“The love of women is a power in which men lose themselves … it imparts a status that equals that of gangsterdom or even surpasses it” – Naguib Mahfouz, Children of the Alley.
I was raised by my paternal grandmother in Toronto and her crib knew no secrets. Everything was out in the open like the dirty laundry piles of Saturday mornings. Even the few times I’ve tried locking the bathroom door during long showers where I spent hours making life decisions, some radical aunt would burst into the bathroom after she’d picked the lock using the ingenious tools of a master thief: the copper wire of dry-cleaner’s clothing hangers that used to bare paper signs reading WE [heart] OUR CUSTOMERS or the tip of a serrated paring knife. She’d tiptoe in obscured by steam and viciously brush open the perspiring, billowing vinyl curtain with an aquatic motif of colourful tropical reef and bubble fish with one quick movement of her gold-braceleted hennaed paw and cuss me out over my piercing, horror-movie actress’ eternal scream.
Theatrical scenes of this calibre would cause uproar in the crib trailed by historical battles between my grandmother, enthusiastically wielding her rosary like a medieval soldier’s spiked-ball-and-chain and hysterically shouting obscenities in my defence from the confines of her wheelchair, and the rest of the family, who simply thought annoying me tragicomic and two-thumbs-up entertainment. The biggest problem was they didn’t understand my need for privacy. This one aunt, with a tongue as dangerous and resonating as a rawhide whip in motion, and I, with my stubbornness and artist’s sensitivities, would quarrel day and night like some married couple. And whenever I argued too much and with too much fervour a men’s cordovan shoe with a wad of warm argyle sock in it would soar towards me, because men’s shoes were always near as uncles came successively and uninvited, and because throwing the nearest shoe is traditionally the Somali woman’s best reflex.
Diaries went missing only to resurface Saturday evenings, when the entire fam’ converged at my grandmother’s crib, noisy as schoolchildren let out for recess, to swap gossip, and I’d come back home from my part-time weekend job after a long day of grindin’, and instead of hearing the ethereal words I longed for: “Cadday, how was your day,” I’d hear the two words I dreaded most, because since childhood I’ve affiliated them with the immense feeling of being in super-duper big trouble:“Naayaa, kaalay!” And from the doorway, a feeling of doom engulfing me, my heart pounding in my ears and my knees all weak with fear, I’d see the fam’, twenty-deep and malicious as the best of them, huddled together over my diary as if it were an invisible warming bonfire, with this one aunt leading them on, exaggerating its content and instigating in a booming voice.
And so I resolved to keep good things to myself. But, it was hard to hide my feelings when I fell in love for the first time some three years ago. The hair on my head would stand on ends as if I’d rubbed a balloon against it, and I’d bite my balled fist to contain my excitement whenever I thought of him. Sometimes I’d feel sparks in my heart going off like the hubcaps of some car swerving into a curb and I’d scream from the static charge I felt inside setting off like electric shocks against whatever I touched. I’d get déjà-vus and out-of-body experiences for the first time in my life and I thought I was going crazy, because I saw everything coming like some premonition and everything felt as if I’d done it a long-ass time ago and I was looking back on it from the height of my worldliness. The fam’ couldn’t put a finger on it, but what gave your girl away, eventually, months later, intoxicated with love: I took to my cell-phone and recorded on my voice-mail an old classic qaraami song by Xasan Aadan Samatar: “Bi’i waa jacaylow / Boodhari inuu dilay / Been baanu haystee.”
The above lyrics extracted from the song “Beledweyn” by the great poet-philosopher Hadraawi is now a timeless Somali classic. The song has generated unprecedented frenzy and was garnished with praise the instant it spooled from Radio Mogadishu in the 70s. The renditions of “Beledweyn” are countless, the most famous being an unnecessary politicized and appallingly prejudiced version by the poet Cabdi-Qays, and the poet Axmed Saleebaan Bidde dropped an often quoted hopeless romantic’s pickup line: “Abwaan uma balweeyeen, ma boqreen, Hadraawiba Beerlulama sheegeen” on in his most celebrated song “Caashaqa Ma Baran Wali.” And perhaps what makes the song so everlasting is the orchestra, the constantly changing rhythm, the seesawing rise and fall of screeching horns; and on qaaci versions: the wildly plucking kaban with a backdrop of lilting applause and sonorous male shouts of “Waah waah, yaa Xasan!”
Beerlula of the thick head of waist-length silken black tresses cascading down the small of her back like some Victorian cape, was a native of the city Beledweyn in which the poet Hadraawi was sent by the government, along with a convoy of poets, singers, and musicians consisting of, among others, Xasan Sheekh Muumin, Salaad Derbi, and C/Kariim Jiir, to produce a play showcasing the progressiveness of the military regime in a local theatre called Sheekh Cali Jimcaale. The novel-length love song (Hadraawi’s second longest song in minutes and seconds, his longest being “Hoobal”) begins in the early hours of an auspicious August morning. The poet was merrily trotting down the narrow swaying rope-and-plank bridge Liiqliiqato over the Shabeelle River taking in the slithering water below crashing over pebbles and stones, the greenery, the gaily chirping birds, and the earliest villagers tending their herds when from the other lip of the bridge there had mounted a woman with the gold morning sun backlighting her long hair as in dreamy photos and her figure veiled by shadow. The poet immediately drowned in ruminations, pondering and crafting a catalogue of greetings in his great mind. Meanwhile Beerlula came nearer and nearer, and as time passed as in a Proust novel he was unconscious of his surroundings and inadvertently blocking her way. He was twenty-seven years old and before then he’d never stood at such a close proximity to a woman, partly because they thought him self-absorbed on account of his rising fame, and partly because he was unspeakably timid amid women as only men of letters can be, and he thought the lot unapproachable and best admired (and stalked) from afar.
Much later, after a string of ill-fate, he came back to his apartment in Mogadishu and settled down to write the song one night, a feverish inspiration descending on him as if a holy revelation from Heaven, and he wrote furiously until a slanting shaft of mauve morning light spilled through his bedroom window.
The song opens with a cordial reference to Cilmi Boodhari, the epic martyr of love often spoken of reverentially—along with camels—in Somali poetry. It goes on to describe in painstakingly rich detail the morning Hadraawi was aloft the dangerously teetering Liiqliiqato overlooking the fauna and flora, sunlight flashing in the creased water of the Shabeelle River; how after exchanging smothering furtive glances sparks flew like the Fourth of July and the poet’s heart levitated like sponge cake in the oven and hammered in his ears when he saw Beerlula mounting from the other end of the bridge; how due to unforeseen circumstances he’d left her small hometown without keeping their date; how he wished he could jump out the back of a jostling cattle truck carrying him and his homeboys like prisoners of war back to Xamar; how he watched through the dust-laden window of the truck with misty-eyes the city of his muse dwindling until it vanished.
I think the song is famous simply because it wasn’t an invention of Hadraawi’s beautiful mind, but a social commentary, an anecdote, and it caused such hullabaloo simply because it happened—love—to Hadraawi, and people’s faith in love, having plummeted since the death of Boodhari, was restored again. The song—and no translation could ever do justice to the passionate, sophisticated Somali in which the original is written—expresses every human condition possible when one is fleetingly in love, and it should also be noted as changing the chorus of direction for Somali instrumentalists. The producer of the song, Cabdikariim Faarax Qaareey, a contemporary of a bevy of bad-ass producers including the late Cabdiqaadir Muuse Lugeey, Aweys Abuukar Goobe, Siciid Maxamed Xarawo, Xasan Sabriye Afrax, Jiim Sheekh Muumin, and the principle music teacher of the legendary guitarist Daa’uud Cali Masxaf, said in an interview: “I think the hardest thing for a musician is to be given words on a sheet of paper by a great poet such as Hadraawi and to give it an emotional life by the melody in your head that nonetheless match the emotions evoked by the words.” Perhaps then, the phenomenon of Beerlula is partly owed to the genius of Cabdikariim Jiir, because it’s excruciatingly difficult to release one’s creativity by pulling from one’s head A-minor chords befitting a love song of such beauty as Hadraawi’s “Beledweyn.”
The song ends with eternal blessings to Beledweyn, the city of Beerlula, and its residences still believe its prosperity and biblical greenery is due to Hadraawi’s prayers and the power of love.
Ugaaso A Boocow
©Hadraawi Official Website
Center for Hadraawi Literature