Lovesick. That word best describes one of Somali’s most celebrated modern poets. Elmi Bodheri was a poor baker who is said to be the first Somali man to die from love.
His poems, written in the 1930s and early 1940s, are the stuff of legend in Somalia, and Bodheri and his beloved are household names. It’s an age-old story: Poet meets girl. Poet loses girl. Poet becomes immortalized via the object of his desire.
It happened in a tiny bakery in the port city of Berbera. There, Bodheri worked as a laborer for his uncle, making bread and selling it in what was then British Somaliland. Under the bakery’s low ceiling, within 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, and says it happened in an instant: Bodheri saw a girl named Hodhan — and began speaking in verse.
“Even his father was not a poet,” Haban says. “But from that very beginning he saw Hodhan, automatically, he started reciting poems.”
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.”
The Shameful Poet
Other Somali poets had spoken of love, but this was different. Bodheri only spoke of Hodhan. Back then, in the late 1930s, Bodheri was considered unmanly, says Somali poet Ahmed Aw Gedi.
“It was very, very shameful in Somali culture for a man to say ‘I love a woman,’ ” Gedi says, much less gush about her:
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: “For both sides, it was an insult.”
In the ’30s and ’40s, 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 only a spoken language at that time. 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. A baker himself, Haban says even Bodheri was ashamed of his behavior.
“Somali men, they are very proud of trying to be the real man,” Haban says. “Since he didn’t get the woman he wanted, he thought that the world would know his weakness.”
If other Somalis knew of Bodheri’s heartache, he had only himself to blame. Aw Gedi says the language Bodheri used was too explicit for the times. Back then, if a Muslim poet wanted to touch a woman’s bosom, for instance, he’d write about wanting to pluck an apple from a tree in her neighborhood.
“You could not describe or mention the lady as you like,” Aw Gedi says. “You would be killed. So you’d give her a different name.” But Bodheri barely disguised Hodhan’s identity in his poems.
A Love Nobody Wanted
When Bodheri called his love “Hadra,” no one was fooled. Or amused. Until just recently, 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 9. But Abdullah Mohamed Ali, the mayor of Berbera, says the age difference between Bodheri and Hodhan wasn’t the problem. It was society.
“What we believe today is the old culture was the barrier between Hodhan and Bodheri, and it was the role of the old people at this time to try to bring the two together,” Ali says.
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 Ali says that ultimately it was fate that got in the way. In Somali, the word is “alaf.” And alaf can be a real kick in the pants.
“Alaf is very hard to explain,” Ali says, giving an example: “If God wishes you to marry someone, even if you love someone else, you’re going to marry the person that God says you’re going to marry.”
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.
“It was very, very strong love,” she says. “So whenever we hear about Elmi and Hodhan, our hearts beat a lot.”
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 their heart’s desire. Regardless, Hassan says Hodhan was lucky.
“Every girl likes to be like Hodhan,” she says, “because everyone needs to be loved.”
A Terminal Case
At 15, Hodhan married someone else, a clerk at the port of Berbera. Bodheri married, too, but people say his wife soon tired of him calling her “Hodhan” and left. By the mid-1940s, Bodheri was dead. He had long since left the bakery and is believed to have wasted away. “It is degrading to yearn for what you cannot have,” he said.
More likely, says Abdisalam Mohamed Shabeelleh, the director of tourism in Somaliland, he died of tuberculosis. Shabeelleh is sort of an expert on the story — and on Hodhan in particular. He is Hodhan’s son.
According to Shabeelleh, 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, an oral tradition, travels fast among Somalis, and everyone knew she was the Hodhan. But by Shabeelleh’s account, his parents had a happy life together. Hodhan died in 1967. Today, Shabeelleh calls himself the “Sheikh of Love.” He says young lovers come to him before they marry, and “sometimes I give them blessings.”
Somalis say their society learned a lot from Bodheri. First, that families should consider the feelings of their children before committing them to marry. 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 are 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, “OK, I can’t love you like Bodheri loved Hodhan. But I can love you.”