Salve to Exile: Momtaza Mehri on Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf’s memory work

Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf
The Sea-Migrations/Tahriib
(Translated by Clare Pollard, with Said Jama Hussein and Maxamed Xasan ‘Alto’)
Bloodaxe £12.00

Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf is a contemporary Somali poet who has lived in exile in Britain for twenty-five years. Despite the fact that The Sea-Migrations is her first full English-language collection (following a 2012 chapbook published by the Poetry Translation Centre), she has developed a formidable reputation amongst the global Somali diaspora for her charged poetry and technical skill. Her gradually amassed following keeps up with her work via YouTube, WhatsApp chain messages and satellite television, highlighting the diasporic interconnectivity that underpins and sustains Somali communities. In this sense she follows in the footsteps of Somali women poets like Habiba H Aden, whose poetry was disseminated through cassettes in the midst of the civil war ravaging the North of Somalia at the time. I first encountered Yusuf’s work through a UK-based Somali TV channel and was struck by her joyous and participatory readings. She laughed with the host between poems and described her intention to better her people through poetry. The Sea-Migrations attests to this. Throughout the collection, Yusuf utilises the traditionally male domain of the gabay form, a nationally celebrated classical genre that often addresses political and social themes.

These are poems to be recited and Yusuf confidently inhabits them in her performances. Her engagement with orality is evident in her turn of phrase, something I appreciated as a native Somali speaker. The gabay form traditionally employs political rhetoric and yet Yusuf’s poems contain their own quiet authority that does not stray into mere polemic.

‘The Sea-Migrations’, the title poem of this collection, is Yusuf’s contribution to the Deeley poetic chain that began in the late 1970s as a series of poems criticising Mohamed Siad Barre’s despotic regime. After his release from imprisonment under Barre’s regime, the renowned poet Hadraawi and his friend Gaarriye began composing what would become a seminal gabay chain. Yusuf’s poem is a necessary intervention from the perspective of women affected by the civil war whom she refers to as ‘mothers dressed in mourning’. This titular poem is also rich in alliterative flair, which Clare Pollard, Said Jama Hussein and Maxamed Xasan ‘Alto’ do well to evoke in their co-translations. The Somali people are described as ‘debilitated’, ‘devoured’ and ‘defiled’ (the Somali ‘dullin’ and ‘dufufaan’ rely on a heavy ‘d’ sound). Alliteration lends itself to recitation, the primary means of communicating poetry in the Somali tradition. In fiftyeight lines, Yusuf uses it to invoke the experience of the migration known as tahriib;

Look at the hordes of women, all the young who drown,
disappearing onto ships, dissolving on the crossing,
all those deprived of life’s basics, adrift outside their country:
our future floats bloated in sea, is a corpse dragged on sand.

Tahriib, originally from the Arabic word for ‘fleeing’, is defined as the mass migration of Somalis to North Africa with the desperate hopes of crossing the Mediterranean and eventually reaching Europe. In triptychs and extended metaphors, Yusuf traces the horrors of this journey and its causes. Much like British-Somali poet Warsan Shire, Yusuf is bearing witness to the collective wounds of forced displacement and refugee life. The sea, often depicted wondrously in Somali poetry, is a site of trauma here. It does not offer refuge from the land and its troubles. To Yusuf, it becomes another thing to survive. A fraught relationship with water and the recurrence of the figurative ship still possess a hold on the fragmented yet transnational black imagination. In the shadow of such lineage, Yusuf shows us that mourning-work is simultaneously memory-work. She pays tribute to lost lives, imploring Somalis to put aside their differences and heal. The Canadian poet M NourbeSe Philip often speaks of confronting the past as a way to ‘defend the dead’, and this is evident in Yusuf’s verses. Unlike Philip, Yusuf and her people’s national traumas are not grounded in the transatlantic slave trade, but in its twenty-first century reverberations of migration, human trafficking and even possible enslavement in transit countries like Libya. The Somali diaspora includes, in her impassioned lines, both the living and the dead, and it is the latter whose memory she preserves. She excavates their stories, even as they ‘sink to the bottom’.

Much of Yusuf’s poems are marked by a Derridean hauntology that details the memory of loss in all its forms. To be a member of the Somali diaspora is, to borrow Derrida’s claim in Specters of Marx, to learn to live with ghosts. Yusuf reconciles with the tragedies of the present in order to agitate against corrupt post-colonial governments, irresponsible khat-addicted fathers and tribal elders. Her rhythmic patterns (such as the repetition of ‘cirka’ and ‘cayn’ in ‘My Fortune’) reflect the mundane and quotidian nature of violence amongst refugee communities, both at home and abroad. The title poem was written in 2008, before the Syrian refugee crisis and the subsequent international media coverage. Here, Yusuf manages to speak of the loss of home, identity and stability, achieving a universality while remaining specific to the experience of her people.

In ‘Our Land’, Yusuf’s pastoral references both employ and subvert the traditional imagery of droughts, deserts and dervishes. The symbolic she-camel, or maandeeq, is representative of Somalia and its idealised nomadic culture. Where Yusuf excels is in the bridging of these images with modern concerns. The ‘ostrich and antelope’ are juxtaposed with the realities of looting ‘foreign fleets’. ‘The Writer’s Rights’ begins with the arar, or opening lines:

Journalists were discarded;
rights thrown in unmarked graves.
Men massacred; erased.
The press stripped of freedom.

Here, Yusuf embraces clarity to decry the ongoing violence that stifles the expression of poets like herself. Injustice is infectious, she reminds us. Even amidst chaos, the poet must remain ‘unpeeling’ and ‘peering’. The Somali letter ‘X’ has no phonetic equivalent in the English language and it is this throaty sound that Yusuf exploits to force a more laboured recitation from readers in the original.

While most of the collection’s poems reflect Yusuf’s deep sensitivity to injustice, there are others dedicated to often-unnamed lovers. These poems are tinged with a longing that extends beyond the individual, and are, I believe, the hidden gems of the collection. They embody a deep sense of collective loss. In ‘Beloved’, she writes;

The blows that I suffer,
the blues that hang over me,
the withering body would be long gone
O Beloved, with the sight of you.

Here, she fervently details the power of a transformative love to bring healing and respite. The lover releases her from her burdens. He is the salve to her exile. We see this signified in the collection’s penultimate poem ‘In a Shout’. Yusuf repeats the refrain ‘O Mogadishu’, demonstrating the exiled writer’s sense of responsibility and guilt concerning those left behind. ‘O Mogadishu, I’m blaming your boys’ Yusuf exclaims, ambiguously merging national and personal wounds. There is much rich comparison to be found in the devastation inflicted by both incompetent male leadership and the unnamed man who torments her. ‘My people, where is he?’ Yusuf asks in ‘Disorientation’. Her questioning remains opaque. Both Yusuf and Somalia seek a savior, though it is unclear if one will ever come. These moments of heightened passion are where this collection shines. This is Yusuf at her most universal.

The Sea-Migrations is a narratively fertile collection that confronts the silences of national traumas. In these poems, grief announces itself. Yusuf, however, is never exploitative or gratuitous in her depiction of the violence of refugee life. Her verses are imbued with an unswerving responsibility to honour the suffering of her people. Hers is an important voice that challenges superficial representations of refugees and their inner lives. As a member of a community of exiled writers based in Britain, Yusuf is contributing to a tradition that extends far beyond the Horn of Africa. The Sea-Migrations is a compelling addition to the growing canon of diasporic Somali voices as well as a powerful reminder that exile is something generations of refugees carry with them, whether they want to or not.

 

Momtaza Mehri is a poet, essayist and literary researcher. Her poetry has been featured in DAZED, Buzzfeed, Vogue, BBC Radio 4, Poetry Society of America and Poetry International. She is a Complete Works Fellow and winner of the 2017 Out-Spoken Page Poetry Prize. Her chapbook sugah lump prayer was published in 2017. She also edits Diaspora Drama, a digital platform showcasing international immigrant art.