Of contract negotiation, cryptography, and camels…

Saudi Aramco has a fascinating review of the history and significance of poetry in the Horn of Africa:

Somalia did not possess a written language until 1973, when the Latin alphabet was put to Somali phonetics; until then, people who wanted songs and words in their heads had to either memorize someone else’s or compose their own. […] The verses are learned by ear, for a Somali proverb says that “he who looks at paper never becomes a memorizer,” and the skills of listening and repeating are gradually applied to the creation of poetry. Part of the training thereafter is informal.

“I can remember the evening bonfires around which the children would gather,” says Dr. Ahmed Artan Hanghee, dean of the Institute of Arts under the Somali Academy of Science and Arts. “The storytellers would come and start recounting the past history of the clan. Then the poets would take over and entertain. The rules of poetry have never been written; they are just absorbed and understood.”

Real poetry is so common that it can fly completely below the radar of our daily lives. It is subtle yet significant and we sometimes only notice its role and complex structure after it is gone. I’ll spare you my ramblings on poetry as a form of language ecology for now, though. The article continues:

But that doesn’t make them easy. Classical poetry, considered the domain of the nomads and the purest form of the language, is lengthy in presentation and strict in style. There are stringent rules of meter and of alliteration, compounded by metrical counts that vary with the length of syllables. Thus the length of its vowel determines whether a syllable counts as either one or two moras, or units. Classical poetry must have 20 to 22 moras per line, as well as a pause after the 12th unit and two words per line that share the same initial letter. In Somali, the first two lines of the poem on page 33 are:

Inta Khayli dhuugyaha cas iyo, dheeh wiyil ah qaatay.

E dhallaanka Aadnigu u baxo, sidatan lay dhawray.

A second style of poetry, called anigarar, has 17 to 18 moras per line, and four other genres employ successively decreasing numbers of units, down to five per line. Woman poets compete in a separate genre of their own called buranbur, with similarly precise rules.

The words are metaphorical, rarely direct, Hanghee says. Most poetry contains the symbol of the camel, which can embody the notions of beauty, woman, provider of life, food, fragile temperament or freedom, or the ideal of nationhood.

“Somali poets talk in the abstract,” says Hanghee. “You’ll find one describing the beauty of a camel, but what he really means is Somali liberty and independence. Or the subject of the poem might be a horse, but he’s really describing the woman he loves. The waves of the Indian Ocean become the waves of decolonization and the freeing of Africa.”

This might seem like a stretch, but I don’t see a lot of dissimilarity to negotiating terms of engagement with giant companies.

We all hunch around the conference bridge using words that are rarely direct. We banter about or offer competing visions of security that can only be described metaphorically. And perhaps like working with nomadic herdsmen in the Horn of Africa, it is a perpetual challenge to bring security experts to agree on single sheet of paper that they feel does not restrict their future desire(s) while still honors their pride and heritage. You’ll find one describing the beauty of a control, but what s/he really means is consumer liberty and independence…

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