Sometimes life is a tragic romance. Particularly if you’re Elmi Bodheri, one of Somalia’s most celebrated modern poets and allegedly the first Somali man to die of a broken heart.
Bodheri was a poor baker; whose poems written in the 1930-1940s have made him a literary legend, household name and lovers’ hero. It all began when he worked for his uncle in Berbera, making bread and selling it in what was then British Somaliland. One fine day he saw and was instantly smitten with a girl named Hodhan who came in for bread rolls or something like that. So he began reciting impromptu poetry to her over the counter- suddenly, and with neither inkling nor warning. That brief but oh-so-meaningful encounter caused Bodheri to venture forth in verse from then onwards although the pair’s eyes never again met, let alone their hearts.
Keeping Love Quiet
Other Somali poets had spoken of love, but this was a step too far for their society of the late 30s and Bodheri was labelled unmanly. Somali men took pride in being masculine and it was considered shameful for a man to say: “I love you” to a woman, and worse still to be so elaborate and effusive about it. His family disapproved, his clan scorned him and most local folk saw the baker as embarrassing and insulting. In those days, poets were required to recite the daily news in a way that made it easy to remember: romantic rhyme was viewed as excessive even for bread enthusiasts of the era!
Bodheri felt the whole world should know he didn’t get his girl but the lingo he used was way too explicit for the times. In those days, if a Muslim poet wanted to touch a woman’s bosom, for instance, he’d have to disguise it as wanting to pluck an apple from a tree in her neighbourhood or something similar. Mentioning, naming or describing a lady could get you killed, so names were often changed. Bodheri hardly disguised Hodhan’s identity in his poems, merely annotating it to “Hadra”. No one bought it, of course.
If Notâ€¦Why Not?
In the eyes of Somali society, the problem between the pair was basic incompatibility: He was poor; she was not. His clan was weak; hers was strong. Bodheri was around 30 years old; Hodhan was reportedly 9.
Bodheri was heartbroken. “I have been compelled to weep for love’s sake,” he declared. “Oh God! How much has my mouth betrayed me? And how people have been so cruel to me!” In Somali, the word for fate is “alaf.” In this case, it was more like alas as alaf apparently decided that Bodheri and Hodhan weren’t meant to be.
Leaving a Loving Legacy
So was it a mutual attraction? Only Hodhan knew for sure, given as the culture of the time prohibited girls from speaking of such matters. At 15, she married a clerk, became a seamstress and raised nine children. She never spoke of Bodheri, but poetry did: this oral tradition travels fast among Somalis, and everyone knew she was the Hodhan.
Bodheri’s own wife got fed up of him calling her “Hodhan” and left him. The love-lorn baker withered and wasted away until his death in the 40s.
Somalis say their society learned a lot from Bodheri. Firstly, that families should consider the feelings of their children before arranging their marriages and secondly, that saying “I love you” is not so bad, after all.
Today, many Somali girls grow up hoping for an attraction as strong as Bodheri’s was for Hodhan and to be loved as wildly and deeply. The immortal tragic couple that never was often show up in modern Somali love songs and poems. Man Somali men say living up to Bodheri’s romantic reputation is a tough call. One Somali politician even proposed to his wife by saying: “OK, I can’t love you like Bodheri loved Hodhan. But I can love you.”
“If eyes could capture the splendour that could soothe the heart
Or human beings could be satisfied by beauty alone
I have seen already that of Hodhan.” – Elmi Bodheri