Long before the Somalis were pirates, they were poets.
Poetry was present in every facet of life. Everything merited a poem, from churning butter to herding goats to visiting a friend to turning down a marriage proposal. If you wanted to request something, you did it with a poem. If you wanted to object to something, you did it with a poem. If you wanted to explain something, you did it with a poem. Somalia was (and still is, to a large extent) an oral society and poems contained the information needed to live. They taught botany, animal husbandry, geography, history, ethics, philosophy. Poetry was also a political force. Each clan appointed a poet who played a key role in making war or protecting peace. In fact, some say it was poetry, as recently as a few decades ago, that finally brought Somalia’s dictator down.
I’ve read everything I can find on the subject, although there’s less than you might think, given poetry’s importance in Somali culture. Nobody knows how far back their poetic tradition goes. British explorer Sir Richard Burton, one of the first Westerners to venture into the land of the Somalis, made note of it in the 1850s:
The country teems with “poets, poetasters, poetitos, poetaccios:” every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines.
The complexity of the art form he described has led people to believe that the practice stretches much further back, but, mysteriously, there are no surviving poems prior to the 1700s.
Poetry contests, much like our poetry slams, have long been a common form of entertainment in Somalia. Canadian author Margaret Laurence, who lived in Somaliland in the 1950s and who made the first attempt to translate Somali poetry into English, describes a competition in which the objective was to write a poem about the vagina without using the word and without offending public sensibilities. One can only imagine the neologisms that were created in the service of that set of constraints.
Sometimes the contests weren’t as playful. In the early 1980s, when Somalia was nearing its breaking point and its president, Siad Barre, had shown himself to be just another corrupt and cruel African dictator, two poets decided to challenge one another to a poetic duel that would directly confront the regime. Where do these Japanese cars come from, one poem asked, when most people have nothing? Cassette tapes, which had been enthusiastically adopted by the nomads, became the delivery method. Poets from around the country, and the world, added their voices to the debate. Poetry cassettes were everywhere. All told, around sixty poets contributed about one-hundred-and-twenty poems.
Not long after the contest began, the SNM—one of the first and largest resistance movements— was formed, operating out of a base in Ethiopia. Some say the country’s turning point came when the two poets who began the contest defected to Ethiopia in the middle of the night and began to actively work with the resistance. “And the armed poetry started,” as one poet put it.
For the years I’ve been teaching Somalis, I’ve searched for evidence of their poetry. Not amongst the intellectuals in African Studies programs, but in the homes of newly arrived refugees. I’ve heard that poetry cassettes still circulate, but I’ve also heard the old poetic tradition, based as it is on the pastoral lifestyle, is being wrecked by war and usurped by the Somali love for new technology. So who knows? Once, when I was trying to buy a Somali-English dictionary, a Somali friend gave me a ride to the market where they are sold. Her car was old, low-slung and rusty. Beneath the sound of the exhaust, I heard something verse-like coming from the cassette deck. It was in a language I didn’t understand. Is that poetry? I asked excitedly. No, she said gently. That is Qr’aan.
When I’ve asked Somali women about their poetry, they tell me to talk to the men. (The women’s poetry is usually private and domestic, the men’s is far more public.) When I ask the men, they shrug, but not unkindly.
Is it because it is too difficult to translate? Or because I won’t understand? Don’t know enough about camels? Or drought? Or clan politics? Or is it because they are refugees, and have other things to think about?
Note: Alexander Stille's The Future of the Past has a wonderful chapter about how technology is impacting Somali poetry. He talks at length about the impact of poetry on Barre's downfall.