Rasna Warah, Mohamud Dirios and Ismail Osman in publishing a homegrown, beautifully produced “pictorial tribute” to Mogadshu, “Africa’s most wounded city” have enlarged the scope for research into East Africa’s deeply rooted urban heritage by providing a photo-journalistic essay upon which new investigations may be built.
As an homage to a destroyed city, Mogadishu Then and Now is a collaborative effort that provides the exoskeleton for understanding the earlier evolution of this once vibrant nerve centre as well as an outline of events leading to its demise.
Examples of mostly late 19th and early 20th century Italian colonial-modern architecture destroyed by clan wars over two decades combine with prewar panoramas, earlier views of the same buildings intact, a few Ottoman structures and one surviving medieval minaret.
These war-wounded buildings of coral and cement, now reduced to rubble, attest to both the city’s once attractive urban profile and its ancient roots in the Indian Ocean world.
With Mogadishu once considered one of the most dangerous places on the planet, how did this work come to fruition and why? Confronted by a vast urban wasteland surrounded by shocking scenes of man-made devastation, Rasna Warah could contribute only what she did best.
As a columnist for the Daily Nation, moral outrage served up weekly as a response to Kenya’s current diet of unsavoury identity politics, her stint at UN Habitat and a premier photo exhibition of Kabul — an equally wounded city — leave little doubt as to her motives.
Older residents cite her father, the late Kulwant Singh Warah, the eminent Studio One photographer whose poignant images continue to grace many Nairobi homes, as her role model.
Since ancient times, rendering tragedy as art has been a recurring theme, reflected in sculpture and painting.
Fortunately absent are photos of dismembered corpses, bloodied children and bandaged hospital victims as well as the demented fools who ransacked their own city.
These photo-images interspersed with drawings of the city then and now reflect contested views in an ongoing debate over both the subjective nature of war imagery and photography itself.
In future, will these snapshots be used for the political aggrandisement of one faction over another?
At another level, a dazzling array of architectural eye-candy is on display as if Mogadishu’s Italian rulers had set out to showcase every grand building tradition in the Mediterranean canon.
Among the many monuments, memorials and minarets, a Moorish-looking Catholic cathedral collides with the Roman Forum’s Arch of Titus while a few unidentified bronze horsemen (Italian colonials who conquered the country?) gallop in place on plinths.
A picturesque obelisk and Fascist sculpture of a soaring male straight out of Mussolini’s Italy set among neo-Saracenic public buildings and multi-storied Yemeni-styled residential structures combine to give the city a gimmicky, over-the-top theatrical quality.
A gargantuan whipped-cream extravaganza reflecting the nouveau-riche l980s? Gulf State excess that makes do as a tourist hotel joins the parade; ornamental anecdotes all in the more meaningful history of a city under siege.
As physical facts shorn of drama, these photos may also be viewed as raw data, to be studied as documents in an archive of significant historic buildings.
For the record, Mogadishu derives from the Arabic Maq’adul Shah, Seat of the Shah, and is thought to go back to the 10th century AD. For centuries, the city was a slave society, negating any nostalgia about a lost golden age.
Here several questions arise. As no oppressed people remain silent for long, what forms of resistance took place? Uprisings by slave militias or burning down the town as happened in Colonial New York?
Mansions of the rich are depicted (while the squalid quarters of the poor remain hidden from view). Here class relationships under Italian colonial rule, the extent of Ottoman control and nature of medieval trade in the city are open questions.
We also learn that like Zanzibar and Mombasa, Mogadishu contained a Stone Town, called Shangani or Hamarweyn.
With a significant South Asian merchant population resident in the city since the 16th century, what was their role in the city’s development?
Later, were Indians along with European colonisers self-ghettoised as they were in the other port towns? Or beyond the assertion that “a certain kind of cosmopolitanism in Mogadishu,” existed, was this a conurbation of several worlds in one or inclusive?
Antiquated colonial conceits such as “Arab” and “Abesh” appearing in the literature quoted need updating.
According to Tanzania’s Felix Chami, the great medieval cities of the Western Indian Ocean were built and populated mainly by Islamised indigenous people carrying Muslim names. The “Abesh,” today’s Ethiopians, were formerly the people of Abyssinia whom ancient Greco-Romans saw as living “beyond the abyss.”
The historical relations of Somalia’s mostly nomadic population with the city as well as events framing the city’s destruction are also a mystery.
Hard decisions remain for city-planners too. Will the ruined structures be rebuilt as has happened in bombed-out Warsaw and Dresden, or will state-of-the art buildings be erected anew for the city’s present inhabitants?
The authors are bound by a limited agenda, Warah admitting this work is only an appetiser. One can hardly wait for the main course.