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Inside Somalia: Where poetry is revered

Poets are folk heroes and crowds gather to hear poems recited but verse does not end the war.

Editor's note: Somalia defines the term failed state. This GlobalPost series includes accounts of being under fire in Mogadishu, on guard duty with African Union peacekeepers, an investigation into the Al Shabaab rebels and an analysis of when Somalia will improve.

MOGADISHU, Somalia and HARGEISA, Somaliland — Imagine a country where poetry is everything.

Imagine a place where the poets themselves are folk heroes and role models, a place where
everyone knows the verses by heart and where crowds gather spellbound to hear the most popular poets perform.

What you’re imagining is probably not Somalia, a country that has become a byword for death, mayhem and chaos, but where poetry is a political tool as powerful as the gun.

“Without poetry we would not exist as a society. It can rouse thousands of people in a minute and demobilize thousands in a minute. As the stomach needs food, so the brain needs beautiful words,” said Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame, known as Hadraawi,  Somalia’s most famous poet.

Some have compared Hadraawi to Shakespeare and his works have been translated internationally. During the years of General Mohamed Siyad Barre's dictatorship that ended in 1991, he was locked-up in solitary confinement for five years. “My poems were against the regime at that time,” he said.

With sparkling eyes and a neatly trimmed white beard, the 66-year-old explained, “Poetry is a weapon that we use in both war and peace. When we want to tell somebody something, poetry is the best way to convince them.”

Somali poems are not just entertainment. They frequently use allegory and myth to talk about sensitive issues of politics, clan and conflict. As Hadraawi put it: “Poems and not just recited for their own sake, there must be a purpose.”

In 2003 he walked the length and breadth of Somalia on a peace march. “The only weapon I carried with me were my poems,” said Hadraawi. The march did not end the fighting but he drew crowds wherever he went reminding people that there is more to life than war.

It is hard to overstate the importance of poetry in Somalia. Here it is not an esoteric minority interest but a form of mass popular culture. When poets such as Hadraawi perform — the words half-sung, half-spoken — audiences are silent, taking in every word.

“You think the audience is not breathing; they are trying to feel the words,” said one Somali poetry fan.