The Mayor of Mogadishu: A Story of Chaos and Redemption in the Ruins of Somalia by Andrew Harding, review by Bruce Jacobs
For many in the United States, Mogadishu is best known as the place where Army Ranger choppers in 1993 were shot down and soldiers were surrounded by desperate, violent rebels, as depicted in the movie Black Hawk Down (based on the 1999 Mark Bowden book). Andrew Harding's The Mayor of Mogadishu goes behind this big-screen image. In an easygoing style, Harding tells the story of Mohamud "Tarzan" Nur's remarkable rise from a nomadic "camelboy," born on the Ethiopian side of the border with Somalia, to become the enigmatic mayor of one of the most divided, broken, bloody cities in the world. Harding, a BBC Africa correspondent and veteran foreign affairs journalist, has been in and out of Somalia numerous times over the last 15 years, allowing for plenty of meetings with Tarzan, his family, his schoolmates and his enemies--most notorious of them the Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab. Accompanied by his own passel of security guards, Harding takes readers through the war-torn streets of Mogadishu and its drought-stricken surroundings--like a safari guide pointing out terrorism sites and bombed-out churches as he might the occasional rogue elephant or pack of hyenas at their kill.
Tarzan is a larger-than-life political chameleon. Sent across the border to Mogadishu after his father's death, he lived with his financially burdened aunt until she had to put him in an orphanage. He found a niche on the basketball team despite his unusual Somalian stature ("A bulldog, you might say, in a nation of whippets"), and became known as a stubborn defender of the little guy. Married outside his clan to the trendy niece of a Somali feminist, he and his wife and six children left Somalia during the dictator Siad Barre's repressive regime and found asylum in London. Like many in the Somalian diaspora, Tarzan missed his country, despite the chaos and anarchy of the 1990s civil war. In London, he worked with refugees and honed his political skills. As one client said, "He was a good guy. Funny. You could tell he was a leader, and the community loved him." When the fighting finally subsided, Tarzan went home and leveraged his refugee connections to be named the mayor of Mogadishu. Although carrying the baggage of a mixed reputation, he is clear in his goal to someday be elected president of Somalia. Concluding that he might actually achieve his dream, Harding tells Tarzan's intriguing story, warts and all. And what a story it is--better than the movies.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.