With the end of the Islamist militia al Shabab’s control of Mogadishu in 2011, the establishment of a new federal constitution in 2012, and the significant decline in political violence since then, Somalia seems as close as it ever has been to escaping the bloodshed and chaos that have plagued it for so long. Harding’s stunning book relates the country’s recent history through the perspective of one man. The result is great storytelling by a master reporter. Mohamud “Tarzan” Nur was born into rural poverty before Somalia won its independence from the United Kingdom in 1960. He was brought up in a bleak orphanage in Mogadishu and spent his childhood as a street urchin respected for his fighting skills. But he grew up to become a civil engineer and successful businessman, first in Saudi Arabia and later in London. In 2010, he returned to Somalia after the country’s transitional government appointed him mayor of Mogadishu. At its strongest, Harding’s portrait of him resembles a Somali version of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield; the passages evoking 1960s street life in Mogadishu alone make the book worth reading. Harding never whitewashes Nur’s faults, giving voice to some of his detractors and pointing to a few shady episodes that have dogged him. But Harding renders Nur as a symbol of the optimism and resilience that Somalis have demonstrated even in the face of their country’s collapse. By the end of the book, most readers will find themselves rooting for Nur, Mogadishu, and Somalia.
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