Introduction to Somali poetry
By: Martin Orwin
Anyone who has come into contact with Somali culture will be aware of the central rôle poetry plays in that culture. For as long as we know, poetry has been the core form of cultural expression and is the basis upon which some other forms have been developed, in particular Somali theatre. Traditional life in the eastern Horn of Africa, where the Somalis live, has poetry woven into its fabric. Many of the day-to-day tasks which people carry out in the countryside have poetry associated with them in the form of work songs, each type with its own metrical structure and associated tunes. A young girl might sing songs about the sheep and goats she is tending, weaving into such a song her feelings for the animals and what they mean to her family; a young man may praise his camels in a watering song, a woman tease her neighbour in a matweaving song and so on. Many such worksongs are of common heritage, but it is also the case that people compose their own lyrics reflecting concerns and events in their lives. All these types of poems are generally described in Somali as hees and are part of what might be termed Somali folklore. In addition there is poetry which is composed by poets with the intention that the poem be heard more widely as a comment on something of importance to the community, whether that be the immediate kin or the whole Somali nation. Such poetry is termed maanso in Somali and is characterised by the fact that any particular composition is always associated with the poet who composed it and that anyone reciting the poem must do so with the aim of reciting it word for word as the poet composed it. This verbatim memorization is a particularly important characteristic of the oral poetic heritage of the Somalis and such poetry is generally held in higher esteem than the hees type.
It is important to bear in mind that Somali poetry is still primarily experienced through listening rather than reading; there has been some publication of collections of important poetry (mostly of poets from the past), but these are not widely distributed at all. The language was first written in an officially recognized script in 1972 and, prior to that, poetry was, with a very few exceptions, composed, retained and performed solely in oral form. Most poetry composed today is still essentially oral, although instead of memorization playing the major rôle in its dissemination, cassette tape and radio broadcast are more prominent. Cassettes are particularly important and the recording of performances of poetry and subsequent duplication of the tapes is very widespread and is not regulated through copyright laws. The identity of the poet must always be made clear however and plagiarism and inaccurate recitation of a maanso poem are frowned upon and would lead to the ridicule of anyone Somali poetry trying it on. The matter of oral versus written poetry has become further blurred in recent years when we understand that some poets now use writing in the composition of their poetry. Hadraawi composes using writing and when performing his own poetry does so by reading a written text. There are other poets who continue not to use writing at all and who retain their poems in their heads and pass them on through recitation and recording on cassette.
Maanso poetry is very much of its place and time. A great amount of poetry which is composed by people throughout the Horn of Africa (as well as in the diaspora) relates to events in the life of the poet and in his or her community. Thus as time goes by poets are constantly addressing new situations, and since there is no instituted way in which poetry is preserved, it is easily lost. Little poetry is remembered from before the turn of the century, but now, given the technology of cassette recording and also the development of writing, poetry is more readily kept for posterity. Work was undertaken towards preserving the poetry of some of the most important early poets by Somali poets and scholars in the 1960s and 1970s and there are now some published collections of such early poetry. Of recent poets, few have published works. Hadraawi’s collected poems (1970-1990) were published in 1993 in Norway, (1) an important contribution to Somali literature.
Another consequence of the importance of the context of composition is that some poems are very difficult to understand if one is not aware of the people and events involved. Some poems, however, are composed on more general themes and this makes them more readily accessible to a wider audience and allows them to be understood through translation with a minimal amount of associated annotation. Such are both of the poems presented here.
The last two decades in the Horn of Africa have been times of great upheaval, culminating in the early Nineties in horrific violence in some parts of Somalia and the consequent displacement of a great number of people throughout the world. Much of the poetry which has become widely known over these years has been concerned with this and some imaginative and powerful poems have been composed. As has been the case throughout Somali history, some of this poetry is partisan, supporting or denigrating according to the allegiance of the poet. Poetry which becomes most widely known, however, tends to be that which deals with the situation as a whole and speaks to a wider section of society. As a result of these political upheavals, many people have found their way to the United Kingdom where there is now a large Somali community. Poetry remains an important part of that displaced community’s life and the concerns of the people are naturally reflected in it. For some, a nostalgic reflection through the appreciation of the poetry of past times is important. For others the development of new forms and use of new language is a major part of their cultural life in expressing their new experiences and in assimilating new influences from the communities around them. The use of language in poetry is a matter of concern to many who now live in the UK. Younger people are sometimes unable to understand the language used in some of the poetry of the great modern poets, let alone the great poets of the past, because of the prevalence of the use of vocabulary which has its roots in the traditional pastoral way of life. The most widely known poetry comes from those whose background, if not directly then indirectly, is associated with the pastoral nomadic way of life. The language and experience of this life,of the camels, the weather, the environment, the daily chores, continues to provide a rich source of allusion and metaphor which can be lost on younger people who have grown up in a large city in Europe. Even in the Horn of Africa, people who have grown up in an urban environment with little or no experience of life in the countryside can have difficulty in understanding some poetry. There are some younger artists in the diaspora who are now developing new voices and ways of expressing themselves, but their work has not become widely known amongst the Somalis as a whole as yet.
The two poets whose work is represented here have both been resident in the UK during the 1990s. Although Hadraawi has now returned to the Horn of Africa, whilst living in London he made a number of public appearances reciting his poetry. His poetry has been widely known since the early seventies and has provided an important commentary on the life and political situation in the eastern Horn of Africa from those times to the present day. Cabdulqaadir, who still lives here, is from a younger generation of poets, but his manipulation and skill in addressing matters via the traditional pastoral imagery is appreciated by those who have heard his poetry. Samadoon is particularly appreciated for these qualities.
There are two formal features which are compulsory in Somali poetry: metre and alliteration. Metre is vocalically quantitative with a particular metrical pattern being defined in terms of the number and patterning of long and short vowels. Each genre of poetry (of which there are many) has its own particular metrical template. As for alliteration, there is an alliterative word in every line or half-line, according to the genre, and the same alliterative sound is sustained throughout the whole poem. For example in the poem Samadoon, an example of a genre known as gabay, there is at least one word in every half-line beginning with the sound ‘d’; in Jacayl Dhiig Ma Lagu Qoray, as the metre is different (it is a jiifto metre type in a poem genre known as hees (2)), there is an alliterating word in each line, ‘dh’, (a retroflex plosive). A sensitivity to these formal features is most important in any attempt at translation, but how are they to be acknowledged and reflected in translation? This is a common enough decision to be made in poetry translation, but there are two factors which need to be borne in mind Somali poetry when considering this question for Somali. On the one hand these formal features define the piece of language as being poetry and on the other, given the skills of a good poet, the imposition of such strict features on the language used provides one means of developing movement in the domain of the poem as a whole. This is certainly the case in each of these poems. In Samadoon, for example, although each of the 179 lines of the original has the same metrical and alliterative structure, as is prescribed by convention, Cabdulqaadir skilfully weaves the strictures of the form with other facets of language structure and style such as syntax, repetition, additional alliteration etc, to develop the ideas and emotions in the poem and to bring a wider sense of phrasing to the tone of the poem as a whole. This is also the case in Jacayl Dhiig Ma Lagu Qoray where it is achieved in particular through the series of questions which flow across the strict metrical lines.
How, then, is one to deal with this in translation? The gabay line is 20-21 vowel units long, the jiifto metre of Jacayl Dhiig Ma Lagu Qoray on the other hand has 9 vowel units and this difference in length has been reflected straightforwardly in line length in the translation. Some attempt at the use of half lines has also been made in the translation of the gabay Samadoon. I have chosen not to keep to a strict metre in the English, but have tried to use a style which presents a rhythm in keeping with the phrasing and movement in the original poems as I perceive it. One major aspect of the translation has been to try in some way to reflect the aural nature of the poem. Given that Somali poems are not essentially written pieces but are composed to be heard (even though writing was used in the composition of both of the poems presented here), I have tried to move away from certain aspects of the written form, hence the lack of punctuation. It is hoped that the words speak simply for themselves, as they need to in the Somali original in recited form, and that the line divisions are enough to supply the whole with some structure to aid understanding. Such rhythmic and line structure is clearly perceivable in any performance of the original Somali versions of these poems and is not therefore here an imposition of the written form.
I wish to thank Hadraawi and Cabdulqaadir for their assistance in helping me to understand their poems and also William Radice and the editors for some valuable comments on draft translations.
(1). Maxamed Ibraahim Warsame ‘Hadraawi’, Hal-Karaan. Den Norske Somaliakomiteen, Kleppe, Norway, 1993.
(2). The term hees in addition to referring to the work songs and dance songs as mentioned above is also used as a term for modern poetry which is performed in a singing style to instrumental accompaniment. Such poetry may be composed in one of a number of metrical styles