The following poem, ‘Macaan iyo Qadhaadh’ or “Bitter and Sweet”, was composed by Axmed Ismaciil Diriye Qaasim, who died recently in exile. Qaasim was a legendary Somali poet and a scholar who served under the British Colonial Administration as an officer in Odwayne District Commission.

In 1856, Richard Burton the explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat, wrote as follows about Somali oral poetry:

“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, whereas a false quantity or prosaic phrase excites their violent indignation. . . 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.”

Strictly speaking, the Somali word for poetry is “Maanso”, the word “Gabay” referring to just one of the six possible forms of maanso. However, since the gabay form can be used to express any of the common themes in Somali poetry – praises, dirges, insults, boasts, philosophical reflections, riddles, and satires – the word is commonly used as a synonym for poetry itself. The form involves long lines, extended over long verse paragraphs, and is versatile in alliteration. Here is a version of ‘Macaan iyo Qadhaadh’ sung by Omar Dhuule, an English translation can be found below.

Consider the aloe – how bitter is its taste!
Yet sometimes there wells up a sap so sweet
That it seems like honey in your mouth.
Side by side the sweet and bitter run
Just as they do, my friends, in me,
As I switch from sweet to bitter
And back to sweet again.
My two hands, right and left, are twins.
One twin gives food to strangers and to guests,
It sustains the weak and guides them.
But the other is a slashing, cutting knife –
As sharp to the taste as myrrh,
As bitter as the aloe.
Do not suppose I am the kind of man
Who walks along one path, and that path only.
I go one way, and seem a reasonable man,
I provoke no one, I have the best of natures –
I go another, and I’m obstinate and bold,
Striking out at others without cause.
Sometimes I seem a learned man of God
Who retreats in ascetic zeal to a seclude sanctuary –
I turn again and I’m a crazy libertine,
Sneakily snatching whatever I can get.
I am counted as one of the elders of the clan,
Esteemed for my wisdom, tact and skill in argument,
But within me there dwells a mere townee, too –
A no-good layabout he is, at that.
I’m a man whose gullet will allow no passage
For food that believers are forbidden to eat,
And yet I’m a pernicious, hardened thief –
The property of even the Prophet himself
Would not be safe from me.
I have my place among the holy saints,
I am one of the foremost of their leaders,
But at times I hold high rank in Satan’s retinue,
And then my lords and masters are the jinns.
It’s no good trying to weigh me up –
I can’t be balanced on a pair of scales.
From this day to that my very colour changes –
Nay, I’m a man whose aspect alters
As morning turns to evening
And back once more to morning.
Muslims and infidels – I know their minds
And understand them through and through.
“He’s ours!” the angels of Hell proclaim of me
“No, ours!” the angels of Heaven protest.
I have, then, all these striking qualities
Which no one can ignore –
But who can really know my mind?
Only a grey-head who has lived for many days
And learned to measure what men are worth.
And now, my friends, each man of you –
If either of the paths I follow
Takes your fancy and delights your heart,
Or even if you cannot bear to lose
The entertainment I provide,
Then come to me along the path –
You’re free to make a choice!

Here is the text in Somali:

Dacartuba marbay malab dhashaa ood muudsataa dhabaqe
Waxan ahay macaan iyo qadhaadh meel ku wada yaalle
Midigtayda iyo bidixdu waa laba mataanoode
Midi waa martida soora iyo maata daadihise
Midina waa mindiyo xiirayiyo mur iyo deebaaqe
Masalooyin talantaalliyaan maandhow leeyahaye
Nin majiira keliyuun qabsada hay malayninae
Marbaan ahay muddeex camal san oon maagista aqoone
Marna macangag laayaanahoo miiggan baan ahaye
Marbaan ahay muftiga saahidnimo mawlacaw gala’e
Marna Mukhawi waashoo xumaha miista baan ahaye
Marbaan ahay nin xaaraan maqdaxa aan marin jidiinkise
Marna tuug mu’diya baan ahoon maal Rasuul bixinne
Marbaan ahay maqaam awliyaad maqaddinkoodiiye
Marna mudanka shaydaanka iyo maal jinbaan ahaye
Marbaan ahay murtiyo baanisaba madaxda reeraaye
Oo ay weliba muuniyo dulqaad igu majeertaane
Marna reer magaal Loofaroon muuqan baan ahaye
Waxan ahay nin midabbeeya oo maalinbays rogae
Muuqaygu gelinkiiba waa muunad goonniyahe
Miisaanna ima saari karo nin i maleeyaaye
Muslinka iyo gaalada dirkaba waan micna aqaane
Malaa’iigta naartiyo jannadu waygu murantaaye
Ninkii maalmo badan soo jiree madaxu boosaystay
Ee inan rag maamuli yiqiin waa i maan garanne
ninkasta halkii kuula mudan ee ay muhato laabtaadu
Ee aanad madadaaladeed ugala maarmaynin
Iska soo mar waa kuu bannaan marinkad doontaaye

by Axmed Ismaciil Diriye Qaasim,
Translated by B. W. Andrzejewski with Sheila Andrzejewski, 1993.
With thanks to ViolentProfessional at the Somalia subreddit.