Jessica Gregson’s blog

Possibly the best WordPress blog

Archive for October 2014

Reading ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ in Nairobi

leave a comment »


The book: Standard Operating Procedure, Philip Gourevitch

The place: Nairobi

One book leads to another: in Little Failure, Gary Shteyngart namechecks Philip Gourevitch, which had me thinking: wait, I haven’t heard anything about him for quite some time. My friend S. forced me to read We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families years ago, when it first came out, and it made quite an impression, but since then Gourevitch seems to have spent most of his time selfishly writing for the New Yorker. He has written two other books – A Cold Case, which is very short and which I burned through on my way to Mogadishu a few weeks ago – and this, about Abu Ghraib.

And this book is so good. I easily run out of superlatives when talking about books, and in this case, describing a book that contains detailed discussions of torture as amazing would seem inappropriate. But Gourevitch is such a skillful writer that he’s able to not only write compellingly about the abuses the prisoners suffered, but to make the perpetrators somewhat sympathetic and relatable, victims of the same illegal war and utterly immoral policies as the Iraqi prisoners that they tormented. There’s a very clear sense within the book that torture is inflicted on the torturer almost as much as on the tortured.


I have spent the last few days rather unexpectedly in Nairobi, indulging in all the things I miss the most when in Mogadishu:


Vegetables, which are in very short supply in Somalia. I have been troughing down at least one salad a day.


The great outdoors: fresh air, trees, and the ability to move freely without armed escorts and body armour.


Social life: friends, conversation, secret Nairobi jazz bars.


Written by Jess

October 20, 2014 at 6:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Reading ‘The Magician’s Land’ in Mogadishu

leave a comment »


The book: The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman

The place: Mogadishu

AT LAST! I have been checking every couple of days, waiting for the ebook of this to be available for people in the UK (couldn’t even pre-order it! WHAT IS THIS NONSENSE), and a few days ago it finally happened. I was in the middle of at least two other books at the time and so if I had any aptitude for delayed gratification I would have saved it until I was finished – possibly even until I go on holiday next week – but no. I cannot. I am not that sort of person and never will be.

It’s been a tricky couple of days in Mogadishu. On Sunday evening a large car-bomb exploded outside a café in town, killing ten (including four children) and injuring 15, at last count. This is the first major incident in Mogadishu since al Shabaab’s change of leadership, and there’s been a lot of speculation about what the change might mean – based on Sunday evening, the new boss looks depressingly like the old boss. The situation in Mogadishu is such that incidents like this don’t make much of a difference. I spoke to someone the next day, a British Somali who’s recently returned, and whose shop is directly opposite the café: “my first bomb since I’ve been back,” he said. “We just closed up the shop as quickly as possible and got out of there.” A colleague was telling me that a friend of his narrowly escaped being killed when a chunk of the exploding car flew through his own car window, but of course this guy turned up at work the next day as if nothing had happened. What else are you going to do, I guess.

I do find it fascinating that these incidents are so rarely reported outside of Somalia. Often when I’m in other places people are like “Mogadishu? I guess it’s safe now – you never hear anything much about it.” Yeah, not so much. Throughout Ramadan this year there was an average of three assassinations a day. I don’t think a single day has gone by with me being here when I haven’t heard at least one gunshot, and usually several. One of our security escorts was subject to an assassination attempt a couple of months ago (he survived, and is now back at work). There was a significant coordinated attack on the government compound in early July, and even that was barely reported outside the country. I suppose it’s natural: the news focuses on change, and changes in the security situation here are, sadly, minimal. But it’s still odd to compare this global lack of interest to the minute by minute coverage of the security situation when I was in Egypt last summer.

Given the context, it’s nice to have a bit of escapism in my reading. Admittedly this book contains its fair share of people being awful to other people, but at east they’re all imaginary.

Written by Jess

October 14, 2014 at 7:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Reading ‘Crossbones’ in Mogadishu

leave a comment »


The book: Crossbones, Nuruddin Farah

The place: Mogadishu

I’ve talked before about the need to limit Somalia reading while actually in Somalia, on the basis that there’s only so much Somalia a person can take at any one time, so I am reading this in bits, in the way that one would sip very hot coffee. It’s rather wonderful, though, to see glimpses of the city I am coming to know through Farah’s writing, which is a touching mix of lyrical and expositional: there are certain sections where the reader just knows that he desperately wanted to include a particularly fascinating piece of information he read in a report, and has just wedged it into the narrative as best he can. (That is not meant to be a criticism – I think it works, though someone less invested in Somalia may disagree.) Farah has a level of precision in his writing that I really enjoy, too: early on in the book there’s a small scene where one of the characters picks up a bird that has blundered into the house and sets it loose, and it is beautifully and minutely described.

(I did finish James Fergusson’s The World’s Most Dangerous Place, incidentally, and found it broadly excellent. If you are in need of a background to Somalia that is well-researched and engagingly-written, this may be the book for you!)


We missed the lunar eclipse on this side of the world, but we did have a gorgeous fat orange moon last night. I have only seen a lunar eclipse once, in June 2011 when I was working in Kuajok, South Sudan; when it began, I was oblivious in my tent, watching Breaking Bad on my laptop with my headphones on, so I had no idea what my friend M. was talking about when he came to the door of the tent and told me not to be “fearing”. It was only when I took my headphones off that I realised that there was a genuine cacophony of gunshots coming from every directions – cracks and pops and throaty booms of RPGs. “They are shooting at the moon,” M. explained, “to make it come back,” and we stood outside and watched while a shadow slowly bit into the misty moon.* It remains one of my all-time favourite memories of South Sudan: a real demonstration of distance and difference.


(The moon, from Tonj North County, Warrap State, South Sudan, in December 2011. Not actually anything to do with an eclipse.)

*In hindsight unwise, as what goes up must come down, bullets very much included.

Written by Jess

October 9, 2014 at 7:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Reading ‘The Children Act’ in Lamu

leave a comment »


The book: The Children Act, Ian McEwan

The place: Lamu, Kenya

I’ve recently become a believer in the importance of small holidays. I used to think that you needed at least a week to properly get away, but two or three days, provided that the location is sufficiently different, can be enough to bring about full body-and-soul relaxation.




I’ve been wanting to visit Lamu for a long time. The whole Swahili Coast is fascinating to me: I’m always attracted to places of cultural contact and collision, and here’s where the Arabian Peninsula meets the Indian Subcontinent meets the vast continent of Africa, with a sprinkling of Portuguese influence thrown in. This great seam runs from Somalia down to Mozambique, and is palpable in the architecture and the language and the culture and the people. I love it.

Lamu is suffering these days. Like much of the Kenyan coast, it’s dependent on tourism, but the terrorist attacks in Kenya over the past year, and particularly the Mpeketoni massacre in June have done serious damage. The locals are friendly but there’s an undertone of desperation. “Pray for us,” a man told me today, “pray that god will send us some tourists.” I’d say god probably has bigger fish to fry at the moment, but I do hope that things get better here.





Of course, from a selfish point of view, a paucity of other tourists can be a blessing. In August 2006 I backpacked through the Middle East during an outbreak of hostilities in Lebanon, and as a result was one of a handful of tourists at Petra on the day I visited. It was eerie and beautiful. Things were similar when I was living in Cairo last year: on one hand, the Pyramids deserted allowing you to make believe that you’d just trekked across the desert to find them half-drifted in sand and undiscovered; on the other, every second taxi driver with a story about how he’d used to drive buses for tourists or he’d been a tourist guide or he’d run a hotel, but no one was coming any more.


Also read Tim Parks’s Teach Us to Sit Still. Early dusk, call to prayer, three-quarter moon burning with a sharp white light and an endless tumble of clouds racing in from north to south: I sat as still as perhaps I ever have, just watching.

(I stayed here. It was glorious.)

Written by Jess

October 4, 2014 at 7:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized