THE LAST GREAT POET: The Brilliance of Hadraawi


By Ugaaso Abukar Boocow
“There is no one with more common sense … more obstinate … more lucid or dangerous, than a poet.” -Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.

Two things made me really happy a few weeks ago. President Obama assured Americans that he was indeed an American by revealing, for the first time ever, at the lavish White House Correspondents’ Dinner, his “birth video” — the birth of Simba from The Lion King, held up by the wise Rafiki in all his majestic nakedness for all the creatures of Prideland to celebrate—brilliantly encapsulating Dreams from My Father and making me so proud to be from Africa. Then unexpectedly, I got a phone call from the Motherland! As much as I love Africa, I don’t like getting calls from Africa.

Ugaaso Boocow

The calls I get from family members in Xamar, en route to my meagre wallet, are actually close to blackmail—always late at night, when I’m all alone and up until 4 A.M reading books, and there’s no one to call for help. As soon as you pick up the phone, they bully you for money, and then they hang up abruptly to make you worry about their fate. The worst part about these calls: there are no preliminary North American questions to smooth over the awkwardness like “How was your day?” “How’s the weather in Canada?” “How’s homeboy doing?” “Ya’ll still together?” Sometimes I feel bad about ignoring these calls, because money is not neutral, and if I had the kind of money they’re looking for just slouching in my wallet I’d throw it the air for them to catch like Jay-Z in “Big Pimpin.’” That’s how we roll in the ’hood. But, this particular call was from Hargeysa, which made me ecstatic, and the caller is a friend of mine who had good news for me from Hadraawi, the Ernest Hemingway to my Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

In 1957, when my favourite living writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, aged twenty-eight, saw his hero Ernest Hemingway strolling down the sidewalk of St. Michel in Paris on a drizzling spring day, the young exuberant Colombian who was awestruck and self-conscious of his rudimentary English, made a tunnel with his hands around his mouth and yelled from across the street: “”Maaaeeestro!” In 2008, aged twenty-one, when I first saw my hero from afar at a crowded banquet hall, wreathed by old Somali grandfathers holding their droopy posture straight with malacca canes and mean-muggin’ for the flashing cameras, I forgot I was a lady and cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled like Tarzan: “Boqorka! Ar wuuuuw!” Hemingway did not know Marquez would later win the Nobel in 1982 for one of my favourite books, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and would go on to write the greatest love story of all time, Love in the Time of Cholera, so Hemingway turned his head condescendingly, and lifted his hand feigning greeting, shouting comically, “Adiooos, amigo!” He walked on by hurting his young Latin admirer like new shoes, but my hero stopped for me that day and waved me over among all those old men as if I was the shit—that’s ’hood etymology for you, dear reader. I had risen so fast, so fast to the level of those old men that it no longer occurs to me that I was born June 20th 1987, and what’s more, when I asked him if I could write his memoir in English, he actually welcomed the idea and enthusiastically invited me to be his guest in Burco, his hometown.

The last time I saw Hadraawi was about two years ago at his exclusive farewell party in February 2009 in the resplendent high-ceilinged home of his friend, where he was staying during his Canadian Peace Tour. He was wearing a crewneck fairs isle sweater and a hitched-up burgundy macawiis, revealing the tapered legs of the white cotton long-johns that my grandmother would call Abu Cumar (me: “But, Grandma, why are long-johns called Abu Cumar? Who came up with this stupid name?” My Grandma: “Horta, ani waa yaabee, xay tahay Ingariiskaan aad alasaydii illaa gabal-dhac ku daldalmaysid … yaayaa …”

Before I left to go home that night he walked me to the door like a real gentlemen, laughter filling the forty-five-year gap between us, and pressed into my hands a signed addition of a limited hardcover book of his earliest collection of poems called Hal Karaan that was as dense and unpretentious as Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom; the inside cover said, “For Ugaaso Yar, magacaagu hoodiyo qalbi heellan baa sida, eraygani hubaal iyo hal xusuus leh weeyaan.”


Hadraawi is living proof. He is undisputedly the most brilliant wordsmith in the history of Somali letters, and the greatest and single most important man in Somali literature, simply because he’s a worldly, many-voiced, multidimensional genius who outdid the two most eminent nineteenth century poets Boodhari and Sayidka and outlived his prolific contemporary poet/playwright rivals Qarshe, Kaariye, Tukaale, Gadhle, Ilkacase, Huryo, Shareeco, Maradoon, Indhabuur, Yamyam, Qaasim, Cismaan Askari, Cabdalla Nuruddiin, Cabdi Iidaan, Cabdi Weyd, Cabdi Amiin, Cabdulle Raage, Yuusuf Xaaji Aadan, Xuseen Aw-Faarrax, and Xasan Sheekh Muumin.

He has written five plays and over seventy songs sung by the best of ethereal-voiced Somali singers: Tubeec, Qalinle, Bagaag, Kuluc, Magool, Shankaroon, Mooge, Rabsha, and Xasan Aadan. The esteemed pre-Hendrix guitarist Cabdikariim Jiir said in a candid interview, “When Hadraawi came to Muqdisho in 1967 the music industry underwent a revolution. He revolutionized Somali music and made it what it is today. That boy Hadraawi was simply gifted. And his songs did something no other song at the time could do: they reflected the society like a mirror. Alla yaa khaliikh.”

Though he’s the king of romantic songs he prefers writing allegorical poems, and he’s written over two hundred epic poems, some of which are thousand-line-deep. His poems are almost always personal, they are splendid portraits of the poet as a young man; his poetic license is as versatile as Nabokov’s; he has an ear for dialogue (the poems he wrote in Xamar always pay tribute to the indigenous language to relate with Ciyaalka Xaafadda, using slang like “Duqa, fiiri,” in place of “Heedheh” “Nooh” in place of “Dee”); his themes are as universal as love and politics and exile; his subjects range from the Dawn of Creation to the Origins of Species, his epic poem Daba Huwan chastises Charles Darwin in a satirical reference to Siyaad Barre’s officialdom of nepotistic monkeys: “Nin tiisu u diiraan tahay, ma suu u dulleynayaa? Ma Daarwin siduu yidhaa?”

The scope of Hadraawi’s literacy and understanding of the world is unbelievable and unparalleled by any other living or dead Somali poet, because he has the ability to discuss anything in the voice of anyone—old woman, young woman, camel-boy, village-girl, black freedom fighter, white colonial officer—he has even reported from inside the grave in the voice of the dead poet Cilmi Boodhari! Hadraawi initially sent the dead Cilmi a telegram in the song “Hudhud” inquiring about his wellbeing in the grave and if he finally met his love on Earth in the Other World, and then Hadraawi responded back to himself in his song “Haatuf” as Cilmi Boodhari—made wholly possible by Hadraawi’s imagination and brilliance—and Cilmi scrutinizes his naiveté on Earth, about the foolishness of pursing his unrequited love for Hodan: “Walaal, Hodan iyo jacaylkeed dani igama haysoo, waar dee hablo Xuural-Caynaan haasaawiyaayoo, u heeso la yidhiyoo”—as you can see, Cilmi has moved on to bigger and better things, to courting eternally young virgin girls with fair skin and wide eyes and voluptuous bodies as if sculpted by hand who sing his praises in angelic voices and feed him heavenly fruits, clearly the stuff of Paradise, and Hadraawi in the voice of Cilmi continues to speak about his luxurious life in the grave, “geelii hor weyn baa igu soo hormanayoon …” and even in death it seems the Somali man and his beloved camel are inseparable! After this profound testimony from the grave, Hadraawi turned his attention to decoding the meaning of life and wrote a long philosophical mediation called “Sirta Nolosha,” which should be a required reading for all mankind. The best advices I’ve ever gotten in my life are all from “Sirta Nolosha,”—“Qalinkaa wax suureeya, saaxiib kal furan weeye, weligaa ha sii deynin” and “Garashiyo sugnaan hoyso, falka sami ha kuu raaco, ilbaxnimadu saas weeye!”

All of Hadraawi’s songs and poems are heavy with imaginary and metaphors and aphorisms, big on foreshadowing, irony, fables and quick transcending character sketches like Naguib Mahfouz’s; and his criticisms of corrupt African governments are as deadly as Wole Soyinka’s. But, honestly, he’s beyond comparison, a true Renaissance Man—poet, therapist, artist, hero, revolutionary, producer, composer, critic, editor, director, song-writer, playwright, philosopher, philologist, historiographer, peacemaker, lecturer, professor of literature and arts, Hajji by way of Mecca, mujaahidby way of SNM, and a jailbird veteran who was locked up for six years behind bars and in solitary confinement in the dictator Siyaad Barre’s notorious Qansax-Dheere prison. To me, Hadraawi is like a scorpion—in Somali, scorpions are called “hangaraarac,” and we have a saying in Somali: “Hangaraarac lug uma dhutiyo.” The scorpion is a hustler, a G, it stays on the grind and keeps it moving: a testament to resourcefulness for all times and places, and because it has so many legs you’ll never ever see it limping in pain or fatigue, and that’s the essence of Hadraawi.

Born in 1943 as Maxamed to a nomadic family of eight boys and one girl in rural Burco, the adorable child-genius and griot was sent all by himself to Yemen for higher-education in 1949, at the age of six, on a ship called Qaxwaji sailing off the flickering coast of Berbera. In Aden, baby-poet Maxamed soon morphed into the epithet “Abu Hadra” “Mr. Know-it-all,” courtesy of his school teacher who was fond of the poet Abu Maadi and characteristic epithets. Baby Maxamed picked up the Arabic language like some airborne disease and held the class hostage everyday with the splendours of his poems (inspired by the sixth century Arab poet Imrul Qays) and he told the class magical tales from the homeland like Shahrazad from Thousand and One Nights. His teacher furtively did not like this at all, first of all homeboy was supposed to be learning not talking and distracting the students, and then secondly the teacher felt his curriculum challenged by the child’s genius and envied our baby Maxamed his charisma and eloquence. Every day, the teacher would give baby Maxamed a time-out for talking during lessons, inwardly riveted with the boy like Shahriyar.

One day, the teacher edged closer and closer and closer to baby Maxamed’s seat engulfed with spellbound little boys and coquettish girls (it is unknown whether the girls came to school to learn or to stare at the handsome face of baby Maxamed), perked up his ears and thundered feigning rebuke: “So, Abu Hadra, what story are you telling my students today?” The children laughed long and loud at the archaic name—Abu Hadra—a name befitting of someone’s amusing grandfather, but it stuck right there and then, and a decade later in my hometown of Muqdisho, when he came back unexpectedly to Somalia rolling deep with a group of ravishing young expats called Xabaddii Keentay “Brought by The Bullet,” (Somalis are also fond of epithets) who fled Yemen during the Arab-Israeli war for the Suez Canal and Yemen’s independence from the British Empire. In Muqdisho, his name would be altered into Hadraawi—to keep up with the theme of Burcaawi derived from his native home of Burco and a soulful genre of music at the time called Raaxeeye Burcaawi.

In Somalia in the 1970s, he settled in Lafoole and busied himself with falling in love and juggling dual careers as the young Head Poet for a theatre company called Barkhad Cas and Director of Arts and Literature at Lafoole University. Many women have inspired his masterpieces: Beerlula from Beledweyn, Basra from Burco, Saxarla from Hargeysa, Amaal, Suleekha, Arrawello, Sahra, Barni, Saluugla, Deeqa, Mulliya, Cajeb, ina Suldaan, Heego, and many others. His high-profile political activism and marathons for peace endangered the safety and stability offered by married life. He married and divorced and remarried many times over, and after a fleeting bachelorhood in his early sixties in the 2000s he took Beyonce’s advice and put a ring on it—sorry ladies, he’s taken.

Young Hadrawi

Hadraawi might be a hopelessly romantic poet like Florentino Ariza and his words might be as sweet as guava and as gentle as flower petals, but he has a darker side triggered by frustration with injustice, embezzlement of public funds, nepotism in governments, and corruption within bureaucracy. Hadraawi’s beef with his arch-enemy the dictator Siyaad Barre stems from the issue of censorship and the freedom of speech, association and movement. He also had a problem with the ubiquitous portraits of Siyaad Barre looking down on people walking in public spaces, either in the company of Marx and Lenin, or an up-close-and-personal shot of the face and revolting mouth that earned him the nickname Afweyne, depicting him as the overseer of everything like Mussolini, and the indoctrinating songs the schoolchildren were made to recite every morning: “Guul Wadow Aabbe Siyaad.” Hadraawi, whose wisdom comes from his formative years grazing a camel and his later years of schooling in Aden, knew a personality cult when he saw one, and he had an issue with the words “Aabbe Siyaad,” “Aabbihii Garashada.” Hadraawi thought he heard singing in Aden, as the proverb goes. How can a man whose has never grazed a camel and has never read a worthwhile book and has never sat in a philosophy class and who took over a country by military force rather than by wise words be called the Father of Knowledge? What knowledge is there to an oxymoron?

Slowly, Hadraawi’s love songs were dubbed “anti-revolution” and they stopped reeling from Radio Muqdisho. He continued to write, his words as deadly as rocket-propelled grenades, and his criticisms of the government become more overt, more articulate, more precarious, awarding him a six-year sentence by the dictator without a trial. The popos came knocking on his door one night as he was sitting cross-legged on his bed grading essays after a long day of lecturing at the university. Soon, he opened the door and the popos streamed in and dispersed like cockroaches led by the shoulder-piped, Glock-trotting Sgt. Nuur Bidaar. They went to his bedroom first, flipped the mattress and shook the pillow, and confiscated all the cassette tapes and scented A4 letters and unopened white-red-blue-bordered Airmail envelops they found. After some time, he was hand-cuffed and shoved into a Fiat 124 waiting outside his door. This all happened in the middle of the night, to avoid moral panic, and public demonstration. Hadraawi’s father was known to use his cane with a certain flourish and mastery as a weapon on anyone who touched his baby boy and the police were also afraid of the many feisty women who had already fought each other over the thirty-year-old handsome bachelor with kitchen utensils (forks, pestles, knives, wooden spoons) so the NSS carried the dictator’s order to arrest him in the night.

During his imprisonment in Qansax-Dheere he was given numerous chances to apologize and “redeem” himself so he can go home like a good boy, but he said, “Inyow.” Actually he said: “Xabsi ama xorriyad sharaf leh ama xabaal, dee.” He concentrated on inner healing and developed the patience of Job (Prophet Ayuub), and as a deeply religious young man his love of God intensified; his jail cell became his private mosque and he wrote odes to God like the poem “Daryeel,” cathartic songs like “Hoobal,” (which was smuggled out of jail and sung by Tubeec); elegies to dead Somali poets like “Hal-Abuur,” and he paid homage to every corner in my hometown in his song “Xamareey ma nabad baa?” calling my city the Mecca of East Africa, a place everyone should make a pilgrimage to at least once in their life, praising every nook and cranny of my city like Gogol did for Nevsky Prospekt.

It’s true that the world doesn’t stop to mourn for you and life went on in the continent for six years without him. While Hadraawi was in jail fighting for freedom and democracy like his South African brothers Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela in Robben Island, elsewhere in Africa the map altered. Rhodesia became Zimbabwe; borders shifted; power changed hands many times over; African army generals imposed Martial Law and took over presidential palaces by military coups like General Ayub Khan and his shoulder-pip-wearing man dem in Midnight’s Children’s Movements Performed by Pepperpots (in Liberia: Samuel Doe killed President Tolbert; in Ethiopia: Col. Mengistu replaced Emperor Haile Selassie; in Uganda: Idi Amin, among other atrocities, expelled the Indians); France finally consented to decolonize Djibouti; and Somalia waged an unfruitful war against Ethiopia to liberate my paternal grandmother’s Ogaden people.

Hadraawi kept on dismissing all the friends and admirers who sent him letters imploring him to just apologize so he could go home before the dictator decides to reward his stubbornness with Labaantan Jirow—no man has ever made it sane out of this prison. One day, after six years in Qansax-Dheere, a car came to scoop him up. He was taken to the dictator’s residence in Afsiyooni. He was told he was a free man and anything he requested would be granted. He asked for a chauffeur, and when the dictator asked why, Hadraawi said that he was rudely snatched away from his fellow prisoners and he’d like to at least say goodbye to his friends in prison!

Some years after his release on April 9th 1978 and before Hargeysa was barricaded and the civilians bombed by Siyaad Barre’s Air Force soaring in the cloudless cyan sky in jaunty aerobatic MiG 17 fighter-jets carrying FAB-500 bombs, Hadraawi willingly and vehemently pledged his allegiance to a camouflaged separatist insurgent group hiding in an obscure location called SNM (Somali National Movement) on May 1st 1982. The SNM was not tribe-based, it was territory-based. But ironically the fighters all fell into the general category of a specific noteworthy tribe who all came from the same region of northwest Somalia—from the poet Cali Banfas: “Hadaanan gadoodka Lixlow gu’ga maanta la soo hadhin guusha!” to Hadraawi: “Hadaanan xaraashin waxay hanti goyso, intaan hub u siiyo, dadkayga habaynin!”—they were asserting their strength—hence the threat “Hadaanan hadaanan” was often repeated in their slogan-poems to liberate an internally colonized people from the military regime of Somalia.

Sadly, these men were arrested in the hundreds under the orders of the dictator by the NSS for their “propaganda” and thrown like burlap potato sacks into Madheera. But, SNM went on a holy war from behind bars, which is why it’s often dubbed “Jihaadkii Hargeysa” to avenge the bombed city, which is presently the capital of Somaliland, and the men involved are depicted as die-hard martyrs who sought ownership of what’s rightfully theirs: the land and natural resources from the glistening coast of Saylac to the periphery of Laas Caanood, which is present-day Somaliland. Today, Somaliland is a contested African state like Western Sahara, autonomous by the will of its resilient people. Personally, I support Somaliland, and I think it’s beautiful how the people of Somaliland rose from the ruins and brushed their shoulders off, and the peace they’ve maintained since 1991 (when they seceded) is admirable and deserving of emulation.

In the early 1990s Hadraawi lived in exile in London for a hot-minute and then went back home in the early 2000s to undertake the longest walk for peace ever done by an African. He walked from the northern tip of Burco to the deep south of Kismaayo, wading through the mangrove forest of the Jubba River and swatting away mosquitoes, to promote nabad iyo caano, and understanding and reconciliation between conflicting groups. These days the world still calls upon him to give lectures on heritage and the resilience of the human psyche. He has become an emergency fund of wisdom and an illuminating source of guidance. He’s the recipient of many foreign awards and honorary degrees from Norway, Tunisia, Ivory Coast, and Chicago, but he feels most honoured by the homage his own people give him in the form of standing ovations and deafening ululations wherever he goes; the Hadraawi Heritage Foundation, The Hadraawi Centre for Arts and Literature, and The Hal Karaan Readers Book Club. What make me really sad are the last verses of his song “Hoobal”—“Dadka ii han-weynow, marka aad i hoysaan …” In this age of bootlegged Somali songs, what will happen to Somali literature and the eloquence of the Somali language when the last great poet is gone?

Ugaaso Abukar Boocow