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Singing into A Vacuum

     Singing Into A Vacuum : The Torment Of A Somali Playwright
     Bashir Goth — ( ) — 10 August, 2004
     Singing into a vacuum : the torment of a Somali playwright
     “Af qalaad aqoontu miyaa?
     Maya, Maya!
     Maahee af qalaad, aqoontu miyaa?
     Maya, maya!
     Mahee, waa intuu qofba Eebbe gashaa
     Ayey nala tahay anagee, ma ogtahay
     Dib looma abuuro dadkee..
     With these prophetic words, the celebrated Somali playwright and lyricist
     Ali Sugule had decried the adoration of the educated class for foreign
     languages and their utter despise for their mother tongue, not aware at
     the time that his words would haunt him in his old age.
     The power of the lyric’s words are accentuated by Sugule’s shock therapy
     style of starting his song by a question, thus bringing the listener’s
     senses to a full attention and inviting him to a moment of contemplation
     “Af Qalaad aqoontu miyaa? Is knowledge nothing more than speaking a
     foreign language”. And bang, comes the answer before the listener awakens
     from his initial awe with an emphatic repetitive “Maya, Maya… No, No.”. He
     then heightens the effect of the words to further ensure the complete
     mental engagement of the listener by questioning the truth of his emphatic
     ‘No’, saying “Maahee, afqalaad aqoontu miyaa? Are sure, knowledge is
     nothing more than speaking a foreign language?”
     He finally offers deliverance to the listener from his bewilderment by
     giving the answer though not without cautioning him/her that such could
     only be his view ”Mahee, Waa intuu qofba Eebbe gashaa…Ayey nala tahay
     anagee.. . No, never, (knowledge) is nothing but whatever God gives to
     each and everyone..” but again not without rounding it up with a no-
     further-argument-allowed statement of “Ma ogtahay, dib looma abuuro
     dadkee.. Don’t you know that people are not created twice..”
     Little did Ali Sugule know at the time that these forceful and profound
     words he wrote in 1965 would be staring at him in the face after 40 years.
     History they say repeats itself, and surely it did at least for Ali Sugule
     and for a tormented crowd of mothers who grew up singing his lyrics
     without the least anticipation that a time would come when the Somali
     language and the whole culture and heritage that it enshrined, let alone
     Ali Sugule’s literature, would be alien to their own children.
     This was a tormenting and in fact a soul-searching moment for a crowd of
     UAE-based Somali expatriates who gathered at the Arab Cultural Club in
     Sharjah to honor more than 30 high school graduates who scored between95%
     and 99.6% in their final GCE exams.
     At the outset, things looked normal with the guests and proud mothers and
     fathers arriving with their beautiful and enthusiastic daughters and sons,
     their faces radiating with happiness for their exam achievements. If not
     for a few men wearing the white Arab robes, one would not have suspected
     of being in a foreign land. It was also delightful to see several young
     Somali women working tirelessly as members of the organizing team,
     welcoming people and leading them to their seats with the finesse and
     charm expected of a professional emcee.
     Caught by the spell of the melodious recitation of the Quran, few if any
     of the audience had noticed that the ritual incantation in which the
     teenager Mohammed Abdul Karim had recited the verses, despite his
     excellent voice and exceptional mastery of the Quranic incantation rules,
     was not quite in terms with the traditional straightforward and quick
     recitation style of the Somalis . Due to their nomadic life which depends
     on urgency and frequent movement of animals and homestead, the Somali
     Quranic students neither had the time nor the leisure or the need to spend
     long hours practicing and imitating the Arab cantillation of the holy
     Quran, a vocalization which itself is quite alien to the auricular
     faculties of the Somali people. Hence, came the unique and more native
     Somali style of reading the Quran which lends more weight to the correct
     enunciation of words and meaning rather than the slow, prolonged, tedious
     and rather preposterous intonation of the Arabs.
     With the recitation of the holy Quran over, two young members of the
     organizing team took the podium. Nasra Abdi, an educated young lady
     dressed in western style but with a traditional Islamic headscarf, was the
     first to come to the microphone. Speaking in impeccable Somali, she gave
     the audience, at least the nervous elderly folks, the reassurance that
     they were on familiar ground and that the evening would be comprehensible
     to them. It was then seen as quite fair though a bit awkward when her co-
     presenter Ahmed Shire translated what Nasra had so eloquently put in
     simple and quite basic Somali into Arabic for the benefit of the young
     generation for whom the ceremony was being held in their honor.
     Distress, however, struck, when Ali Sugule, a distinguished playwright and
     a house-hold name in Somali literature, was invited to the podium to
     recite a poem he wrote for the occasion. A man whose appearance on the
     stage caused rapturous applauding and admiration beyond belief back home,
     Ali Sugule had shuffled towards the stage almost unbeknownst to the young
     audience, who surely never heard his name. Though wearing a white Arab
     robe (dhishdasha) itself did not augur well for his role as an African
     cultural icon and as a symbol for the foreign-born Somali youth, Ali
     Sugule took the microphone with the confidence of a masterful artist and
     had uttered a few wise words about the importance of the homeland ,“haybad
     waxad ku leedahay dalkaaga – you have a dignity only in your own country”,
     culture and heritage before he started his poem.
     After the recitation of his poem, Ali Sugule left the stage with a sense
     of loss and bewilderment visibly seen in his gestures and movement. No
     applaud, no laughter, no nodding of the head in agreement or admiration of
     the profound truths, images and humor he had marshaled in his verse, no
     delight, no wonderment, no emotions at all. Even when he tried to simplify
     and descend to a baby’s language saying “Aabbo iyo hooyo, Abaal gudkiina,
     Ilaabi mayno – dad and Mom, never shall we forget the debt we owe to you”
     the young audience remained silent.
     As if oblivious to his plight, Ali Sugule told the audience that it was
     time for music and had given a signal to Salem Saeed Salem, a renowned
     musician and former member of the Waaberi National band, to start playing
     a lyric he wrote about the importance of higher education and
     universities.Though lulled by the musical notes, it was obvious that Ali
     Sugule’s words in the song just like his lines in the poem before it had
     rained on a barren land. . The first lines of the lyric called “at the
     university’s campus” read as follows:
     Waxaynu dooneynaa, Rag iyo dumarba
     U doodeynaa, u doodeynaa
     Ineynu dab shidnaayoon, Dhammaan ku diirsanaa…
     With a non-literal translation, the foregoing lines could be interpreted
     as “ What we all want as men and women, what we advocate, is to ignite a
     fire that we can all feel its warmth.”
     The music, the words of the lyric and the sonorous voice of Salem which
     otherwise made quite an exciting and inspirational blend, stirring
     nostalgic emotions among the older folks, failed to touch the heart of the
     young girls and boys in the auditorium.
     Apart from a courteous clapping as the song came to an end, the audience
     didn’t show any interaction whatsoever with the music. At this point, Ali
     Sugule couldn’t hide his frustration and disappointment when he
     involuntarily climbed the stage and lamented the audience’s lack of
     response: “what happened? You were supposed to sing, clap and be enchanted
     by the music?” But to no avail. This is the man who inflamed the Somali
     people with his nationalistic lyrics at the time of independence and
     beyond. The man who wrote unforgettable plays such as Himiladeena (Our
     Aspirations) 1960, Indho Sarcaad (Illusion) 1962 which included the famous
     lyric ‘Nin lagu seexdow ha seexan’, Ma Huran (Destiny) 1965 which included
     Afrikaay Hurudooy (Oh! sleeping Africa) , Dhagax iyo Dabka (Fire and
     Stone) 1966, Midnimo (Unity) 1967 which included ‘Waa baa beryey’, Kala
     Haab (Antipodal views) 1967 which included ‘Ma hadhin hadal la is
     yidhaahdaa’ and finally Sheeg iyo Shareer (Exposure and Concealment) 1969.
     This is the man who tortured the conscience of the educated class with his
     “Afrikaay hurudooy – Oh! Sleeping Africa” resonated on the airwaves by
     none other then the legendary voice of Magool, a woman described by the
     Sudanese as the Umm Kalthoum of black Africa. Almost half a century after
     he came into the Somali theatre with his ground-shaking plays and at the
     twilight of his life and career when he was supposed o be venerated as a
     national treasure, Ali Sugule was today singing into a vacuum. Being a
     poet and an ardent lover of Somali literature myself, I could feel Ali
     Sugule’s torment as he left the stage and went out of the auditorium. I
     joined him outside and we together consoled each other on the death of the
     role of the Somali poet, at least among the growing Somali community in
     the diaspora.
     The cultural torment became manifold when the key Speaker of the evening
     Ahmed Sheikh, Chairman of the Somali Youth Committee in Sharjah, and an
     undergraduate student in Sharjah University, delivered the main speech in
     Arabic, a language that he rather fittingly thought would have a better
     appeal to the young honorees of the night.
     This was topped by a poem written and recited in Arabic by one of the
     youth in which he forcefully expressed his nationalistic feelings towards
     his homeland in the hyperbolic style of the Arabic language, ending it
     with the following emotional outburst: “Wa Raka’tu Uqabilu Arda A Soomaal…
     And I bowed kissing the soil of the land of the Somalis…” which is a
     rather befitting tone to a young man born outside his country and longing
     to see it and to the youth in the audience who after excelling in the
     final exams found the doors of the country’s universities shut before
     them, thus yearning for a peaceful and prosperous homeland where they
     could call themselves citizens after carrying the stigma of being a “wafid
     – expatriate” in a country in which they were born, raised, educated and
     excelled academically, proofing that given the same circumstances as their
     peers, African children can attain excellence in any field and any
     Of all the places to which the Somali people migrated, it may sound ironic
     and somewhat a tragedy to know that it is only in Muslim countries, and
     particularly Arab states that they found themselves as the most alien, the
     most discriminated and the most unwanted. Arab countries are one of the
     few if not the only places on earth where one packs up his bags and leaves
     unwanted and unappreciated after 30 years of service without any rights of
     citizenship for himself or for his children who never knew any other home.
     Just as Ali Sugule was haunted by the lines he wrote 40 years ago, I was
     also haunted by the first lines of a poem I wrote many years ago on being
     an expatriate in an the Arab world:
     “Cumarow ma faaraxo ninkii, Carab fadhiistaaye
     Nina kama fanaanco intuu, Liidka fidiyaaye
     Faruuryaha ma leefaan kuwii, Fiiftigii yimiye
     Nin bidaari ugu foodhisoo, Ganucu foocaaray
     Oo tusbax fasaasa ah watiyo, Carabi foojaysan
     Oo faraha taagaya ka tega, Foodhi (forty) dabadeede…”
     The torment that Ali Sugule and I had shared, reached its pinnacle when an
     Arabic song by the late Egyptian Abdul Halim Hafiz was played at the
     interval and the whole audience erupted into a festival on hearing the
     first words: “Yaa hayaat albi wa afraaxu… the life of my heart and its
     delight”. At this point I couldn’t help but survey the auditorium left and
     right and finally look at my friend Abdillahi Ali Bahal, who was sitting
     next to me and like me bewildered by the plight that befell our people.
     Though proud of the achievement of his daughter Rahma, who politely sat
     beside him, and was the second top honoree with a percentage of 99.1% in
     the science stream, he was well aware and worried about the cultural
     erosion that benighted her generation. A generation that had grown hearing
     only bad news and seeing depressing images about Africa. A generation that
     had no idea of how beautiful, how prosperous, how lush and green and how
     rich culturally and materially Africa was in the past and easily could be
     in the future if only it found proper leadership. A generation that grew
     up with foreign nurseries, foreign music, foreign clothing and foreign
     perspectives of their homeland. A generation that had no experience of
     sitting in a Somali theatre and listening to “Habeen iyo dharaar,
     hadaladaan dhisnaa, Afkeena hooyo oo horumaraan, ku hoos caweynaynaa,
     Hagaaajinaa, had iyo jeer hagnaa, ma hagranee, waan u hawl galnaa’ the
     customary choral theme of Somali artists written by the renowned
     playwright Hassan Sheikh Mumin Gorod as part of his immortal play ‘Shabeel
     Naagood – Leopard among the women’. A generation that never had the
     opportunity to hear a mother or grandmother singing to them traditional
     Somali children songs such as:
     “Roobow waa, dhiishaydaa, muska taallaa, biyo maahee, waa caanee, ii
     buuxi, ii buuxi, riyo dararis, adhi dararis, geel dararis…’
     “Reerka guuraaya, ee galab carraabaaya, ee dhoobo gaadhayaa, ee dhebei ku
     toosaaya, reerka guuraaya…”
     Nursery rhymes which apart from their rhythmic, musical and imagery
     richness, are educative and reflect the lifestyle of the Somali nomad
     which depends on rain, water and milk as well as his reliance on movement
     in pursuit of grazing areas and good weather.
     It is such songs that make a lasting impression on the tender mind of
     growing children and give them a memory treasure that gives them direction
     and sense of identity later in life. Being lucky to have got the chance to
     teach these songs to my son, I can see how his face lights up, even in his
     teenage years, when we sometimes remember them and sing together.
     Although, he is not yet fortunate enough to see Africa, I can imagine what
     kind of images these rhymes conjure up in his mind. Most likely an image
     of Africa of his own.
     I find it befitting here to quote a paragraph of an old writing of mine,
     lamenting such loss of identity:
     “…it is not only the politico-economical situation that has degenerated to
     these horrible ends, but the centuries-old culture of Africa is also
     disappearing at an alarming rate. The new generations no longer understand
     the legendary language of the African Drum. The history-moulded
     traditional folklore dances have become obsolete; and western hypnotized
     minds of the young intellectuals no longer listen to what they consider
     the primitive and superstitious folk tales of the Ayeeyo (grandmother) and
     the hyperbolical stories of the Oday (Griot). This has produced a
     multitude of youth who have lost self respect and all sense of national
     pride. Their eyes are mesmerized by the dazzling lights of New York, Paris
     and Montreal. Their ears seek consolation in the albums of Michael
     Jackson, Madonna and Whitney Houston, and their skin is itching for the
     fashion designs of Christian Dior and House of Chanel. They are Africans
     in look, but are Americans, Europeans, Australians, and Canadians in-
     waiting. They want to escape from the Big Refugee Camp, which is Africa,
     to become roaming refugees in the streets of the vast cities of the west.
     To live as parasites on the extra fat of the western economy as I so
     humbly expressed in my poem “Afrikaay Warlaay” – Introduction, Awdal
     Phenomenon, 1989.
     Despite this linguistic tragedy and cultural bankruptcy, the event was not
     completely without luster. It had its rewarding and inspiring moments.
     Ebyan Ladane Salah, a visiting Canadian doctoral candidate of Somali-
     origin, has uplifted the morale of the youth, the majority of whom were
     her womenfolk, by narrating her personal odyssey in search of education.
     Not only did she impress the audience by the determination and hard work
     she manifested to reach her goal, but also by her self-confidence and her
     eloquence in the Somali language, thus breathing a fresh life into the
     nerves of the elderly audience benumbed by the bombardment of the Arabic
     language and by setting a shining example for not only being a highly
     educated mother but also a lucid speaker who can snap out lines of Somali
     poetry and anecdotes. She received the greatest applause when she quoted
     the following lines from an old poem written by Osman Yusuf Kenadid in
     1945, illustrating that given the same opportunities, girls were as
     capable as boys.
     “..Hadday gabari waagii beryaba, Wax u eg yeelayso
     Wareeggaa ku ceeb ehe hadday,Weligeed diidayso
     Wargeyska iyo Raadyaha hadday, Wada aqoonayso,
     Maxaa wiilku dheer yahay hadday, Wadato hawsheeda…”
     I could see the delight on Ali Sugule’s face and I myself couldn’t help
     but breathe a sigh of relief like receiving reassuring news from a doctor
     on the health of a patient assumed to be critically ill. Even Ebyan’s
     condescending apology to the audience for her Somali language not being
     perfect, could not spoil Ali Sugule’s joy who promptly repudiated her for
     uttering such sardonic mea culpa. Ebyan said that she went to Canada with
     a mission – to acquire knowledge and she did. She narrated a story of an
     elderly man she and her folks had met on their way to North America.
     Seeing their enthusiasm for going to the land of milk and honey as he
     thought they assumed at the time, he asked them:
     “Are you going to North America?”
     “Yes,” they answered in a tone not bereft of pride.
     “Well,” he sighed with a sense of pain, “ listen, you will go to North
     America, you will find freedom, you will go to clubs, you will learn drugs
     and you will end up as drop outs, the scum of the society.”
     “No, we will not, we are going to study and make a good future for
     ourselves” said Ebyan and her folks.
     “ This is my address,” he said in a voice of defiance and challenge, “
     call me after five or so years and let me know how your life turns up.”
     Ebyan said that she had remembered the man’s challenge and having his
     address in hand she called him after 10 years. She reminded him of their
     encounter, which he remembered, and she told him of her progress and that
     she earned her post graduate degree. This was a moment of joy and
     encouragement for the youth in the audience and was received with a
     standing ovation. Ebyan’s story called to mind lines of a poem I wrote in
     1984, in which I forewarned a friend, a woman by coincidence, who was
     going to the United States that the aim of her sojourn should be one to
     fulfill her longing for education and should not be wasted on transient
     “…Aniguba tabaaladan mar dhow, Waan ka tegayaaye
     Tacliin meesha lagu sheegay iyo, Qalin tawaadiisa
     Tiriigaa ka baxayaan Oroob, Tiigso leeyahaye
     …Texas baan u jeednaa dhammaan, Toorantiyo Boone
     Waxan tiigsanaynaana waa, Rugo tacliineede
     Tumasho uma jeedniyo inaan, Tooxinaa Yurube
     Himilada ku taagnow intay, Talo hagaageyso.”
     Another heartwarming story of success was told by a lady, Zahra Jama
     Saleh, who said that she had worked hard to educate herself without going
     to the west. She said she had taken executive secretarial courses and had
     landed covetous jobs in reputable companies. Not satisfied with only
     working, she said she had perfected her English language and as a result
     had written her first book which was about to be published.
     “…Nin deeqba haween leh baan ahay, haddana dafiraaya baan ahay, dabeecado
     jaanle baan ahay…”
     It was also rather ironic and painful at the same time to hear a young man
     expressing the plight of his generation in a halting Somali. In a spirit
     of defiance and patriotic determination to use his mother tongue albeit
     with great difficulty, he rejected seeking refuge into either Arabic or
     English. Through torturous but thought provoking moments, he struggled,
     stuttered, mumbled and finally managed to convey his message. Saying that
     after he graduated from high school, his only ambition was to migrate to
     North America. And to quote him verbatim, he said “I had it in my mind
     that I had to reach North America. By air, by land, be sea, doesn’t
     matter. My only aim and ambition was to reach North America. I went there
     and saw the reality was quite different from what I had imagined. I had to
     return to the UAE. I am now here with my mother and have made my life. I
     realized that one doesn’t have to be in North America to make a decent
     living. One can make life anywhere if one strives for it.”
     Several of the honored girls had also enlivened the audience with
     burgeoning patriotism and longing for their homeland. One of them
     commented that she imbibed the love of the motherland from her mother’s
     The most testing and anguishing statement to the audience and particularly
     to a group of Somali medical doctors who were there to lecture about the
     benefits of education, came from one girl who said “ you are all telling
     us to learn and acquire knowledge and skills. You are telling us that our
     country needs us, and we know that we cannot go home. Do we have to work
     all our lives for other people?”
     Finding this as a slap in the face, the doctors decided to pass the buck
     by delegating the answer to Hussein Abokor, the most elderly man in the
     crowd and also the Chairman of the Somali Community in Sharjah, who tried
     in vain to mitigate the guilt that the older people and the doctors had
     felt before the eyes of the younger generation.
     If I try to sum up the mood of the night, I can say it was one of hope
     rather than despair, an ending of the long wait for the beautiful dawn as
     I have written in one of my poems in 1999:
     “Dalkaygow wallaahiye
     Warwarkiyo waxyeeladu
     Cidna lama walaaloo
     Qofna weerka dhiilada
     Wehel looma siiyoo
     Kuma waaro ciilkee;
     Waxad wayda haysaba
     Waagii dhawaayoo
     Walaacani ku haystiyo
     Walbahaarku wuu tegi;
     Wallee maalin dhow waqal
     Weelka loo dareershiyo
     War caloosha deeqoo
     Gaajada badh wiiqoo
     Wadnaha ii qaboojiyo
     Weedh aan ku diirsado
     Waayeelka hirarkiyo
     Ababshaha wardoonkiyo
     BBCiidu way werin…”
     Looking in the eyes of the aspiring and outstanding high school graduates,
     I kept pondering whether these were the future forces that would liberate
     our homeland, and the whole of Africa in that matter, from its current
     doom. Once again, I may have been covertly passing the blame, but there is
     no way one can be pessimistic before the powerful appetite of youth for
     life and change. And once again I found myself humming lines from another
     poem of mine, written in 1984:
     “…Dirirka bilan waayey
     Hadhuudhka ka baaqday
     Qaxootiga baahay
     Bishiishin xumaanta;
     Hayaayda baxaysa
     Bacaadka la jiifo
     Harraad bakhtigeena
     Bariis heli waaga;
     Balaayo halkeede;
     Dadaalka bilowday
     Barbaarta kacaysa
     Baajuuri xambaarka
     Tacliin bismilaynta
     Wixii balageena
     Baraaq jabinaaya
     Baddaan ka galaaye;
     Biciidku dhankiisa
     Qofkuu ka baxaayo
     Bakayle qaleenku
     Bahdeenaba maaha..”
     It is not without a feeling of melancholy, however, that I have to leave
     this piece of writing, knowing that none of the young girls and boys who
     were present that stimulating evening would understand the slew of verses
     I have quoted above. I may have to invite them though to a moment of
     reflection that, as they all had bluntly expressed with their youthful
     honesty, it is only by learning their own language and working hard to
     perfect it that they would be able to overcome their identity crisis. It
     is the language and the wisdom it enshrines that heals people, gives them
     hope and makes them soar in beautiful dreams at times of despair. It is
     only in our beautiful language that we can get our bearings when we are
     lost. It is our language that can mitigate our pain, soothe our fears and
     welcome us to weep in its lap and not anywhere else. I have to admit
     though that given the place and circumstances in which they grew up, our
     children did their part and did it well and with proper parental guidance
     they surely will also excel in learning their culture and language. All
     that we need to do as parents is to remind them over and over again “Af
     Qalaad aqoontu miyaa? Maya…Maya..”
     Bashir Goth
     August 10, 2004.

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