A land of bards

The contemporary Western image of Somalia was forged in 1993, when American special forces and U.S. Army Rangers fought an overnight battle in Mogadishu with the militia of General Mohamed Farrah Aidid, resulting in the loss of 18 American soldiers and the wounding of 73 more, and the deaths of up to 700 Somali militiamen and several hundred civilians. The battle was described in Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (1999), and retold in Ridley Scott’s 2001 film of the same name. Say the word “Somalia” and you’ll summon visions: of the half-clothed bodies of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by dancing crowds, of thin young men in dungarees manning heavy Soviet-era machine guns mounted on the back of Nissan pickup trucks, of emaciated civilians waiting in line for food.

Today our view of the country is perhaps even darker. Somalia is again host to a foreign army, this time in the form of troops from Ethiopia, who are now beating a retreat in the face of a tenacious Islamist resistance movement — one all too easily compared to the Taliban. Likewise, with U.S. air strikes launched at will against “al-Qaeda-linked” targets in the country, and with the world’s press sent into a frenzy of boyish fascination by tales of brigands hijacking supertankers, Somalia seems doomed to appear to us as little more than a land of militias, terrorists, and pirates.

Yet there’s another side to Somalia. After visiting the country in 1854 disguised as an Arab, British explorer and orientalist Richard Francis Burton wrote in First Footsteps in East Africa that Somalis were “a fierce and turbulent race” — Burton had been badly wounded in an attack by Somali tribesmen — yet also a race of poets. “It is strange that a dialect with no written character should so abound in poetry and eloquence,” he observed. “The country teems with ‘poets, poetasters, poetitos, and poetaccios:’ every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines”.

Poetry plays a central role in Somali life to this day. Living from ancient times in an almost entirely oral culture — having developed only in 1972 a written form of the Somali language — Somalis acquired (in common with other pre-literate societies) a powerful facility for memory and recitation, and, curiously, married this to a highly competitive attitude toward poetry itself. Indeed, to be hailed as a great poet in Somalia is to be granted a prestige and influence as sizeable as any national politician’s, while second only to this in status is to be a skilled reciter of such poetry. Traditionally, a reciter would listen to and commit to memory the works of a poet, and would then travel the country to perform the poems at the campfires of other tribes. In such a way were poems transmitted throughout the land — along with the fame of the poet himself, whose name is permanently connected to his poetry. It is only in recent years that this essential and highly respected role has been partly (but not wholly) supplanted by the tape cassette and broadcast radio.

The themes of Somali poetry are as diverse as any nation’s. Perhaps the majority of poems speak of daily life: of pastures and camels, of love and sex and marriage. Such poetry has evolved new forms in the twentieth century, including the heello, which added music to the spoken word in the 1940s and a decade later changed the topic from sex to national freedom, and which has since (unsurprisingly) become the favored verbal art form of the country’s urban and government elites.

The poets speak of war, too. At the top of the hierarchy of Somalia’s poetic genres is the gabay, a traditional kind of verse that is reserved for matters of great public importance. As Burton vividly described, such poetry could often be red in tooth and claw: “Sometimes a black Tyrtæus breaks into a wild lament for the loss of warriors or territory; he taunts the clan with cowardice, reminds them of their slain kindred, better men than themselves, whose spirits cannot rest unavenged in their gory graves, and urges a furious onslaught against the exulting victor.”

One of the greatest of Somalia’s poets of war was a man of the nineteenth century, born only two years after Burton first visited his country. Sayyīd Muhammad `Abd Allāh al-Hasan, a tribesman and Islamic religious scholar in northern Somalia, was insulted by the vice consul of British Somaliland (who wrongly accused him of stealing a gun from British soldiers) and went on to lead a fierce, twenty-year war of national resistance against the British, Italian, and Ethiopian occupiers of his country. The British, typically, referred to him with a simplistic and demeaning nickname: “the Mad Mullah”.

al-Hasan was a good recruiter, and much of his influence with other Somali tribesmen came from his verbal eloquence and his poetry, which was memorized by reciters and spread from tribe to tribe. One of the most famous of al-Hasan’s poems was his Gaala Leged (“Defeat of the Infidels”); his words clearly convey the hatred he felt for his enemies, and also hint at the origins of his anger:

To begin with, I had neglected poetry and had let it dry up
I had sent it west in the beginning of the spring rains.
But let me set forth what prevented me from sleeping last night

God’s Blessing are more numerous than those growing trees.
I will remind you of the victory he gave us
Listen to me my council, for you are most dear to me

If the unwashed left handed one had died yesterday,
if I had cut his throat – may he taste hell in the grave itself
And the wild animals had eaten him, he and his ilk would deserve this

I would salute the hyena that would gorge itself on his flesh,
as it’s doing me a favor, it is dearer to me than any other animal of the wild.
If could I would reward it every day

That deformed one wasted a lot of my wealth
since he kept committing wrongs again and again
I knew all along that the hyena would devour him

It was their insincere refusal to acknowledge the truth that put them down and destroyed them
And made me attack their best man with a Dagger

If they had not become ungrateful, I would have not become enraged with them
I would have not lost my generosity and respect for them
I would have not have withheld anything from them, if they desired peace

But when they acted disdainfully, death marched straight at them.

al-Hasan’s resistance movement ended only after a 1920 bombing campaign by the RAF, which had honed its skills in World War I and applied them to the Somali Dervishes with decisive results. By then, however, the war had killed nearly a third of northern Somalia’s population.

Having lived for a couple of years in Somalia, and in Ghana for at least five more, Canadian author Margaret Laurence was deeply struck by the story of al-Hasan. In “The Poem and the Spear”, a fascinating essay she wrote in 1964 (but which wasn’t published until 2003 as part of a collection) Laurence pondered the similarities between the poetry of the Somali resistance leader and that of the greatest of the ancient poets. “The sheer force and sweep of it is sometimes reminiscent of Homer,” she wrote, “whose subject was also tribal war and who described it in similar terms of drama, grandeur, and gore.” Her observation makes one wonder for a moment whether, when seen through the eyes of more powerful and more unified Mediterranean states, the feuding cities of pre-classical Greece might have looked something like Somalia does to us today, as a land of raiders, petty vendettas, and (as an aside) skillful oral poetry.

Today, the gabay has lost none of its influence. The genre is played on the radio and distributed around the country on tape cassette, as well as spoken out loud by a dwindling band of reciters. “It is a common, if amusing, thing,” wrote Somali scholar Said Sheikh Samatar in 1986, “to come upon a group of nomads huddled excitedly over a short-wave transistor, engaged in a heated discussion of the literary merits of poems that have just been broadcast while they keep watch over their camel herds grazing nearby.”

A modern gabay can be as political as anything written by al-Hasan in the early twentieth century, and in a poetry-centric society such poems carry a lot of bite. Soon after he became dictator in 1969, Siad Barre tried to ban anti-government poetry, and had two of Somalia’s most influential poets arrested; he also threatened to execute Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac “Gaarriye” for writing poems critical of the tribal divisions that Barre had encouraged as a way of supporting his rule. Interestingly, Barre was also the leader who caused the Somali language to be written down for the first time, and decreed that it become the official language of education in the country. A ruthless but apparently not unintelligent man, who knew full well that language and poetry were weapons — and who wanted to ensure they weren’t pointing at him.

The post-Barre period of civil war provided a great deal of material for gabay composers to work with. A member of the newest generation of Somali poets, Cabdulqaadir Xaaji Cali Zaaji Axmed wrote one such in 1995; in his references to “Koofil” and “Doofil”, colloquialisms that refer to the former British and Italian imperialists, he channels some of the personal intensity of al-Hasan, and links that world to our own. Thus, Samadoon:

the killing happens       the destruction of the lands
creation’s burial      refugees’ flight from the country
as outlaws pass      among the people long suffering
weak wretches
they enter the shade      of the dead wood
the forest’s been destroyed      by scorching sand
rotten brush      dense dead thicket
silvered tree stumps       calls of help help
somebody help the women       the children the frail
licked by the red hot spears
the tank with lust to launch        at even unpeopled places
the playful gun sight        the hollow stocked gun
the kalashnikov the bomb      the shortened jeep
the rolling mortars      descending from the sky
napalm peeling stripping        your burnt skin
the anti tank p10       ricocheting ring
the rpg7        the smaller bazooka
and the ammunition belt at the ready
the aloes with their troubles        and painful injury
standing unmilked        and drinking their fill
ready for destruction sent by death
and guns and gunpowder of satan         it’s not in your interest

this was the testament then       of Koofil and Doofil
the ones I sent to hell        and whose orders I refused
the lackey dogs
and those of their ilk saying        here boy
you countered the contempt        of their fathers with
it will not be tried on me
that they now drag you down from there       go’e it’s not in your interest

While unfortunately no one would predict that Somalia is soon likely to have any lack of bellicose topics for the male-only composers of gabays to write about, it is surprising and heartening to learn that poetry has been a vehicle for peace-making too, particularly when composed and recited by women — which is something of a happy irony, since in Somalia women’s poetry is not taken as seriously as men’s, and does not normally get memorized or recited beyond small groups of family or friends. Nonetheless, in 1992 they played a key role in averting a nascent civil war by interposing themselves between two sub-clans in Burao and reciting poems meant to tug at the consciences of their brethren. Within days, a ceasefire was achieved.

Oh Dahir! Shatter not my newly mended heart,
Force me not to the refugee life,
Where cold, hunger,  and misery resides.
For I have tasted the comfort of home. Oh Dahir!

Oh Dahir! Kill not the surviving heroes
Who miraculously escaped death.
Crush not the handicapped ones,
For they have barely recovered. Oh Dahir!

Oh Dahir! Young man with the gun,
Whom are you shooting? Me?
For there is no enemy in sight.
Have you ever seriously wondered?
What became of our brave comrades?
Whatever happened to all our buildings? Oh Dahir!


14 thoughts on “A land of bards

  1. This is an a very interesting, well-written, and inspiring take on poetry as surviving perhaps thousands of years under conditions that are still extremely difficult.

  2. In 1962 my wife and I were part of the first Peace Corps group to teach in Somalia. In our possession we had a beautiful little book, A Tree for Poverty. It was a collection of Somali gabays translated into English. I believe the book was written by Margaret Laurence. We lent it to an acquaintance when we returned and unfortunately never saw the book again.

    Somalis often incorporate the name of what they are good at and it becomes a family name.
    The headmaster of The Genale school was named Gabyo. His grandfather was a great poet. Therefore, the grandfather, the father and the son all went by the name of Gabyo.

  3. Boris — I or my brother may have a copy. Our father, who died last year, was U.S. ambassador to Somalia at the time, I believe, that you were there. I remember the volume, and I think it was still in his library when we packed it for storage. I won’t have the opportunity to look for it for about 6 weeks, but I will asap. What a piece of serendipity that I should happen to stumble across this website and wonderful article (thanks to Arts & Letters Daily)!

  4. Jim — I remember your father very well. We were living in Magadishu for a year. Your father was a good and strong supporter of our Peace Corps group in Somalia. The times were so much better then. Our group still gets together for reunions whenever we can. We’re still all very close. I would greatly appreciate an email from you when you find the book. My address is:

  5. I too found this excellent article through Arts & Letters Daily. Developed a written version of their language in 1972! That’s amazing. Their tradition of poetry is also enticing. Thanks for inspiring more of an interest in their country and culture.

  6. Pity about the Western opening to an interesting article. Contemporaneous reportage and subsequent book/film treatment of Somalia was the usual cowboy mythmaking. Somalia is doomed “to appear to us as little more than a land of militias, terrorists, and pirates” only if as good a writer as Ian Garrick Mason limits himself and prepares the reader by beginning with the stereotypes. Imagine if he shed this Western armour and went with more respect deeper into the history of the culture that produced this great tradition of a genuinely social poetry, quite rare and beautiful in these dark ages…

  7. Thanks, nii k. I’m sorry if I appeared to you to be validating stereotypes, because my intent was obviously quite the opposite. I write, in part, to discover and understand new things, and the way I wrote this essay reflects my own journey from having only stereotypes to go on (even though I recognized most of them as such) to my happy encounter with the fact of the Somali poetic tradition. I only wish I had the time to go deeper into the subject than I did, because it is indeed fascinating.

    Thanks for challenging me to do better next time. 🙂

  8. all this is just by chance, and yes, credit to artandlettersdaily, so what the hell, to which the road has one paving stone with mason’s handprints all over it. just imagine mason losing the gigantic Western “us” and the explorer position, thereby gaining time and depth and breadth and breath to transmit that fascination more fully, and fascinate. you have to pay your bills and the market is a beast. i am somewhere, just imagining, from this evidence, that mason could yet come to dominate the market by conveying realities with the poet’s eye, without becoming a purveyor of “world music”. wishing you courage in the face of the challenges.

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