Somali literature is the literature used by the ethnic Somalis of Somalia, Somaliland, Djibouti, Yemen, Eritrea, Ogadenia, and Kenya.

Somali poetry

Nation of Bards

Due to the Somali people's passionate love for and facility with poetry, Somalia has also been called by, among others, the Canadian novelist and scholar Margaret Laurence, a "Nation of Poets" and a "Nation of Bards".[1] The 19th-century British explorer Richard Francis Burton, who visited the Somali Peninsula, similarly recounts in his book First Footsteps in East Africa how:

The country teems with poets... every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines - the fine ear of this people causing them to take the greatest pleasure in harmonious sounds and poetic expressions ... Every chief in the country must have a panegyric to be sung by his clan, and the great patronize light literature by keeping a poet.[2]

According to Canadian novelist and scholar Margaret Laurence, who originally coined the term "Nation of Poets" to describe the Somali Peninsular, the Eidagale sub-section of the Garhajis clan were viewed as "the recognized experts in the composition of poetry" by their fellow Somali contemporaries:

Among the tribes, the Eidagalla are the recognized experts in the composition of poetry. One individual poet of the Eidagalla may be no better than a good poet of another tribe, but the Eidagalla appear to have more poets than any other tribe. "if you had a hundred Eidagalla men here," Hersi Jama once told me, "And asked which of them could sing his own gabei ninety-five would be able to sing. The others would still be learning."[3]


Somali poetry features obligatory alliteration, similar in some respects to the requirements of Germanic alliterative verse.[4] There is a crucial distinction between the different forms of Somali poetry. The forms differ by number of syllables in each verse of poem.[5]

Form[5] Syllables[5] Metre[5]
Halaanhal 12 Oldest metre
Gabay 14 to 16 Classical metre
Geeraar 7 Classical metre
Jiifto 7 Classical metre
Heello 10
Hees-xoolaad (livestock-song) 4 to 5
Hees-cayaareed (dance-song) 6 to 11
Hees-caanood (milk-shaking song) 6 to 9
Hees-mooye (grinding-song) 6
Hees-carruureed (children-song) 8

Muhammad Abdullah Hassan

Observing that "some say he was 'peerless' and his 'noble lines' .. are commonly quoted throughout the Somali peninsula", Samatar concurs with J. Spencer Trimingham's judgement that "Mahammad 'Abdille Hasan [Sayyid Abdullah Hassan] was a master of eloquence and excelled in the art of composing impromptu poems which so readily inspire and inflame the Somalis"—although Samatar dissents on its "impromptu" nature.[6]

One of Hassan's well-known poems is Gaala Leged ("Defeat of the Infidels"):

English translation
To begin with, I had neglected poetry and had let it dry up
I had sent it west in the beginning of the spring rains.
But let me set forth what prevented me from sleeping last night
God's Blessing are more numerous than those growing trees.
I will remind you of the victory he gave us
Listen to me my council, for you are most dear to me
If the unwashed left handed one had died yesterday,
if I had cut his throat- may he taste hell in the grave itself
And the wild animals had eaten him, he and his ilk would deserve this
I would salute the hyena that would gorge itself on his flesh, as it's doing me a favor, it is dearer to me than any other animal of the wild.
If could I would reward it every day
That deformed one wasted a lot of my wealth
since he kept committing wrongs again and again
I knew all along that the hyena would devour him
It was their insincere refusal to acknowledge the truth that put them down and destroyed them
And made me attack their best man with a Dagger
If they had not become ungrateful, I would have not become enraged with them
I would have not lost my generosity and respect for them
I would have not have withheld anything from them, if they desired peace
But when they acted disdainfully, death marched straight at them

Elmi Boodhari

Elmi Boodhari differed from the poets of his generation in that he eschewed the popular theme of Tribal war and vengeance in Somali poetry, instead wholly focusing on love and composing all his poems for the woman he loved, Hodan Abdulle, which was seen as highly unconventional and scandalous at the time.

Author Mohamed Diiriye in his book Culture and Customs of Somalia, writes:

Among the poets of the past century, a poet who has gained the hearts of all Somalis in every district is Elmi Boodhari, many major poets such as Mohamed Abdallah Hassan and Abdi Gahayr, aroused resentment among some somalis, as they addressed diatribes against the members of a certain clan, or urged bloodletting; such poets are known as viper tongues, and the poems of such poets have been known to cause feuds and clan wars. But not so with Elmi Boodhari, his subject was romance and only that. While the poets of his day where addressing serious subjects such as war and feuds, Boodhari composed all of his poems for the lady of his affection Hodan, who was given in hand of marriage to a man much wealthier than him. Instead of getting literary kudos for his beautiful verse, Boodhari was made the object of public ridicule. Somali society had not been of course devoid of romance either in song or prose in any age, but to proclaim the object of ones love was frowned upon in the social mores of Somalis.[7]

A poem Elmi composed for Hodan:

She is altogether fair:

Her fine-shaped bones begin her excellence;

Magnificent of bearing, tall is she; A proud grace is her body's greatest splendor; Yet she is gentle, womanly, soft of skin. Her gums' dark gloss is like unto blackest ink; And a careless flickering of her slanted eyes Begets a light clear as the white spring moon. My heart leaps when I see her walking by, Infinite suppleness in her body's sway. I often fear that some malicious djinn

May envy her beauty, and wish to do her harm.

— From "Qaraami" (Passion), as presented by Margaret Laurence in A Tree for Poverty.[8]

Ali Bu'ul

Ali Bu'ul (Cali Bucul) was a famous Somali poet and military leader from the 19th century renown for his geeraars. Geeraars are mostly used to praise the Horse , since horse stood central in a Somali pastoral life as a means of transportation and waging war. Equestrian poems were the hype before the early 20th century and many of the well known geeraars we know today come from Ali Bu'ul.[9][10] He coined the term Guulwade, which Somalis still use up to this day and especially during Somalia's revolutionary council years[11]

Here is an extract from one of his famous geeraar's Guulside (Victory-Bearer):

O my horse Guulside!

If his goodness

And his nature I try to describe,

He is a pool that refills itself

And I cannot plumb his secret.

I fall short.

Tell me, people, am I at fault?

The slopes of Mount Almis

And the Haraw ravine,

The camps on Mount Gureys,

He passes them in one evening.

Is he the cloud that brings rain in the night?

From the drought-bound desert,

When people despair of their flocks.

He drives the camels home.

Is he a noble warrior raiding enemy camps?

Grazing his field at night,

His whinnying keeps wild animals at bay,

— Ali Bu'ul (Cali Bucul), Guulside (Victory-Bearer!)

this particular poem alliterates echoing the horse's name.[12] Another snippet from his other famous geeraar Amaan-Faras , In Praise of My Horse goes as follows:[10]

From the seaside of Bulahar

to the corner of the Almis mountain

and Harawe of the pools

Hargeisa of the Gob trees

My horse reaches all that in one afternoon

Is it not like a scuddling cloud?

From its pen

A huge roar is heard

Is it not like a lion leading a pride?

In the open plains

It makes the camels kneel down

Is it not like an exper camel-rustler?

Its mane and tail has white tufts on the top

Is it not as beautiful as a galool tree abloom?

— Ali Bu'ul (Cali Bucul), In Praise of My Horse

Function in society

As the Somali Studies doyen Said Sheikh Samatar explains, a Somali poet is expected to play a role in supporting his clan, "to defend their rights in clan disputes, to defend their honor and prestige against the attacks of rival poets, to immortalize their fame and to act on the whole as a spokesman for them."[13] In short, a traditional poem is occasional verse composed to a specific end, with argumentative or persuasive elements, and having an historical context.

The veteran British anthropologist and Horn of Africa specialist I. M. Lewis recounts how in the latter days of the rule of General Muhammad Siad Barre, the political opposition often relied on oral poetry, either recorded on cassette tapes or broadcast through the Somali language service of the BBC, to voice their dissent. When the British considered closing the Somali language service down for financial reasons, a delegation of prominent Somali leaders met with the British, and argued that "much as they appreciated the ambassador personally, it would be better to close the British embassy rather than terminate the BBC broadcast!"[14]


The form of Somali verse is marked by hikaad (or alliteration) and an unwritten practice of meter.[15]

Modern poetry


Belwo or Balwo was a form of Somali poetry that focused on love and developed in the 1920s and reached its pinnacle during the 1940s. Pioneered by Abdi Sinimo with earlier progenitors such as Elmi Boodhari influencing this new style.[16] Balwo in somali roughly translates to misfortune and these poems often but not always dealt with heartbreak or longing.

Abdi Sinimo had his truck break down in a desert stretch in Awdal on route to Djibouti these words came out of his mouth and birthed the new form [17]

With some Belwos taking a more explicit tone, religious authorities would try to clamp down on Abdi and the new poetry that the youth were all composing. However, this failed and the style would soon move east from Borama to Hargeisa where Radio Hargeisa would give Belwo mass appeal amongst Somali youth and also incorporate critical new elements such as the oud and drum. Somali poets traditionally focused on the wit and spirit of a woman and this new shift to the physical was a paradigm change[19]

This Belwo is a testament to its physical orientation on beauty


Developed in Hargeisa and Mogadishu to be played on the radio stations Heellooy initially was a long series of short Balwo. These series were unrelated to one another then chained after their composition and performed with the oud and drums. Abdullahi Qarshe was the first to bring the oud to play alongside while reciting these poems and under him the Heellooy would transition to a series of related verses forming one long continuous song.[19] This modern pattern would go on to form the outburst of oud & poetry in a single flowing composition that would see some of the greatest Somali artists such as Cumar Dhuule, Mohamed Mooge, Ahmed Naaji, Mohamed Sulayman Tubeec enhance this genre in subsequent decades.

Maay Poetry

Af Maay is sometimes classified as a separate language from Af Maaha or the ubiquitously known 'Standard Somali'. The Rahanweyn clan are the predominant Maay speakers in Somalia.[21] In southern Somalia the poet and reciter were generally one and the same. British ethnologist Virginia Luling noted during her visit to Afgooye that poetry was to be conceived and recited simultaneously with no prior preparation. The poets or Laashin relied on their wit and memory to construct beautiful poems and entertain the audience [22][23]

Abubakr Goitow

The poem The law then was not this law was performed by the leading Laashins of Afgooye, Hiraabey, Muuse Cusmaan and Abukar Cali Goitow alongside a few others, addressed to the current leader of Afgooye Sultan Subuge in 1989. It evoked the rich history of the Geledi and the past sultanate and the concerns the community of Afgooye had at the time.[22]

Here the richest selection of the poem performed by Goitow

Folk literature

A Lion's tale

Somalis also have a rich oral tradition when it comes to ancient folktales, stories which were passed on from generation to generation. Many Somali folk tales of work and life are so old and ubiquitous their authorship is unknown. Tales such as Dhegdheer the cannibal woman were told to little children as a way to instill discipline in them since the dreaded Dhegdheer was said to pay a visit at night to all those who had been naughty. "Coldiid the wise warrior" is another popular Somali folktale with a positive message regarding a waranle (warrior) who avoids all forms of violence. For this abstinence, he is looked down upon by his peers. However, in the end, he manages to show that violence is no way to earn either respect or love. A Lion's tale is a popular children's book in the Somali diaspora wherein two Somali immigrant children struggle to adapt to life in a new environment. They find themselves surrounded by friends that strike them as greedy, only to magically return to Ancient Somalia where they live out all of the popular Somali folktales for themselves. A Lion's tale has also recently been developed into a school play.

Here a song a mother would sing to soothe her crying baby [24]

Rain a critical part of pastoralist life was often subject to humour and many poetry revolved around roob or the rains.[26]

In this poem young women call for rain and tease elderly men for their baldness[27]

Old men would respond to the young girls with their own taunt[27]

This song bridesmaids sing to the husband and invoking praise for the newlywed couple[29]

Modern literature

Nuruddin Farah's Links.

Somali scholars have for centuries produced many notable examples of Islamic literature ranging from poetry to Hadith. With the adoption in 1972 of the modified Latin script developed by the Somali linguist Shire Jama Ahmed as the nation's standard orthography, numerous contemporary Somali authors have also released novels, some of which have gone on to receive worldwide acclaim.

Of these modern writers, Nuruddin Farah is probably the most celebrated. Books such as From a Crooked Rib and Links are considered important literary achievements, works that have earned Farah, among other accolades, the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. His most famous novel, Maps (1986), the first part of his Blood in the Sun trilogy, is set during the Ogaden conflict of 1977, and employs second-person narration for exploring questions of cultural identity in a post-independence world. Farah Mohamed Jama Awl is another prominent Somali writer who is perhaps best known for his Dervish era novel, Ignorance is the enemy of love. Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame "Hadrawi" is considered by many to be the greatest living Somali poet. Some have compared him to Shakespeare and his works have been translated internationally.[citation needed]

Cristina Ali Farah is a famous italo-Somali writer who was born in Italy to a Somali father and an Italian mother, Farah grew up in Mogadishu from 1976 to 1991. Her novels and poetry have been published in various magazines (in Italian and English) such as El Ghibli, Caffè, Crocevia, and in the anthologies "Poesia della migrazione in italiano" ("Poetry of migration in Italy") and "A New Map: The poetry of Migrant Writers in Italy". In 2006, Farah won the Italian national literary competition, "Lingua Madre" ("Mother Tongue"). She was also honored by the city of Torino at the "International Torino Book Fair". In 2007, she published her first novel, Madre piccola ("Little Mother"[31]), based on her own experience living in Mogadishu. As of 2014, she writes some works in Somali language.[32][33]

Islamic literature

the celebrated religious and nationalist leader, also left a considerable amount of manuscripts. One of the better-known examples of Somali Islamic literature is Maja'mut al-Mubaraka, a work written by Shaykh Abdullah al-Qalanqooli and published in Cairo in 1918. Shaykh Abd Al-Rahman bin Ahmad al-Zayla'i also produced many Islamic-orientated manuscripts in the 19th century. In addition, poetry in the form of Qasidas was also popular among Somali Sheikhs, the latter of whom produced thousands of such works in praise of Muhammad.

This Qasida by Uways Al-Barawi called the Hadiyat al-ʿAnam ila Qabr al-Nabi (Guidance of Humanity to the Tomb of the Prophet) extols Muhammad.[34]

See also


  1. ^ Diriye, p. 75.
  2. ^ Burton, Footsteps, p. 91.
  3. ^ Laurence, Margaret (1970). A tree for poverty: Somali poetry and prose. McMaster University Library Press. p. 27.
  4. ^ Orwin, Martin (2011), "Alliteration in Somali Poetry", Alliteration in Culture, London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 219–230, ISBN 978-1-349-31301-3, retrieved 2023-12-11
  5. ^ a b c d Ismaaciil Galaal, M., 1970. Stars, Seasons And Weather In Somali Pastoral Traditions. Looh Press, p.xix. Click
  6. ^ Said S. Samatar, Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayyid Mahammad Abdille Hasan (Cambridge: University Press, 1982), p. 187.
  7. ^ Abdullahi, Mohamed Diriye (2001). Moahmed Diiriye Abdulahi : Culture and Customs of Somalia, p.79. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 9780313313332.
  8. ^ Pieh, Rachel. "Death by Heartbreak : EthnoTraveler Magazine". Retrieved 2021-11-19.
  9. ^ Aspetti dell'espressione artistica in Somalia: scrittura e letteratura, strumenti musicali, ornamenti della persona, intaglio del legno (in Italian). Università di Roma La Sapienza. 1987.
  10. ^ a b Abdullahi, Mohamed Diriye (2001). Culture and Customs of Somalia. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-313-31333-2.
  11. ^ Suugaan: Fasalka labaad (in Somali). Wasaaradda Waxbarashada iyo Barbaarinta. 1977. Cali Bucul: Amaan Faras
  12. ^ Saeed, John (1999-11-15). Somali. John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 978-90-272-8307-8.
  13. ^ Samatar, Oral Poetry, p. 56.
  14. ^ I. M. Lewis, A Modern History of the Somali (Oxford: James Currey, 2002), p. 251.
  15. ^ Samatar, Oral Poetry, p. 64.
  16. ^ Johnson, John William (1996). Heelloy: Modern Poetry and Songs of the Somali. Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-1874209812.
  17. ^ Mukhtar, Mohamed Haji (2003-02-25). Historical Dictionary of Somalia. Scarecrow Press. p. 12. ISBN 9780810866041.
  18. ^ Historical Dictionary of Somalia, 2003
  19. ^ a b Johnson, John William (1996). Heelloy: Modern Poetry and Songs of the Somali. Indiana University Press. p. 58. ISBN 978-1874209812.
  20. ^ Johnson, John William (1996). Heelloy: Modern Poetry and Songs of the Somali. Indiana University Press. p. 65. ISBN 978-1874209812.
  21. ^ "Report of the Nordic fact-finding mission to the Gedo region in Somalia" (PDF). July 1999.
  22. ^ a b c Luling, Virginia (1996). "'The Law Then Was Not This Law': Past and Present in Extemporized Verse at a Southern Somali Festival". African Languages and Cultures. Supplement. 3 (3): 213–228. JSTOR 586663.
  23. ^ "Maay - A language of Somalia". Ethnologue. Retrieved 7 May 2013.
  24. ^ Xaange, Axmed Cartan; Puglielli, Annarita (2014). Folk songs from Somalia. Roma TrE-Press. p. 25. ISBN 9788897524120.
  25. ^ Folk Songs From Somalia,p.25
  26. ^ Xaange, Axmed Cartan; Puglielli, Annarita (2014). Folk songs from Somalia. Roma TrE-Press. p. 71. ISBN 9788897524120.
  27. ^ a b Xaange, Axmed Cartan; Puglielli, Annarita (2014). Folk songs from Somalia. Roma TrE-Press. p. 73. ISBN 9788897524120.
  28. ^ a b Folk Songs From Somalia,p.73
  29. ^ Xaange, Axmed Cartan; Puglielli, Annarita (2014). Folk songs from Somalia. Roma TrE-Press. p. 23. ISBN 9788897524120.
  30. ^ Folk Songs From Somalia,p.10
  31. ^ Little Mother
  32. ^ Cristina Ali-Farah biography
  33. ^ Brioni, Simone, The Somali Within: Language, Race and Belonging in 'Minor' Italian Literature , Cambridge, 2015.
  34. ^ Reese, Scott S. (2001). "The Best of Guides: Sufi Poetry and Alternate Discourses of Reform in Early Twentieth-Century Somalia". Journal of African Cultural Studies. 14 (1 Islamic Religious Poetry in Africa): 49–68. doi:10.1080/136968101750333969. JSTOR 3181395. S2CID 162001423.