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Somalia's last poets sing of a country on the brink

In last of a series of dispatches from Mogadishu, Daniel Howden reports on the artists fighting to keep a tradition alive

The Mogadishu poets' club seldom meets these days. Sugaal Abdulle Omar is one of only a handful of survivors who have stayed on in the Somali capital despite what has become of the once beautiful coastal city. "The poet is always trying to talk about peace," he says. "But there is nowhere to talk about peace here and no one who wants to listen."

Taking a folded sheet of paper from his breast pocket he starts to read in a voice that's halfway between speaking and singing. Despite his peaceful protestations the maanso, or epic poem, he recites is savagely angry: "Anyone who committed atrocities against my people; anyone who dragged my people through the streets; one day they will be hanging from a rope."

Poetry is central to Somali culture. An oral culture where an officially recognised written form of the language only appeared in 1972, poetry has been the foundation of all artistic expression.

Historically Somalia's nomadic clans would have their own poet, and in some cases be led by them. The Dervish leader Sayyid Muhammad Hasan, remembered in British colonial literature as the "Mad Mullah", was a poet and mystic. "I would not have withheld anything from them, if they desired peace," he said of the British, who employed poets from their own clan collaborators to attack Sayyid during his rebellion. "But when they acted disdainfully, death marched straight at them."

When the British romantic and explorer Richard Burton travelled to the Horn of Africa more than 100 years ago, he found a place that "teems with poets", where "every man has his recognised position in literature". He also found the Somalis to be a "fierce and turbulent race". Both observations still hold true.

The Somali intellectual Said Sheikh Samatar used an essay on poetry to best explain that turbulence: "My brother and I against my half-brother, my brother and I against my father, my father's household against my uncle's household, our two households (my uncle's and mine) against the rest of the immediate kin, the immediate kin against non-immediate members of the clan, my clan against other clans and, finally my nation and I against the world!"

His Politics of Poetry was written in 1993, the year that the US mission to Somalia ended in the Black Hawk Down fiasco with 18 American soldiers dead. Since then Sheikh Samatar's description of a system of shifting alliances with no permanent friends and an abundance of enemies has been pushed to its logical extreme. Somalia has become the world's most failed state, sending most of its poets into exile in a vast Somali diaspora with communities from Minnesota to Stockholm.

This has meant that a tradition largely passed on orally – in which plagiarism was anathema and the original poet would be credited by the performer – has been written down and translated.

But poetry is still listened to rather than read by Somalis andthe cassette tapes of old havegiven way to digital clips watched over the internet.

Only a few bards such as the folk hero Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame, known to everyone as "Hadraawi" and famous for his peace marches, have stayed in Somalia. Almost none have remained in Mogadishu.

The "endless war" means the poets' club now comprises only nine regulars, says Sugaal. These days his largest audiences are online. Many people download clips of the 56-year-old's performances from YouTube. To make his point he leans forward, flips open his mobile phone and plays a maanso that's been set to music. Wanting to join in, he mimes the words in time to the tinny wail of the phone. This one is about love: "why does every woman who I try to seduce become my enemy?" it asks.

"When there was peace we used to write about love affairs," the poet laments. "But things have changed so much. Now there is war and we write about restoring peace."

It's not only those who long for peace that understand the power of Somali poetry. Across the battle lines of Mogadishu, radio stations such as Alfurqan and Andalus broadcast young jihadists from the Shabaab, who recite in perfect meter tributes to the Prophet and calls for the death of the infidels.

The young poet Hassan Mohamed Mohamud, aka Hassan Ja'ayl, became a target of the militants and had to leave Mogadishu in October after his station was overrun by the Shabaab, who now use it to broadcast propaganda. "After they confiscated our station, they wanted to kill me," he says. He was taken to the Shabaab stronghold at Bakara market, where he was tortured and shot. "Now I miss one finger and one toe. I had big wounds on my leg and back. I was bleeding so much that they thought I was dead. That's howI escaped."

Surviving on handouts in the Somali community in Eastleigh in Nairobi, he frets for the future of his art form.

"Poetry has changed," he says, blaming the Shabaab. "They don't allow songs and poems about love. Before them the warlords ruled Mogadishu and we as poets had a campaign and we preached poems on the streets about love and peace."

Many in the Somali diaspora like Sheik Samatar now despair that poetry has been "banished into the wilderness by the AK-47". He wrote recently that "the grim fact is that Somalia's literary death tops its political demise".

Those left behind like Sugaal admit that Mogadishu's current poets are a pale imitation of past greats: "The young poets are few and while hundreds would come before to listen, now they no longer do." Just as he refuses to leave the shattered city, he's unwilling to see the demise of Somali poetry.

"I'm not afraid, as long as there is Somali spoken in Somalia the poetry will not die. But if the war goes on there will be fewer and fewer people to hear it."