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Reading ‘To the River’ in Mogadishu

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2015-03-21 08.37.55

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.


Approaching the site: Somali hut in the foreground


The view from the site




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



Necropolis near Karima, Sudan, October 2008


Written by Jess

March 22, 2015 at 3:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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