Yesterday saw an event take place that very few people would have thought possible. May 17 saw the latest installment of the TEDx lecture series (self-organized events within the TED format) take place in a city that for over two decades has been synonymous with lawlessness, violence and human misery. While media reports of a new (relative) calm in Mogadishu following the recent ouster of the al-Qaeda-afiliated Al-Shabaab extremists from the Somali capital by African Union troops have been numerous in recent months, news of a TED lecture series in this bombed-out disaster of a city took everyone by surprise.
Had the TED series existed many centuries ago, Mogadishu might in fact have been the perfect launchpad for it. The ancient Sultanate of Mogadishu was one of the most globalized cities of its time, serving as a bridge between Africa and the Arab world and enriched by trade contact with India, Sri Lanka, China and Vietnam. This helped turn the city-state into one of the medieval world's great intellectual centres. The 14th century Moroccan scholar and traveller Ibn Battuta described the citizenry of Mogadishu as "generous, urbane, fat and erudite and genuine followers of Prophet Muhammad’s instruction to 'travel in search of knowledge, even though that adventure takes you to China.'"
Fast forward to the early 21st century, however, and the picture is far less positive. As with the rest of the country, the Somali capital has been without an effective central government since the ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, and the city's once-resplendent medieval architecture has been largely destroyed by wave after wave of warfare. For most of the past two decades, the city has been controlled by competing warlords and their partisans, including the violent Islamic militant group al-Shabaab, a group whose bizarre law and order edicts included banning samosas (a staple food across the region) on the grounds that their triangular shape hearkened to the Christian Trinity.
But while peace remains far-from-certain in Mogadishu, signs of recovery in the ancient city are becoming ever more palpable. Members of the Somali diaspora in Kenya, Ethiopia and the west returning home and starting businesses. International investors have begun exploring opportunities in the city and banking operations have returned. And now - a TED conference in Mogadishu, centred, fittingly enough, on the theme of 'rebirth'. The conference was pitched thusly:
There is hope in Somalia. An influx of African Union troops has pushed insurgents out of Mogadishu and representatives from the country’s clans are meeting to discuss the formation of a new government and draft constitution. With sustained peace on the horizon, the Somali diaspora is returning home and starting businesses. International investors are exploring opportunities and the first Somali bank has now opened.
While the stability remains fragile, Somalis are optimistic that a turning point has been reached after 21 years of conflict, and we are witnessing the rebirth of Mogadishu.
|Ilwad 'Elle' Elman|
TEDxMogadishu was broadcast worldwide via live streaming. For those not fortunate enough to be in Mogadishu for the conference (or to have watched it live), a video of the broadcast will soon become available online at tedxmogadishu.com. In the meantime, a great big salaam to the people of Mogadishu for taking a stand for communication over repression, technology over terrorism and peaceful exchange of ideas over intolerance.
Next stop Yangon? Damascus? After this, anything is possible.