When you think of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, what comes to mind? War, suffering and lawlessness, I bet.  Me too. So imagine my surprise when I came across an advertisement on the web the other day, from an airline I'd never heard of, Jubba Airlines,  offering flights to Mogadishu, surreally described as "a bustling city with lots to offer visitors".
Intrigued, I read on. The blurb barely hinted at the chaos that has engulfed that unfortunate place these past twenty years, but instead extolled Mogadishu's rich cultural heritage. One can visit mosques and churches in the old city, "with its many white houses and small streets".  Or maybe you just want a sun-tan, or to shop for souvenirs? In which case, no problem, Mogadishu is also a city for you, because "other attractions include the beach and public markets".
I'm sure that Jubba Airways does a sterling job at keeping Somali expats in touch with their homeland. Perhaps it's just the kind of business Somalia needs if it is ever to get off its feet. But its description of Mogadishu is incredible.
It got me thinking about other, unlikely sales pitches for not-so-attractive destinations.
A friend remembers reading a Kenya Airways in-flight magazine (circa 1990) which described another war-torn Somali city, Kismayo, as "the gateway to the game parks of the South". Last I heard, Somalia's wildlife has not fared too well in two decades of civil war, so I think I'll give "the game parks of the South" a miss. (Kenya Airways, in mitigation, might argue that this alluring copy was written before Somalia's full descent into anarchy).
I lived in Lagos, Nigeria,  from 1998-2001. I always used to chuckle at an enormous sign by a major road on the city's outskirts, placed next to a rubbish dump, which said "Welcome to Lagos City of Aquatic Splendour". Don't get me wrong Lagos, for all its challenges, is actually a city close to my heart. But "City of Aquatic Splendour"?
Meanwhile I'm beginning to wonder whether Plateau State, in central Nigeria, might have to rethink it's slogan ("Home of Peace and Tourism"), in view of the repeated and murderous outbreaks of ethnic and religious violence that have brought such devastation to its capital city, Jos, and surrounding villages.
I decided to ring Jubba Airways, to find out more. I called a Dubai phone number listed on the website, and found myself talking to a friendly man with a Somali accent. Somewhat disingenuously, I told him I'd been reading his description of Mogadishu, and I asked whether he could perhaps recommend a holiday there. He gave me a firm, and honest, reply, that this would not be a good idea, and instead pointed me towards two other destinations reached by Jubba Airways  Bosaso, ("surrounded by white sandy beaches") and Hargeisa ("a multitude of historical and natural attractions for tourists to visit"). It's true that both Bosaso and Hargeisa are safe cities.
At this point, I came clean, and said that I was a journalist. So why, I wanted to know, did Jubba Airways paint such a misleading picture of Mogadishu? "There is no security there", my friend admitted, "but it used to be a nice place, and, one day we hope it will be again". And on that, Jubba Airways and I are in agreement.