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Keeping the poetic tradition alive in Somalia

By Harriet Staff

Daniel Howden has been reporting from Mogadishu in a series of articles for The Independent. In the final dispatch, he looks at the last of Somalia’s poets, once a title that once could have been given to practically anyone when, as Richard Burton put it 100 years ago, “every man has his recognised position in literature.”

The country’s unrest has prompted more and more of Somalia’s poets to seek refuge elsewhere. Once primarily a spoken form (a written language was only officially recognized in 1972), the emigration of Somalia’s poets to other countries has led its poetry to adapt and gain a wider audience, but has also left behind much of the tradition.

This has meant that a tradition largely passed on orally – in which plagiarism was anathema and the original poet would be credited by the performer – has been written down and translated.

But poetry is still listened to rather than read by Somalis and the cassette tapes of old have given way to digital clips watched over the internet…

…The “endless war” means the poets’ club now comprises only nine regulars, says [Sugaal Abdulle Omar]. These days his largest audiences are online. Many people download clips of the 56-year-old’s performances from YouTube. To make his point he leans forward, flips open his mobile phone and plays a maanso that’s been set to music. Wanting to join in, he mimes the words in time to the tinny wail of the phone. This one is about love: “why does every woman who I try to seduce become my enemy?” it asks.

Besides the rapid transition from spoken to written to digital, Somali poetry has also undergone major shifts in content as the political climate continues to deteriorate. When there were poets in every clan, often as their leaders, it was common for poets themselves to act (or be used) as political forces:

The Dervish leader Sayyid Muhammad Hasan, remembered in British colonial literature as the “Mad Mullah”, was a poet and mystic. “I would not have withheld anything from them, if they desired peace,” he said of the British, who employed poets from their own clan collaborators to attack Sayyid during his rebellion. “But when they acted disdainfully, death marched straight at them.”

Now with only a handful of poets left in Mogadishu, there are only a few to bear the brunt of these forces.

“Poetry has changed,” [Hassan Mohamed Mohamud, aka Hassan Ja'ayl] says, blaming the Shabaab. “They don’t allow songs and poems about love. Before them the warlords ruled Mogadishu and we as poets had a campaign and we preached poems on the streets about love and peace.”

Many in the Somali diaspora like Sheik Samatar now despair that poetry has been “banished into the wilderness by the AK-47.” He wrote recently that “the grim fact is that Somalia’s literary death tops its political demise.”

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, December 3rd, 2010 by Harriet Staff.