Ruixuan Li is a first year PhD student at SOAS University of London focusing on modern Somali poetry. Her research looks at the complex identities expressed by the new generation of Somali women poets through a comparative study of their poetry in Somali and English.

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Ignorance is the enemy of love: the novel

The novel, Aqoondarro Waa U Nacab Jacayl (“Ignorance Is the Enemy of Love”), by Faarax Maxamed Jaamac Cawl, published in 1974, is considered the first published novel in the Somali language and has been regarded as characteristic of the transition from the oral to the written form.[1] It was received with great enthusiasm by the general public when first hitting the shelves in Mogadishu as the young Somalis were so eager to read a story in their mother tongue for the first time. The 1982 translation into English is by Professor B. W. Andrzejewski, a renowned linguist and an authority in Somali. Anyone who has read the novel will be impressed by the touching love tragedy between the hero and the heroine, as well as by the Somali orature inserts in the prose text, especially in dialogues. In this blog post, I analyse how the orature inserts are incorporated in the structure in the novel, and how they illustrate the Somali art of persuasion.

The novel is based on a true story, handed down orally. It is set between 1915-1917, during the war between the anti-colonial brotherhood of the Dervishes and those Somali who had accepted colonial rule. It tells of a love tragedy between Cawrala, an intelligent girl who knows her own mind, and Calimaax, a Dervish secret agent and eloquent poet. Calimaax escues Cawrala in a shipwreck, and Cawrala falls in love with him, but her father has already arranged for her to marry a rich and elderly man. She sends a passionate love letter in poetic form in Arabic to Calimaax when he joins the Dervish headquarters at Taleex. Unfortunately Calimaax, who by then has already married another woman, cannot read or write, and thus asks his father-in-law and his brother-in-law to read the letter to him. The content of the letter becomes public knowledge, and deeply offends his wife’s relatives. The incident explains the title of the novel and prefigures the tragic ending of the story.  During a raid against the British forces, Calimaax is badly wounded and presumed dead. After receiving news of Calimaax’s death, a heartbroken Cawrala is forced to marry the elderly man and becomes fatally ill on her wedding day. Her new husband eventually lets her go and replaces her with her younger sister. Calimaax, having recovered from his wound, sends a message to Cawrala’s family offering to marry Cawrala at once. However, poor Cawrala never recovers from the illness and dies one day before Calimaax’s arrival. In the end, riding to Cawrala’s grave, Calimaax hangs the love letter Cawrala wrote to him on her grave and predicts his own imminent death.

Somali oral literature

Somali-language literature consists of a massive corpus of oral art with various genres and a relatively modest collection of written work, which is of more recent origin since the language had no official orthography until October 1972. Anyone who has come into contact with Somali literature should be aware of the significance that Somalis attach to oral communication, especially in the form of poetry. The power of the spoken word is so highly prized that poetry has typically been used as an effective weapon to spread and counter hostility between clans, to ruin reputations or praise men, or to make serious political points to influence the masses.[2] For as long as we know, going through the Golden Era, the Era of Fire and Embers, the Era of the Lutes, the New Era, and even until now, Somali poetry has been predominantly oral, both in composition and performance.[3] Before the official national orthography in Latin script was introduced, correspondence in the Somali community was normally conducted in the Arabic language which enjoys enormous prestige as the language of the Quran, and quite a number of people, particularly townspeople, have a general knowledge of it.[4] Due to the colonial history, the legal languages in which government business was conducted also included English and Italian.[5] But if either the sender or the addressee of a written message was illiterate, he had to turn to others for help.

Anyone who has read Aqoondarro Waa U Nacab Jacayl will be impressed by the skilful orature insertion throughout the whole novel. Nearly twenty proverbs come up in the narration and in dialogues. Poetic inserts, short or long, also play a pivotal role in driving the action. The majority of poems are composed by the author himself, but there are also poems by acclaimed poets and verses attributed to the real persons the story talks about, thus adding artistic verisimilitude to the novel. Somali poetry is preserved through verbatim memorization. The reciters strictly adhere to the original texts of the poem, and Always mention the name of the original author in accordance with an unwritten copyright law. Inserts of this type of orature are commonly found in African novels, but they are rarely  interwoven into the framework of the whole story. In contrast, the Somali orature inserts in Aqoondarro Waa U Nacab Jacayl carry the major thrusts of the narrative. Although the long poetic inserts in ordinary conversations may seem unrealistic to foreign readers, they were actually part of the Somali communication style in the period in which the story is set.

The art of persuasion

A distinct feature shown in the orature inserts is the art of persuasion. Since proverbs and poetic messages were means of communication, they are frequently included in the dialogues between the characters in the novel. When contradictory opinions, thoughts and attitudes are addressed by means of proverbs and poems, readers witness the art of persuasion.

In Chapter 2, Cawrala and Calimaax as well as a few other passengers are sailing from Aden towards the coast of Northern Somalia. Calimaax starts joking to entertain the people on board. To distract  Nuur Ciise from his seasickness, Calimaax makes fun of him for being a man of the interior. Nuur refutes Calimaax’s words by quoting one of the Sayid’s verses praising the interior, and starting a poetic combat. Calimaax, as a townsman himself, fights back with a poem he composed, belittling the people of the interior and praising the sophistication and benefits of city life. The power in his verses wins the approval of the listeners and he wins the debate.

Divergence of opinion also occurs among the three women passengers, Cawrala, Saluugla and Haweeya. In Somali society, proverbs are a profound expression of tradition. This is shown in the way the three women discuss love and marriage. Saluugla asks Cawrala what is love, and Cawrala gives her answer accompanied by a proverb in which the drought, war and the night are “darkness”, dry grass, a negotiating mission and moonshine are “a little better”, and fresh grass, peace, and daylight are “even more palatable”. However, fresh grass, peace and daylight make no difference to “a man with no animals to graze”, “a man who died in the war”, and “a blind man”. The last stanza concludes:

The yearning of the flesh is darkness,

And mere marriage is a little better,

Love is even more palatable,

But to a stupid man who can’t understand, this it makes no difference at all (p.19)

Cawrala’s attitudes towards marriage and love are vividly expressed, with all the figurative images paving the way. The last line stresses her opposition to her arranged marriage to a fatuous elderly man.

Similarly, in Chapter 6, Dervish Bile, the friend of Calimaax’s who describes himself as Cirsan-ka-yeer [6] and who brings Cawrala the message from Calimaax, cites a proverb to convince Cawrala that he is an expert in star-lore. Also, when asking for Saluugla’s advice, Cawrala quotes a Somali proverb to make her point that terrible advice from a friend will lead a person to disaster. In response, Saluugla also uses a proverb to tell Cawrala that she needs some more time to think about the matter very carefully.

A Somali poem has a story to tell, often an argument to advance. This is evident in the poem that Cawrala recites to her father. In an authoritarian family, she has no means of resisting the orders of her parents. In this case, poetry is her only weapon. She tries to convince her father that she attaches great value to the virtues and intelligence of a husband. She states in detail what qualities and attainments she has seen in Calimaax, yet the old man she is promised to has none of those qualities. Cawrala repeats the same line three times, begging her father not to force her to marry a man she doesn’t love.

Last but not least, when Cawrala’s uncle attempts to persuade his niece to accept the arranged marriage, he first uses a proverb to show his prestige in society as a grey-haired elder, who not only has wisdom in his mind and heart, but also has experienced much travel. Then he recites Xasan Xayle’s poem in which a man with wealth is described as so worthy that a woman should honour him with her submissiveness, and by contrast, a man without wealth “is regarded as less handsome than all others”. Moreover, the severity of a parental curse is also stressed in the last two lines. Using this poem, Cawrala’s uncle hopes to convince Cawrala to obey the family. However, Cawrala, as a girl with a good knowledge of Somali poems, immediately points out that the two most important lines in this poem were missing, which are:

Do you not know that a man who has no knowledge is a hopeless fool?

Do you not know that if you say a word to him he rails at you? (p.92)

Cawrala’s uncle had deliberately left out these two lines on the value of knowledge. At the end of this chapter, Cawrala, again, states her refusal to the marriage in verses as a response to her uncle’s earlier exhortation. However, no matter how persuasive her poem is, to her parents and kinsmen it makes no difference at all.

What’s more, the powerful poetic verses are not only persuading the characters in the story, they are also designed to convince the readers and the Somali public.

Promoting  literacy

The advocacy of literacy is highlighted in the characterisation of the hero, Calimaax, who suffers great embarrassment for his illiteracy, despite his outstanding oral talent and his skills as a soldier. The reformist message is made clear in Chapter 3, when Calimaax apologises to his brother-in-law after the incident of the letter, saying, “it is now clear to me that Ignorance is the Enemy of Love” (p.49), directly citing the title of the novel, and adds that he is determined to learn how to read and write. In the last chapter, when Calimaax laments Cawrala’s death, readers are presented again with Calimaax regretting his ignorance. The novel was published a year after the national establishment of the new Somali orthography. The government began the Somalisation of the educational system and launched two large literacy campaigns. The urban literacy campaign took place in 1973/1974, and the rural literacy campaign followed in 1974/1975.[7] The Ministry of Culture and Higher Education was so impressed with the relevance of Aqoondarro Waa U Nacab Jacayl that it took over its publication.[8]

Promoting women’s rights

The reformist zeal of Faarax is not limited to the advocacy of literacy. Another important message conveyed in the novel is the promotion of women’s rights. Somali women are by and large independent in Somali society, and find ways of making their voices heard. The pastoral life enables considerable freedom. Cawrala is a classic example of the strength and spiritedness of Somali women. During the shipwreck, she encourages the girls to get rid of their clothes and ask the men for help. In the old days, talking about love overtly was considered to be a shameful behaviour that could tarnish a family’s reputation. However, having reached a fair level of education, Cawrala not only knows how to read and write, but has also acquired her own independent understanding of love. With a spirit of rebellion, she is bold in expressing her feelings and does not wait for signs of Calimaax’s affection, but instead writes a poem to him declaring her love. When Calimaax tells her about the Dervishes, she immediately expresses her willingness to join in the war of independence and fight side by side with Calimaax. The reformist message could not be stressed more obviously when Cawrala asks Calimaax, “Or do men always want to keep women away from the victory of independence and to prevent them from becoming equal with them?”. However, Cawrala’s love and life is ruined by the greed of her family, who marry her off for profit to a man who is believed to have beaten her sister, causing her death. In the end, the tragedy of Cawrala does not prevent her family from giving her younger sister in marriage to the same man, Geelle – Geelbadane, ‘He who has many camels’. Thus, Faarax depicts a very sympathetic picture of Somali women which by implication shows his support for their emancipation.

Promoting new dietary habits

Another relatively minor message the author tries to send is in regard to the eating of fish. Even though there is no objection in Islam to eating fish, the Somalis consider seafood as inferior and generally oppose eating fish, in spite of the long coastline the country possesses. However, in order to promote economic development and overcome the problems of malnutrition, the government tried to persuade the people to accept the eating of fish. Calimaax and Nuur’s poetic combat on the subject of eating fish in Chapter 2 aims at convincing the readers to include fish in their diet.

Conclusions

Somali oral literature always has a point to make. By looking at various examples of proverbs and poetic inserts in the novel, I hope to have illustrated the art of persuasion in them. I have also presented the salient reformist message of the novel, which mainly includes the promotion of literacy and women’s rights. All in all, Aqoondarro Waa U Nacab Jacayl, being the first novel to be published in Somali and the first to be translated into a foreign language, has not only secured its place in Somali literature, but also in world literature.

***

  • [1] Bogumił Witalis Andrzejewski, “Somali literature” in Bogumił Witalis Andrzejewski, Stanislaw Pilaszewicz, and Witold Tyloch, eds. Literatures in African Languages: Theoretical Issues and Sample Surveys. Cambridge University Press, (1985): 372.
  • [2] I.M. Lewis, “Literacy in a Nomadic Society: The Somali Case”, in Jack Goody (ed.), Literacy in Traditional Societies (Cambridge, 1968): 265-276.
  • [3] Andrzejewski 1985: 339.
  • [4] Albert S. Gérard. African Language Literatures: An Introduction to the Literary History of Sub-Saharan Africa. Longman (1981): 161.
  • [5] John William Johnson. “Orality, Literacy, and Somali Oral Poetry.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 18.1 (2006): 121.
  • [6] In Chapter 4, Cawrala hears an invisible voice delivering an auspicious message to her in poetry. In Somali culture, people can be addressed by invisible voices. But in fact, it is Bile who claims he is Cirsan-ka-yeer, one of the invisible spirits associated with good news, and recites the poem to Cawrala.
  • [7] Ali A. Warsame. “How a Strong Government Backed an African Language: The Lessons of Somalia.” International Review of Education 47.3 (2001): 351.
  • [8] Ismail “Geeldoon”, 2013.
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