Is Said Samatar Mourning The Death Of Somali Literature Or The Death Of His Views On Somali Literature?

Hargeisa, 22 June 2009 – There are scholars one can disagree with and learn nothing from them, for example the two Samatar brothers (Abdi Ismail Samatar and Ahmad Ismail Samatar). There are also scholars one can disagree with and still learn something from them.

Professor Said Samatar of Rutegers University belongs to the latter category. His insights into Somali affairs, even when he is not on target, often provide food for thought. That is why despite our policy of not answering opinion pieces, we are making exception and replying to his article “Somalia: a nation’s literary death tops its political demise” which appeared in

As can be gleaned from its title, his article deals with two main issues: Somalia’s political death and Somalia’s literary death. His central thesis is that because of the war and anarchy that has been taking place in Somalia since the collapse of the central government, not only has Somalia as a political entity died but Somali literature too has died.

The political death of Somalia as a unified and centrally governed country has been a self-evident for almost two decades. So, no argument here. As to the death of Somalia’s literature, we do have a bone to pick with the professor. But first let us look at the evidence he provides to support his claim. Mr. Samatar compares the literary outpouring that accompanied the wars between the British and Muhammad Abdille Hasan with the lack of a similar literary output during the wars of the last two decades, and from this he concludes that Somali literature has died with the death of the Somalia as a state.

There are several problems with this analysis. But the most important one which goes to the heart of his thesis is that the literature that he claims belonged to Somalia actually did not belong to Somalia, but rather belonged to Somaliland. The poets that Said Samatar cites who were involved in those disputes of the early twentieth century, poets like Ali Jama Habil, Salan Arabey, Ali Dhuh, Muhammad Abdille Hassan (although his clan resides mainly outside Somaliland they have cultural affinity with Somalilanders and are among Somalis who say yidhi instead of yiri), were almost all Somalilanders. The places where this drama took place were mostly in Somaliland, particularly the northeast.

So when Said Samatar berates the people of Somalia for not having lived up to the literary example of the past century, he is playing fast and loose with the facts. By equating the terms “Somali” and “Somalia” and using them interchangeably as if they denote the same thing, Said Samatar hands Somaliland’s literature to Somalia, then he is miffed with Somalia for not producing the kind of literature that he bestowed upon it.

Said Samatar’s sleight of hand ends up doing a disservice to both Somaliland and Somalia. He dispossesses Somaliland of its literary heritage and imposes on Somalia a heritage that does not sit well with many of its denizens, particularly in the south, where that literature and its accompanying history are seen as instruments of northern hegemony.

Ali Jimale, a southern intellectual, for instance, rejects this literature and what he calls the “dervishization” of Somali history which he defines this way: “”By dervishization is meant a conscious effort on the part of successive Somali regimes and their intellectual acolytes to monumentalize, to the exclusion of other groups, the dervish experience in Somali history.”

There are other problems with Said Samatar’s article:

(1) His uncritical endorsement and championing of the bloody, warrior type of poetry based on clan feuds and vendettas and his insufficient attention to more introspective and Sufi-influenced poetry or the love poetry started by Elmi Bodhari that are better suited for expressing modern aesthetics.

(2) He skips over the whole period that spans the years 1920-1991 as if it had nothing to offer. This is tied to his Fanonian glorification of violence which he dubs as “purposive violence”. But even here, Said Samatar shows his bias against Somaliland when he claims that the Somali civil war started in 1991 when in fact it started a decade earlier. He also does not mention any of the literature that was produced during the SNM struggle in the 1980s, other than a passing reference to Hadrawi, Gaariye and Qasim. The fact that he has ignored the literature of this period, even though it fits his notion of purposive violence, shows that he is guided by an extra-literary agenda.

Overall, if Said Samatar’s approach to Somali history and literature could be summed up, it is one based on downplaying of Somaliland’s place in the Somali literary map, exaggerating the role of some marginal figures such as Muhammad Daahir Afrah, Lidwien Kapteijns, Muhammad A. Riiraash, and the handing over of Somaliland’s literature to Somalia. One of these, Lidwien Kapteijns, even wrote a whole book on Somaliland’s literature (Women’s voices in a man’s world) without bothering to mention that as she was collecting material for her book in neighboring Djibouti, the people whose literature she was studying were at the time homeless refugees across the border in Ethiopia, having been driven from their homes through aerial bombardment.

Fortunately, the people of Somaliland have won their struggle for freedom and are now living in their homes, back from their exile in Ethiopia and other lands. Among the returnees are Somaliland’s poets and artists who are currently the only Somali artists and poets (other than those in Djibouti) who have the peace and stability (and yes the freedom that their counterparts in Djibouti do not have) in which art and culture could flourish. In a sense there is nothing new here, for Somaliland has always been the cultural and artistic center of the Somali world. To confirm this all one has to do is check the long list of poets and artists that Somaliland has produced.

Said Samatar has every right to mourn the death of Somalia, but to equate the political death of Somalia with the death of Somali literature is a lie that can easily be disproved by the fact that the luminaries of Somali literature, people like Abdi Qays, Hassan Gini, Banfas, Hadrawi, Garriye and many others are alive and kicking in Somaliland.



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