ALISON STEWART, host:
Lovesick. That word best describes one of Somalia's most celebrated modern poets. Elmi Bodheri was a poor baker who was obsessed with the woman he loved. His poems, written in the 1930s and early 1940s, are the stuff of legend in Somalia. And today, Somalis say that Bodheri and his beloved are household names.
As NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports, it's an age-old story: poet meets girl, poet loses girl, poet becomes immortalized via the object of his desire.
(Soundbite of bakery)
GWEN THOMPKINS: It happened right here in this teeny tiny bakery in the port city of Berbera. This is where Elmi Bodheri worked as a laborer for his uncle, making bread and selling it in what was then British Somaliland. Under this low ceiling, within these ochre-colored walls, over a high counter worn smooth by a million touches, an ardor was born like no other.
Nour Haban runs the bakery now. He says it happened in an instant: Bodheri saw a girl named Hodhan - and began speaking in verse.
Mr. NOUR HABAN: (Through Translator) Even his father was not a poet. But from that very beginning he saw Hodhan, automatically he started reciting poems.
THOMPKINS: Of all the bread joints in all the world, she had to walk into his. Hodhan came one day to buy rolls. She reportedly said nothing more than, good morning. And by nearly all accounts, Bodheri never saw her again. But he rhapsodized that brief encounter to heights previously unexplored. He said things like, a careless flicker of her slanted eyes begets a light as clear as the white spring moon. Other Somali poets had spoken of love, but this was different. Bodheri only spoke of Hodhan.
Ahmed Aw Gedi is a Somali poet. He says back then, in the late 1930s, Bodheri was considered unmanly.
Mr. AHMED AW GEDI (Poet): (Through Translator) It was very, very shameful in Somali culture for a man to say, I love a woman.
THOMPKINS: Much less, I heart Hodhan. Bodheri gushed, if eyes could capture the splendor that could soothe the heart, or human beings could be satisfied by beauty alone, I have seen already that of Hodhan.
His family disapproved. His clan disapproved. And Aw Gedi says Bodheri didn't endear himself to her people, either.
Mr. AW GEDI: (Through Translator) For both sides, it was an insult.
THOMPKINS: It was a camel culture. In the 1930s and 1940s, the people who lived in this sand-covered land were mostly nomads, who never took more than they could carry and didn't leave much behind. Herdsmen married to have children and to take better care of the livestock. Most people were illiterate. And even if they could read, Somali was at that time only a spoken language. Poets were in demand to tell the day's news in a way that everybody could remember.
And romance? Well, romance was mostly found in stories about warriors and the battles they fought, not bread enthusiasts and the bakers who loved them. The baker Nour Haban says even Bodheri was ashamed of his behavior.
Mr. HABAN: (Through Translator) Somali men, they are very proud of trying to be the real man. Since he didn't get the woman he wanted, he thought that the world would know his weakness.
THOMPKINS: If other Somalis knew of Bodheri's weakness, he had only himself to blame. The poet Aw Gedi says the language Bodheri used was, at that time, too explicit. If a Muslim poet back then wanted to touch a woman's bosom, for instance, he'd write about wanting to pluck an apple from a tree in her neighborhood.
But how do you like these apples? Aw Gedi says Bodheri barely disguised Hodhan's identity in his poems.
Mr. AW GEDI: (Through Translator) You cannot describe or mention the lady as you like. You will be killed. So you'll give her a different name, which you like.
THOMPKINS: But when Bodheri called his love Hadra, no one was fooled. Or amused. This was serious business. Back then, and for several generations to come, marriages were arranged matches between families, between classes and clans. The men would wait for young girls to come of age and then marry.
But between Hodhan and Bodheri, nothing quite matched. He was poor. She was not. His clan was weak. Hers was strong. Bodheri was somewhere around 30 years old. Hodhan was reportedly nine. Abdullah Mohamed Ali is the mayor of Berbera. He says the age difference between Bodheri and Hodhan wasn't the problem -society was.
Mayor ABDULLAH MOHAMED ALI (Berbera): (Through Translator) So what we believe today is that the old culture is the barrier that was between Hodhan and Bodheri, and it was the role of the old people at that time to try and bring these two together.
THOMPKINS: Bodheri despaired, I have been compelled to weep for love's sake, he said. Oh god, how much has my mouth betrayed me? And how people have been so cruel to me.
But Mayor Ali says that ultimately it was God or fate that got in the way. In Somali, the word is alaf, and alaf can be a real kick in the pants.
Mayor ALI: (Through Translator) Alaf is very hard to explain. For example, if I give you an example, that if God wishes you to marry somebody, even if you love somebody else, you marry the person that God say that you're going to marry.
THOMPKINS: And alaf apparently decided that Bodheri and Hodhan weren't meant to be.
Luul Abdi Hassan buys her bread from the old bakery in Berbera. Standing outside, she says all Somali girls hope for an attraction as strong as Bodheri's was for Hodhan.
Ms. LUUL ABDI HASSAN: (Through Translator) It was very, very strong love. So whenever we hear about Elmi and Hodhan, our hearts beat a lot.
(Soundbite of laughter)
THOMPKINS: But was it a mutual attraction? Only Hodhan knew for sure. Some say the culture of the time did not allow girls to speak of heir heart's desire. Regardless, Luul Abdi Hassan says Hodhan was lucky.
Ms. HASSAN: (Through Translator) Every girl likes to be like Hodhan, because everyone needs to be loved.
THOMPKINS: At 15, Hodhan married another - a clerk at the port of Berbera. Bodheri married, too, but people here say his wife soon tired of him calling her Hodhan and left. By the mid-1940s, Bodheri was dead. He'd long since left the bakery and is believed to have wasted away. It is degrading to yearn for what you cannot have, he said.
But Abdisalam Mohamed Shabeelieh says Bodheri likely died of tuberculosis. Shabeelieh is the director of tourism in Somaliland. He's sort of an expert on the story, and on Hodhan in particular.
Mr. ABDISALAM MOHAMED SHABEELIEH (Director of Tourism, Somaliland): She's my mother.
THOMPKINS: Shabeelieh says Hodhan settled down, became a seamstress and raised nine children. He says she never spoke of Bodheri, but then she didn't have to. Poetry travels fast among Somalis and everyone knew she was the Hodhan. But by Shabeelieh's account, his parents had a happy life together. Hodhan died in 1967. Today, Shabeelieh calls himself the Sheikh of Love. He says young lovers come to him before they marry.
Mr. SHABEELIEH: Sometimes I give them blessings.
THOMPKINS: Nearly everyone here says that Somali society learned a lot from Elmi Bodheri. First, that families should consider the feelings of their children before committing them to marry. And second, that saying I love you is not so bad after all. Bodheri and Hodhan often figure in modern Somali love songs and poems, and Somali men say that in matters of the heart, they're almost always unfavorably compared to Bodheri.
Not everyone's a poet, but then, not everyone needs to be. A Somali politician recently recalled the words he used to propose to his wife. He said to her, okay, I can't love you like Bodheri loved Hodhan, but I can love you.
Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Berbera, Somaliland.
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