Inside Somalia: Where poetry is revered

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Editor’s note: Somalia defines the term failed state. This GlobalPost series includes accounts of being under fire in Mogadishu, on guard duty with African Union peacekeepers, an investigation into the Al Shabaab rebels and an analysis of when Somalia will improve.

MOGADISHU, Somalia and HARGEISA, Somaliland — Imagine a country where poetry is everything.

Imagine a place where the poets themselves are folk heroes and role models, a place where
everyone knows the verses by heart and where crowds gather spellbound to hear the most popular poets perform.

What you’re imagining is probably not Somalia, a country that has become a byword for death, mayhem and chaos, but where poetry is a political tool as powerful as the gun.

“Without poetry we would not exist as a society. It can rouse thousands of people in a minute and demobilize thousands in a minute. As the stomach needs food, so the brain needs beautiful words,” said Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame, known as Hadraawi,  Somalia’s most famous poet.

Some have compared Hadraawi to Shakespeare and his works have been translated internationally. During the years of General Mohamed Siyad Barre’s dictatorship that ended in 1991, he was locked-up in solitary confinement for five years. “My poems were against the regime at that time,” he said.

With sparkling eyes and a neatly trimmed white beard, the 66-year-old explained, “Poetry is a weapon that we use in both war and peace. When we want to tell somebody something, poetry is the best way to convince them.”

Somali poems are not just entertainment. They frequently use allegory and myth to talk about sensitive issues of politics, clan and conflict. As Hadraawi put it: “Poems and not just recited for their own sake, there must be a purpose.”

In 2003 he walked the length and breadth of Somalia on a peace march. “The only weapon I carried with me were my poems,” said Hadraawi. The march did not end the fighting but he drew crowds wherever he went reminding people that there is more to life than war.

It is hard to overstate the importance of poetry in Somalia. Here it is not an esoteric minority interest but a form of mass popular culture. When poets such as Hadraawi perform — the words half-sung, half-spoken — audiences are silent, taking in every word.

“You think the audience is not breathing; they are trying to feel the words,” said one Somali poetry fan.

“Poetry has many roles,” said Boobe Yusuf Duale, program coordinator at Hargeisa’s Academy for Peace and Development, a cultural institution in the breakaway territory of Somaliland.

“It has an awareness, a sensitization, an educational role; it has a role in helping people to develop, in saving the environment; it has got socio-economic and political roles; it has cultural and ethical and moral roles.

“In traditional Somali society poetry played the role of the media and to a certain extent it still does: it tells people what’s going on,” said Duale.

Like most of the buildings in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, the National Theater doesn’t exist anymore. It has been bombed to rubble. But the theater’s director Abdi Dhuh still keeps busy.

Last month he choreographed celebrations to mark the first anniversary of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s rule. In between the falling mortars, tank and machine gun fire that punctuated the proceedings a display of poetry, music, singing and comic theater entertained the gathered crowds.

“Poetry and prose are extremely important for the Somali people. It’s the only thing that can turn the people to you or against you, that is how powerful it is,” explained Dhuh.

GlobalPost caught up with the president of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, late last year in Chicago:

The show talked about the president’s achievements and the need for national unity and for peace.

“Our hope is that the theater will be rebuilt then the singers and poets will come back,” said Dhuh. “When we had a government — way back when — they used to line up in the mornings for two or three kilometres to get tickets for the evening show. I hope those happy days will come again,” said Dhuh.

“We are a nation of poets,” said Hadraawi. That may be true but it is a side of Somalia rarely seen as, so often, the gunfire drowns out the poetry.

Read one of Hadraawi’s poems.

Inside Somalia: The series

Life in hell: under fire in Mogadishu

Peacekeeping: on the ground with African Union forces

Al Shabaab: a glimpse into the Islamic extremist group

Opinion: When will Somalia improve?

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