19.04.2002 17:07



Art, Poetry, and Song In a nomadic culture, where one's possessions are frequently moved, there is little reason for the plastic arts to be highly developed. Somalis embellish and decorate their woven and wooden milk jugs and their wooden headrests, and traditional dance is important, though mainly as a form of courtship among young people. But the epitome of Somali artistry is oral.

Facility with speech is highly valued in Somali society, where one's abilities as a political or religious leader, a warrior or a suitor, depend, in part, on one's way with words. Since pride is important in Somali society, the ability to use language to save face is essential. Humor, based on puns and word play, is used to blunt criticism and to extricate oneself from embarrassing situations. This use of humor is captured in a Somali proverb: "A man with a sense of humor is never at a loss for words or action." It is in the art of oral poetry and song that Somalis excel. Whether used as a challenge, a courting technique, or political rhetoric, poetry and song remain a vital part of Somali culture, enhanced rather than diminished by radio broadcasting.

Poetry recitations are often accompanied by the chewing of qat,* a mild stimulant, which many Somalis believe helps one to think and talk better. One indication of the slowly changing public role of Somali women is their increasing use of poetry as a means of public expression. Camels, the basis of life for traditional Somali herders, frequently figure in poetic expression. A young man compares his tender feelings for his beloved to a camel's feelings for her young: "I am afflicted with the trauma of frustrated love as a camel whose baby has been unjustly separated from her," and a mother warns her daughter to be faithful in marriage by saying, "Only camels enjoy being milked by two men at the same time. Anything else of the female kind shared by two men soon loses its luster."

*Recent media accounts give the impression that qat (spelled qaad in Somali) is far more potent than it is. Scientists compare the stimulation of qat to that of several cups of strong coffee.


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