Somalilandsun – 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.
So 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 crowd.
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 presence.
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 condescending.
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.
“Written 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 its mastery.”
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.
But 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.
Herbert, 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.
“In 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.”
Although 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.