Somali PEN in London

On Sunday 9 November 2008, London witnessed the biggest one-day gathering concerning Somali language and literature in Europe. Around one thousand people, predominantly Somalis, from different parts of Britain attended a unique daylong festival promoting Somali language literature books mostly published in Djibouti and the UK

Members of the Somali community were eager to meet and interact with prominent Somali authors and great poets visiting the UK for the first time, some of them with samples of their recent books in which people have been keenly interested. They came from Djibouti, Somalia, the U.A.E. and the US to take part in a Somali Language Literature Festival and Touring Book Fair organised by the Somali-speaking PEN and Halabuur Centre for Culture and Communication in the Horn of Africa with the theme ‘The Word and the Way to a better world’. This literary venture has taken place in the context of the celebrations for the International Year of Languages (2008) declared by the United Nations and the National Year of Reading in the UK. As part of this broader Festival, the Sunday event was organised at the Dome performance centre in North London in collaboration with the Somali Community Centre and Universal TV.


The event’s core content comprised the display and presentations of books, readings from the books, poetry recitations and book signing by the participating authors. The opening session of the event, which was convened by Said Jama Hussein, the vice President of the Somali-speaking PEN, who welcomed the participants on behalf of PEN, started with a number of opening statements and keynote speeches. The acclaimed poet-playwright, Adan Faarah Samatar was the first speaker; he addressed the meeting on behalf of the literary mission from Djibouti, thanking the Somali and Djibouti community in UK for their warm welcome. He underlined the need for joint efforts towards the protection and development of the Somali language and its literature. The veteran journalist and scholar, Abdulkadir Ali Bolay, who spoke on behalf of the Somali UK community, stressed that the community highly appreciates this literary initiative and is prepared to support future initiatives of this kind.


The background and objectives of this literary venture were then explained by writer Maxamed Daahir Afrax, President of the Somali-speaking Centre of International PEN and the initiator of this venture.  He pointed out that this initiative came as part of the tireless efforts under way in Djibouti to safeguard and develop the Somali language and its literature endangered by the civil war devastations in Somalia. He highlighted the importance of writing and reading, especially in mother tongue urging the Somali Diaspora to support the efforts made by under resourced Somali writers. In this connection, Mr. Afrax commended the continuing and wholehearted support and encouragement provided by the President of Djibouti, Ismail Omar Guelleh, to promote writing in mother tongue.


The literary event was prominently featured by the presence and intervention of Aw Jamac Cumar Ciise, an elder statesman of Somali literary scholarship, a prolific writer on Somali oral literature and collector of Somali history and cultural heritage. When Aw Jaamac, who is now based in Djibouti, was called to take the floor the crowds that flooded the Dome were overwhelmed by emotions; they welcomed the elder literary statesman with standing ovation. Aw Jaamac shared his around 60 years of experience in collecting oral literature, researching oral tradition and writing on Somali history and literature. He underlined the need for a new generation of writers and researchers to take over and the need for joint efforts to safeguard the endangered heritage and develop the Somali language and literature. In this respect, Aw Jaamac expressed his gratitude to the President and Government of Djibouti for giving him support without which he would not have been able to produce and publish his recent books on display.


The other literary figure who equalled Aw Jaamac in such a warm reception by everyone present was Cali Sugulle Duncarbeed, another elder statesman of Somali performing arts a leading poet-playwright based in the U.A.E. He too was received with a standing ovation. Cali’s intervention was not only enlightening but also entertaining. In the middle of his explanation of how he used his art to combat clannism and promote mother language, Cali further evoked the emotions of the audience when he asked the famous and much loved veteran female singer, Faduma Qasim Hilowle, to join him and sing some lines from his famous lyrics which she sung tens of years ago.


Other leading poets and authors who either presented their books or recited their poetry or did both included Salah Hashi Arab, poet, playwright and linguistic researcher who presented his most exhausting Somali dictionary; Mohamed Abdillahi Riiraash, historian and literary scholar, who shared with the audience his experience in translating into Somali the world classic, Futuh Al-Habashah, Abdulkadir Abdi Yusuf  known as Shube, a legendary poet, actor and storyteller who was able to shake the entire hall with his extra-ordinary performing skills when he started reciting some moving pieces from the newly published collection of his poetry; author Khaliif Ashkir who commented on his two recent books on Somali literature and oral tradition in an amusing fashion with his witty sense of humour; and Mohamed Hassan Osman who came from the US to share with us a new book he has written on the relationship between parents and their children.


A number of younger but highly talented UK based poets also joined the visiting artists and presented their poetry, these include Abdullahi Botan, Ali Ahmed Senyo, Maxamed Baashe X. Xasan, and others. 
The event was rounded up with regenerating Somali music and peace promoting songs performed by well-known Somali and Djiboutian-performing artists led by Faduma Qasim Hilowle, once celebrated national star in Somalia before the civil war destruction, and Faduma Ahmed, another national star in Djibouti. Other well-known artists who performed on this occasion included Kaltun Hassan Bacado, Xadanteeye, Said Hussein, Ahmed Qomaal, Anab Ismail, Zamzam and others.


Throughout the Festival, over one thousand books were on display, including some rare books not available anywhere else. Most of the books were written in the field of language and literature. To the surprise of everyone present, a record number of nearly 1000 books was sold in a few hours. This shows how thirsty members of the Somali community are in the UK for publications in their mother tongue in general and literary books in particular.


Somali-speaking Writers Centre of International PEN


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