BBC foreign correspondent Andrew Harding’s book “The Mayor of Mogadishu” opens with an arresting scene: An attack by the militant group Al-Shabab is underway at a mosque in the Somali capital’s government compound. Worshipers are jostling toward the exit. Only one man still kneels in prayer, apparently oblivious to the mayhem unfolding around him.
That man is the book’s complicated subject, Mohamud “Tarzan” Nur, a Somali expat who served as Mogadishu’s mayor in the early 2000s, as the city edged out of Al-Shabab’s control and into a state of fragile near-normalcy. Through the story of a man who took one of the world’s most dangerous political gigs, Harding traces the turbulent modern history of Somalia — a place where the author dodges bullets, discovers remarkable resiliency and glimpses striking beauty amid the ruins of the onetime “Pearl of the Indian Ocean.”
Through elegant writing and dogged reportage, Harding sets out to introduce Nur, a man steeped in contradictions and controversy.
In a sense, Harding tackles a mystery: Is Nur a brave and principled patriot or a charismatic opportunist with a carefully crafted public persona?
One of the first stories Nur shares with the author — that his mother delivered him in Room 18 of a beachfront hospital — turns out to be a lie. In fact, he was born under a tree in the nomadic Ogaden region and grew up in a gritty Mogadishu orphanage, where he earned his nickname after sneaking out a window and swinging from a tree.
Before his homeland descended into civil war, Nur left for Saudi Arabia in search of opportunity. He eventually settled in London with his young family.
In 2000, he returned to Mogadishu to take the mayoral job, tapped for it as the self-described “leader of the diaspora.” There, Nur proved adept at restoring a measure of normalcy and eluding Al-Shabab attacks. He was somewhat less adept at dodging the capital’s relentless mudslinging, clan politics and questions about government corruption.
Nur, who is now running for president of Somalia, insists he is an open book. His trademark phrase echoes the recent U.S. presidential election: “Believe me.” But he remains guarded and slightly aloof, and that’s Harding’s main storytelling challenge throughout.
As is often the case with nonfiction whose tough-skinned main subjects never quite open up, the book can leave some readers wanting more. But Harding perseveres, filling in gaps in our understanding thanks to Nur’s likable wife, Shamis, and a brother living in Indiana.
Harding also assembles a strong cast of supporting characters — fellow expats who in recent years have flocked back home to help rebuild, get a taste of adventure and make money. Even as Nur remains a bit of a mystery in Harding’s book, a fascinating, guardedly optimistic portrait of contemporary Somalia comes into sharp focus.
Mila Koumpilova covers issues of immigration for the Star Tribune.