Source : Literary Hub
WRITER AHMED ISMAIL YUSUF ON GOING HOME AFTER DECADES AWAY
Last month, a book took me back to Mogadishu. But before I tell you how, let me pass on a bit of a background.
Three decades or so ago, I left Somalia for the USA. In my young and somewhat innocent mind, I was heading to Heaven on Earth, but I was not sure whether I was going to make it. I was paralyzed with fear that I was going to get lost through the international flight connections before I ever got there. And for the grace of God, if I made it to the gates of Heaven on Earth, was I going to be lucky enough to be let in? I knew that my paperwork was in order, but my inability to speak English had me laden with a herculean fear that harassed me to no end. I was fearful that I was not going to be able to respond to any question addressed to me, and who was I going to blame but myself?
Once I made it through and was in the country a while, it occurred to me that my inability to speak English was going to cause me worse trouble than I had imagined. That in fact, if I was going to survive, I needed to speak English; that if I was going to earn decent wages, I needed to know applicable English; that if I was going to go to college, I needed the right level of English; and that if I was going to succeed, I needed more than that. In other words, English itself was the key to Heaven on Earth. And if Heaven on Earth existed, I came to understand, they spoke English there.
In Saint Louis, Missouri, I realized—as an unskilled high school dropout and young black man—that Heaven on Earth was asking me to invest in her English, but I had no way to ask her to invest in me. A year or so later, despondent and depressed, I departed from Saint Louis to New York City, where a relative of mine handed me a dozen or so books in English. I took them but had no clue what I was going to do with them. After a long consultation with myself, I picked one for no particular reason. A dictionary in one hand, I began to read. It took me weeks to finish, but that single book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, changed my life. From that moment on, I began to travel around the world from my living room. It occurred to me that Heaven on Earth is ever closer when one reads a book one relishes.
Now, with a book of my own, The Lion’s Binding Oath and Other Stories, published in the same language that had paralyzed me with fear when I first left Somalia, and an invitation to return to Mogadishu, the same city I had flown from three decades earlier, you can imagine that I was going crawl all the way there, if it came to that, to take a message back: that a single book can change your life, and if you conquer your worst fear, that same fear can be your tool to inoculate you against doubt.
If there were a way to get me there to take that message back, was there a better way than being invited to the 4th Annual Mogadishu Book Fair?
Armed with the invitation and a promise to deliver the message, on August 12 I flew from Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the United States, where I live now, to Mogadishu. On August 14, at about 7 am, we entered Somali air space. It did not take us long to descend below the clouds, and soon the Indian Ocean broke before us with a broad smile. Just looking at the pristine Lido Beach made me imagine its soothing susurration, singing for peace to return.
When the other passengers alighted, I lingered behind. I was the last person to exit the airplane. On the ground, I collected myself to make sure that I took a deep breath of fresh Mogadishu air. The weather was what a doctor would have ordered. With temperatures in the mid-80s, a light breeze murmured prayers to welcome us home. Later, however, when I paid a visit to the places in the city I thought I knew best, none of them was recognizable to me. They were battle-damaged, destroyed, or distorted beyond recognition.
“It took me weeks to finish, but that single book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, changed my life.”
The next morning, we went to the venue for the book fair. To my amazement, the same country that did not have a half-dozen recreational books published in Somali when I had left was now teeming with them—fiction and nonfiction and poetry, self-help, and history. A young generation, almost all of whom speak English, have taken the baton of hope and are running with it, producing books by the load. Much still needs to be done to address the paucity of books in Somalia, where there are neither public nor private libraries and no bookstores; yet these young people’s resilient, resolute display of artistic ability is impressive and heartwarming.
These young Somalis are neither waiting for the attention of a world that has ignored them nor for the approval of an older generation that burdened them with the problems of war. They are trying to illuminate or even ameliorate a great need. So they did not want or need me to preach to them to read books, but they did not mind when I validated their valiant volumes of work.
I mentioned that I should not be surprised at the young people’s harvest of words because in 2012 I went to a book festival in the northern city of Hargeisa, the Hargeisa International Book Fair. Hargeisa is the capital city of a self-declared, independent-from-Somalia geographical region that likes to be known as Somaliland.
In fact, the Hargeisa International Book Fair, launched 11 years ago, was the spark that lit this light of literary hope in Somalia and produced not only the Mogadishu Book Fair but three annual book fairs in the country. Literary consumption as well as production has risen with a rare speed. Reading clubs have proliferated, and these annual book fairs are part of the vibrant voices of hope in Somalia today.
On August 15, a full house in the 2,000-capacity hall began the book fair with a gavel that guided our applause. There, a crew of young people crowded the scene. As though that were not impressive enough in itself, they took the helm. They kept guests lined up, stood sentinel to serve the starving social media followers around the globe minute by minute, and implemented and addressed order. Discussions centered on poetry, prose, fiction and nonfiction began to illuminate Somalis’ need to rise.
Hundreds of books, written by the same young generation in the Somali language, were on display in booths similar to that of any book fair around the globe. This young generation came to the book fair with their hungry minds and means to share, showcase, and appreciate what books are known to offer.
As I walked over to the podium to talk about my book, I could see nothing but row after row of young faces, men and women in their late teens to mid-twenties, with winning smiles. I was so happy to see and feel their hunger for learning and overjoyed that they were ready to relish the moment.
Despite the pain of how the war had destroyed their country, the Mogadishu Book Fair and the young generation running it is turning the page! It’s a fact that they need a great deal of help but they are heading down the right road to recovery.