By:M. Mohamed Abshir
When speaking about Somaliland, Hargeisa has become a metonym for it, a symbolic representation of SL’s hopes and realities. I have always wanted to sightsee and travel there. This year, my dream came true. I went to participate in the 14th annual Hargeisa International Bookfair (HIBF), organized by the Hargeisa Cultural Centre, the brainchild of Dr. Jama Musse. This brief trip turned into an awe-inspiring adventure-filled experience. A brief trip turned into a two-week stay, and I still feel that wasn’t enough to get rid of the itch I had to fully feel satisfied.
Briefly, my visit left me with a lasting impression of the people and what its cities offer to both locals and visitors. It was an unforgettable experience visiting various cities, including Hargeisa, Berbera, and Boroma, and historical sites like the Laas Geel caves and Sheikh Mountain. The different restaurants, hotels, and the generally hospitable nature of the locals was quite an immersing experience.
My trip began in the early morning of July 26, 2021, when I boarded Ethiopian Airlines from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) en route to Hargeisa’s Egal International Airport through Addis Ababa. When we got to Ethiopia, we were met with harsh weather conditions that forced our flight to have an emergency landing at Awasa Airport in Awasa City, about 290km from Addis Ababa. We stayed at the airport for about an hour due to the inclement weather, the first and only hiccup of my trip. When the conditions improved, we proceeded with the journey to Addis Ababa Bole International Airport, arriving at 12:30 pm, an hour later than scheduled. We boarded the plane to Hargeisa at around 4:00 pm and arrived in Hargeisa at 5:30 pm.
With the help of Xamda Cigal, a young towering figure in Hargeisa, who from our first meeting, was staunch, amiable, and very kind. From the moment she picked me up from the airport until my departure, she ensured I was in good hands and that I was well taken care of. She was my gateway to all of the youth I wanted to meet and interact with.
Arriving in Hargeisa, after a day-long journey between airports was an overwhelming relief, and my body ached and was sore from the monotonous flights. After a brief rest at my hotel, my journey began immediately. I met with Saddam Carab, a generous and hospitable young man, who dedicated his time to ensure our stay in Hargeisa was exemplary. Saddam is a young CEO and Communications consultant based in Hargeisa. My first night in the city, along with a group of new friends who were also visiting the city for the first time, was with Saddam, who was acting as our guide, he generously and passionately presented to us his Hargeisa, his lived and proud city. Often sharing tidbits and fun facts about the singers and sights, he showed us what the city meant to him and all over SL. His encyclopedic knowledge of historic events also made the car rides and trips to other cities so much memorable and enjoyable. His guidance played a critical role in my enjoyable stay in Hargeisa.
From the first night, I noticed that the city of Hargeisa comes to life in the evening into the night. The city is more glamorous at night as the streetlights light up the developing roads and guide you to the many aroma filled restaurants. There, we had dinner and got to know each other, and the rest of the night was amiably filled with friendly banter.
The following day, I attended the Book Fair in Hargeisa. The main objective of the book fair was to showcase Somali literary works and arts as well as inviting the people to immerse themselves into their culture. It was intriguing for me to be part of this book fair because I learned a lot about Somali literary works and how young Somali writers embrace their culture. The panellists guiding the discussion at the book fair were from very diverse backgrounds in terms of their professions.
Two specific books caused an uproar and excitement when they were showcased, Foolaad, by a young author Abdikarim Hikmawi, about the life & times of the Martyr, iconic singer, and poet Mohamed Moge Liban, and Hawaale Warran, by the most eminent & revered scholar, poet and Somali thinker Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame (Hadraawi) who was described by Mary Harper as the “the Somali Shakespeare”, this was typed by one of his students, Mohamed Saleban. The showcasing of these books was, to me, the wildest nights of the event, the venue (Hargeisa Cultural Centre) was packed beyond capacity.
At the book fair, the diversity of the panel showed the changing diversity of Somaliland. For example, I noticed, with interest, the presence of a Yemeni immigrant who was showcasing his book on Somali to Arabic language. I also realised throughout the many outings, there is a growing presence of Ethiopian citizens in Somaliland particularly evident in the hospitality sector as many Ethiopian restaurants are present across the city. Besides the Ethiopians, the city is also home to many Yemeni & Syrian refugees.
During the afternoon break, I visited the museum in Hargeisa Cultural centre where the HIBF was being hosted. I was able to document different artefacts about Somali history and culture with an informative and upbeat guide.
My time was divided into intermittent travelling out of Hargeisa to other cities, and touring and meeting with locals. When I wasn’t travelling out of the city to other parts of SL, I was immersing myself in the city’s life. Its people and culture.
I accompanied a group of friends on a road trip to the City of Berbera, a port city along the Gulf of Aden. We left early in the morning by road for a distance of about 157km. The trip to Berbera was very enchanting and fascinating. I was exposed to the reality of Somaliland besides what I have come across through the media. We passed through several well-built roads springing from the larger city of Hargeisa to other regions. While some of the roads were not complete, they were largely smooth and easy to drive along. Most of the roads and other major projects in SL are part of the Berbera Corridor project constructed by DP World, an Emirati multinational logistics company based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Further ahead, we came across an old road constructed during the era of Siad Barre, the former President of the Somali Republic. Despite being such an old road, it had been well maintained and was still in great condition. When we got to Berbera, I was astonished at the beauty of the city. Despite its contemporary look, the city has still preserved its ancient history as it is considered one of the oldest settlements in the Horn of Africa. I fell in love with the city because of how it was organized, lively culture, and clean.
It is by far the cleanest city I have ever visited in Somaliland. Berbera is gradually emerging from the ashes of a ruined historical city. With a population of about 522,000 people, Berbera is considered SL’s economic hub. The city is strategically positioned to support trade while also facilitate the shipment of products to the gulf region and other places around the world. Berbera has developed into a frontier city with beautiful beaches, historical sites, and vantage points for accessing islands in the Red Sea. The roads in the city are properly developed with provisions for non-motorized transport such as pedestrian walks. Unlike other towns, Berbera did not have animals walking around town aimlessly. However, despite its beauty, order, and cleanliness, Berbera is excessively hot. The sun over there is unforgivingly hot, and the air is full of humidity. Astonishingly, I was informed that the temperature during my visit was not as bad as this was not the hottest season yet. This left me imagining what the hot season would look like in Berbera.
One amazing experience I had was when I visited the Laas Geel. Laas Geel is one of the most enthralling places in SL given its historical significance. The phrase Laas Geel loosely translates to ‘a source of water for camels’. This important archaeological site is a major tourist attraction centre on the outskirts of Hargeisa. There are many cave paintings that have existed for several millennia; it’s one of the oldest cave paintings dating back to circa 18,000BC or 20,000BC depicting domesticated progenitors of modern-day cattle. I took several pictures of these cave paintings and other valuable archaeological information as I found them quite mesmerizing. I returned to the city later in the evening and attended a live show of traditional dances (Qaaci) at Hidadhowr Restaurant, a very traditional restaurant with few modern touches in its design and recipes.
The other unforgettable city I visited is Boroma, near the Ethiopian border. The city is also ancient and has a rich history from the rule of the Adal Sultanate in the Middle Ages to the British Somaliland Protectorate. There have been numerous archaeological artefacts that have been discovered in the city including ancient remains of tombs, houses, and mosques, that all point to an eventful past. Boroma is also situated in a mountainous and hilly area and prominently has green fields and meadows that represent a key focal point for wildlife and agriculture, it’s Boroma is one of the largest cities in SL.
I was therefore excited to have an opportunity to explore this city whose history is engraved in the national history of SL as one of the most important cities. Along the way, we passed through Abaarso, where we saw large swathes of land being used for cash crop farming. We also passed by a row of trees lining the streets called “beereha jeceylka/lamanaha” (Trees of love). This is a plantation project conceived to encourage newly wedded to plant trees, symbolically planting their love and a brilliant conservation idea. When we got to Boroma, we visited Amoud University, a historic learning institution in SL. The university is the oldest and most prestigious public institution in SL. It was established in 1997, six years after SL’s self-declaration of independence.
The city of Boroma was unique because I could see several tuk-tuks, as primary means of transportation, unlike in Hargeisa and Berbera. We later had a meal at a restaurant before embarking on our journey back to Hargeisa. Before we bode the city goodbye, Saddam and I spontaneously climbed to the peak of the famous Sh. Cali Mountain, if this permits to be called my first mountaineering I have ever done, we had a breathtaking sight of the city, as it glittered in the night, like randomised star constellations in the sky.
After I finished my trips to other cities in SL, I returned to Hargeisa, there I began a city tour visiting all the bookshops in the city, I began with Hiil Press of which Xamda Cigal is its director. Hiil Press is a publishing house that ushered in the dawn of exporting foreign books in the English and Arabic languages translated to Somali, to make them accessible to Somali readers, and enriching Somali libraries and thinking. I bought multiple books from the publisher (Hiil Press) and I received a gift from Xamda some valuable books that I am excited to add to my growing library of books written in Somali.
I went on to Sahan Bookshop, under the umbrella of the Sahamiye Foundation, by World Remit founder Ismail Ahmed, as part of his $500 million fund, they are taking a critical role in revitalising the literacy of SL and providing accessible and up to date books and knowledge sources. I was struck by the low prices of the books. I later learned that the prices had been subsidized directly by the publishers to attract more readers since profit isn’t the goal.
I also visited Aljazeera University and Red Sea Online Bookshops at Oriental Hotel, one of the oldest and iconic hotels in the city. These bookshops had a raw feeling to them, they were in kiosk-style shops, unlike the brick-and-mortar design of Sahan and other bookshops in the city. Lastly, I visited Hema bookshop, another brick-and-mortar bookshop, that is also contributing to the enriching footprint of bookshops in the city.
When I wasn’t travelling, I was perusing through the city in sandals and I had ample time to meet with groups of young people who wear their hearts on their sleeves. Many of them asked me how my time in Hargeisa is. Although I had many answers for this intermittent question, there’s only one that matters, it is the people I met, that left me with a memorable, warm and hospitable experience.
One major experience of my trip was my interaction with and observation of youth in Hargeisa. The youth here are made of sterner stuff, strong-willed and overall very thick-skinned. I had the pleasure of making acquaintances of some of the most brilliant. One such was my meeting with my now good friend AbdiAziiz Guudcade, a young author and prolific translator of books from English to the Somali language, who through our discussion I found him to be a keen, observant thinker and having the lucidity of philosophy. He tasked himself with exporting knowledge rarely available in the Somali language. I see no stopping to his astute endeavour to translate more impactful books.
One other encounter was with Kamaal Marjaan, an author, translator, and prolific journalist. He is the chief editor and columnist at Wargeyska Geeska Afrika. In our meeting, we toured the city of Hargeisa, sightseeing the most historical sights, and giving me a concise rundown of the nature of Somaliland. Thankfully, I received signed copies of his books, a beautiful and memorable way to conclude our meeting and encounter.
I could descry how particularly in Hargeisa literature is thriving through the myriad biographies and works written on the legendary poets and artists, some of whom are alive today, like the eminent Hadraawi. There’s visible generation transfer of the literary baton to the new and young artists, writers and poets. Bringing about a cultural revolution akin to a Somali renaissance. This visible ownership and pride in the antiquity poets and literary geniuses is through the linguistic and often ubiquitous use of their poems in the everyday language, through the examples and other devices used to express and illustrate one’s opinions.
This cultural difference from other parts of Somalia can be attributed to the close proximity to rural life in Hargeisa, maintaining a deepening connection to culture and arts. Before travelling to any city, I met locals from that city in Hargeisa, who insist upon you to visit certain landmarks, locations and institutions.
During my interactions with youths and my road trips around Somaliland, I noticed the absence of the rap scene prevalent in Mogadishu from all Somaliland cities I visited. In the car rides, the radio stations played exclusively Somali songs, both classics “Qaraami” and contemporary songs. This inclination towards the classics didn’t give room for rap to thrive. Historically, rap is wholly alien to Somali arts, it’s modelled and influenced by American and East African new wave artists. This style lacks all the literary signatures, the common tropes and styles present in Somali songs.
Beyond the arts, the city is now a fresh breath in an often-tumultuous area, what was once a city burdened with trauma afflicted by the late barre regime, is now the face of revival and flourishing, in terms of human capital and infrastructure wise. It is also the most peaceful city in previously the Somali republic. This is prove of the efforts and commitment to security and development, instilling and whispering the cries of hope to other regions of larger Somalia.
The highlight of my trip, however, was taking part in the 14th annual Hargeisa Book Fair. The book fair gave me a glimpse of the reading culture present in the many book clubs and bookshops, creating a new generation of well-educated young people who have their wits about them, fully ready to embrace the challenges head-on, with the vigour and confidence to tackle them appropriately.
Hargeisa now symbolises the archetypical rise from the ashes, and the sky is the limit for it.
About The Author
Mohamed Abshir is a Researcher on the intersection of political economy & history of
Africa focusing on HoA. Environmentalist & chess aficionado.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Horndiplomat editorial policy.
If you want to submit an opinion piece or an analysis please email it to Opinion@horndiplomat.com
Horndiplomat reserves the right to edit articles before publication. Please include your full name, relevant personal information and political affiliations