An Irishman in Somalia

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Can a book save one’s life? I used to think so when stationed in Mogadishu, avoiding thoughts of murder or suicide in that sunburnt madness only by immersing myself in Gerald Hanley’s Warriors (1971). Day after day I would throw myself on to my bed after another utterly fruitless, pointless day in the president’s office, and lie down, sweating beneath squadrons of flies and mosquitoes, and try to forget about it all.

I found the best way to preserve my sanity – after obsessive diversions with Trollope’s Palliser and Barchester novels and some calming doses of Marcus Aurelius – was to turn to the man who survived a marathon posting to the remotest desert outposts of Somalia in the 1940s and, years later, wrote one of the most remarkable accounts in English of this fiery country and her extraordinary people.

Hanley was an Irishman serving in the British Army in Africa and perhaps it was this perspective that lent a greater empathy to his relationship with the Somalis than an Englishman of the time might have provided. Hanley’s voice is a world away from the trenchant colonialism of Douglas Jardine’s The Mad Mullah of Somaliland (1923), a product of its time.

Warriors, originally published as Warriors and Strangers, relates the turbulent and little-known story of the hardy British Army officers and the hardier Somali nomads among whom they soldiered in the desert during the Second World War. It chronicles their astonishingly testing tours and the harsh lives of the wandering Somali warriors who have made this most inhospitable land their own. Hanley also offers an alternately humorous and disturbing examination of the psychological effects of prolonged cultural dislocation and profound isolation amid the desert furnace.

Surrounded by endlessly feuding tribes bent on bloodshed, deprived of all but the most basic supplies, isolated for months at a time in thousands of miles

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About the contributor

Justin Marozzi was communications advisor to President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud of Somalia. His last book, Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood, was edited in Mogadishu and won the Royal Society of Literature’s 2015 Ondaatje Prize.

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