it comes to nation building. And that’s why it is successful.

Bhakti Shringarpure

With Somalis living all over the world, it’s not as much about other countries but also about bringing Somalis from other places. It becomes an international gesture. So, I am not surprised you went with that title. But had you been to Hargeysa a lot before that or did you return after a long time?

Jama Musse Jama

Oh, I never “left” Hargeysa. The Somaliland forum was all diaspora but I never identified or linked myself to the diaspora because first of all, I had been coming every year due to my father’s illness. He had passed away in the meantime. In a way, I never left Somaliland. I was involved with the activities taking place for the rebirth of Somaliland. I think there were four years (1992-96) that I couldn’t come back because the situation was difficult and I was completing my education. But except for that, I never missed coming back and returned whenever I had the reason and the opportunity. So I don’t feel that I have ever left Somaliland.

Bhakti Shringarpure

Let me ask you a complicated question. When I attended the book fair in 2019, we visited President Muse Bihi Abdi’s palace for a formal dinner organized for all the participants of the book fair. How important is it for a festival like this to have the support and aid of the national institutions? To what degree do you have to be careful or rather conscious that you are supported by a government that is often criticized by other countries. There are many internal problems in greater Somalia. How do you navigate all this?

Jama Musse Jama

I was always lucky to have a good working relationship with the Somaliland government(s). And I still consider myself lucky that I get the big help when it comes to security from the government since it is really difficult to have that in this part of the world. What it meant was that I can do whatever I want, and the government will not enter into the details of that. I keep my distance and independence. But some things like security are crucial in a volatile region. You also need support from the government for security and transportation if you are going outside of the capital. So the arrangement is, I stay away and I don’t ask money from the government. But I do ask for protection and security when it is needed.

Another thing that helped me is that if you google Somaliland, you get the Hargeysa International Book Fair. If you google Hargeysa International Book Fair, you get Somaliland. The book fair became a sort of window for Somaliland to showcase itself to people. When you came here, you were connected and so you already knew. But many of the people coming here don’t know the difference between Somaliland and Somalia. The departure airports don’t even know the difference. So the book fair became a sort of a flagship for Somaliland in a positive way. When people associate Somalis with all the bad things like piracy and Al Shabaab and bombs, you suddenly also get the book festival. It spreads a strong and positive message about the people and changes the perception of people.

The HIBF showcases the good side of the Somali people in Somaliland, and of course, because of lack of recognition, Somalilanders use it as a platform to sell the idea of a new nation.

Bhakti Shringarpure

I find it fascinating because I have written a book about the Cold War and the manipulation of culture. And the idea of cultural diplomacy is very prominent within that. Musicians, artists and writers were made to do a soft version of diplomacy in a way to spread and promote certain national ideas. And I was reminded of that because I know that Somaliland is bidding for national recognition. And the HIBF plays a huge part in this.

Jama Musse Jama

Yeah, absolutely. It has become a way to let the world know that Somaliland exists. It’s a business card for Somaliland. We deal with books, of course, but it also produces some tangible progressive collaborations that are different. We had invited Nigeria one year and the team came here and immediately made a connection between the chambers of commerce of Somaliland and that of Nigeria, and there were projects that started from there. So it is a kind of a soft diplomacy and has nothing to do with the programming of the book fair. Another example was when the Somaliland Writing Association and Malawi Writing Association established a program of understanding and exchange. So yes, it’s a kind of cultural diplomacy.

In general, where political engagement fails, cultural diplomacy can be an alternative vehicle. Whether it is cultural, academic, or artistic exchange, a platform that allows a country and its people to convey their identity, interests and position to the world is vital for the coexistence of countries. Especially when the political turmoil cannot and does not permit it.

Bhakti Shringarpure

I want to move to the question of space. I know you have the Hargeysa Cultural Center and it’s so beautiful and gorgeous. I loved being there. When, in a festival’s journey, does one decide that unless you have that one place, it’s not going to work? The physical place seems very important for the festival. There are traveling festivals. There are festivals that change location. But there is something very grounded and beautiful in having that one place. How did it come about?

Jama Musse Jama

Actually, this is a really important question for us. For 6 or 7 years, I kept coming back in the summer for a couple of weeks to work on the festival and then going back to Italy. But I realized that the popularity of HIBF was demanding more. And the young people were wanting to get more from the book fair. So we needed a physical and permanent space, and a year-round programming for the community. We had to give back to the society. In 2015, we had Book Spaces as a theme for the festival so it became clear then as well. Physical spaces, public spaces are so important for the growth of any society. And having a permanent space was fundamental.

Secondly, people want to trust the space, and need a safe space.  The young people, especially many young women who come to the cultural center, feel safe. They feel at home. They want to sit down and touch the trees and feel they are not being observed.

The final reason that it was important was that this country and Hargeysa was completely destroyed in 1988. And, I mean, completely. There was not one single building that remained. It almost destroyed our entire history. And till today, there is no national archive. So the cultural center also became a space for that. For me it started with collecting Somali music. I see Somali music as part of an endangered heritage. But I didn’t want to put it in a museum which seals it off. I wanted to put it back in the life of the young people, music should be part of their daily life.

For me, space was also an abstract thing. Young people need the space of a family, a spiritual space, and individual spaces within the family. When you come from a post-conflict society, you have to start with the major issues like security, roads, infrastructure and so on. The resources are already meager, and they were closing libraries saying that culture is not a priority. I strongly disagree. If we don’t make art and culture our major priority, then we lose our humanity. We lose what makes a human being human. Art is so fundamental. Culture is so fundamental. History and memory is so fundamental. If we don’t get a place like ours to restart the wheel, we’ll be lost.

Bhakti Shringarpure

Absolutely true.

Jama Musse Jama

For the first four years of the book fair, we still had what we called “the moving library.” We would start a week before the book fair and travel to all corners of Somaliland, a caravan of 15 cars. We stopped at one village at a time to talk about books and engaged the nomadic aspect of Somali people. Our motto for those years was to allow these traveling books to settle down. We were planning to have a small public library maintained by the municipality. It worked in some places, and it didn’t in some. That was also the concept behind the cultural center, to have everything in one place.

Bhakti Shringarpure

When I was there, there were thousands of people but also an incredible amount of books on display. Lots of people were milling about, reading and rifling through books. Books were also getting sold out rapidly. There are books in English and Arabic, but it’s mostly Somali books. Where are these books being published? What does everyone like to read here?

Jama Musse Jama

Some years ago, I was contacted by the Association of Scandinavian Libraries, and they wanted to have the books written in the Somali language for the second generation of Somalis, many of whom are in Norway or Sweden. I had a small publishing house, and they asked me to work on a small project to analyze the books in circulation. And surprisingly, we found only 189 total titles written in Somali. For a language spoken by 16 million people, that was a small number of books. Somali became a written language in the mid-70s and then with the war, there was a decline. So this was the situation we found ourselves in during the mid-2000s when the book fair began. But last year, we had 250 books published and printed locally in Hargeisa and in the two other cities of Somaliland. The numbers are there, but the quality is still a problem, so we still need to grow some more. Books were initially printed in Dubai or in Cairo, and then imported. But now we have four presses where the prints are of good or acceptable quality. The market is starting to make progress. It has become much easier. But, I remember for the first six years, I was printing the books in Italy and I was bringing them here. Five thousand books a year from Italy, most of them coming via air or then by sea, and taking months to arrive. It was really difficult to bring books here. But now, it’s vibrant and it’s really impressive to see the numbers of books published and available here. And that’s really important because despite the economy, people are buying books.

Bhakti Shringarpure

What about the genres being published?  Is it poetry or fiction? Or educational books?

Jama Musse Jama

It has changed over the years. In fact, if you see what was published in early 2000, it would be collections of poetry. And then there was a focus in fiction. For the last six years, we have started a short story competition called “Sheeko iyo Shaahid” (means “what I was told, and what I have witnessed”). It has been quite popular at the book fair because we’re now publishing the winning book. And, another developing area these days is essays by people who are writing about politics, culture, criticism and so on. Publishing in Somali language is really thriving.

Bhakti Shringarpure

Why do you choose a theme and a country each year?

Jama Musse Jama

We choose a theme to set a common wish that will bring the book fair community together to reflect on an issue. It is usually based on contextual factors that are already in the air. For example, when we had “Connectivity” as a theme for the 10th HIBF, our wish was to connect the ten years of service with the previously set themes, and to capitalize on the connections made by the book fair across generations, genders and professions.

Young people write about the theme for the entire year. Painters do the same. Poets compose on it. And even musicians have made music based on the themes. The theme reflects on the issues that matter to society, and it is safe to say that it is a political engagement. We started with Freedom (2008), followed by Censorship (2009) and then Citizenship (2010) and that was about the role and rights of the individual within the community. We then went wide and focused on Memories (2011), Future (2012) and in between the past and future there was always the Journey (2013). We have then moved to more philosophical themes with Imagination (2014), Spaces (2015), Wisdom (2016) and Leadership (2017).

This year we were hoping to have the theme of Heritage since this is the African Union’s call for the theme of the year. The choice of the guest country which has to be an African one also has multiple meanings. We want Somalilanders to learn from and focus on one country each year; their customs and cultures, and to engage politically through this. The country has to be African because I realized that young Somalilanders know the streets of Paris or Dubai better than the name of the capitals of their neighboring countries. Our goal is to refocus on pan-Africanism in literature, art and culture to unite the entire continent while appreciating the differences.

Bhakti Shringarpure

Give me three of your top favorite guests that made you feel “this is so worth it.”

Jama Musse Jama

You!

Bhakti Shringarpure

But, of course! (laughs)

Jama Musse Jama

JMJ:  Jokes apart, I was really happy to have you among our guests. Back to the question. Local poet Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame “Hadrawi” is on the top of my most respected and most frequently invited artists; he is just an inspiration. Having Dr. Hussien Mohamed Adam “Tanzania,” the founder of Somali Studies International Association in 2015, and in the late days of life, was just a blessing. Among the non-Somalis, poet Jack Mapanje from Malawi. He and Hadrawi seem to have had similar life trajectories, and they read together on a panel without speaking the same language. And poet Niyi Osundare from Nigeria. I was happy to get to know another great African poet and thinker. This was a very hard question, honestly.

Bhakti Shringarpure

Name all the people who have made the HIBF possible.

Jama Musse Jama

(laughs) Oh! No. I can’t:-) How long do I have ? Too many.

The very first names are Ayan Mohamud who has co-led most of the work we have done for art and culture and Amina Mohamud who has chaired the board of the organization since its inception with unfailing dedication, commitment and guidance. There is the older generation of artists who served on the board of the Redsea Cultural Foundation and worked as tutors for creative writing. These include Said Jama Hussein, Rashid Abdillahi, Saed Salah, Abdirahman Artan, and the Somaliland council of poets. The people who made possible HIBF are really too many to list, but for me the poet Hadraawi and Dr. Edna Adan Ismail are names I must mention. And, of course, every year it is the more than 60 young volunteers who get the real job done.

by BHAKTI SHRINGARPURE

Source: https://brittlepaper.com/2020/09/literary-culture-in-somaliland-an-interview-with-jama-musse-jama/

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