This is one of those books you can take to the beach... yet you'll get up from your sun lounger with an understanding of just how Somalia slid into chaos. Harding tells us this story through the life story of Tarzan, the larger-than-life mayor of Mogadishu... hero or villain? Courageous anti-corruption crusader or as corrupt as everyone else? Idealist or opportunist? As a longtime correspondent for the BBC, Harding gives us all the evidence to weigh for ourselves... while taking us on a highly-entertaining journey through a tragic, vivid, vital, violent society and people he has clearly come to love.
Fascinating quest for the real nature of Mohamud 'Tarzan' Nur, sometime Londoner, later Mayor of Mogadishu. For all its dangers and shortcomings Somalia has obviously got under Andrew Harding’s skin. If you only ever read one book about Somalia, let it be this.
This is a well-written, accessible and informative account of the troubled and turbulent history of Somalia, focussing in particular on one man, Mohamoud “Tarzan” Nur, who from a disadvantaged start in life became the Mayor of the capital Mogadishu and battled the influence of Al-Shabab. Never taking anything at face value, Harding attempts to get at the facts, whilst always keeping an open mind. His examination remains thoughtful, insightful and balanced at all times, and makes a complicated situation as clear as it can be. An excellent introduction to Somalia and its people.
The reader of this book – a biography both of Somalia, a country too often dismissed as chaotic or ungovernable, and of Mohamud 'Tarzan' Nur, the eponymous sometime Mayor of the Somalian capital, and one of its most colourful characters – is immediately drawn in through a beautifully-imagined opening and what, if I call it local colour, is not meant to make this sound like just another descriptive travelogue.
What Harding rapidly establishes in his elegant prose is a vivid sense of the geographical and cultural complexities of the situation in Somalia, and that only deepens as the narrative develops. That story, whether unfolding in times of brutal war or precarious peace, is patently researched with care for cultural nuance and delivered with balance, or rather with dynamic engagement – not a bland even-handedness but a nimble viewpoint which not only commends and ultimately endears the ever-political Tarzan to us but also renders him without a shred of hagiography. Because of that approach, the place and its inhabitants come alive off the page with all their jagged history and layered difficulties, not least the rivalrousness of clans and the deep-seated nomad mindset.
The whole cast of characters and Harding's interactions with them are gripping : the reader gains an understanding of a place often under- / mis-represented to us in the West, mediated through his presence as one who – initially visiting in his capacity as a BBC correspondent – really knows what it is like to be there.
His experience as a journalist informs the book, notably in the way he ferrets out nuggets of information and knows how to comport himself in tricky situations – and it is fascinating to get some glimpse into what must, despite the un-garish depiction of it all, have at times been blood-chilling and / or terrifying circumstances in which to carry out the work of reporting sometimes truly dark events.
Harding's quiet presence in the book, which itself allows him to propound a much longer view than the necessarily condensed mode of TV reportage, is ultimately what glues it all together – Tarzan and the others may be the book's unwavering focus, but their story reaches and moves the reader thanks to a committed man's keen intelligence and compassionate heart.
This is an illuminating and well-written account of modern Somalia, told through the biography of a man whose story richly deserves to be aired. I first met the Mayor of Mogadishu about ten years ago at Camden town hall building in Kings Cross in London, when he was on a visit back to the city he'd spent many years in exile in. At the time he was doing what was arguably the toughest job in local government in the world: turning Mogadishu, the world's most ungovernable city, back into a place that was fit to live in again. More remarkably still, he didn't rely on guns and rockets, but instead focused on making the streets clean steets and proper council services - reminding people (for the first time in years) that government was there to serve them, not the other way around. His argument was that if Camden Council could regenerate Kings Cross (then notoriously run-down), why couldn't he do the same for Mogadishu? There is a great deal more to this book, though, than life inside Mogadishu's mayoral parlour. Unlike most other modern accounts of Somalia, which only start after the post-1991 drift into anarchy, this one takes us as far back as the Somalia of Siad Barre's time, when Mohamoud Nur was a young orphan and street tough. We also get a flavour of life in the Somali diaspora, from Saudi Arabia to London, and good insights into the shifting internal politics of clan and identity issues that lead some expats to come back to work in government, and others to join al-Shabab. Finally, I don't think this was probably an easy book to write, given the difficulty of on-the-ground reporting, and given how the mayor himself is far from everyone's favourite person. That makes Andrew Harding's efforts all the more impressive. If I had to make a criticism, it would be that in one of the earlier chapters, he has more appetite than I do for recreating Nur's early village life, but that's a minor gripe. I'd recommend this book to anyone who wants a good overview of Somalia, although I'd say it offers particular rewards for those who already know the basics and want something more personalised. Colin Freeman (ex-chief foreign correspondent on The Sunday Telegraph, author of Kidnapped, life as a Somali pirate hostage")