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Sunday 14 July 2024


Remembering Said S. Samatar

12 May, 2024
Said S. Samatar

Somali scholar Said Samatar not only wrote; he crafted stories through graceful words, painting our inner ugliness as well as our glory in history, writes Faisal Roble 

Professor Said Samatar’s death on February 24, 2015, is an incomparable loss to his family, friends, and fellow scholars. Said was our own waayeel, or sage, in the tradition of the late Muse Galaal and Aw-Jamac, who both represented the finest oral historians in the Somali peninsula. In his own way, Said was a trained historian and at the same time a product of nomadic culture of the forbiddingly scorching Qari Jaqood lowlands of the Ogaden region. The result of these two forces of town-based formal education and bush lifestyle in his formative years shaped Said into what he himself called a “segmented” persona. That “segmented persona” combined the finest attributes of a historian in the tradition of Arnold Toynbee with those of Macalin Dhoodaan, an eminent bard of nomadic culture.  

A man of scholarship 

Owing to his extraordinary intelligence and an early memorization of the Quran and fiqi (Islamic law and jurisprudence), Said, the son of a sharia judge in the Haud and Reserved Area in the Ethiopian administered region of the Ogaden, defied the odds of not starting school at the tender age of six. As a matter of fact, he started first grade when he was about 16 years old but completed his entire primary and secondary schooling in about six years. He obtained his undergraduate degree at Goshen College, and his master's and PhD at Northwestern; and then became Assistant Professor of the Humanities at Eastern Kentucky University (1979-1981), and finally Professor of African History at Rutgers University-Newark.  

Said Samatar had a colourful career. A tenured professor for over 25 years at Rutgers, in 1992, at the height of the Somali civil war, he advised ABC’s program Nightline with Ted Koppel; and he was an invitee as an “eminent scholar” to the convention of the drafting of the Eritrean Constitution. A consummate and methodical researcher, Said in the 1970s crisscrossed the Haud and Reserve Area, his birthplace, thereby spending time with the very nomads that he belonged to. For over a year, he gathered a massive amount of material on the oral history surrounding the poetry and political struggle of Sayid Mohamed Abdile Hassan, Somalia’s freedom fighter between the periods of 1890 and 1921. His research later took him to Mogadishu, where he interviewed prominent Somali sages and oral historians, including but not limited to the late Muse Galaal, Aw-Jamac, Aw-Dahir Afqarshi and Caaqib Boon (the last my maternal uncle who was known for his Saar songs and as an incomparable repository of oral history related to the Haud and Reserve Area). During his stay in Mogadishu, Said also skillfully exploited rare documents at the then Somali National Academy. His final destination to complete his research was London, England, where he combed through thousands of colonial documents written in English, Italian and Arabic, three languages that he mastered equally.  

The result of these expansive efforts was his acclaimed book, Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayid Mahammed Abdille Hasan, today hailed as a case study of the political, social, and cultural development of pre-and-post-colonial Somali society. In it, Said presented a new narrative about the political life of Sayid Mahammed Abdille Hassan. To the delight of students of Somali studies, Said succeeded in reconstructing the image of the hitherto maligned “Mad Mullah”, correcting a derogatory portrait unfairly bestowed on this nation-maker and philosopher by the colonialists. Today, one can read Said’s brilliant treatise to find original comparisons of the Sayid with Emperor Tewodros of Ethiopia and Usman Don Fodio (Fulani) of Nigeria. 

In Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism, Said introduced into Somali studies scholarship two indomitable but often overlooked Somali institutions. The first is the guurti system of governance through the elders’ council, a useful tool of conflict resolution. Upon reading Said’s book in 1984, I couldn’t fathom at the time the relevance of the guurti concept to modern Somali studies. Once the civil war of 1991 teetered and eventually broke down the foundation of Somali society, the question arose as to which forces could sow it back together. I reread the book again when the first Somali peace consultation was taking place in Djibouti in 2004, and it was then that I found the guurti concept in Said’s book so appealing! The guurti is the highest assembly and legislative body of elders in Somalia’s kinship-based system that meditates and delivers verdicts on conflicts. It is an intricate xeer-based social construct by which Somalis governed each other for generations. At the critical moment when the inherited colonial form of state collapsed and when the accompanying institutional framework and security apparatus ceased to exist, turning to Said’s research for reference represent one of the only viable tools to ameliorate conflict among Somali clans. It came in hand to address policy level conflict management. In particular, Somaliland and Puntland effectively utilized the concept of guurti not only to mediate inter-clan conflicts but also to set up systems of local governance in the absence of institutions inherited from colonialism. Owing to his “segmented” persona of herdsman/university-based researcher, Said was able to select a hidden organic tool that was in our very midst. This was only possible because he was exceptionally good at grasping Western and Somali concepts with equal zeal.  

The other institution that Said unearthed in his book is the concept of copyright as it pertains to poetry. To show that Somalis have their own version of poetry copyright, Said searched two narratives. One is centered in Qalafo, and the other in Mogadishu. First, in a teashop, where the pious and poetic bards gather to exchange their latest inventions in the craft of the Somali word, one of the men recited an exquisite poem: “Alahayow nin ii daran maxaaan daafta hore seexshay,” or “many times, I kindly entertained the very one that is plotting against me.” The reader claimed this poem as his own piece of work, and it earned the instant admiration of every listener at the teashop, except one suspecting and inquisitive, red-bearded listener. Refusing to accept the claimant’s ownership of this piece of art, the suspecting loner gave himself a moment to reflect while the rest of the group showered the reciter with praises. In a short period of time, the sceptic demanded silence of the hostage audience, recited all the verses of the poem, and finished it with its lawful and legitimate owner, Ugas Nuur, who, as the sceptic put it, was “ninka gabaygan tiriyey waa nin rer Galbeed,”  (the legitimate composer of this poem is a man from the west), alluding to the western regions of Somalia. The verdict was settled, and the claimant was denounced as a plagiarizer.  

Before his death, Said was seriously entertaining the idea of researching a comparative piece on Emperor Tewodros of Ethiopia and Sayid Mahammed Abdille Hassan of Somalia. He was impressed by the similarity between the two: their equal aversion to colonial penetration of their respective countries; their vitriolic yet skillful use of poetry to expose the enemy within and without; their desire to educate their people; and their incessant search to unite their disparate countrymen appealed immensely to Said.  

Another unpublished project related to the vast body of research material that he collected in the 1970s. The point of contention that he wanted to clarify was who the legitimate author of the famous poem, “lix halkaad ku joogtaan dagaal laabta ka ogaada,” or “wherever six of you are together at once place, be vigilantly ready for war.” Most Somalis, including great poets like Gaarriye, maintained that the author of this poem was Farah Nuur of the Arab clan. But after extensive interviews with late and eminent historian and poet, Muse Galal, Said availed to historians that Farah Nur was “imitating the work of [an earlier] poet of the Ogaden clan” called Ali Oday. Interestingly enough, both the Arab and rer-Ibrahim of the Ogaden clans, according to Said’s interview with Muse Galaal (Mogadishu, April 21, 1977), were fighting for their dignity against oppression by larger clans: the Arab were fending off the then powerful Idagale clan, while the rer-Ibrahim were fighting against the numerous Bah Hawadle (Mahamed Subair). Thus, these poems are “anti-slavery” chants. However, the ultimate fate came to him much earlier than anticipated, and as a result, both of these works remain unfinished manuscripts.  

I will never forget the awe and prodigious feeling that overwhelmed me in 2008 when I visited Said at Rutgers to lecture for his class. After finishing an enlightening seminar with his graduate students, he hosted me at his house in New Jersey. Spending about four hours in his basement, he shared with me some of his impressive archives. He showed me old and dusty shelves with boxes and boxes of interviews, piece by piece handwritten notes, ancient Arabic documents, photocopies he had acquired from British libraries, tapes, and dusty books printed by Madbacada Qaranka (National Printing), the once thriving Somali Printing House in Mogadishu. What he shared with me was a valuable collection of materials that were in excess of his PhD on Said Mohamed Shire, alias Said Suugan, a close friend of the late Said and another owner of rare documents on Somali history, believes that the excess material from Said’s doctoral research could produce more books. If exploited by the right student of history, these materials are no less than rare gems.  

As for Said, one book tells all. Just as Ralph Ellison could not outdo or match The Invisible Man, Said Samatar could not surpass his classic Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism. Every author has that one book, and Said had his in this book. However, unlike Ralph Ellison, Said was able to produce many other works: numerous witty and well-written essays, the groundbreaking editing collection In the Shadow of the Sultan: Islam in Colonial Northeast Africa, and a classic book on Somali politics, Somalia: Nation in Search of a State, with David D. Laitin. Moreover, Said served as the managing editor of The Horn of Africa Journal for the last two decades, which he produced with meagre resources, often supplementing the cost of production from his own pocket. He was doing this as a “labour of love.”  

At the time of his death, Said was working on three books. One addressed the political mishap that had befallen his nation, tentatively titled Fool’s Errand: The Vain Search for a Central Government in Somalia. In addition, he was also about to complete a book on the life and poetry of Haji Afqalooc, a prolific Somali poet with resonant nationalist themes. The third book in his hand was a historical novel, which I believe would have been a delicious, if unorthodox, and lucid read for us all.  

Scholarship with integrity 

With a deeper knowledge of Somali society, Said hated its current politics. Not only was he disappointed by the failure of its contemporary elites to regroup, but also by the sheer unrefined, if not less cultivated, and dangerously opportunistic behaviour of that elite class. A case in point: at the 1992 African Studies Conference, a number of Somalis caucused in Baltimore to possibly revive Somali studies. There were a number of Somali intellectuals at hand: Amina Adan, A Galydh, Said Samatar, Ali Hersi, Husein Tanzani, Ahmed Samatar, and this writer. No sooner did the conversation start did things go sour, mainly at the behest of Amina Adan mentioning some of the Somalis in attendance being opportunists “except” she said, Said Samatar. She added: “he was the only intellectual who refused to accept a free ticket from Barre to attend the last pre-civil war Somali studies conference.” It was an affirmation to some of us that Said was a conscientious scholar. She said he was the only one worthy true intellectual, who feels the pain of his people, regardless of clan genealogy. As a matter of fact, Said published an open letter in The Horn of Africa imploring the rest of the Somali studies members not to go to Mogadishu to legitimise Barre’s massacre in the north. His plea fell on deaf ears.  


I would be doing a disservice to my late friend’s achievements if I overlooked his delightful and timeless essays. As other tribute writers have commented ahead of me, Said Samatar of Somalia danced with the English word. His “My Dostoevsky Syndrome: How I Escaped being a Self-Hating Somali,” The Leelkase Captain Ahab,” and “Confessions of a New Convert to the Geri-Koombo Clan-Family” are all delicious and enchanting literary works that seek to demystify Somali clan chauvinism. In all these articles, he either admits creeping inferiority feelings as a Somali or minimises the grip that his own clan loyalty holds on him. In them, Said not only wrote; he crafted stories through graceful words, painting our inner ugliness as well as our glory in history.  

With his success came growing self-doubt and defeatism in the wake of the dissolution of his nation. The first time Said admitted a sense of loss and resignation creeping into his soul was 1992. A number of us, drawn from the founding members of the Ergo, ot the Somali Peace Consultation, held a conference in Toronto, Canada in the summer of that year. Said gave us the keynote speech: it was dark but effusively overwhelming. He conveyed a sense of surrender and loss of a longstanding battle of ideas between himself and Mesfin Woldemariam of Addis Ababa University. The two had apparently for decades been at each other's throats at multiple scholarly conference; they debated on the topic of the epic Ethio-Somali conflict. Now that Somalis had destroyed themselves, Said sounded remorseful and repentant, saying, “bal manta maxaan Masfin kala hortagi, maxaanse kula dootama soo anagu ismaanaan burin,” meaning, “today, I am in no position to debate Mesfin, lest we did the job for him by destroying ourselves.” I sense from thereon his sense of the obliviousness and nothingness of the collective Somali being. That speech defined Said’s sense of post-civil war hopelessness and bleakness of his nation and its people. No wonder that at the time of his death, he was writing a book on the futile elusive effort in search of a centralised Somali state.  

In Said’s death, we lost an irreplaceable friend and scholar. His life and death exemplify the rise and demise of Somalia’s nation state. He once told me this: at 23, in the bustling Mogadishu of 1960, then known as the “pearl of the Indian Ocean,” he was one of the most hopeful young men growing up on the continent. With a nation that was born in the summer of that year and a Mennonite education that prepared him to one day go abroad for further scholarship, his future was boundless, and his imagination of the world was limitless. But now, pushing towards 73 years-old, he felt he was a broken down old Somali man consumed by self-hating statelessness syndrome. Ouch! That is, I suspect, a shared feeling by many Somalis of his generation. Rest in peace.