The particular richness of Somali oral literature, and especially Somali poetry is widely known and relatively well documented. One of the first foreigners who noticed this particularity is the famous British traveler, Sir Richard Burton who made this fine observation in his book First Footsteps in East Africa: “the country teems with poets, poetasters, poetitos, poeticcios. Every man had his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed by century of magazines – the fine ear of his people causing them to take the greatest pleasure in harmonious sounds and political expressions, whereas a false quantity or a prosaic phrase excite their violet indignation”
However, the legitimate respect that Somalis pay to their rich poetry has led them to mystify it as the most noble mode of expression and to idealize its principal source of inspiration: the pastoral life and nomadic environment. This glorification has not only produced poetic stereotypes that encourage conformism and elitist pedantry; it has also developed a recurrent nostalgia for the good old days, the so-called “barisamaad”, the lost era of innocence, purity and correctness. The disenchantment and frustrations that followed the independence and the horrible legacy of civil war have reinforced this reference to this “lost paradise”.
The ghetto of orality and the ghost of writing
This nostalgic relationship with poetry has had serious effects on Somali literature and cultural behaviors at large. It endangers the process of cultural transmission by widening the gap between the young urbanized generation - for whom this highly praised poetry is often beyond their own capacities of understanding - and the “memory generation” – who is imprisoned by the symbolic imaginary of oral tradition. For many Somalis, the exclusive attachment to poetry has become a sort of psychological shelter from the insecure modern world, which is governed by written references. On the one hand, it leaves many of the older generation in a ghetto of orality that contributes to their social marginalization in modern societies. On the other, the younger generation has been barred from their cultural roots.
As a result, this nostalgic relationship jeopardizes both collective and individual efforts to develop a critical approach to Somali literature, which could facilitate its renewal while addressing the needs and challenges of a post-pastoral and nomadic society. Finally, this relationship affects the way literate Somalis perceive and handle written materials in their everyday life. Although Somalis are known for absorbing modernity quite rapidly due to their spatial and social mobility, they show a peculiar conservatism towards writing. Even the precocious use by Somalis of the new technologies of communication such as the Internet, has not yet diminished their resistance to communicate their views or emotions in writing.
Of course, Somalis neither like to read, nor do they appreciate those who dare spend more time with books than in the company of other Somalis. Popular Somali culture tends to marginalize individuals who are devoted to reading and writing. There is an exception and that concerns the “wadads”, the religious men, who are supposed to reveal the secrets of the Holy Book, the Quran. The other readers and writers of profane literature are subject to fierce criticism. The overestimated self-confidence of Somalis pushes them to say their word about everything, even about writings that they have not read at all. It is not rare to hear an illiterate Somali making the exegesis of a book without any restrain
My own experience illustrates some common misunderstandings between authors and readers in Somali context. In one of my books, in which I have attempted to revisit some Somali oral legends about the genealogy of tribes, I questioned certain beliefs in order to show that they do not correspond to the historical reality of the tribal formation. I queried certain mythological claims regarding the genealogical affiliation and unity within Issa tribal family. When the book was published in Djibouti, it provoked some members of the concerned groups to accuse me of offending their memory, of casting doubt on their origins and of denying them blood affiliation with their kinship. I thus learned at my cost that nobody, not even scholars, could question in writing the founding myths of the Somalis with impunity. I understood that I was accused of not so the interpretation of an important legend - but of attempting to enshrine my view in a book forever. In other word, I was accused of being unfair to my oral culture, by challenging in writing a legend and transforming my heretic opinion into “written-like-Quran” truth.
The transcription of Somali language into the Latin alphabet and its instrumentalisation by the late regime of Syad Barre, did not help Somalis reconcile themselves with writing. On the contrary, the State propaganda that presented the transcription of Somali language as an incontestable achievement of the “October Revolution”, has developed an ambivalent attitude, which made the necessary transition from oral tradition to the modern culture of writing even more complicated to Somalis.
It has been taken for granted that the mere fact of being literate is sufficient to access the promises of writing. Alas, the passage appears to be much more challenging than expected. Writing is not simply the transcription of words and memories, of images and ideas; it suggests a different way of thinking and organising thought, a different method of analysing reality and of transmitting knowledge. It involves the development of other intellectual, emotional and communicational skills. In other words, there are psychological and cultural constraints that peoples of oral tradition have to overcome in order to become integrated into the “world of writing ”.
Therefore, Somali peoples seem to be caught in a kind of “literary no man’s land” between the mirage of the sweet mother language and the frightening promises of the foreign territory of writing.
These boundaries run across all of Somali literature . Even the experts of Somali culture divide themselves along this line and they introduce an artificial dichotomy between oral literature and written literature, which has led them to separate specializations. Scholars generally divide themselves in two different camps, according to the type of literature considered. Oral literature often attracts foreign anthropologists, linguists and historians willing to capture the “essence” of Somali culture, in line with the primordialist approach inherited from the colonial ethnology. Those who are interested in Somali written literature are mostly literary critics, journalists or writers whose principal motivation is to understand how Somali authors express the turmoil of their society.
The Somali scholars themselves are divided in two groups with different approaches in terms of goals, methodology and expected results. The orality is generally the business of traditionalists or oral eulogists, who are not very familiar with written materials. They mainly seek to perpetuate the nostalgic view and to mystify the uniqueness of Somali oral tradition, without assessing critically the condition and process of its production. Written literature is reserved for the “modern intellectual elite” interested in demonstrating how Somali writers deal with the influence of oral literature, without placing Somali written literature in the context of other contemporary literacy movements.
It is interesting to notice the different meanings that Somali give to the term of “author” in their language. The concept of “abwaan” is used to designate the author of an oral piece, such as poems, theatre, and songs. By extension, the term also refers to the ideas of wisdom and leadership. The “abwaan” is synonymous of a visionary, of a philosopher, in accordance with the antique meaning of “the man of knowledge”. For the author of written materials, Somalis have the more simplistic term of “goraa”, which means “the one who writes”. This example illustrates the ethical and political distinction that Somalis make between those who generate oral wisdom and those who just produce writings materials. In the past few decades new approaches have emerged that attempt to analyze Somali literature as a whole, in its globality to understand the sociological, socio-cultural, political and psychological process of Somali literary production throughout history.
It is, nevertheless, useful to recall that the relation of Somali peoples with writing has not always been the same throughout their history. Contrarily to common belief, Somalis seem to have been more familiar with the writing culture in their pre-colonial past, than they are now. Firstly, Somali are descendants of populations who were closely linked with the ancient Egyptian civilization that invented different kind writings as demonstrated by Cheikh Antha DIOP and his followers. Furthermore, Somalis, like other peoples of the Horn of Africa, live by the Red Sea, a location generally considered as the cradle of the three “Religions of the Book”: Judaism, Christianity and Islam which were introduced in this region from the very outset and influenced the culture of the peoples of the Horn.
During the rise of prosperous Islamic City States on the coast of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, important universities and centres of knowledge flourished in places like Zeila, Mogadishio and Merca. Peoples of Somali origin lived in these cities and it is highly probable that their elites had access to this writing culture.
The nostalgic relationship with orality and their current ambiguous attitude towards writing are symptomatic consequences of the identity crisis that Somali people have faced since their forced integration into modern world, as imposed by Western hegemony. Like many other pastoral peoples, Somalis were confronted with a process of double alienation in their modern history. The accelerated process of permanent settlement in urban environment changed the fundamental references of their culture based on a pastoral worldview and the introduction of foreign languages and written communications challenged their oral literature. If the economic, political and socio-cultural consequences of these processes have been studied and documented, the psychological transformations of Somali society and individuals has not been sufficiently addressed. Thus, the critical analysis of Somali literature and specifically its ambivalent relationship with orality and writing, offers an opportunity to understand aspects of the identity crisis of Somalis.
We have chosen two characteristics of Somali literature, which could help understand its inability to address this crisis and new challenges.
The trap of politics
From the beginning, the Somali literature has been subjected to politics and political polemics. Didier Morin, a sharp analyst of Somali literature, rightly stressed, “ In a country that has always managed its language as a political mean, the production of writers, considered as militants of the national construction, became one of the indicators of the political evolution …. and the sign of its progressive entropy” . Somali poetry, in particular, quickly became the main vehicle of political expression and a direct gateway to the avenue of power. It is worthwhile to remember that the greatest figure of Somali poetry, Sayid Muhammad Abdillah Hassan, is also the father of Somali nationalism, who fought to death against foreign domination and partition of Somali territories. He not only influenced strongly Somali politics from the end of 19th Century; he had also a long-lasting impact on the production of Somali literature. Nowadays, the Sayid is celebrated both as a literacy reference and as a political model in Somali history. Somali analysts have even invented the concept of “Gobayssane” that refers to the year of 1865 (the year the Somali hero is born) as “the year of the nobles”, which is supposed to inaugurate the era of Somali nationhood and literature. Ali A. Mazrui, the famous Kenyan thinker, who wrote the chapter on African literature in the UNESCO Collection on the General History of Africa, considered that “Sayid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan combined the characteristics- to take a British equivalent, of William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill”
Like Sayid Abdillah Hassan, almost all Somali leaders have made use of poetry in order to publicize their political visions and electoral programmes. Furthermore, Somali authors also have developed literary formulas, figures and allegories, which have had an important influence on politics. For instance, in order to influence the socio-political debates, and to create a space for free exchange of ideas and for popular transmission of political thoughts, they invented the so called poetic chains “ Silsilad”, such as the “Siinley” or “Deelley”. Through these chains of poetic “editorials”, Somali poets have from time to time engaged in critical dialogue on burning issues of their societies (nationalism, social progress, identity, confrontation between modernity and tradition etc). One consequence of this legacy is that Somali poets are given great importance as potential national figures, whose role is not as much to entertain peoples, but rather to provide guidance in social and political life. Poets are even given a spiritual function as noticed by Ali Jimale Ahmed “ Poetry has become associated with almost divine powers so that poets are accorded a status equivalent to that that given to wadads (religious men)”
The relatively horizontal and egalitarian character of Somali society, which considers the power as everybody’s business, may also explain this tendency of Somali creators to become involved in political polemics. Even songwriters and authors of dramas or comedies, who normally work as entertainers, try to claim this political status as a means of escaping from the negative prejudices against artists in Somali traditional culture. These patterns may finally justify the suspicion that those in power have nourished against Somali poets and writers, whose literature is always accused of hiding political messages. Since in Somali society any act and word leads to politics, most Somalis believe that behind every love song or humoristic verse, there is probalbly a second or third level of interpretation.
This systematic affiliation of Somali creators with the political sphere has had important consequences on the process of literary production and on the definition of its status in modern post pastoral society. It has discouraged the development of autonomous literature, free from political demands and capable to address the complexity of social life.
The monopoly of poetry and its formalism
As mentioned above, Somali literature has, to some extent, become a victim of the richness and variety its oral tradition. This oral heritage, which includes almost all kinds of models (such as tale, stories, epics, chants, etc), has suffered from the monopoly of poetry. The particular structure and complexity of this poetry became the tree that hides the forest of Somali literature. Mohamed Daher Afrah, a Somali literary critics, regretted this domination, stating that “Its is time to correct the widely held and over-simplified view that Somali literature is the oral poetry….It is time to recognize the existence of other important genres of Somali literature and art such as the prose fiction and the theatre”.
The rich poetic heritage itself has been reduced to few poetic genres, such as the “gabey”, the jiifto, the geraar, that are mainly male productions. Such arbitrary selection of Somali literature had led to the marginalization and folklorization of other literary interesting poetic creations, such as women poetry (buraanbur), work songs, and children’s literature, which play a crucial role in the socialization of youth.
Mohamed D. Afrah recalled “in traditional Somali society itself, it was the oral narratives, and not the poetry, that used to play the major role in the psychological and cultural formation of Somali child during the early and most sensitive years of his/her life. It is by means of this very rich form of verbal art that Somali parents extensively and consciously use to entertain their young children and, at the same time, educate them with certain set of cultural and social virtues”
This monopoly of poetry and the overvaluing of some poetic genres have imposed a rigid formalism that has jeopardized internal evolution. Didier Morin, one of the few foreign analysts to have critically analyzed Somali literature noted that “the consensus reached today by Somali intellectuals and foreign experts on Somali literature, which considers the metric complexity as the criteria of” poetryness is the result of the encounter of two academism in search of a rhetoric. Stylistically, and politically, the ‘Somali verse is not free”
The formalism of Somali oral literature does not help creators to address the expectations of new generations. Somali creators continue to use old metaphors from the pastoral world. The systematic references made to figures like camels, caravan, artefacts of nomadic settlement, acts carried out in a pastoral context, to describe facts of modern day life, makes this kind of poetry difficult to understand. This is particularly true in the case of young urban Somalis that have little idea of the lost world of their ancestors. Somali creators, instead of filling this gap between generations continue to think that the artistic quality of their creation is measured according to the number of references they have made to the lost era of barisamaad.
As the poetry of Sayid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan has been erected as the standard of any literary production, all authors try to imitate him, to compete with him. Every creator is invited to use precious words and a worldview inspired by the “Father of Somali verb” in order to convince the public about his talent. The results of these mimetic patterns is the “quettoizsation” of Somali literary creation and its failure to adapt to new contexts of its public.
Ironically, by doing so, Somali poets abandon the democratic and popular status of Somali poetry and turn it into an elitist art. Scholars studying Somali literature have also contributed to the mummification of the Somali oral traditions. John William Johnson remarks “Traditions exhibits two major characteristics, those of continuity and change. In much of academic thought in the past, scholarly studies concentrated on continuity and sometimes completely ignored change. Indeed, older views of tradition in the Historical-Geographical School of Folkloristics considered change to be a negative and corrupting influence of tradition, the deterioration of an older, purer form. Continuity was seen not only as the most important aspect of tradition but the only legitimate aspect of it. Change was described with negative concepts, such as forgetfulness and misunderstanding during the diffusion of tradition”
The search for the purity and classicism of Somali literature by literary creators explain partly why they have generally failed to address the moral crisis of Somali people. However, in the latest decades, some creators have tried to promote some forgotten genres of Somali oral literature, such as children’s literature, humoristic stories, and free poetry. They have tried to develop new literary forms such as prose fiction and experimented unconventional models thereby placing focus on more accessible words and references such as the so-called “Suugaan dhuljeef” (literally “ground literature”).
In the past decade, we have also witnessed a development of another literary form of expression that describes individual itineraries in the turmoil of the region, that is the autobiographical writings. Lee Cassanelli rightly notices, “This form of autobiographical writings on the recent past represents a new genre of Somali literary production, not a part of the older oral or written literary culture. It has been promoted in part by foreign publishers eager for first hand ”inside” narratives of what went wrong with the country and was aimed at an audience of foreign readers who may have heard about Somalia for the first time in the 1990’s, as well perhaps as at the rapidly growing community of Somali exiles overseas. Even if many Somali readers continue to interpret these individual reflections as veiled apologies for particular clans, there is little question that they represent a new form of Somali intellectual activity, a new historical subjectivity, which was born in the womb of the Diaspora”
These timid and yet marginal experiences lack the conceptual framework needed to facilitate the emergence of an autonomous movement of Somali literature.
New Challenges and perspectives for Somali literature
The Somali literatures has not yet engaged in a critical self-examination of its strengths, weaknesses and opportunities in the current national, regional and international contexts. For that to happen, the literary producers (poets, dramatists, storytellers, novelists, comics etc) should first question the claimed uniqueness of their culture. They should also compare their destiny with other African literary experiences. Beyond the particularity of their history, they ought to understand that they are, after all, confronted with the same questions that have preoccupied their peers since the development of African modern literature. They need to rethink and redefine their role and status in our contemporary society. Moreover, they should clarify their relationship with other holders of “symbolic power” in society (religious persons, political leaders, journalists, sorcerers) as defined by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.
Somali literary producers are invited to find their own responses to the old-aged dilemmas that continue to preoccupy African modern literature. Ali Mazurui has identified some of those “conflicts of value” that are of relevance to our debate namely the opposition between the past and the present and the related contradiction between indigenous heritage and modern legacy: In my view, it is crucial for Somali creators to free themselves from the nostalgia of lost innocence and overcome their tendency to misrepresent the characteristics of both worldviews.
Neither “Somality”, nor Modernity can be reduced to a few conflicting stereotypes. Far from being passive victims of cultural alienation or simple consumers of imported cultural products, Somali people should be considered as active and creative subjects of their own modern fate. It is time for Somali literary creators to stop mystifying their culture and opposing the “change-resistant” character of their indigenous traditions to the perpetual movement of change of modern societies.
Somali modern literature has arrived today at a crossroads. Time came for literary producers to make the appropriate choices in order to cope with the new living conditions and respond to the current expectations and aspirations of their respective public. In this perspective, they should learn how to negotiate independence from old “oraliture” and invest in new literature.
As elsewhere, Somali literatures should free itself from the dictatorship of traditional literary models without breaking the link with the richness of oral roots. It should find new references, new symbols, new metaphors and new logic adapted to the actual world without renouncing to the ethics and aesthetics of the oral culture.
Oral literature should challenge the domination of poetry and explore the possibilities offered by neglected genres and models like the ones mentioned above (oral narratives, work songs, women poetry, dance and game lyrics). Among these less-explored arts, theatre is one of the most promoting. In Somalia and Djibouti, theatre has become the most paramount art, which has contributed to the development of critical social thought. It is an urban oral production, which was developed very rapidly without any public support. Professor Andrzejewski, who understood the potential of this art form very early and translated into English two Somali classic plays, commented that “what particularly impresses any outsider who comes into contact with the Somali theatre is the strong emotional involvement of the audience”
Somali literature needs to open new spaces of freedom in order to regain legitimacy. It should move from the world of certainties proposed by oral tradition and explore new territories of imagination. It needs to pass from an idealistic search of lost virtues to a description of the ambivalent lives and realities of Somali people. The possibilities offered by novels and other modern prose, could help writers respond to the new aspirations of their public.
Somali literature should take advantage of the information and communication technologies which offer possibilities of renewing content and strengthening impact. Digital recording and the potential of Internet have opened new ways to create, exchange and disseminate oral literature that should be explored more efficiently.
These communication technologies could even help fill the gap between written and oral literature. The possibility of simultaneously using the written and spoke word permits to communicate with different audiences. For instance, poets could create Web Poetic Chains to renew the old tradition of Poetic Chains (silsilad) and address the burning issues of their societies. Internet which has replaced the other means of communication permits to reach public throughout the world without any the control and censorship of State or other power. Writers could explore new written literary genres such as the web novel, web serials or stories that will allow sharing their writings and overcoming the constraints of publishing. Free Cyber publishing houses and libraries could mushroom and thereby helping unknown writers to disseminate their work.
I am convinced that, if appropriately used, the Internet could contribute to the emergence of literary movement similar to the one facilitated by Radio in the 1960’s and 1970’s in Somali- speaking countries of the Horn of Africa. With one additional asset : a wider space of freedom of expression, beyond the control and censorship of any government.
Ali Moussa Iye