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Reading ‘The Old Ways’ in Mogadishu

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2015-03-26 17.00.12

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.

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Written by Jess

March 6, 2015 at 4:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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