By Aden Hassan:
Intrigue has always been one of the most seductive virtues of poetry. Yet, it is rare to find a poetic piece whose title probably contains as much intrigue as the rest of its body. Dheelmato is certainly one of those rare distinctions in Somali poetry.
At a glance, Dheelmato welcomes its reader with a romantic scene –not all too common in Somali poetry which was traditionally equated with the exuberant machismo of the ‘tough’ and belligerent Somali man.
The speaker is apparently talking about the night time visitation of his mysterious lover. It is a scene of a love-struck man, ruminating, lamenting, relishing and dreading, all at once, this mystery woman’s erotic sojourn.
The speaker is a man deeply engrossed in his own thoughts, visualizing the all-important phenomenon of love; meditating over its blissful façade and at the same time deploring its injurious aftermath, both physical and psychological.
This is a man ensnared by the unforgiving elements of love. He is bemoaning the toll it takes; how taxing it is for a man to love and be loved. He succinctly narrates his obvious enthrallment with his lover’s visit, deep in the dead of night, a visit he seems to be –so ironically- in dread of. But is this really the ‘situation’?
DHEELMATO: TONE OF AMBIGUITY
It is often argued that poetry is tone, and tone is poetry. Poetry’s dynamism is best communicated by its tonal landscape. And Dheelmato’s tone is certainly as intriguing as its name, as varied as its language, as fanciful and explorative as its flow and as versatile as its thematic construction.
Verses 1-3 depict a fairly solemn articulation as the poet introduces the most obvious theme of this piece; love. This solemn tone is probably deliberately employed to convey the appropriate level of seriousness deserving of the weighty subject matter. The agent of that love, the mystery lady, is endorsed with a resounding gravity, enough to convince the reader that the subject matter of this poem is love, and nothing but all-conquering love.
Verse 2 perfectly depicts the utmost seriousness of the tone, with phrases like “..Dhimirka ii Beeshay”, “Midaan Dhaar la Yeeshay”, “ Jacayl dhumac leh ii qaaday” etc.
In verses 4 and 5, the tone grows grimmer, with the gloomy presentation of the darkness of sundown, and the allusion to the dangers imposed by the intractable blanket of darkness.
Dheelmato’s midsection (verses 6- 18) with its rich mélange of sentiments reflects an equally varied mix of tonal frequencies; from the fanciful (apparent in the vivid description of sexual scenes), to the loving (the romantic lullabies preceding the imminent carnal affair “Dhac oo hurud Jeceelkeygiyoow…”). Various shades of the same tone can be deduced from the same, occasioned by the dynamic phraseology employed.
As the poem tapers off, a tone of bitterness is evident, laced with a pitiful but defiant voice as the poet is physically tormented by the aftermath of the evening’s erotic rage.
Somali poetry, especially in the form of this piece, is quite rare in the southern Somali region, popularly known as waamo. Other varieties, such as the Saar are much more common among these communities. To many people, who have not seen much poetry from among Kenyan Somalis, Dheelmato and its creator, Abdurashid Omar, go against the ‘grain’. Some might say the form sounds more Northern as does the construction (even though poetry is a universal phenomenon). But this argument could not be more wrong. Reading this piece, every single verse, while retaining the classic Somali meter-rhyme-rhythm equilibrium, pronounces itself as the product of a Kenyan Somali accent. From the stress patterns, to the intonation and construction, no one will mistake this for anything other than what it so obviously is: Kenyan Somali.
In verse 3, line 1, it says “…lugu dhaleeceeya”. Compare with “dhaleeceeyo”, which a non-waamo Somali would employ. Similarly, the word ‘Shumis’ in Verse 16 line 1 is a clear waamo accent, very rare among the Northern compatriots who have dominated Somali poetry. Equally, verse 18- line 1: “….markaan dhamac is HAAN waayay”. Compare with the Northern option: “Dhamac is HAYN waayay”. Other examples include “calooleysa vs. calooleyso”.
While the author uses standard, pristine Somali, he has successfully maintained his local accent and this will go a long way in reviving the dying embers of Somali poetry and emboldening the larger ‘Waamo’ literary output.
Dheelmato: A Thematic Oddity.
Describing this poem as merely an ‘oddity’ is perhaps a colossal understatement.
A more generous observation would be ‘bizarre’. For the trained eye, the tonal variegation explained earlier immediately conveys the message that Dheelmato is peculiar. The rough and often speedy transition between two or three very different tones within the confines of a few verses is, indeed indicative of its unique composition.
Whereas the speaker appears to idolize his overnight ‘mistress’ and cherish her visits (verses 1-3), his feelings are laced with palpable suspicion, even distrust in verses 4-7. From verse 8, a fairly romantic encounter is painted through verse 9, only to be interrupted by a ‘wayward’ verse 10, depicting the speaker’s negative feeling toward the cunning attributed to the ‘fairer sex’. The seesaw continues to rock back and forth, with verses 11-16 portraying a steaming romantic session. But another surprising detour at verse 17 continues the poem’s turbulent texture. Yet this coarse poetic fabric is what gives Dheelmato its unique appeal. It certainly is no ordinary piece.
So, what is the overriding theme of the poem? The subject matter is as confounded and strange as the poetic construction of Dheelmato. To resolve the poem’s central message, one needs to intensively focus on the verse-by-verse variation of meaning as well as its highly nuanced diction and imagery.
Dheelmato. You cannot possibly find a more suitable title for this intrigue-laden piece of poetry. Neither can you find a fitting one-word English translation for the word ‘Dheelmato’. It roughly means someone (or something) that departs (or arrives at a destination) at night. So, why did Abdurashid settle on this title? It is a single word that says too many things at the same time. Firstly, it enhances the poem’s ‘forked’ message. While referring to both ‘something’ and ‘someone’, it maintains the femininity of the object. When a single word gives you the tense, the gender as well as the singularity or plurality of the object, you know this is a luxuriant and well-endowed language. And Somali is one such.
Secondly, the title ‘Dheelmato’ is suggestive of the mystery surrounding its disguised meaning. ‘Dheelmad’ is synonymous with obscurity and denotive of the humbling dominion of darkness.
Thirdly, ‘dheelmad’ and darkness suggest sexuality, both straight and stray. Well, it all happens at night, at least in a traditional sense. It conveys love and loyalty as well as evil temptation of lust. But more profoundly, darkness, and the activities attached to it, implies fear and apprehension. This sharp juxtaposition of love and fear is what makes this title, and the poem it heads, so intriguing. Extreme irony!
Love and sexuality (illicit or otherwise), albeit deceptively, emerge as the first impression Dheelmato’s reader forms. It begins with ornately romantic lines about the subject’s love-bird and her evening visits. Then follows a graphic dramatization of a sexual encounter which many a reader might consider a tad too risqué. But then comes, the big ambush!
The whole poem abruptly changes course and a new, un-introduced topic pops up. The last 3 verses leave no doubt in their wake that this new topic is, after all, the predestined message. One is bound to ask: Why the dramatic detour? Why the ‘deception’?
Nothing brings home the message of a poetic piece more emphatically than the imagery the author fabricates in the mind of the readers by sculpting the rights words and dramatic situations. The author’s consummate use of imagery has molded –in perfect harmony- Dheelmato into an exquisite piece.
And you don’t need to go further than the first verse to see why. Such words as ‘dhuxul’, ‘dhimbil’ and ‘dhaawac’ induce in the mind of the reader a poignant interest in the theme of love, its trials and tribulations. They underscore the poem’s melancholic preface to the subject of love.
Then comes Dheelmato, the woman. A woman, a night and love; an interesting trio, one might say. The poem talks about love, loyalty, lust and all their related sentiments. The speaker is seen to be ambivalent; does he cherish the nightly tryst or does he dread it? The image conceived by the reader, especially the man, is that of the woman as the eternal double-edged sword, evoking apprehension and appreciation all at once. And this is a very prevalent theme in Somali plays, especially during its spring-time bloom in the 1960’s till the 1990’s. Gender-insensitive, some might contend.
Until verse 3, the language use is depicting a fairly genuine attraction, with no indication of anything illicit. Verses 4 and 5, however, strongly point otherwise. ‘Dhagax’,’ Abees’, ‘dhuumasho’ and ‘gaad’ all symbolize negativity, shrouding the whole affair with an immoral cloud. While verses 1-3 profess love and loyalty, 4 and 5 insinuate an illicit affair and an unwanted visit. This sharp contrast contributes to Dheelmato’s intriguing construction.
The reluctance in verse 5 is suddenly followed by a sharp twist in verse 6 where a lustful reception is described. A further quick twist in verse 7 follows, with the subject talking about his defensive efforts with words such as ‘Dhufeys’, ‘Isdhariijin’ etc.
The deadly fusion of love, lust, musicality and the feminine folk is so sensually expressed in verses 8-12, where the recurring theme of female deception takes centre stage. The musicality of sex (or sexuality of music) is explored, with a fitting Somali saying in verse 13. “Geeloow indhakuul muxuu ka kas?” is rather comical, but fittingly equated with the subject’s perceived lack of certain expertise, in this case, music, especially the erotic form.
This verse is arguably the most reflective of Dheelmato. It borrows from this profound Southern Somali saying. Among these communities, ‘geeloow’ (camel) is a bungling and hapless hulk, so witless in the aesthetic aspects of life. But beyond the literal equation, in this highly graphic sexual drama, male clumsiness in the business of bed is outlined and linked with the latter’s relative inferiority in matters music.
But despite the exciting dramatization of intimacy, the author still retains the presence of mind to remind the reader that this visit and its ongoing consequences are not as welcome as they appear, after all. The verse ends with “Dhac oo hurud jacelkeygiyoow aan ku dheefsadee”. This is one sided joy; it is not what it appears to be.
If verse 13 is the most reflective, verses 14-16 are undoubtedly the fleshiest. They ignite an almost pictorial scene of fierce foreplay. It is so impassioned, quite salacious for a conservative reader. You certainly will not meet such steamy and highly suggestive description in Somali poetry. One more reason why, Dheelmato is so unique; As if it wasn’t already expressive enough, it throws up more x-rated phrases like ‘Dhacdiid-jiif’, (Line 1, Verse 14) portraying a ‘liberal’ reversal of the traditional mating position.
Verse 15 talks of ‘mudac’ and the reader cannot avoid debating whether the ‘Mudac’ is literal or metaphorical, because the dramatic situation demands such debate. Similarly, ‘Dhiillo’ (pain, suffering) evokes significant uncertainty. Could it mean too much pleasure? Considering the carnal environment, there can always be more than one single meaning.
An illiberal reader will surely find these arousing lines too promiscuous. The indulgent reader, on the other hand, will probably be excited (more in mind than in flesh!). Respectively, both will be anticipating the logical progression of this scenic bedtime games, with anxiety and animation. After a sumptuous session of foreplay, they both naturally expect a fitting sexual ‘main course’. Inevitably, both are grossly disappointed.
Lines 1-2 of verse 17 go suddenly off-tangent and introduce physical pain, numb muscles and surprise the audience. But the sexual imagery in line 3 hints at the main event; ‘neefsad dhuubto…’- referring to the shallow breath associated with the peak of the mating game. The suspense is not remitting, as verse 18 mentions ‘dhalanteed macaansi’, meaning a bittersweet feeling, which can be translated by the hopeful sensualist to mean intense pain emanating from immense pleasure. ‘Naas’ and ‘dhareer’ sound a bit more ‘wicked’. One is left guessing: are verses 18 and 19 illustrative of the explosive moment? What with the reference to ‘fatigue’ in line 3 of verse 19?
There is no letup in the pumping up of emotions as verse 20 almost explicitly reveals the depleted parties. And the irony in ‘dharag calooleyso’ is therefore deafening. After she is spent, shouldn’t she be feeling drained? Where is this ‘dharag’ from?
Lines 2-4 of verse 20 describe the lady of the night’s unceremonious departure. After surfing the ultimate in intimacy, you don’t expect her to simply dress up and bolt out. Yet she does just that. No strings attached. The exasperated reader is again thrown off-balance.
Verses 21-23. The speaker is lamenting the residual misery inflicted by the evening escapades. In fact, he is seen invoking Allah’s forgiveness in line 2, verse 21. This implies sinfulness, and is compounded by the talk in verse 22 about an unwanted pregnancy resulting from the affair.
Finally, the sabotage is served. There was no woman, after all. There was no love, no sex; no lust. Just one luckless man, feasted upon by unrelenting mosquitoes, infected with the malaria virus and desperately ill. There was no nubile angel caressing the neck and massaging the back. There was only one song; the irritating whine of an extremely insatiable mosquito. There was no romance; just a rough ride in bed under a swarm of vermins.
A very crafty victim, infinitely imaginative! Creating a heavenly odyssey, out of a one-night stand in hell….
I can almost feel the sighs of disappointment and relief, in equal measure.
A mosquito? All this engrossing narrative; the lust-igniting melodrama, all the tormenting titillation. Just a mosquito?
Where is the love? Was it just a bait to lure my interest? What a mendacious prank! Wait! Was it really a bait? May be! But then, which is the bait; the evening Queen or the mosquito? There you are. You might never know which came first; the woman or the mosquito. Such ‘mendacity’ can only come from one of the best in the business of poetry.
Aden Hassan, is a Somali intellectual and Orature critique based in the United States of America.
Abdurashid Omar (Ina Cawsgurow) is a Somali poet from North Eastern Kenya.