Foreign Correspondent Andrew Harding has covered 25 wars, yet his first book is an uplifting and redemptive tale set in Mogadishu, writes Sue Leonard.
ANDREW HARDING has worked as a foreign correspondent for the past 25 years. He has covered the world’s hotspots in Russia, Asia and Africa, and, since the year 2000 has made many trips to Somalia.
And it’s this country — often described as the most dangerous in the world — that has won his heart.
In his introduction to the life of Mohamoud ‘Tarzan’ Nur, who, in 2010, returned from exile to become the Mayor of Mogadishu, Harding describes a stunning city, set beside a turquoise sea.
The beleaguered country was in a state of optimism back then, yet, Harding writes, ‘the same beasts still prowl. Terror, corruption, clan conflict, extremism, and chasing at their tails, the lingering fear that Somalia is merely flirting with stability.’
Taking us to the events of February 21, 2014, Harding details a terror attack on the mosque in Villa Somalia, home to the Somalia Government, where Tarzan, continuing to pray whilst the bullets flew, escaped an attempt on his life.
What follows is a dramatic story, which, whilst examining the violence, chaos and corruption of Somalia, manages to be uplifting and redemptive. Written in brilliantly stylish prose, the author structures his narrative in a way that makes this book both informative and highly readable.
Harding describes his meetings with Tarzan, a complex man, with an extraordinarily happy marriage, but a difficult past. From nomadic beginnings, Tarzan was abandoned in a state orphanage. A natural survivor who became a basketball star, he was an activist, before escaping Somalia’s civil war, to build a life in North London.
When Harding made the decision to write a book about Tarzan, he imagined it would concentrate on the present.
“I thought I would stick to what I knew,” he says, on the phone from London. “But when I started delving into his past, I realised I was far more interested in the stuff I didn’t know. I realised his time as an orphan, and the state of Mogadishu prior to the country’s collapse was much more gripping than just his awkward time as mayor.”
The author knows that Tarzan was complex; that he was not without fault, and that he had many enemies. Yet it’s an affectionate portrait, showing a great deal of empathy for the mayor. And that’s because Harding felt that, in many ways, he had much in common with him.
“I don’t want to romanticise the idea of his being a nomad, but the fact is, that he and his brother grew up travelling. I went to boarding school and was an expat child so I understand something of that.” And, like Tarzan, the author is no stranger to danger; he has covered many wars, mostly for the BBC.
“I didn’t set out to do wars,” he says. “Though I must have done at least 25. My first war was the Chechen, and I got drawn into that. Living in Georgia I was reporting as a stringer, in great depth. I would spend weeks there, and by the time the war started, I felt incredibly invested in it.”
Nothing he has experienced since, has matched the terror of that time.
“I’ve had plenty of drama since then, but being with the rebels of Grozny, being bombarded by a superpower army, meant I got the worst over on my first outing.” Back then, Harding coped by being ambitious and focused on his work.
“I was excited by it, but over the years as I’ve got married and had my three sons, who are now teenagers, I have felt the weight of responsibility. It came to a head in Libya. I was standing on a non-existent trench on the front line being shelled by tanks and I thought, ‘this is unfair on my family’.” But how does Harding’s wife, left at home in Johannesburg, cope with it all?
“She has not felt she can intervene. If she felt she could, that would have opened a door, and for every trip she would be weighing up the danger. We would be pondering it as a family. So she has left it to me, and I have just got on with it. It’s my job.”
That even applied with the Ebola outbreak, when there was a danger that the infection could be carried home to affect the whole family.
“A lot of wives were saying, ‘you can’t go,’ but my family were wonderful, and trusted me when I came home and said, ‘I am fine.’ I took steps to avoid catching Ebola, and I didn’t catch it.”
What about his own health though? Surely, putting himself in constant danger must be stressful over time?
“I’ve had issues, and the secret for me is being open with friends, and talking to people who have been through the same thing.”
But it’s not the wars that cause the most stress.
“I remember waiting for Nelson Mandela’s death. It felt like we were on the starting blocks. For months, every day, the bosses were calling, checking. We could not go anywhere. We could not do anything else. That was more stressful than the stuff I was used to. When you go into a war, you go in, do what you need to do, then get out.”
The Mayor of Mogadishu tells Tarzan’s story, warts and all. And there were many, in Somalia, who denigrated Harding for lionising a man they considered unworthy.
“One Somali said, ‘How dare you write about that scumbag.’ And there is dirt in there, and there are question marks about him, but he had the courage to say to me, ‘just do it.’ He said, ‘I am not going to control you. I am not going to demand any sort of right of censorship. You write my story, I trust you.”
However, there was a moment when Harding feared his subject might change his mind.
“There was a time when I couldn’t get hold of Tarzan; and then I had to challenge him, because he had lied to me about the circumstances of his birth, and confront him with all kinds of allegations. Would he say, ‘I don’t want this book to happen?’ But it was fine. And I realised he was the kind of guy who would say, ‘let’s sort this out with a few punches on the street,’ if it came to that, but otherwise he wouldn’t care. He was not somebody who was bothered by a mere book.”
Writing the book, Harding says, has been a learning experience. He has had to undo some of his journalistic instincts and to apply novelistic skills. It works brilliantly as a mixture between a history and a yarn. And it has given Harding an inkling of what it would be like to write fiction.
“My next book is the true story of a double murder in a South African farming town, and all the repercussions of that. But I’ve thought about writing a detective novel set in Mogadishu. I have got so much of the city in my head that did not get onto the page and the City has everything. History; culture; pirates, you name it. It has not been comprehensively covered so, maybe.”
Harding launched the book recently at a book fair in Mogadishu, and found it an amazing experience.
“I was on holiday, trying to relax but worried about security. Then you arrive and all that melts away. You are faced with young Somalis who have been starved of culture, and they are thronging to this small book fair, clinging to something that is not war, yet represents their country.
“They approached me, gave me a hug, asked me to sign their book and took a million selfies. I was pleased that the first people to buy the book were Somalis. It felt right.”
The Mayor of Mogadishu
C Hurst and Co, €26.50
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