The Poetics of Displacement: Somali Oral Verse in Exile

The Poetics of Displacement: Somali Oral Verse in Exile

Now you depart, and though your way may lead

Through airless forests thick with hagar trees,

Places steeped in heat, stifling and dry,

Where breath comes hard, and no fresh breeze can reach

Yet may God place a shield of coolest air

Between your body and the assailant sun.

And in a random scorching flame of wind

That parches the painful throat, and sears the flesh,

May God, in His compassion, let you find

The great-boughed tree that will protect and shade1

THIS HAUNTINGLY BEAUTIFUL valedictory poem, which the Somali poet, Sufi Sheikh, and anticolonial warrior Sayyid Mahammed ‘Abdule Hassan composed for a departing friend in the late 19th century, possesses an uncanny premonitory quality in the light of the troubled modern history of the rugged land it describes.

Could the elevated spiritual state of the man who was to become the hallowed symbol of Somali pride and nationalism have permitted him to foresee the malediction that would befall his people in the century to come? Could he have known that the tribulations of the lonely traveller he so eloquently evoked would soon be the reality of his entire nation, as the perpetual violence of the late 20th century swept hundreds of thousands of men, women and children onto the perilous road into exile?

Whatever the scope of the Sayyid’s insights, his words must certainly have acquired a new sense of urgency for the Somali refugees who have sought peace and protection across the globe in the wake of 29 years of civil war. And just like their ancestors, whose poetic heritage constitutes the foundation of Somali collective memory and identity, Somali communities in exile continue to record their experiences in verse. Although Somalis are now possibly the largest African Diaspora in the West, their culture and history are very little known to their hosts, whose awareness of Somalia rarely goes beyond war and famine.

This article aims to shed some light on the Somalis’ greatest cultural capital-oral poetry-and its significance as an “imagined” collective forum where the entire community can comment on, conceptualise, debate and express the shared experience of war and exile and formulate a way forward.


Somalia, the wedge-shaped nation in the Horn of Africa with its endless coastline, parched wastelands, and winding rivers has been home to the nomadic Somali and their illustrious camel herds as long as human memory stretches back. Known to early travellers as a proud and articulate people, the Somali are famed for their relative cultural and linguistic homogeneity on a continent where there are few borders that do not cut across several ethnic and language barriers. Today, around 60% of all Somalis are nomadic camel herders. The remainder are farmers and city dwellers. 99% of Somalis are Sunni Muslims and almost all of them speak the Somali language or a similar dialect. And for all those who master the language, poetry is the primary mode of cultural expression.

Somalia has been in a perpetual state of civil war since 1977 and without an effective government since the ousting of the military dictator Mohammed Syad Barre in 1991 . The self-declared state of Somaliland (formerly British Somaliland) is politically stable but has not been internationally recognised. Somalia’s troubles are generally considered the unfortunate outcome of the combined factors of opportunist colonial politics, clan rivalry, unequal division of natural resources and detrimental interference by foreign nations. But despite the intense trauma they have suffered over the past decades, most Somalis unabatedly persist in their daily struggle to build up a peaceful existence-wherever it is that fate has landed them. As shall become clear, poetry is central to this process.

When the famous 19th century British adventurer Richard Burton travelled through Somalia, the remarkable status of the poet among the nomadic people he encountered was not lost on him. He wrote in his travel journal: “The country teems with poets . . . Every man has his recognised position in literature as defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines-the fine ear of this people causing the greatest pleasure in harmonious sounds and poetic expressions.”

Many of those who followed in the Brit’s footsteps showed equal astonishment at the all-pervasive influence of the verbal arts in Somali society. The Somali poet’s work, unlike that of his Western counterpart, is not confined to theatres and the drawing rooms of the elite, nor is it mere entertainment appreciated for its aesthetic value but with little bearing on the actual day-to-day workings of society. Somali poetry is in fact highly utilitarian and Somali poets, whose language had no official script until 1972, are keenly aware of the social and political efficacy of speech in a primarily oral society. With their oratory they navigate the roles of superstar and diplomat, medium and messenger, warmonger and arbitrator. But more importantly, in a country where attachment to place is as ephemeral as the camel’s footprints, the poetry is history and collective memory its archive.


Somali oratory can be divided into many genres, most of which incorporate poetry. The most common distinction is that between maanso (classical poetry dealing with serious issues), and hees (lighter poetry that is usually sung and accompanied by instruments). Each genre has its own performance context, tune, and metrical pattern.

Maanso is “classical poetry” and is generally held in higher esteem than the hees. It conforms to strict stylistic and metrical conventions and deals with serious topics such as clan and national politics, religion and, today, the civil war. It has no musical accompaniment and is commonly recited during clan gatherings, at political rallies, in coffee houses, during khat-chewing sessions, at weddings and at other cultural events.

Maanso poetry invariably has an argument to advance and when used to insult or criticize, which is common, always requires redress-preferably in the form of a poem that outdoes the original in deftness and argumentation. This poetic code of ethics has sparked endless poetry “chains” in which different participants contest each other verbally Some of these “chains” are widely known such as the poetic “attacks” of Mahammed Abdille Hassan and the responses of his opponents from the Qadiriyya Sufi brotherhood and rival clans allied to the British colonizers. Equally famous are the poetic gripes of the opponents and supporters of former Somali dictator Mohammed Barre. Many of these poetic “chains” can now be found on Somali Internet websites.

In more recent times traditional gender roles, tribalism, female circumcision, and especially the civil war have been the subject of fiery poetic disputes. In poetry the use of violent diatribe is entirely acceptable and poetic license provides the socially marginal with a powerful tool to reclaim their honour and challenge existing power structures. It is not surprising then that Somalis often describe their verse in rather explosive terms. Mahammed Abdile Hassan likened his poetry to “the blinding flash of a thunderbolt” and the “darkness of gale winds”. In a gabay (the most esteemed “male” maanso genre) one of the most respected contemporary Somali poets, Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac “Gaarriye”, who now resides in London, describes his art as follows:

This poem is a gun

This poem’s an assassin

Images mob my mind . . .

This pen s a spear, a knife

A branding-iron, an arrow

Tipped with righteous anger

It writes with blood and bile 2

Somali women have their own classical poetic genre called buraambur and, although its memorization and transmission has traditionally been restricted by social convention, it is no less socially and politically engaged than the men’s genres. Shifting social norms as a result of war and exile have now permitted many Somali women to play increasingly active public roles, including the public recitation of their poetry at political and cultural events. At the largest Somali peace initiative yet, the Carta Peace Conference in Djibouti in 2000, women took centre stage with the performance of peace-promoting poetry and song. In many Diasporic communities, women are spearheading the revival of the Somali cultural heritage and actively participate in debates surrounding the war and their status as refugees. The following buraambur composed by Hawa Jibril in Toronto is an example:

Indeed Canadians welcome refugees

And do not let them starve

Yet one is always unsatisfied and broke

For the little we get

Hardly suffices our food and shelter.

They are strange people coming from everywhere

Never notice you or even greet you

Each one keeps to himself

Always hastily locking his door.

I feel isolated and sick with loneliness

Deprived from my beautiful Africa

And the land of my inspirations and songs.

I must be contended with the fate

That my God has reserved for me.

The great significance of maanso poetry is evident in the imperative of verbatim memorization. Although a classical poem sometimes consists of a few hundred lines and is hardly ever written down, many Somali elders have memorized a striking number, word-for-word. One day, while doing an interview with an old Somali lady in London for my MA thesis on Somali women’s poetry, I was completely dumbfounded when, after reciting an endless number of her family’s poems to me from memory, she said that she had heard most of them only once.

The modern hees is much more elaborate in both its performance than maanso and is especially popular among the youth. It is sung, usually accompanied by a band or orchestra, and can be considered the Somali equivalent of the Western pop-song.

Since the 1940s, the introduction of radio and audio cassettes has contributed incalculably to the popularity and dissemination of poetry, which until then had travelled solely on the nomad’s tongue. Today, from Mogadishu to the inner cities of London and Toronto, Somali shops offer a wide assortment of cassettes and CDs, adorned with images of the latest stars; from the female queens of the hees, dressed in the colourful and flowy traditional diric, to young rappers in baggy trousers and caps whose Somali rhymes, with some exceptions, have been inspired far more by the likes of Tupac and Puff Daddy than by anything rooted in traditional Somali culture.
The modern hees is generally concerned with romantic love, but, as all Somali poetry, it is also employed as a tool of social and political commentary, usually metaphorically delivered as seemingly innocuous love-lyrics. In modern times the hees has become an important vehicle of political opposition which has frequently led to the prosecution of its composers the banning of their work. A famed example of the Somali sensitivity to hidden meanings in poetry and the extent to which it can affect the course of real events is the case of a hees called Leexo (“light breeze”), which was played on Somali national radio during the final stages of the presidential elections of 1967. While it was broadcast many people suddenly started voting for the opposition candidate who had until then been lagging behind. Although the song appears to be no more than a lover’s lament, the DJ was accused of perverting the election process by publicly inciting the voters against the ruling party!

While we were yet together.

Helping one another in every way.

You cast good council away, to the top of a high tree;

You caused yourself distress,

And slaughtered yourself for your enemy,

Giving your victory to him,

Now you are so weakened

That light breezes bear you up,

And from time to time you grasp at a branch.

For all the pleasures of this earth

One cannot fully enjoy;

Tell me what causes you this distress?*

In spite of the primacy of the written word in the Western cities where many Somalis have sought refuge, oral poetry has lost little of its traditional appeal. Indeed, some have successfully taken up the pen to write novels and memoirs, most notably the acclaimed novelist Nurrudin Farah, but oral poetry remains by far the most popular medium of cultural expression and social commentary. In fact, Somali poetry is experiencing somewhat of a Diasporic revival with multicultural festivals and the Internet offering new platforms for verbal creativity. And as Somali poetry has always been primarily a reflection on lived day-to-day reality, the collective experience of war and exile figures prominently in the new wave of Somali verbal expression.



the oppressed deceived

screened off enclosed

disowned killed buried

slaughtered for those

astray saddled for greed

hobbled from behind

perpetually dangling

stick thin destitute

without compassion

empty of the grace of God

i pass you this message

to ring pour forth harmony

setting to rights

to spread loyal honesty

be it perhaps God willing

at dawn recite it

press it into thoses stubborn ones

from mindlessness 4

alliterating in “d”

forging the path

easing the poem’s affirmation

I summon y ou ring it

a balm accepted

if truth only heals

that they descend

When I heard the late Abdulqaadir Haaji Ali’s poem Samadoon (“goodwill”) for the first time I felt battered at the end of it. It was as if the young poet had gathered the brutality of decades of internecine strife upon his shoulders and unleashed his unbearable burden all at once into the gabay’s 150 stanzas, surging from the poet’s tongue like a round of furious gunfire. The gabay has a noun alliterating in “d” in every half-line throughout the poem, creating the impression of an actual barrage of bullets. It takes the form of an indictment and a warning addressed to the Somali people and delivered an imaginary emissary, “Hirsi”; a stylistic feature common to Somali poetry. The images of death and destruction clothed in the language of the pastoral nomad and the frequent use of the 2nd person implicate the entire nation in the “descent into mindlessness” lamented by the poet:

. . . Dismantling agreements, each aiming their own way for

a very long time

Piercing peeling back then putting in, watering each other’s

spite and jealousy

Bringing people to hate, such that fire is not held for another

Making them sleep by the side, of badness unblamed

That they scatter apart you’ll say to them, it’s not in your

Interest … 5

To the Western ear the above poem may sound crudely direct. But for a Somali authence a poem’s effectiveness depends on its manipulation of familiar images rooted in a shared cultural heritage. While the composition of a poem may vary widely from one poet to the next and veiled language is common, the content and the message always appeals to ideas and experiences shared by the community as a whole. Because the function of Somali poetry is to create a shared historical awareness and often seeks to persuade the listener of an argument, there is no room for abstruse language.

This common understanding of the communal functions of poetry has facilitated the continuation of a shared poetic discourse across the vast space over which Somalis have fanned out. The Internet has become another important platform for poetic debate across space, and there are many websites dedicated to poetry, most of which have been created in the Diaspora. Poetic duels on these sites often revolve around the civil war and “chains” similar to those discussed above are very popular.

As in the past, some poetry is partisan and supports one or the other clan or warlord, but the poets that gain the widest renown tend to be those who seek to build bridges and promote peace. One of those is the poet Hadraawi, arguably the most famous living Somali poet, who has travelled across Somalia and the Diaspora to promote peaceful resolutions to Somalia’s problems through his poetry. Many poetry recitals by both men and women are now recorded on video and popular ones quickly circulate throughout the global community.

On the micro-level, poetry remains a preferred medium for the communication of sensitive social messages between individuals. As in the past, poetic license allows people to address issues that may cause embarrassment when discussed in ordinary conversation. The severe disruption of traditional family life as a result of war and exile has created many new social tensions in which poetry is once again proving to be an effective mediator.

One Somali lady whose poetry I recorded in London told me about the difficult years she spent alone in Saudi Arabia, where she worked as a janitor after she had lost her husband and only son in the civil war. Like many Somali elders, who are often illiterate, she stayed in touch with relatives abroad by sending them voice-messages on audio tapes. As she belongs to a lineage of great poets and is a capable composer herself, her messages often contain poems. In one instance she composed a poem for her brother in Somalia to complain about his sons who did not show consideration for the difficulties she was facing in Saudi Arabia and kept asking her to send money. She cunningly pointed out that the children of her husband by his second wife did support her, even though they are not socially expected to do so, unlike her nephews who are blood-relations. As the poem above, she addressed her complaint to an imaginary friend called Haali:

Oh Haali I clean people’s toilets!

The ones who should take care of me are all working

“She doesn’t send us any money “they all grumble

May Allah support Ali who didn’t do me wrong

I am receiving help from the men born to my co-wife

While my nephews are not doing a thing 6

After receiving the message, the poet’s brother apologized to her and reproached his sons. Message sent, message received!

In spite of the continuing popularity of the classical genres of poetry among first-generation Somali migrants, there is now a growing group of young Somalis who were brought up in the Diaspora and feel little connection to the rustic language and countryside imagery of the gabay and buraanbur, let alone being able to compose in it. Some of them are now exploring new ways of creatively expressing their cosmopolitan identity and, perhaps unsurprisingly, often choose to do so verbally.

Rap, with its roots in social and ethnic struggle and its strong emphasis on verbal skills, has a natural appeal for young Somalis in the West, and a plethora of Somali “MCs” have “stepped up to the mic” since the mid-90s; some rhyming in Somali and others in English. The most successful of them is the Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan. Now in his late twenties, he fled as a 9-year old with his family from Mogadishu in the early 90s and eventually settled in Toronto, where he developed his brilliant lyrical talent. Now a regular on MTV, K’naan has stayed true to his roots. His lyrics are a testimony to the troublesome journey of the Somali people and an indication that their legendary eloquence will find new forms for exile and will continue to pay tribute to the place where it all began:

In a conservative form, I wanna ask you a few things before I conform, to the popular belief about where I was born, are they still thing still killing popping the corn, how’s the horn, how’s the love wave in the ocean morn, how are the young, do they still possess the poetry tongue, and do they still greet sincere like the depth of the lung, how’s the nomad, did the herds graze well this year, from the news to what I know the growing gab ain’t clear, how’s the earth, how are the stars under we conversed, do you still await on change like a new moons birth, does it still flood, ancient wisdom parallel with blood, do you still see, the painted vision only script deep, or did y ou fight off the plight of the colonized mind, what of the rainy season, do the kids still burry seeds and, get taken with uncertainty like me scared of leaving? How are the poets, the women and the orphans torn, I miss em all like old opportunities gone, what of the elders, story tellers and abandoned homes, miss em all like childhood reminiscefull songs …?

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