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Volume 39, Number 6November/December 1988

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A Nation of Bards

Written by Lark Ellen Gould
Photographed by Ilene Perlman

Unless I see you, I get no nourishment from sleep,

Like a young camel I bellow out to you.

I am to you as a she-camel is to her adopted calf,

When her own has been killed.

By running hard, and with good luck, I shall obtain you;

I have made that my pledge,

A camel burdened with curved hut-poles broke loose and ran over me;

He set me alight like a blazing log-fire.

I saw you in a dream, adorned for a wedding-feast;

I cry out to you - have trust in me!

Somalia is a nation of brads.

African gateway to the Middle East, its thorny, parched pastures barely support the herdsmen - more than 60 percent of the population - who tread the country's million square kilometers (400,000 square miles) of desert. Their hard life is softened, however, by the clink of their camels' bells and the taste of their camels' milk, drunk warm and sweet in a hut of branch and hide. With the milk, the Somalis drink in and are nourished by stories related in verse - stories that, after prayer to God and the celebration of rainfall, are one of the strongest elements that feed the Somali spirit and unify the Somali nation.

The 19th-century British explorer Richard Burton described these gifted verbalists in his book First Footsteps in East Africa. "The country teems with poets," he wrote. "Every man has his recognised position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines - the fine ear of this people causing them to take the greatest pleasure in harmonious sounds and poetic expressions. Every chief in the country must have a panegyric to be sung by his clan, and the great patronize light literature by keeping a poet."

Poetry is the luxury of people so poor in material goods that a family's possessions can be carried on a camel's back. Their homes are hoops of branch and briar, set in the sand and covered with hides and emptied grain sacks to break the searing winds. Survival requires the constant movement of their goats, cows, and treasured dromedaries from water hole to water hole; they walk hundreds of kilometers annually to keep their stock alive. This is not the life of people who can afford to define their cultural identity by material handicrafts whose style is handed down through generations; rather, it is the life of a people who have had to turn inward to survive, building their culture out of nothing more concrete than religion, language, dreams and humor.

The late president of Somalia, Abdi-rashid Ali Shermarke, spoke of the country's pastoral verse as "one of two national assets of inestimable value," ranking it just behind the Muslim faith as a cherished national tradition. As Islam provides a way of life and defines a relationship with God, so poetry provides a way of speech and thought and defines a relationship with the things of this world. And it provides too a way to articulate, in skilled and satisfying forms, the questions every human being asks.

Once I wore a fine red-brown mantle, and carried a rhinoceros-hide whip.

I was looked upon with esteem as one among the best of humankind.

But then my backbone grew short and shrank, did it not?

I even had to stop for a night's rest, did I not,

When traveling a distance so short that shouting voices could have spanned it.

I was passed and left behind on the way, was I not,

By everyone along the route that trekking hamlets take.

I had to give up carrying weapons altogether, did I not,

Except for a stick to support myself.

The men begotten by men whom I begot refused to lend me their aid,

The women who were married to me wished me dead, did they not?

"Give me foodl" I shouted, did I not - impatiently, like a child.

The shameful things against which I had guarded myself

Have now come upon me, clear as the light of day,

Have they not?

In those attributes, Somali poetry is like poetry everywhere. But in addition, in Somalia, well-shaped and whetted verse has a function beyond literature: it is also the key to mass communication, serving as advertisement, instrument of influence and path to power in a turbulent land. Whereas poetry has little influence in the daily life of most citizens of industrialized nations, in Somalia the poet is a person of prestige and power, respected for his cleverness and sometimes even feared for his afmishaar — his "mouth like a saw."

The role of the poet includes some of the functions of starmaker, journalist and advocate. In highly stylized, alliterative phrases, he argues his case or tells his tales—the latter in effect the news of the day—elevating warrior to demigod and fool to satirical legend. His words are delivered in the Somali language—a Cushitic tongue spoken by the entire population of eight million, and rich in the pleasure it gives to the listener when well-chosen words come together with elegance and cadence.

Poetic performance in Somalia is not casual or informal, as it might be in Paris cafés or on street corners of college towns—and it is explicitly competitive. Formal gatherings in the shade of acacia groves often include a panel of hoary elders of literary merit, called heerbeegti, who serve as judges for the poetry competitions. These may last for weeks as poets rebut one another in a lengthy test of talent and stamina. Winners gain fame and prestige for their clan as well as livestock for them selves; in a country where verbal damage to an enemy may be more wounding than physical harm, counting a poet among one's clan members can be as valuable as an armory of swords.

Poets are divided into four classes, by skill. On the highest level, and most valued as an orator, is the afmaal, literally "mouth of wealth." He is an individual of towering prestige, built on the reputation of never losing a competition or a case he argues. Second in rank is the aftahan or "generous mouth"; with facile tongue he occupies a position nearly as respected as the afmaal. In third place comes the afmishaar. af meaning "mouth" and mishaar meaning "saw". This class of orators has emerged with the development of nationalist mass politics and impersonal party-political organization; their words are incisive and usually used to vilify. The fourth and lowest class of public speaker is the afgaroo, the "deformed mouth." These speakers are mercilessly ridiculed for their lack of poetic prowess and their foolish refusal to accept their lack of ability.

Accompanying the poets, and hanging on their every word, are the hafidayaal, the memorizers whose skills allow them to transmit and disseminate, like gusts in the desert, the magic of what they have heard. As nomadic societies in Somalia are for the most part cut off from news of the outside, it is the hafidayaal who bring information and entertainment from outside the family or clan and who interconnect these groups in their constant traveling. So great is the speed at which the poets' words reach distant ears that the nomads claim the poetry is carried by jinn, by genies in the wind.

Somalia did not possess a written language until 1973, when the Latin alphabet was put to Somali phonetics; until then, people who wanted songs and words in their heads had to either memorize someone else's or compose their own. Thus, memorization is as much a skill to be honed and tended in this culture as milking camels, and the training begins at an early age with the required rote learning of nearly half the 114 suras, or chapters, of the Qur'an and strong familiarity with the remaining chapters. The verses are learned by ear, for a Somali proverb says that "he who looks at paper never becomes a memorizer," and the skills of listening and repeating are gradually applied to the creation of poetry. Part of the training thereafter is informal.

"I can remember the evening bonfires around which the children would gather," says Dr. Ahmed Artan Hanghee, dean of the Institute of Arts under the Somali Academy of Science and Arts. "The storytellers would come and start recounting the past history of the clan. Then the poets would take over and entertain. The rules of poetry have never been written; they are just absorbed and understood."

But that doesn't make them easy. Classical poetry, considered the domain of the nomads and the purest form of the language, is lengthy in presentation and strict in style. There are stringent rules of meter and of alliteration, compounded by metrical counts that vary with the length of syllables. Thus the length of its vowel determines whether a syllable counts as either one or two moras, or units. Classical poetry must have 20 to 22 moras per line, as well as a pause after the 12th unit and two words per line that share the same initial letter. In Somali, the first two lines of the poem on page 33 are:

Inta Khayli dhuugyaha cas iyo, dheeh wiyil ah qaatay.  

E dhallaanka Aadnigu u baxo, sidatan lay dhawray.

A second style of poetry, called anigarar, has 17 to 18 moras per line, and four other genres employ successively decreasing numbers of units, down to five per line. Woman poets compete in a separate genre of their own called buranbur, with similarly precise rules.

The words are metaphorical, rarely direct, Hanghee says. Most poetry contains the symbol of the camel, which can embody the notions of beauty, woman, provider of life, food, fragile temperament or freedom, or the ideal of nationhood.

"Somali poets talk in the abstract," says Hanghee. "You'll find one describing the beauty of a camel, but what he really means is Somali liberty and independence. Or the subject of the poem might be a horse, but he's really describing the woman he loves. The waves of the Indian Ocean become the waves of decolonization and the freeing of Africa."

He who has goats has a garment full ofcorn;

A milk cow is a temporary vanity;

A he-camel is the muscle that sustains life;

A she-camelwhoever may have heris the mother of men."

This poem by Mohamed Abdullah Hassan, known in Somali history as a heroic fighter against the British, contrasts the impermanence and fugitive value of grain a commodity dependent on the weather and the season, soon consumed—and a milk cow—stable and useful but, like the goat, part of the realm of women and boys with those things that represent longterm benefit and strength: the male camel as the muscle that sustains life and the she-camel as the giver of life. As the pastoralists put it, "Men and camels thrive on each other."

For urban poets, for whom radio has replaced the hafidayaal and the disseminating jinn, stylized sentences have a different significance than they do in the bush. These practitioners are likely to recite not in an acacia grove but before an audience of 1000 at the National Theatre in the capital city, Mogadishu, or for educated goverment employees taking an afternoon tea break around someone's radio. The poet here is not so interested in contributing to a godob, or vendetta, or in praising a tribal leader at the expense of his rivals. Rather, his poetry is used by public officials as a form of public relations, dispelling fears afoot in the community and extolling hard work and cooperative enterprise.

And because poetry can be used both for and against the government, poets are under the watchful eyes of administrators. Their poems are noted for their political correctness—or lack of it—and poets who speak in support of government policies are treated well by officials. Their verse may make the airwaves of Radio Mogadishu; they may be commissioned by the Ministry of Information to write a series of lines defending the recent peace pact along the Ethiopian border, or lamenting the evils of tribalism that still wrack the country. On the other hand, such poets may lose their credibility among their literary following. The urban poet who carries a less acceptable opinion in his heart, even if his message is coded in animal and environmental imagery, usually keeps his art discreetly underground, and circulates it on cassette tapes.

Politically inoffensive poetry may make its way into the single daily newspaper in the country, Hiddigta Oktoobar (October Star). In a country where two-thirds of the population is nomadic and barely half the people can read, however, the written word is not the favored medium of verse: Recitation from memory is, and to know, to remember and to convince are the three requirements which all poets must meet and by which their work and its performance are judged.

The eye contact, intonation and information of the poetic recital has worked miracles outside the realm of formal performances, as well. Somalis tell the story of an Ogaden chief who went to the tree of an enemy tribe and offered 114 poetic points of introduction and then another 114 points of argument, in honor of the number of chapters in the Qur'an. According to the legend, the chief spent days convincing the tribe that a negotiated peace was at hand, while actually keeping the enemy spellbound, buying time for his approaching warriors. By the hundredth point of argument, two days later—a performance played entirely from memory—he had lulled the opposing tribe to sleep; his army arrived and slew them.

The settlement of nomads and the migration of rural people to the city over the last half-century have diminished the role of poetry in Somalia. Although the words of the past live on and are revered by older people, the capital city crawls with boys and young men sent from their pastures to the city for schooling. Time is passed sitting in tea shops and wandering along the Makarama, Mogadishu's main street, greeting friends. To city youth, poetry is debate they tune in on the radio from time to time, an art they know about but likely won't absorb into their own lives. Each may remember a particular presentation, perhaps one given by his uncle under the palely luminescent moon; each may hear a poem on someone's cassette tape recorder phrased in words that make his back shiver. But poetry is not a course offered at the Somali National University, and skill at recitation is not a goal for which these young men will burn the midnight oil, hoping for honors and a cow or a goat as a prize. And unless the rhythms and the skills are in their blood—unless they've known them since they were no bigger than the goats they once herded—they are not likely to become perpetuators of one of their country's most precious artistic customs.

"In larger cities, with education and urbanization, poetry is not as popular as it once was, 100 years ago in the Somali-lands," Hanghee adds. "Younger generations there just aren't that interested. The nomads' culture is conservative and stable, so at least in the outlands poetry is not dying. But in the cities, Western technology carries with it the Western culture. Some parts of the technology help preserve this element of our culture, other parts help destroy it. The young people are involved with their music and videos; for poetry, they don't really much care."

Cassette tapes passed from hand to hand and group to group are one of modern technology's contributions to Somali poetry. Radio is another: Agrarian tribes in the south communicate with the nomads of the north through poetic debates aired on the national radio. In another, perhaps less positive, influence, classical poetry is giving way to modern forms composed with shorter lines, less alliteration, and cadences that can be put to music. Yet the language of classical Somali poetry retains its purity through memory, and religious poetry, recited in Arabic, also serves as an anchor to tradition, breathing energy and hope into the population.

Change is afoot, though perhaps only a change of style: Surely the practice of poetry itself cannot die out in Somalia.

Listen, ye men!

God's judgment, I say to you, is ageless,unbending.

And I am forever a poet.

When I am weary, and want no friendbut peace,

And say to you, 'This night my songsare done,'

Your clamorous voices still would forcefrom me

One ballad more to warm thedwindling fire.

Lark Ellen Gould lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a journalist specializing in political affairs in the Horn of Africa.

This article appeared on pages 32-36 of the November/December 1988 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1988 images.