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Sarbeeb: The Art of Oblique Communication in Somali Culture

Prof. Said S. Samatar

Editor’s note: Today, November 24, 2016 marks the 12th anniversary of WardheerNews. To commemorate this occasion and one of the greatest scholars Somali speaking people have produced, the late Professor Said Samatar, contribution to WardheerNews, we would like to re publish Sarbeer: The Art of Oblique Communication in Somali Culture. Sarbeeb (written in 1995) is vintage Professor Said Samatar—reflective, cautionary and sobering. Said takes a look at the past in order to make a cogent point about our current national morass. Samatar does so by showing that, in contrast to the lawless chaos that reigns supreme among Somalis today, precolonial pastoral Somalia possessed a vibrant corpus of constraining social sanctions that regulated inter-ethnic relations. One such sanction was the cultivation of “the art of oblique communication” that governed inter-clan interactions. As Samatar demonstrates, pastoral elders of yesteryear had, through bitter experience, learned to address one another—calmly, softly, respectfully—in veiled, soothing indirect speech. Many a blunt word, as the saying goes, had a sharp edge, and the effect of a sharp edge is usually a pool of spilled blood.

Said Sheikh
The late Prof Said S. Samatar

To step back from the brink, Saahid and Feetin, the principals of the first poetic exchange below, resort to circuitous semantics, each singing about a “proverbial mare” when what they are really alluding to concerns the pains of a grief-stricken groom trying to find a face-saving, non-offensive way of squirming out of a bad marriage.

It is Somalia’s great misfortune today that her muddled folk have lost the culture of cautious discourse that characterized the world of their pastoral forebears without acquiring in its place a measure of the manners and methods of modern life. We have, that is, transitioned to zero! The result: a country drenched in bloodshed. Off to the essay now:

Most societies have stylized forms of discourse and ritual action that serve to establish indirect but powerful patterns of communication. The symbols and idioms for expressing a stylized discourse vary greatly, from the mundane to the sublime and from the ordinary to the bizarre. Among the Somalis of the Horn of Africa, the dominant medium for addressing a hidden discourse is poetry – oral and written. This is the form of art that pervades so deeply the social fabric of Somali society.

The Somalis have been described as a “nation of Poets” whose poetic heritage is intimately linked to the vicissitudes of the people’s daily life. In the great demoralization that followed the collapse of the Somali state, some Somalis turned for inspiration to what a former president has called “ and asset of inestimable value” – namely, their lyrical poetry that moves the Somalis in almost primeval ways, alternately inspiring them for good or inflaming them for evil.

From early times foreigners who studied Somali language and culture observed the centrality of oral poetry in Somali literary temper and tastes. For example, , in 1854 the romantic and highly eccentric British explorer, Sir Richard Burton, entered the Somali coast town of Zayla ‘ disguised as a Muslim holy man and traveling under the pseudonym of al_Hajj Abdullah. Burton who spoke flawless Arabic and knew Islamic theology well, resided in Zayla’ for some months impressed the inhabitants with his considerable Islamic learning and by some accounts induced them to appoint him the imam of the mosque of Zayla’, where he allegedly regularly led the faithful in Friday prayer.

Burton ‘s impressions of life in the Somali coast and the city of Harar , which he visited some months later, are recounted in his book entitled, with characteristic Victorian arrogance, the First Footsteps in East Africa . Among the phenomena that Burton reported with astonishment was the high level of interest in literature, oral poetry in particular, found among the Somalis. A revealing passage records his amazement:

“ The country teams with poets” …. Every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines – the fine ear of this people causing them to take great pleasure in harmonious sounds and poetic expressions, whereas a false quantity or prosaic phrase excites their violent indignation…. Every chief in the country must have a panegyric to be sung by his clan, and the great patronize light literature by keeping a poet.

The power and influence of oral poets in Somali society, rightly noted but wrongly explained by Burton over a century ago, stem from more significant social enterprises than mere singing of tribal “panegyrics.” An important factor in the power and popularity of Somali poets was the versatile use made of their poetic craft in society. For example, poetry as a principal medium of mass communication. To a large extent, therefore, the pastoral poet’s prestige and influence rest on his ability, through the use of verbal art, to manipulate communication – in short, to exercise a monopolistic hold on the flow of information and ideas.

Given its alliterative and metrical regularity, Somali pastoral verse is easy to memorize, far more than prose. The significance of this fact is easy to grasp; in oral culture where writing is confined to the clerical and commercial establishment in the cities, the only library or reference material people have is memory. Thus events that are truly memorable in their clan affairs are committed to a poetic form, first to underscore their importance, and second, so they will endure in memory through the generations. In this way poetic versification enables the pastoralists not only to transmit information across considerable distances but also to record it for posterity. Hence, Somali pastoral verse functions both as social communicator and as archival repository.

Read more: Sarbeeb: The Art of Oblique Communication in Somali Culture

Said S Samatar

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