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Somali Poetry in Minnesota

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Abdi Farah (Abdi Phenomenal), Safiya Tusmo, and Awil Ali Waarabe

Composite image of Abdi Farah (Abdi Phenomenal), Safiya Tusmo, and Awil Ali Waarabe in stills taken from the documentary film Somalia: A Nation of Poets, which premiered on Twin Cities PBS in January 2017. Used courtesy of Ka Joog and Twin Cities PBS.

Somali poetry is a unique art form with an ancient history and a living legacy. Since 1991, it has connected Somali and Somali American refugees living in the United States with those who remain in their East African homeland. In the twenty-first century, Somali Minnesotans have kept their poetic traditions alive by forming arts groups, organizing public performances in the Twin Cities, and encouraging young people to become poets.

Historically, the most popular and powerful genre of Somali poetry has been gabay, one of several genres within the overall field of poetry (maanso). Poets turn to gabay to list, announce, and remember times of plenty as well as hardship, and to grieve over as well as celebrate the tumult of life’s uncertainties.

Somali poetry follows strict rules that dictate scansion, alliteration, and pacing. Social etiquette grants writers some poetic license while guiding them away from using their gifts for inappropriate topics. For example, a poet would not dare to compose a poem in order to libel women, the disabled, elders, or children. Usually, poets refrain from writing a maliciously ill-willed poem (guhaan) in order to harm someone. This custom shows that Somali people respect poetry not just as a means of artistic expression but as a tool with the power to inform, alert, and, at times, provoke.

Originally, Somali poets were spokesmen for their clans. In the early 1900s, the art form evolved to serve a nationalist purpose. During the war against colonial Britain, Somali warrior Mohammed Abdullah Hassan used his words as weapons. For the first time, Somali poetry travelled thousands of miles away to Europe with an ominous warning: don’t mess with us in gabay.

Refugees fleeing the Somali Civil War in the 1990s brought their poetry traditions with them to their new homes. Many came to the Twin Cities and kept those traditions alive in the early 2000s. Legendary poet and playwright Said Salah Ahmed, for example, began teaching Somali language at the University of Minnesota in 2010. At the same time, he started offering workshops and teaching summer-school classes with a focus on Somali poetry in order to pass on his commitment to poetry. Each year, he visited Somalia to refresh his sense of local culture. He also traveled to Europe to give public presentations and receive feedback from like-minded Somalis.

In Minnesota and other parts of the US, gang-related violence and terrorist recruitment enveloped some Somali youth in the late 2000s. A young man named Abdi Farah (aka Abdi Phenomenal) and his friends took it upon themselves to change the narrative. As his forefathers had done in Somalia, Farah picked poetry as his weapon of choice. In 2007, at the age of twenty-five, Farah and his friends founded Ka Joog, a nonprofit organization.

Ka joog means “stay away from it” in Somali. Thus, the group’s name carries a clear message to Somali youth: stay away from trouble. In its first few years, Ka Joog concentrated on performing and facilitating poetry sessions in the Twin Cities that engaged local youth. As the group gained a name for itself, it began spreading the word in English via poetry performance videos published on a digital poetry hub called Poet Nation. In the 2010s, Ka Joog grew into a social justice advocacy organization that earned recognition throughout the United States.

Young Somali Minnesotans have answered the call to take up the poetic legacies of their relatives. Abdullahi Hassan Ganey, the son of poet/playwright Xasan Cabdullahi Xasan (Xasan Ganey) and artist Cadder Kaahinis, is building a poetic reputation as strong as his father’s. Ganey, who arrived in Minnesota from Somalia in 2007 at the age of twenty-one, delivers his tailored words with a thundering voice. His poems fill the mind with lingering echoes that listeners savor long after they hear them.

Ganey writes in Somali, but some members of the next generation—including women—are adapting maanso to the rhythms of English. The spoken word artist Hodan Ugas, granddaughter of the poet Rage Ugas, has written poems in English about the challenges Somalis face in the diaspora. Ugas appeared with Abdi Phenomenal, Said Salah Ahmed, and others in the film Somalia: A Nation of Poets, which premiered on Twin Cities PBS in January 2017.

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Ganey, Abdullahi Hassan. Maxaa Ummaddii Badalay. Posted by YouTube user “Somali TV of Minnesota,” March 7, 2013.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9L3jEOKRXY

Ka Joog.
http://www.kajoog.org/

Poet Nation.
http://thepoetnation.com/

Salah, Said. “The Night of Absence.”
http://www.poetrytranslation.org/poems/the-night-of-absence

Samatar, Said S. “Poetry in Somali Politics: the Case of Siyyad Mahammed ‘Abdille.’” PhD dissertation, Northwestern University, 1979.

——— . “Somalia: A Nation's Literary Death Tops its Political Demise.” Somalia Online.
https://www.somaliaonline.com/community/topic/15113-article-a-nation%E2%80%99s-literary-death-tops-its-political-demise/

Shah, Allie. “New Somali-American Bards.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 21, 2012.
http://www.startribune.com/the-new-somali-american-bards/143684276/

Twin Cities PBS. Somalia: A Nation of Poets.
http://www.tpt.org/somalia-a-nation-of-poets/

Yusuf, Ahmed Ismail. Somalis in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 20012.

——— . WarScapes.com. Somali Heeso (Songs): An Effective Weapon in the 1977 Ethio-Somali (Ogaden) War.
http://www.warscapes.com/poetry/somali-heeso-songs-effective-weapon-1977-ethio-somali-ogaden-war

Related Images

Abdi Farah (Abdi Phenomenal), Safiya Tusmo, and Awil Ali Waarabe
Abdi Farah (Abdi Phenomenal), Safiya Tusmo, and Awil Ali Waarabe
Hodan Ugas
Hodan Ugas
Said Salah Ahmed
Said Salah Ahmed

Turning Point

In 2007, Abdi Farah and other Somali youth found Ka Joog, a non-profit organization based in Minneapolis that facilitates poetry performances.

Chronology

1991

Civil war breaks out in Somalia.

1992

Somali refugees begin to arrive in Minnesota.

2007

Spoken-word artist Abdi Farah (also known as Abdi Phenomenal) and his friends found Ka Joog, an arts-focused non-profit organization, in Minneapolis.

2010

The poet and playwright Said Salah Ahmed begins teaching the Somali language to students at the University of Minnesota.

2011

Ka Joog launches Poet Nation, a digital hub of videos about Somali arts and culture produced by Somali youth.

2014

Somali poets perform their work at Twin Cities World Refugee Day, held at St. Paul’s Wellstone Center. Refugees from Southeast Asia, West Africa, Eastern Europe, and Nepal also participate.

2015

Abdi Phenomenal performs his poem “More Than Heroes” at an anti-violent-extremism summit held at the White House between February 17 and 19.

2016

Abdullahi Hassan Ganey performs at the Somali Museum of Minnesota’s third anniversary celebration, held in the auditorium of the Minneapolis Convention Center.

2017

Twin Cities PBS premieres its documentary film Somalia: A Nation of Poets, featuring Hodan Ugas, Safiya Tusmo, Abdi Phenomenal, Said Salah Ahmed, Awil Ali Waarabe, and Osman Mohamed Ali, director of the Somali Museum of Minnesota.