Legendary Somalia poet Haadrawi, real name Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame
during a presentation in Hargeisa, Somaliland on August 16, 2013.
NATION MEDIA GROUP
Saturday, August 24, 2013
I had heard a lot about Hadraawi, the
legendary Somali poet. Even though I didn’t see him when he last came to
Nairobi for the last Kwani? Litfest, I got my second chance to see him
when I attended his performance at the sixth Hargeysa International
Book Fair in Somaliland.
I expected to see a fiery old
man with the steely gaze of the Old Testament prophets, a fitting
persona for a fearless critic who told the truth to power without fear.
I was surprised to find a rather mild-mannered old man who acknowledged
the applause of his audience with a warm smile, then calmly walked off
stage, his papers tucked under his arm, to seemingly melt into the
You could easily mistake Mr Hadraawi, real name
Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame, for just another Somali pastoralist going
about his daily business.
And yet this man could as
well be the lone reservoir of his people’s rich oratorical culture, not
to mention a longtime thorn in the flesh of dictator Siad Barre, who was
deposed in 1991.
No doubt the foremost Somali poet,
70-year-old Hadraawi, a recent recipient of the Netherlands’ Prince
Klaus Award, has not shied away from engaging the authorities whenever
he feels the need.
Imprisoned in 1973 for
anti-revolutionary activities after his mysterious song-poem Hal La
Qalay Raqdeedaa and the play Aqoon Iyo Afgarad alarmed the ruling junta,
Hadraawi preferred to remain in prison for five years rather than
betray his cause for a state pardon.
Born towards the
end of the Second World War into a nomadic, camel-herding family in the
harsh district of Burao in Somaliland, he was nicknamed ‘Hadraawi’,
which means ‘the big talker’, by his Koranic teacher because of his
ability to regale his classmates at an early age in the teacher’s
A compatriot of early masters of Somali art
like Ali Sugulle, Hassan Sheikh Mumin and Ahmed Suleiman Bidde, Hadraawi
embarked on an unusual journey in 2004 that has since become known as
the ‘Hadraawi Peace March’.
It took him through many
of the war-ravaged towns and cities of Somalia from the northeast down
to the south, appealing for peace. Despite the perils, hundreds came out
to join him.
The essence of good poetry is in the
careful choice of words that do not just eliminate any sense of clutter
but sing directly to our senses without being ambiguous or
Listening to the performance of his poem
Daalaclan (Clarity) and watching the reaction of his audience — both
the educated gentry and the common man — and the way they hung onto
every word, I understood why Hadraawi is seen to be the finest.
at a time of appalling bloodshed and political upheaval when the
dictator, Siad Barre, still held sway, ‘Clarity’ was Hadraawi’s
contribution to the chain of poems, Deellay, begun by the late (and
deeply mourned) Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac ‘Gaarriye’, that were inaugurated
as a riposte to the ‘baleful malaria’ of tribalism and the endemic
corruption of Barre’s misrule,” writes Sarah Maguire, director of the
Poetry Translation Centre, London. She acknowledges the cumulative
effect of this poem’s “blistering clarity of purpose and the absolute
certainty of its moral stance.”
Attempting to dissect
the unique Somali poetry and the reason Hadraawi’s poems are held in
high esteem, Maguire goes on, “Somali poems have designs on their
audience. The best are taut verbal arguments charged with changing your
mind. The worst are tired diatribes that reiterate clichés. Hadraawi’s
freshness of vision is expressed through his delight in metaphor — and
And yet all who have studied Hadraawi
agree that whilst he successfully tackles complex themes, his poems are
rendered in simple, clear language that allows him to communicate
directly with the masses.
“The universal principle of
justice and freedom and the deep human impressions that run through his
poems are mainly what win Hadraawi the huge admiration of the Somali
people and the merit of recognition... it is the striking use of
language, imagery, and metaphor which is at the heart of Hadraawi’s
poetry and makes him one of the world’s major living poets,”’ writes
Jama Musse Jama, the editor of the translated volume of some of
Hadraawi’s works, Maxamed Ibraahin Warsame Hadraawi: The Poet and the
Man, Vol 1.
But the translation of this poetry from
Somali into English is another story all together. Had you attended his
performance before a home audience, you would understand why the poetry
is best rendered in the language in which it was created.
then the rest of the world needed to know what it was about. Which is
why to make this possible, a special challenge was placed on the
shoulders of Scottish poet William ‘Bill’ Herbert, working alongside
Said Jama Hussein, Mohammed Hassan Alto, Martin Orwin and Ahmed I.
Yussuf. The translation was overseen and edited by Jama Musse Jama.
“You must translate the spirit of the poem as much as the meaning of the words,” said Herbert of the process of translation.
who gave a stellar performance of the English version of Daalaclan,
admitted that even though he was an Englishman who did not understand
the Somali language, he was able to understand Hadraawi because of the
similarities he could identify in the Somali sage’s poetry. “The spirit
of attack in Daalacan is similar to what we do in England, and I could
understand that,” he said.
“The politics of Daalacan is also very much similar to what is happening today in England, and I could sense that immediately”
Still, he explains, it was clearly never going to be a word-for-word, phrase-for-phrase job.
order to translate I had to give up some of the alliterations. The
rhythms are so compelling and hypnotic in Hadraawi’s work, but I had to
concentrate on bringing out the meaning to English speakers.”
in later years Hadraawi drifted towards conservative Somali norms and
Islamic religious principles, every single one of his over 200 poems
remains as potent today as ever.