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Defying attacks, arts return to Somalia with first TV drama in 30 years

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By Katharine Houreld

The bodies of three students were sprawled on the floor of a restaurant in Mogadishu, Somalia, dusted with grit and shards of glass. Electric lights flickered. A survivor began to wail.

Then the cameras cut. The actors helped each other up, and the crew started rebuilding the fake wall to prepare for the next one.

“Anyone who has seen it knows this is what a bombing looks like,” said director Ahmed Farah, who has been there himself. “There’s always shoes. Shoes and glasses.”

This is the set of “Arday,” a 10-part television series shot in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, that chronicles the lives of high school students. It will begin broadcasting this month on Somali television and is the first drama series to be shot in the ravaged city since the civil war erupted in 1991. The series is part of a wider flowering of the city’s arts in defiance of frequent attacks by Islamist militants.

After African Union peacekeepers pushed the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab insurgents out of the city in 2011, citizens flooded back in. Four years later, Mogadishu launched an annual book fair. Last year, the national cinema, once used as a militant base and then devastated by a bombing, reopened for the first time since the war began. A café has just announced an art exhibition.

Farah, a Somali-Dutch filmmaker who wrote the “Arday” series, planned each episode around problems bedevilling Somali youths. Knives, gangs, drugs and bombs all feature. But so do a son’s longing for his missing father, a daughter’s wavering allegiance to old-fashioned parents, and the limits and possibilities of female friendship.

Filming was tough. Two actresses narrowly missed being killed by a suicide bombing that showered Farah’s film offices with shrapnel. Although more than 100 people were killed in that attack, the actresses were undeterred and completed their costume fitting before the dust settled. Another day, a man was shot dead in front of Farah’s apartment.

Violence is threaded through the series. Farah gave up editing out real bursts of gunfire in the background. But the true focus is on the changing relationships among the characters. An arrogant politician’s son collides with the poor neighbourhood heartthrob. A rapper woos a poetry-loving girl. A rebellious daughter discovers how much she loves her father.

All the actors are local. Farah tried to pick people whose personal stories were similar to those of their characters, if less extreme. “That way they didn’t have to act too much,” he said. “They just have to be themselves.”

Abdullah “Rasaas” Mohammed, a.k.a. “Bullet,” who plays the rapper in the series, is a rapper in real life; he has more than a million views on his YouTube videos. Rasaas said that acting for the cameras is different from shooting rap videos with friends.

“I used to get camera shocked at first. So many cameras!” he said. “I used to shoot my (rap) videos with one camera, now I’m used to it.”

Shukri Abdikadir, a 20-year-old actress, moved to Mogadishu from Saudi Arabia three years ago and said she had a hard time fitting in at first. “I was judged and shunned. This is where a lot of my anger originates,” she said.

So the crew promised her a role as a troublemaker, she said. “I thought they were joking, then the following day, they gave me a knife and a script.”

She plays the leader of a tough girl gang who was imprisoned in one of the city’s amateur rehabilitation centres where Somali parents, especially expatriate families, often send disobedient children. In real life, these centres have become controversial because some of them beat, whip, chain, or even sexually abuse the children.

“Arday” also tackles the underside of Somalia’s tech boom, the use of online blackmail, in particular. Farah said that drugging women and filming their rapes has become common in Somalia in recent years.

In one scene, a schoolgirl is drugged and raped after a party, and the film of her assault is used to blackmail her. When she walks into the school hallway, she finds everyone on their phones, watching the video online. The sequence slows as the camera focuses on her face and her breathing as she makes the long walk to her classroom. When she turns around, the hallway lights up with phone flashes as her schoolmates record her reaction.

The series does not have an advertising budget, but the trailer has been viewed more than 440,000 times in the past month. The controversial plots have sparked thousands of comments and a denunciation from the union representing school employees.

Farah likes the response. He said he wants to provoke a public debate, starting with standards expected of public schools. (The set of the school looked so upmarket, he said, that a parent wandered in one day asking how to enrol.)

Farah, a former news cameraman for al Jazeera and Britain’s Channel 4, was director of photography for the Emmy Award-winning documentary “Last Hijack.” He also won awards for his first feature-length film “Ayaanle,” shot in Nairobi’s predominantly Somali Eastleigh neighbourhood. (Farah missed the film’s debut in America; he couldn’t get a visa since he’d travelled to Somalia.)

The drama series “Arday” is part of a broader Somali cultural renaissance. In 2021, “The Gravedigger’s Wife”, by a Finnish-Somali director, scooped up international awards and was nominated at the Cannes Film Festival for the critics’ Grand Prize. Perennial Booker Prize nominee Nuruddin Farah is planning to turn two of his novels into a film. Farah is due to shoot one, and a female Somali director will shoot the other.

There are still limits. The National Theatre has not yet shown “Ayaanle.” Farah said he thinks that’s because of the film’s portrayal of al-Shabaab. Although “Arday” depicts bombings, it never names the protagonists since doing so could be a death sentence for everyone involved in the series.

And arts are a low priority for the government, which is juggling a military offensive against al-Shabaab and a drought that has killed thousands.

But like many other dual-national Somalis who have moved back in recent years, Farah looks at his battered nation and sees hope and determination.

“We did this professionally, and we worked with local people, and we trained them to a high standard so they can work on other Somali films,” he said. “We showed them sometimes it takes 20 takes to get something right.”

*The article was first published in The Washington Post.