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Oral Tradition 20.2 (2005) 278-299

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On the Concept of "Definitive Text" in Somali Poetry

School of Oriental and African Studies
University of London

Introduction: Concept of "Definitive Text"

The concept of text is one central to the study of literature, both oral and written. During the course of the Literature and Peformance workshops organized by the AHRB (Arts and Humanities Research Board) Centre for Asian and African Literatures, the word "text" has been used widely and in relation to various traditions from around the world. Here I shall consider the concept of text and specifically what I refer to as "definitive text" in Somali poetry. I contend that the definitive text is central to the conception of maanso poetry in Somali and is manifest in a number of ways. I look at aspects of poetry that are recognized by Somalis and present these as evidence of "the quality of coherence or connectivity that characterizes text" (Hanks 1989:96). The concept of text understood here is, therefore, that of an "individuated product" (ibid.:97). Qualitative criteria both extra- and intratextual will be presented to support this conception. On the intratextual side, I, like Daniel Mario Abondolo, take "inspiration from the intrinsic but moribund, or dead and warmed-over, metaphor of text, i.e. 'that which has been woven, weave' (cf. texture) and see in texts a relatively high degree of internal interconnectedness via multiple non-random links" (2001:6). This inspiration is rooted in Western European language, but I find strong resonance in "Samadoon" by Cabdulqaadir Xaaji Cali1 (1995: ll. 147-52; trans. in Orwin 2001a:23): [End Page 278]

Iyo doonnanaystaye dabuub duugleh hadhitaanka
Iyo seben dawaaddeed khad taan qun ula daaweystey
Nudantayaan dacfaray saabintiyo dabaqyo seesaasha
Iyo tay digrii lagu helyey hidin digtuuraadda
Iyo taan hoggeed duur xulleba daadshey humintiisa
Waataanan daabicin baryo 'e maanta iyo deelka

my poetic engagement the verse long lasting
that will remain whose ink I befriended
I mastered plaiting it as a wicker basket
with its lid and holder
the one awarded a degree and even a doctorate
whose every metaphoric hole I learned to stitch
I've not made it public these last few days
but now today and 'd'2

On the extratextual side, arguments relating to composition, performance, memorization, and the use of writing will be presented with a view to contributing to the discussion of issues dealt with in the Literature and Performance workshops. In support of these extratextual issues I shall also consider some intratextual characteristics with a view to contributing more widely to discourse on the concept of text and literary experience in general.

The Somali concepts will be presented through a consideration of the distinction between two types of poetry: maanso and hees.3 The contrasting characteristics of these two types of poetry do, I believe, provide strong evidence for assuming that Somalis have, and have had for some time, the concept of a definitive text. Of course, in doing this I do not pretend to be telling the Somalis what they know already. Rather, in presenting the discussion in this way, I wish to show that I am not dealing with a conception based on the written word and imposed upon the material by a Western academic but with a concept intrinsic to the Somali understanding of maanso. [End Page 279]

Features Common to All Somali Poetry4

All poetry in Somali, whether maanso or hees, is both metrical and alliterative. The metrical system in Somali is a fascinating, quantitative system in which there is a large number of patterns, each type of poetry following a particular one. The units patterned in Somali meter are vowels and consonants. The system as a whole is complex and beyond the scope of this article, so an example of a metrical pattern is presented here, namely the pattern used for gabay poetry of which the poem above by Cabdulqaadir is an example. In the following template the symbol indicates a position that must be filled by a short vowel syllable, and the symbol indicates a...


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