Life’s Essence

Life's Essence
Say you'll pay heed, my friend,
now I'm back from that journey.
First things first, warm greetings,
but second, Rashid, listen to me:
don't look perplexed that I rush in
empty handed, lacking a poem,
poetry delivers its wonders
when we're seated and settled,
its full perfection follows
walking and watchfulness -
such are its laws.
So say you'll pay heed, my friend,
to the part I played this morning
on the battlefield at Sirsirraan:
see my weariness from the road
and the dirt on my body,
my uniform and bandolier
and the weapon I shoulder.
For the ghee to flow smoothly,
dear friend, the churn requires
its wadding well-fitted, its lid to be tight:
so too the poem yields.
But each year has its own luck
and once things go this badly
we can only expect blood.
When guns take charge
that's the way it is,
that's the way it always is.
Mark me, Rashid, and listen:
decisions made rashly, in haste,
that take us in the wrong direction,
such lack of wisdom leads to destruction.
Take a look from my mind's ladder
and see the catastrophe unfold;
look this way and that,
before us and behind:
survey the whole land.
Try to ask the slaughtered bodies,
drying corpses and scattered bones
the reason for their deaths;
listen to the screams that answer,
the heart-piercing groans
and the children's wails:
if that's what you saw,
if that's what you heard,
Rashid, what would you do?
If I could have composed in the summer
or beneath the star that brings in Spring
or the month thereafter,
I would have written differently.
Now pay heed, eldest daughter
of my oldest, wisest friend,
hear me, Sahra, and pay heed:
here's why I've chosen you
apart from all the others
and call to you, Sahra, calling
as your father calls me
to impart his advice - listen,
I'll give you mine. Hear me:
history's happenings
are constant in their contents,
so listen to their wisdom, Sahra,
I write it here in lines for you:
hear me, Sahra, and pay heed,
wise eldest daughter, listen:
match Rashid's mark,
take after your mother's brilliance,
Saado's loftiness - that sign
of the women of the Horn.
So each morning frame your eyes with kohl,
ensure your hair shan't miss the comb:
set it in the finest style.
Let no smutch fall on your body,
apply fine cream to it
and take care of it with soap.
Your clothes should have neither bad smells
nor mustiness nor careless spots:
infuse them with frankincense.
Sapience is a gift, Sahra,
given uniquely to people,
and once its value is seen
there are no grounds to grumble.
We are other than the running antelope,
the billy-goat and the nanny-goat,
the tupping ram and the ewe;
other than the camel and the lamb.
Our form and its perfections,
our walk and its purpose,
the courtesies that guide our behaviour,
are protected by checks and restraints,
by limits that should not be passed:
that's what divides us
from any beast that treads the earth.
My emphasise here is
life should not be without limits,
we can't just do as we please.
Always weigh your words well;
make things clear to the uncomprehending.
Don't forget your similes and figures,
nor get into confusion's cul-de-sacs
losing your argument's thread;
don't swallow its essence.
Avoid hesitation - the clarity
of your facts should not sit in the shade.
Your argument must be plain,
so take care of its coherence.
Your approach must be reasoned;
so limit your questions
whenever making key points.
If three words suffice
don't stretch things to thirty.
Leave boastfulness behind:
don't speak haughtily
or wave your arms dismissively -
never utter an unbecoming speech.
Hear me, Sahra, and pay heed:
the skin that covers your flesh,
your body's well-formed frame,
your goodly constitution
and the beauty of your countenance -
your lovely skin does not require
covering in silk and gold.
This doesn't mean never to place
a necklace over your head:
All I want to emphasise is
should you only possess pennies
everything they display in the market
doesn't compare with the Book.
Similarly with sleep, Sahra:
the first thing may well be to get a bed,
to seek out mat and mattress,
but if you can't get all three,
you still needn't go without rest:
an animal hide is not strewn with thorns
and virtue is sufficient to furnish you with sleep.
Sahra, if someone goes without food,
then swallows tough meat
and isn't satisfied,
wishing for ghee and lamb's fat,
that desire is for the unobtainable.
The taste of the full milk vessel
from the milk-bearing camel,
the millet and ground maize,
fine ghee for flavour and fat raisins -
those are best to eat, and he
whose work produces all this is worthy of pride.
What you produce like this is also worthy,
but should you have less, still,
sorghum is not as bitter as aloes.
Hear me, Sahra, and pay heed:
leatherwear from cured hides,
cloth of Abu Samaanta,
the well-woven girdle
and the finely embroidered shawl,
beautifully-trimmed material from Sind,
beads that can be wound
around the neck nine times
and a delicately coloured coat -
though you are clad in all this finery
and your hair is braided,
if we add to these your fine looks,
your wisdom and good manners
the elegance of your confident gait,
is there anyone who could compare?
Don't be like that show-off, the secretary bird,
which can't slow down for recklessness:
bird, stop trumpeting so loud;
don't climb the unsafe fence,
driven by conceit and impatience;
don't shout at your elders
or sow discord in the community
till mouths gape with bewilderment;
don't shun your upright tradition.
Young women, call this what you will,
it is neither seemly nor civil -
culture is not swatches of rags,
not the bearing of breasts;
it is not the plucking of eyebrows,
nor the thickly painted cheek,
nor the piercing and piercing of noses;
it is not drunkenness nor hashish.
Seemliness is not the chasing of chimeras
nor the camera's stunning spectacle,
not the disk filled with foreign songs.
It's not high heel shoes,
nor whims and fecklessness;
not the defaming of others
nor imitating the shallow-minded;
Civility is not making yourself a mockery.
It's not the deliberate swinging of hips
to attract attention;
it's not the slinging away of culture,
of what makes you Somali;
it's not a matter of do as you will -
when the earth is still content to hold you,
why try to leap into the heavens?
That woman who in the wrong season
and at the unwise hour
heads back to her home
has put herself in harm's way:
praise your Prophet,
act calmly, be timely.
Some may rush headlong with skirts raised
ramble heedlessly and greet anyone,
gape thoughtlessly while gabbling away,
gossip at the end of every alley,
do any and everything without restraint -
but none of these deplorable categories
describe you in any way, Sahra.
You and those self-possessed like you
who are careful in their restraint:
all young women of your character,
my words are not for you.
But the witless and the wandered,
those who drift aimlessly
cut off from the crowd;
those who lose the right path,
unable to wait for anything;
those who have discarded decency,
given themselves to loitering,
useless as an untied rope, they are like
the cow that rejects the unsweet well
who two days later will die of thirst.
Hear me, Sahra, and pay heed:
the well-made poem has no price,
it's no jumble of words,
not just drums and empty songs,
nor shaking hips and showing off;
it's not some itch or an insomnia -
it isn't bought for tuppence.
It is that which can't be bought at mart,
that anxiety, those emotions,
it mirrors the people's needs
and bears their well-being worthily;
it is the warning cry,
the hand that wards off danger,
it never picks one over another,
but points out the correct path;
it is the past's inheritor,
it is always to the point - select from it
the essential flesh and marrow.
Hear me, Sahra, and pay heed:
life's essence is not got by force,
it is not aggression and persecution,
nor setting deceitful traps;
it is not gulping and gluttony
and greedy licking of the fingers;
it is not sottish or sinful deeds,
shiftlessly shifting between things;
it is not an empty arrogance,
not overreaching nor baseless pride;
it is not pretending to a title,
not grand houses and glamour,
neither this foolishness not that folly -
benevolence is not a currency.
Hear me, Sahra, and pay heed:
where the people are purposefully exploited
and persecuted in every possible way,
they should not cling to patience,
nor stretch out their necks on the block;
they should neither start at shadows
nor let themselves scatter;
they should neither sleep too deeply
nor expect deliverance by magic;
they should not set one against another.
Those who wait for deliverance from me
when I waited for you for so long:
what is it you are really waiting for?
Hear me, Sahra, and pay heed:
when the birds stop flying,
when the crow climbs to the top of the tree
and the ostrich stops pounding the earth,
you needn't stop too - don't trust
to blind instinct for your decisions,
leaving tomorrow to do as it may;
don't wait dumbly for the sunrise -
when the earth is engulfed in darkness,
in the middle of that night,
you must be the beacon.
Hear me, Sahra, and pay heed:
when winter's bitterness bites home
and the whole country tastes dryness;
when rainlessness troubles the people
and scorched grass is rampant;
when the sky won't yield a cloud
and the earth is walked by whirlwind;
when trees become naked posts
and bad luck haunts us all;
when our hopes come to nothing,
and even the docile cow grows restive -
you needn't do as these do.
So that the land isn't worn out,
lacking moisture and fresh rain,
or your locality and neighbourhood
experience famine and drought,
don't wait for rain's wandering season
or set the wells at too far a trek
you are capable of solving this.
Hear me, Sahra, and pay heed:
when calamities prevail
and prospects are upturned;
when diseases become fatal
and you succumb to hardship;
when herds lack direction
and the crook is just a stick - don't be
disheartened by these dreadful sights.
The pen will give wise counsel
and direct you to your goal;
it is your unfailing friend,
so always keep it to hand
and never let it go. As though
you planted sesame and cereal with it,
and the stalk of the guava,
let it set down lasting good sense
and encompassing peace;
let it seek out well-being,
equality across the entire world,
let it heal all sicknesses,
that old killer cholera;
let it flatten all fences
and the boundaries that hedge us in;
let it gather the misguided,
divided by the colour of their skins,
people who follow many flags.
Never attempt the forging of swords
and implements of death -
there are plenty of those already,
welded by experienced smiths,
wielded by those explorers we chose
from amongst our own ranks
whom we trusted with our fates,
who plan out our paths.
Those weapons the earth can't bear,
who took them into the heavens
but someone who doesn't sow a seed
or nurture a single sheaf?
Sahra, the one who owns arms
and can set the world in flames within an hour
has put it at risk a thousand times.
Serious crises that threaten life itself
are in the keeping of one who contributes least;
life, sorrowful and suffering,
belongs to the man who doesn't give a cent.
The full fruitfulness of knowledge
he has turned to other ends;
he who gives the weapons of destruction
so generously to the poor,
who finds it difficult to do good,
has the power to turn nature on its head.
And in the year of our destitution
he wouldn't give us a bowl of millet.
Life's essence is so profound, yet it belongs
to someone who cannot pierce its surface
and is only capable of killing.
The unbearable suffering of Sula,
that havoc the battle has left us in
yesterday and for many days to come,
half of us traumatised with fear,
half out of their wits with the horror;
some cast into unaccustomed states
like the widowed women I saw
wearing their mourning dresses;
others sleepless among
the burning flames, buildings flattened,
the mass graves still gaping -
all this I left behind this morning,
but carry its burden in my brain.
Used weapons lie in heaps,
shells hit the ground, fill the heavens,
sow the seas with danger;
the alarum of armaments looms,
we listen as they discharge lead -
the people have no provisions,
their bodies go bare;
no command can comfort them,
they are barraged with bewilderment;
the mad factory keeps manufacturing
though all it can deliver is death;
it churns out devastation and tragedy,
which, in order to occur
requires only the slightest excuse -
I come to you like a condemned man
who carries his death warrant in his wallet.
How good it would be to reason clearly,
to settle the world into peace,
preserve it within its proper bounds;
how beautiful is its body,
how bountiful its gifts,
how correct all its ways:
may its great perfection not
be turned to turmoil and chaotic din,
the shedding of blood with every dawn,
to checking ropes and iron chains;
may its unlimited expanses not
be exchanged for a hot, fenced-in desert,
restricted and ruled by a wanton boy;
may the people who live on its face
not be stricken by poverty,
always in need of succour
without a word of worthy advice;
may it not be defiled by the falling of blades
nor knowledge swopped for the sword.
How good it would be if such wishes
could ever come true.
Hear me, Sahra, and pay heed:
the earth and all it carries,
what's above and all that hangs there,
those with and those without shapes,
everything between clear and secret
only have being through God's word
and come and go as He commands.
All else between earth and sky -
denizens of the dense woods,
those which lie in winding valleys -
all who spit venom, or
the elephant with his supple trunk,
the rhino and its surging charge,
the lion with its shocking mane -
those from which we seek God's shield,
when such as you, Sahra, direct them
with distant gestures, see
how quickly they must bow,
throwing themselves prone.
This gift of dominance
is not easy or light to bear:
it depends on each person's perception.
Hear me, Sahra, and pay heed:
the sea and the rush of its surf,
the towering contours of the mountains;
the thunder's rumble and roar,
that deafening loudness;
the thunderbolt and its terror,
the howling approach of the storm -
don't be scared of these:
this world is made to obey you
so treat it kindly,
coax it with your awareness
as though it were your horse,
make it your helpmate;
this mist-shrouded world is a maiden,
so treat her with tender patience,
let your touch be light and gentle
as you collect the fruit she bears,
the wealth beneath her surface:
let her yield increase
and rescue her children from need;
ensure she is always at peace
and remains in serenity;
let her suffer no harm.
Don't tread this earth thoughtlessly,
free it from constant conflict,
never awaken the napalm,
the cannon choked with shells;
don't summon the warship,
the hum of the submarine,
and all such dischargers of death.
Don't use missiles against her,
or the mad sophistication of arms;
don't poison her sweetness.
Don't cut the green places with blades,
disfiguring her form,
its beauty and its freshness;
don't tear her veil,
the twilight and its clouds;
don't harm the creatures living upon her,
the oryx and other wild things;
don't disturb their interwovenness,
removing Earth's outermost layer
or destabilising its foundations.
Don't blow the last trump,
finishing it off in a single day -
when you hear its utmost groan
rather rush to comfort it
with clapping and ululation:
science should not be used
to further its victimisation.
Let its benignity mature you,
then pass it to a trustworthy successor
who will follow in your path.
Hear me, Sahra, and pay heed:
when I remember time past,
retrace the links of the Siinley, our collaboration
composed as novices at rhetoric,
addressing our country as 'Saxarla'
without assigning blame to her,
our consciousness was constrained by our time,
our expectations didn't come to pass,
and such patience never pays off -
don't depend on those who turn their backs,
don't wait for someone with no need of you,
don't risk yourself after the first betrayal.
If someone deceives you, don't waste more time;
don't ask him for his motives,
or make further excuses for him:
he's a burden you can stop bearing -
be firm, keep him at arm's length,
and never fall into making his mistakes.
If someone brags he's such and such,
don't just nod at nonsense -
if what he says lacks substance,
if his words are weightless
and don't tally with the truth,
you have the right to rebut him.
If someone lacks contentment at how
his looks or his abilities are perceived,
if he doesn't know his limits,
such hubris is hardly an asset.
Anyone who claims perfection lacks it -
there's always someone worthier;
manliness is not measured like this -
if he fulfils nine points
he'll still fail on the tenth.
That man who prays at the proper hour
though his mind drifts still thinks it's good -
if society is suffering don't suppose
the trek not worth starting.
If you sit somewhere unsafe
it's better to move than settle,
and if you have a burning question,
it's better to stand up and ask.
Anyone who refuses to see you as equal -
refute his superiority:
you were born in the selfsame way
or was he carried for ninety months instead?
If you fear to be suddenly awoken from sleep
don't live in interesting times.
When ambition isn't matched by achievement
entrust that task to an incisive hand -
this is the right way as I see it:
if an accident needs prompt treatment
don't wait for an auspicious time.
Each morning brings its own misfortunes
so don't waste the day bewailing it:
to be plain, it's your duty to solve them
then plan for tomorrow -
life requires your clarity,
fit rules, sound methods,
and none of this is impossible.
Treasure knowledge which is seemly,
combine it with apt action
and you'll lack no asset -
this is what it is to be civilised
and that alone is life's essence.