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Archive for March 2015

Reading ‘To the River’ in Mogadishu

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The book: To the River, Olivia Laing

The place: Mogadishu

*

A year and a half ago I had just come back to Cairo and was temporarily staying in a Downtown hostel, looking for somewhere more permanent, when the dispersals of the Muslim Brotherhood protestors at Raba’a and al-Nahda took place. It was a very surreal few days: the day the dispersals happened I was wandering around Downtown Cairo, oblivious to what was happening and delighted at how empty the streets were and how easy it was to cross the road without being mown down. I went back to the hostel that evening to a series of anxious messages from friends and family, and over the next few days it became clear that things were actually pretty serious. I spent that time lurking in an inner room of the hostel, as there was a less-than-zero possibility of being hit by stray bullets in the outer rooms, reading furiously, and gradually getting hungrier and hungrier until a guy who was working for the UN was able to persuade his driver to do an emergency food run to Gad, bringing back the best burger and chips I have ever had in my life. One of the books I read during that time was Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring, which was the perfect distraction: erudite and elegant and very, very interesting – to this day, one of the few moments where I have seen the point of Twitter was when I Tweeted something along these lines to Olivia Laing at the time, and she Tweeted a very kind response.

Laing namechecks Robert Macfarlane in her acknowledgements, and there are a lot of similarities between To the River and The Old Ways, which I read earlier this month – the loving description of landscape and the layers of history and meaning attached to it. What I am enjoying about To the River is how small its focus is – the River Ouse, most famous, probably, for being the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned herself, and which runs a modest course through Sussex: this is no Nile nor Rhine nor Danube nor Amazon, and yet it’s wound itself through thousands of years of human and pre-human history. There is something very appealing about deep focus on a small subject; I don’t think it’s in my nature to do, but I admire it.

*

Meanwhile I have been exploring some very different landscape: on Friday afternoon I passed through Hargeisa, primarily to change planes, but it is seemingly impossible to travel from Garowe to Mogadishu my commercial means in a single day, and so I took the opportunity to go with a group of friends to Laas Geel, a complex of cave paintings, dating back – so Wiki tells me – to between 3000 and 9000 BC. (Rather a broad window, I know.) Laas Geel is about an hour and a half out of Hargeisa and requires accompaniment by a Special Protection Unit, which adds an element of surreality to proceedings, as you are joined on your tour by AK-toting, khat-chewing Somali soldiers.

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Approaching the site: Somali hut in the foreground

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The view from the site

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I’ve seen rock art in one or two places before – Brandberg Mountain in Namibia, and the Matobos National Park in Zimbabwe, and in fact there was an Aboriginal site very close to where my grandparents lived in Wentworth Falls, when I was a child. However I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like Laas Geel: the profusion of the art, how astonishingly well-preserved it is, and the surrounding scenery, which is grand and stark and beautiful. Plus there is something particularly special about doing something touristy in a place where tourism is extremely rare – I felt similarly about the Meroe Pyramids in Sudan, or – even more so – the necropolis near Karima, which I visited with friends in 2008, and where we were shown around by an elderly man from the next village, who personally held the key to the tombs, and showed us around with the assistance of a single fluorescent tube light.

(Photos below, because why not.)

Inside the tomb

Tomb

Entrance

Necropolis near Karima, Sudan, October 2008

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Written by Jess

March 22, 2015 at 3:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Reading ‘The Blazing World’ in Garowe

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The book: The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt

The place: Garowe

*

There are some writers who trip my insecurity triggers, and there are other writers who are just so awesome that there’s nothing I can do but just admire their erudition and artistry. Siri Hustvedt falls into the latter category. This book is astounding: the way that it’s written; the various references to art and psychoanalysis and neuroscience and philosophy; the way it creates a whole multi-layered and intensely visual world, a double act of creation. When I read Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions at the end of last year I felt the same way,* and then was delighted when Wikipedia informed me that Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster are married to one another. (I am not sure whether I didn’t know this because I am shockingly ignorant when it comes to the literary world, or whether I didn’t know this because the private lives of writers – even celebrated ones like Auster and Hustvedt – remain pretty obscure.) I now have this happy-making image of them living together in some rambling New York loft full of books and art, bouncing ideas off one another. I hope this is true.

*Other books that are like this: Janette Turner Hospital’s The Last Magician; Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov.

Written by Jess

March 17, 2015 at 4:00 pm

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Kismayo

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Still reading The Old Ways, but now I am elsewhere: in Kismayo, Jubbaland, in the South of Somalia, which once housed a Club Med and where I am now paying hundreds of dollars to sleep in a shipping container behind hescos and razorwire in the airport. It is frustrating to know that there is a whole town out there that I cannot see, Italian mansions and broad sand beaches and prawns the size of your fist. When flying in yesterday we banked over the sea, silver-skinned in the late afternoon light, a curl of an isthmus embracing a small collection of islands.

But when you can’t look out, you look up. Somalia has some of the most dramatic skies I’ve ever seen – or perhaps it’s just that I notice them more here. This morning I woke early and the whole sky was freighted with dawn light, clouds heavy-bellied with sea rain and the last stars paling to nothing; this evening I caught the top two-thirds of a perfect sunset laid out in stripes of red and orange and blue above the blast-proof walls. Reading Robert Macfarlane makes me long for distant landscapes, but it also makes me more aware of the small, beautiful things that surround me.

Kismayo skies

Early morning Kismayo

Kismayo skies

Written by Jess

March 9, 2015 at 4:07 pm

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Reading ‘The Old Ways’ in Mogadishu

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The book: The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane

The place: Mogadishu

A number of friends linked this article by Robert Macfarlane, about the vocabulary of nature, earlier this week (read it, it is glorious), and that provided the impetus I needed to read one of the Robert Macfarlane books that have been lurking on my Kindle for months (among the nearly-500 unread books thereon. Hush). I’m only a few chapters in now, but it is just as gorgeous and rich and immersive as the article had led me to hope.

Of course it is rather peculiar to be reading and wallowing and revelling in these intense descriptions of British landscape when I am in Mogadishu, which is not only very physically different, but where my life is so incredibly locked down that a two-hour meeting in a Ministry feels like a genuine outing and a highlight of my week. I am perhaps as free and flexible as any expats are here, in that I don’t live in the airport and I am able to go to meetings in town, but said meetings still involve a bulletproof car and two escort vehicles full of heavily-armed men. There are beautiful landscapes in Somalia, some of which I have seen from the air: pale, empty beaches and broad estuaries where sand spirals into water – but I am (probably) never going to get the chance to see any of it up close. Even Mogadishu, which is full of crumbling Italianate architecture and triumphal arches and aslant minarets pockmarked with bullet-holes: I have hopes that in my lifetime I might be able to walk through downtown Mogadishu (“it’s something I want to do before I die,” I said to colleagues the other day. “…hopefully not, like, five minutes before I die”), but for now I can only be whisked through it behind bulletproof glass, taking a series of blurred, blue-tinted photographs of people going about their lives.

I spent seven years of my childhood and adolescence in Australia, a period of my life that I now look back on with immense fondness, but which I experienced through the lens of teenage angst as UNBEARABLE EXILE from the UK, where I truly wanted to be. As a result, I spent this period of my life fetishising the UK landscape to the point of mild obsession. When I moved back aged 17 it took little enough time for me to start taking it for granted again, qvetching about the incessant rain and longing for more dramatic, less familiar landscapes. And yet still I am able to access a sort of emotional charge from the British landscape, which I have never experienced in quite the same way anywhere else. It’s this that Macfarlane taps into, completely without sentimentality or jingoism or pomposity.

Written by Jess

March 6, 2015 at 4:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized