Somalis love poetry to distraction and the poet Warsame was loved, revered and worshipped.
ardly anyone is familiar with Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame, the Somali poet who died recently. His funeral was attended by tens of thousands of people, not only from Somalia but also from the rest of Africa.
To me this was news that the only thing that Somalis love and are passionate about in total agreement is poetry. It seems that they love poetry to distraction. Poet Warsame was loved, revered and worshipped. The vast crowds at his graveside were testament to the respect and affection people have for the man known simply as Hadraawi or “master of speech”, a nickname he was given as a young boy growing up in Yemen where he was sent to live following the death of his mother. Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said: “Hadraawi’s death is felt in every Somali household”.
What do we Pakistanis know about Somalia that is not bad news? It’s a country torn apart by all kinds of differences, most expressed through violence. Never a week passes before news of terrorism and deaths are reported across the world with successive governments struggling to face and counter the acts of terror and violence at an unprecedented scale. From the outside, the country appears to be next to hell in terms of disruption, pain and destruction and the hub of terrorism in a world that may have claims to have eradicated it to a great degree from other places.
It seems more like the perception that Pakistan carries across the globe. A few years ago Pakistan also faced acts of terror that took a huge toll in terms of death and injured on a daily basis.
Warsame was nearly 80 when he passed away. He was from Somaliland, a territory that was seen as a part of Somalia, but not quite. The Somaliland people fought and won their freedom from Somalia to be seen as a distinct cultural and political entity. This freedom though has not been recognised by the world as the territory is not officially accepted as a state.
Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame was more than a poet. He wrote plays and collaborated with musicians to produce more than 70 much-loved songs. He was regarded as a philosopher and moral guide, and played an important role in preserving the Somali language which was not written down until 1972.
A poet who speaks for not the entire country but a part of its territory and is still loved by all seems a contradiction in terms. However, it is reported that the Somalis love him and his poetry despite that and share an ideal that transcends these boundaries. This seems a little difficult to understand but there is much that is difficult to understand about Pakistan as well. The great love for religion and then a great love for cultural practices that for centuries have been prohibited or castigated for being too indulgent and next to sinfulness and yet as people hear the sur or the lyrical scheme all stricture and warnings evaporate. Their defences collapse and fall apart, if not for long then for that duration, and it appears that the magic of it all overrides the other biases.
“The Somali people are known as “a nation of poets” and there has been no greater poet in modern times than Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame. The only thing Somalis can unite behind is Hadraawi, Somalia has fallen apart; the nation has fragmented into pieces. The only things keeping us together are our language, our religion and Hadraawi,” the local media reported.
Hadraawi was more than a poet. He wrote plays and collaborated with musicians to produce more than 70 much-loved songs. He was regarded as a philosopher and a moral guide, and played an important role in preserving the Somali language which was not written down until 1972.
He was a fierce critic of the dictatorship of former president, Siad Barre, who led the country from 1969 to 1991. In 1973, Hadraawi was jailed for five years for using his poetry to speak out against Somalia’s leaders. A poem that particularly annoyed them was The Killing of the She-Camel, that attacked corruption and authoritarianism. Hadraawi was a committee member of the rebel Somali National Movement whose victory against the government led to Somaliland declaring itself independent in 1991.
In 2003, he sought to bring an end to Somalia’s seemingly endless conflict by leading a peace caravan of singers, poets and other cultural figures through war-torn areas. He addressed issues of social justice, focusing on marginalised groups, including minority clans and women, especially mothers. In later years, he became a source of spiritual inspiration for Somalis all over the world.
Our poets and musicians have been very popular and they seem to unite the people but that does not mean that the differences die out or are resolved. They exist side by side and looking at the example of Somalia reaffirms this. Probably the cultural togetherness and the building of a cult are not a solution or a substitute - only a parallel activity.
The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.