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Where is The Nation of Poets?

A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices— William James


By Mohamoud A. Gaildon
Sunday, October 07, 2007


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The expansion of the Internet presents Somalis, as it does the entire world, with a platform to exchange views at an unprecedented scale. At a time of prolonged and intractable crisis, this is a godsend of an opportunity to help us come together and heal the nation; for to heal the wounds of the civil war, understanding one another is a crucial first step.  Unfortunately, though, despite countless articles posted on Somali Websites, we are not communicating.


To borrow from electronics, communication involves the generation and sending of a signal at one end and its reception and processing, followed by the generation of a response signal, at the other.  The return signal should be in response to the original and not some stray or background signal; otherwise, the outcome is a garbled and meaningless message.  Similarly, for communication among humans to hold, the different sides need to be in tune.  It is this condition of being in tune, so essential to the unimpeded flow of meaningful messages, that is lacking from Somali postings on the Internet.


Occasionally, a gem of an article does emerge.  Rare and mere blips on the screen, however, such articles receive little or no response.  I am referring to learned articles that educate us on subjects the authors are well equipped to handle.  It is when we delve, as we are wont to do, into the muck of Somali politics that we suddenly lose balance and see things in black and white. Suddenly, we heap all scorn and all blame on the Other. These sectarian articles, by nature not designed to win the Other over, can only inflame passions and provoke an unhealthy response. Then, deeper and deeper sink the wedges, and the sides proceed to drift apart.


Under such acrimony, calls for reconciliation ring hollow unless coupled with a genuine desire and effort to reach out to the Other. While formal national reconciliation is necessary as a rite of passage, it is only at the local level that trust and goodwill can and should be nurtured—a tall order when even the mere crossing of an imaginary line between clans is seen as an act of betrayal.  Our famed Somali braggadocio will not allow us to bend or be the first to blink.  The self-appointed guardians of dignity and clannish pride stand forever vigilant to ensure the inviolate sanctity of the clan.  Relentless rigidity is the norm.  Total disregard for the Other is the sacred principle held dear by all sides.  This is not a nation on the road to recovery!


The key is to turn to our softer and brighter sides, where art shines, music rings, words thrive and morph into prose and verse.  Beyond the reach of prejudice, ingenuity has a chance to flourish, the mind to roam free in the world of imagination, the heart to love and soften.  Creativity is best attained when we reach deep into our souls and open up.  A particularly low moment in the late Qassim’s tumultuous life gave birth to his memorable poem:


Waxaan ahay qadhaadh iyo macaan meel ku wada yaalle….


Take all the Sayyid’s vainglorious lines and give me those given in humility.  Consider the prophetic words at the time of his eventual defeat:

Marka hore  dalkuu idinku oran duunya dhaafsada e

Marka xigana  dabkuu idinka dhigi dumar sidiisii e

Marka xigana daabaqaadda yuu indin dareensiinne

Marka xigana dushuu idinka rari sida dameeraha e



(Could it be that Qassim had this poem in mind when at Independence Night he delivered the rousing poem Allow yaa Darwiishkii salaan debecsan gaadhsiiya…?)


Gun Iyo bared’s vivid depiction of a ravaging famine and the horrors it caused is profoundly tragicomic and even more remarkable for its spontaneity.


Ismail Mire’s commune with the hoopoe (hud-hud in Arabic), undoubtedly composed at a moment of sublime imagination, was a stroke of genius. 


Ina rag hooyadiina u tu’iyeyoo walaal wuxuu ku dhaamo male.  Thus, summed up a chastened Sultan WilWaal the experience of an eventful lifetime. 


Such words, such men, such times!  I wish I could do more justice to these great men and their works of poetry.  My mediocre mind and my amateur pen fail me. But I hope my point is made clear: We have nothing to fear from modesty and an open heart.


Our loss of the capacity to communicate among ourselves is, in and of itself, a sign of the new age.  Long dubbed the Nation of Poets, we have a heritage that places the spoken word in the highest esteem.  Tradition ranks eloquence even higher than generosity and courage, a stupendous acknowledgement from men and women of the Somali desert.  Perhaps, we miss the plains where we could stand taller, see farther, and roam free.  Perhaps, we miss the campfire around which we huddled at night, passed stories on to our children, and, feeling close to one another, nurtured the spirit of family.   Perhaps, we miss the taste of camel milk and the sound and smell of animals.  Oh, I forgot the sight of the sky, the Somali sky, in a clear and moonless night.  What about the gentle breeze and the scent of blossom?


We come from a hard culture that frowns upon and discourages baring souls to one another.  And this is at the very heart of our failure as a nation.  It is as though a part of our collective self has grown stunted, diseased, and very, very dark. A hardened mind and a callused heart can only beget a nation of dimwits.  So, let’s change the tide and open up to one another. Speak up and share stories: the happy, the tragic, the tragicomic.  It will benefit us all, heal us, bring us together.  And then, maybe, we can make a difference.  Never consider yourself a failure.  Your hard and long experience is a treasure, but only if you are willing to share it.  Hard life is the stuff of Taha Hussein, Dickens, Hugo, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy.


Then, perhaps, the thick veil of prejudice that has accumulated over the past two decades will lift, and we will be able to take fresh looks at each other.  Perhaps, we will find a way to reach out to our perceived adversaries in our own respective locales.  For far too long, we have lived in a state of de facto segregation that it has almost become a way of life.  On the one hand, we claim a desire for a restored nation; on the other, we remain in our trenches and discourage true national dialogue. To be believable we have to show the effort and practice what we preach.


Now, I will share with you a little-reported story of the First World War.   Somewhere along the bloody trenches of Europe, soldiers faced each other awaiting their turns of death and destruction.  Then, one Christmas day, a soldier tossed a packet of cigarettes or candy, I forget which, towards the enemy line. 

An opposing soldier reciprocated.  Others followed suit.  Soon, one by one, the soldiers emerged from the graves of the living where they had spent their lives the past few years.  They danced and sang together for much of the day.  At sunset, they returned to their respective ditches.  Soon after, a commanding officer arrived and, seeing a well-exposed German soldier, barked an order to one of his soldiers to shoot the German.  The soldier took aim and fired, too wide of the mark, whereupon the German took cover.  This was a day when fighting men rediscovered and acknowledged each other’s humanity—a fact that made higher-ups livid with rage when they found out what had happened.


Such is the power of humanity that given a wisp of a chance it can bring the most hardened of enemies together.   So, let us give it a chance by taking baby steps that can heal the wounds and bridge the gaps: a word well said, a gesture here, a move there.  Bit by bit, a step at a time, the walls that hold us asunder shall crack and crumble.  And we shall recapture our former selves and celebrate the return of the Nation of Poets.


May Allah show us the right path. 

Mohamoud A. Gaildon

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