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SOMALIA2 131   

As the sun plummets down the horizon, the joyous people of the village depart company after the Gelbis to prepare for the more interesting part of the ceremony and the festivities continue through the night. Demonstrative of the happy times they are having, everyone in the village as well as the neighbouring settlements congregate at the hut of the newly-weds. An unrestrained enthusiasm sweeps across the surroundings and the sounds of ululating women travels several kilometres upon the open fields.

Come nightfall and the Gaaf begins. With a mixture of several forms of poetry, songs and riddles, the Gaaf is perhaps the most entertaining part of the entire wedding ceremony. The villagers look forward to the Gaaf in anticipation. Settlers from far areas travel several nights just to witness the fun-filled night as a young girl recited in her poem in one Gaaf I attended:

 

Hoobe hobaala hoobala hoobalow

Ee hoobe hobaala hoobalayey hadaba

Beryaan soo dhaxayoo bogoxaa shishaan ka imid

Calaf ma dooneynoo cagahana ma daalineyn

Oo soor ma dooneynin saaxiibna uma gudeyn

Boqorada iyo boqorka soo booqo baan lahaa

Ciyaarta ka tiiri oo caawi baan lahaa

 

Hoobe hobaala hoobala hoobalow (these set the rhyming pattern for the poem)

Ee hoobe hobaala hoobalayey hadaba

For nights I have been travelling, coming from distant lands

Neither was I in search of my destined partner nor was I tiring my legs (in vain)

I wasn’t in search of food and for a friend I did not travel

To visit the Queen and the King was my intention

To perfect their dance ceremony and help them was my intention

 

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Right: The Bride and groom in the middle and the Malxiis & Malxiisad on either sides

The hut is decorated to the best of their means (the above is not a hut but a tin-roofed house), with all sorts of elegant decorative utensils and Nomadic handicrafts at display; the bride, in her wedding apparel, is covered with brilliant patterns of henna, the women in their Subeeciyad and the man in his best clothes, each according to his means.

The Gaaf is simply a congregation at the house of the newly-weds for seven nights, where singing, poetry and riddles are preserved through the nights and it too, like the Xeedho, has some strict rules to be observed:

  • As soon as you enter the hut, it is customary that you first shake hands with the groom, then the bride, then the best-man (malxiis), then the best-woman (Malxiisad) – and in that precise order also. After that you are permitted to greet any other attendees of your acquaintance or liking.
  • When many people have attended and food is lavishly consumed, the entertainment then starts. Entertainment here is to be understood primarily in terms of extended verbal jousts and battle of words and intellect. Poetry, riddles and songs, all either wishing blessing for the newly-weds or expressing self-avowal of one’s intellect or wisdom is composed or recited; sometimes it even culminates in a battle between the sexes, as often is the case.
  • Once the entertainment starts, the groom is appointed his two male helpers. One of these helpers acts as the ‘court’ (Maxkamad) and the other as the ‘public prosecutor’ or a ‘policeman’ (Askari). The Askari with his baton walks around the room and initiates the ceremony by either singing or reciting a poem first. Then he points his stick to someone in the gathering and that person must stand in front of the ‘court’ to be sentenced.
  • The sentencing of this person could comprise of answering several riddles, a poem recitation or singing a song. If that person does not comply to any of these, he/she has one chance to pass on the sentence to someone else.
  • Everyone attending the Gaaf is subject to such random picking to be sentenced to a public performance.
  • If a person gets a riddle wrong, he/she is punished and the punishments sometimes include being branded on the face with ashes or something similar for the duration of the night. Sometimes the punished are made to drink water filled with salt.
  • Several bottles of perfumes are brought in to spray on the performer who sings well or recites a good poem or answers all his/her riddles correctly.

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When the house was filled the man with the blue shirt on the right was the Askari and picked performers.

Though the customs of the Gaaf have somewhat diminished now and its tradition is not fully observed within much of the Somali community in Somalia, and is extinct in the western world, yet the Nomads practice it and for them it is a great occasion. They take great pride in their ceremonies. Utmost care is ensured so that everything is in its due place and the hut, adorned in a variety of woven mats and decorative material, looks as ornamental as their skilful hands can make it.

But what makes the Gaaf interesting is not the decoration of the hut or the number of people attending; it is the words recited by the performers and the wisdom behind them that lightens up the gathering and the more versed a person is in poetry the more esteemed they are in those circles.

Poetry in this forsaken land is not simply a hobby of the erudite gentlemen of high nobility; each and everyone is in possession of an admirable wit for words and is capable of composing either rabble-rousing speeches or laudable verses of praise. Here are laymen and ordinary Nomads on whose tongues fountains of words flourish, so everyone on the night composes poems on the spot. It is these words that are imparted, the feelings they embody and the sentiments they arouse that become the highlight of the night.

Observing these nomads had now strengthened my aforementioned predilection for a residence among them. Their simple ways of living and care-free life had appealed to me for a very long time. As for the exchange of poems during the nights of Gaaf, I will post a few examples in my next post…

To be continued…

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The Gelbis (escorting the bride to her new home), as I said earlier, is the occasion that marks the commencement of the wedding ceremony. And this (above left) is how it starts, with the women slowly making their way to the hut ululating, drumming and singing songs of praise and various wedding songs as well as the Gelbis song. In the middle of them would be the bride shrouded in a white cloth. In the olden times, a bride and groom would be escorted to their new hut with a convoy of the finest horses in town, but those days are long gone now. I was received with scepticism while taking the pictures of this particular wedding, with each individual wanting to see how they became magically transformed into my digital camera’s small screen. An inquisitive look filled most of the faces present, while some, as the girl with the glittery face, braved their way.

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The entrance of the hut, Ardaaga, would be decked with Alool (above left), though the earth would not normally be as barren as above and would be beautified with leaves and pebbles as underlay and then ornamented with a beautifully crafted mat. Once the women reach the hut, the men then make their way to the hut, humming Islamic songs of praise of the Prophet. As they approach, the gunmen take their prominent places near the hut. Once the men approach the hut, they assemble outside the hut and let the groom enter the hut alone. The gunmen then fire several (usually three) consecutive shots into the air, before the blessings and prayers are showered upon the newly-weds. Then animals are slaughtered and a grand feast is declared for the night!

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But before the feast, right after the prayers and blessings, all congregate to watch young men assemble in a circle and partake in a jumping contest. The elders watch their offsprings from the sidelines, whilst the women ululate and the young ones, frolicking in the open land, learn the moves to the dance being performed.

 

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The dance though usually vibrant and energetic, escalates in harmony, as if it were choreographed. The dizzying swirls and the gravity-defying leaps all appear to effortlessly flow from the dancers as they waggle their bodies up and down and side to side in unity. The particular dance being performed in the above images is called Shurbo and the men chant Hoo lebi whilst leaping in the air. The group of dancers below are jumping to the Muraasenyo which is very similar to the Shurbo but with different chants. Though the young ladies now watch from the sides, their turn will come once night falls. As soon as darkness engulfs the land, a troupe of dancers consisting of young men and women escort each other to an open field, far off the newly-weds’ hut and prepare their grounds. There the young women gracefully gambol and compete in a war of verses with the young men.

 

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The dance continues all the way until nightfall. Once the last few rays of the sun plummet down the horizon and the bewitching mosaic of colours across the sky start to fade, the villager return to their homes to prepare for the Gaaf.

Salaam

Greetings all,

I am back after my inexplicable month-long hiatus. Much has been happening lately and that has kept me occupied for over a month or so; so much so that I haven’t even had the time to visit this blog. Bear with me friends, I will resume posting in a few days insha-Allah.

Spot the difference!

The Raw Somali 

The Raw Somali

 

The trained Somali

The trained Somali

 

Is there anything wrong with these two images, or is it just me?

 

obtained from JSTOR.

Xeedho

The Xeedho is a custom usually prevalent in the Northern parts of Somalia. After the wedding is consummated and the bride and groom settle peacefully in their newly constructed home, it is time for opening the Xeedho or as it is called in Somali Xeedho-fur. This usually occurs on the seventh night, – the final night of the seven-day honeymoon period. The roots of Xeedho lie in the pastoral lands with the Somali Nomads. The custom though, is dwindling in the rural areas and has, as of late, taken a great following in the urban areas

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Left: The Xeedho. Middle: The veil is uncovered. Right: Naked

In the olden times the villagers would gather outside the hut of the newly weds and the Xeedho-opening ceremony would take place. The gathering in the city does not differ much from that of the villages as all people congregate in a large hall.

The Xeedho, with its gracefully winding shape is designed with the bride in mind. It actually signifies the bride. As the members of both the families gather around in big circles, the Xeedho is placed in the middle and the ceremony begins.

So it must be tended to as if it were the bride herself and as a result, the opening of the Xeedho has fixed rules and regulations, though many of them are no longer practiced by majority of people. The tradition is slowly dying and losing its formal procedures, some of which are:

  • The Xeedho MUST be opened completely so that the groom can publicly declare the bride as his wife.
  • The groom cannot partake in the opening of the Xeedho
  • A male member from the groom’s tribe, usually a close relative such as a cousin, etc. is chosen to open the knots on the Xeedho. First though, he must take the upper veil off, just as he would a new bride in her wedding gown, and then process with the untying of the ropes.
  • A guard, usually a woman and from the bride’s family, holding a gentle stick stands beside the Xeedho and watches as the man carefully tries to untie the labyrinth of knots. Being one of the few women who spent days and days interweaving the rope on the Xeedho, she knows every opening and every knot.
  • If the man places his hands on the wrong end of the rope, or tries to open the rope from a different knot, the female guard lightly whips him with her stick. That signifies that he has to change the course of his opening of the rope and find a new lead. This will continue until the Xeedho is opened.
  • There is nothing wrong if the man finds the opening end of the Xeedho easily and it is opened quickly, though sometimes this might cause a squabble between the female members of the two parties.
  • There is only one opening of the rope on the Xeedho. This opening is a tiny knot hidden in the maze of ropes. If the man finds the opening, he would simply pull it and it disentangles itself completely – thereby opening the Xeedho.
  • Several male members from the groom’s family will attempt to open the Xeedho, and all that time, the Guard keeps watch for any mistakes.
  • If the Xeedho is not opened that night, they congregation returns the following night to try and open it.

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The above images show the untying of the ropes on the Xeedho.

If the relatives of the groom fail to open the Xeedho, a great deal of disgrace follows them wherever they go. The bride is (sometimes) repossessed by her family saying that the groom, whose relatives could not open the Xeedho, will not be capable of catering to the needs of the bride. The women engage in verbal scuffles and a war of songs while the men resort to spiteful words of poetry being recited over a course of time. Sometimes even battles between tribes came about as a result of a Xeedho not opened properly or not opened at all.

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The two images above reveal the Sati (which the Xeedho is made of) after the removal of the white cloth (Salaq) and the container with the contents.

The white cloth draped around the curvy container is called Salaq. The Xeedho is the complete thing and the outer hard covering that it is contained in is called Sati. Inside the Xeedho is small container with the Subag covered with a thick coating of dates. The dates are mixed with several spices and then ground together to make this chunky substance. It is not just Subag though, but there is also Muqmad/oodkac – small dried meatballs immersed in the Subag. After the successful opening of the Xeedho, its contents I.e. the Subag and Muqmad are distributed among the male members of both families/relatives/attendees. It is customary that the women do not eat from the Xeedho – for them is a special one taken to the girls house which is then distributed accordingly.

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Left: The thick mixture of dates and spices is sliced open.   Right: Once opened, a rich mixture of Subag and Muqmad lies at the bottom ready to be consumed

Gelbis

 

Gelbis – the process of escorting the bride and groom to their newly constructed hut/house is one of the pre-requisites of Somali weddings. The above song is usually sung during such processes.

Somali Cultural Weddings

dance

 

During the rainy seasons of Gu’ and some times throughout the moderately infrequent rains of the Dayr seasons, the pastoral nomads of Somalia’s countryside rejoice in the abundance of wealth that they have. It is at this time when most of their animals give birth. The once barren earth now becomes fertile; the top layer of soil remains constantly damp (sayax) and with water covering the ground, it produces fresh green grass called Cosob for all animals to graze nearby. With the continually dropping rains, and the abundance of lush pasture for the animals, there is always a plenteous supply of fresh milk and water.

The men, relieved of the burdens of trekking countless number of miles with their camels in search of green pastures, the salty Daran plants that their camels love and watering places, can now sprawl out under the fully blossomed branches of the nearby Galool trees and relax. They celebrate as their milch-camels usually give birth during these seasons and consume the highly cherished milk just after a camel has given birth. This milk is called Dambar and is often highly prized. The camels, with their front legs loosely tied are let out into the fields nearby to nibble at the freshly sprouting leaves. The entire plains are covered in soft green grass and the elders of the village gather under trees and brilliant verses of poetry acclaiming the sweetness of the seasons are sung.

The female nomads, alleviated from the arduous chores of disassembling huts during the dry seasons of Xagaa and Jiilaal to move to greener pastures, are now engaged in conversations and endless moments of merriment. There is a plenty supply of water and milk – the two essential nutrients of the Somali nomads.

Weddings and cultural dances are a regular occurrence during these seasons. It is also a time when young men who have come of age go about, usually to far away places, scouting for their brides. Local cultural dances and wedding ceremonies are the best forms of entertainment and differ from region to region. And scouting usually takes place at the dancing circles where many young men and women come to compete in a war of words.

Though impoverished and penniless, they have neither money nor jewels to bestow upon their soon-to-be brides, but one thing is prized above everything here – eloquence of speech. And what a deadly weapon it can be! In this Nomadic culture, even the amount of camels a man owns or the aristocratic lineage from which he hails may sometimes mean little where articulacy in speech and poetry are considerably triumphant. The more eloquent a man is – I.e. the more he is able to extol the virtues of his clan, family, valour and exalt the woman he admires by showering her with praise, using an array of metaphors and descriptions of the nomadic life with a clear indication of his wisdom and intellectual capacity – the more appealing he is to the observant eyes of the young clapping ladies.

The young man is in a tough competition though, for poetry here is a pastime for all. So he must be able to evoke deep sentiments through recitation and complement it with a hypnotising dance. The women too are venomous in their speech and often respond with sharp words. Perhaps one of the most famous cultural dance, that most people have heard of, is the story between Hurre Walanwal and Cambaro (I will write more about this famous story in another post soon)

The Engagement & Wedding

These cultural dances usually occur after a wedding. Weddings are perhaps one of the most important aspects of the Somali culture. A wedding denotes not only the union of two souls but the relationship between two families and, more importantly, two tribes. The engagement or Meher usually takes place a few days before the wedding, and sometimes on the same day. The wedding arrangements and agreements are all settled on that day to prepare for the big day. But before the jubilant groom can lay hands on his beautiful bride, there are many hurdles to cross and many gifts to bestow upon her family. These include

Gabaati – This is usually a gift conferred upon the girl’s family when the groom and his father go to ask the girl’s father for her hand in marriage. It is given to the soon-to-be bride’s family. Usually a young camel is given.

Yarad – This is a present given to the immediate family of the girl and is given on the day of engagement as a form of gratitude. Usually a shawl or money wrapped in an expensive shemagh or keffiyah is given.

Sooryo – this is a present given to the male members of the girl’s family. Usually it is her brothers/cousins etc who take this and is always in the form of money.

Meher – this is the engagement. The amount of camels or money the man must make a pledge to bestow his wife as Dowry is usually known as her Meher. The Meher does not need to be paid straight away, but is a promise which the man is bound to fulfil. In earlier times, when camels were in plenteous supply, a woman would be given about 100 camels just for her hand in marriage. Today, due to the lessening amount of camels in the nomadic countryside, you would be hard pressed to find a man who can afford to pay 10. The importance of Meher cannot be underestimated – without it the wedding cannot take place, so the lady needs to be clear as to what she wants for her Meher and the man is obliged to pay it.

 

Gelbis

Once the hut is constructed for the wedding in a remote place and all the essential utensils are decorated within it, the wedding starts with something called Gelbis – this is usually done just before sunset in most places. Everyone is invited on a specified date and then the Gelbis starts. Gelbis involves a disciplined routine. All the women attending the event in their colourful dresses escort the bride who stands in the middle of all of them, shaded by a long sheet of cloth. Standing far away from the designated hut, about a hundred metres away, they slowly make their way to the hut whilst somali dancedrumming, clapping and ululating (mashxarad) loudly. They sing;

Nuur Allow

Nebi Allow

Maxamad Nebi

Magac samow

 

O’ Light of God

O’ Prophet of God

O’ Prophet Mohamed

How excellent your name is!

The groom, who is also at an equal distance on the other side of the hut, along with all the men present, too, slowly makes his way to the hut with the men chanting songs of praise of the prophet.

Allahuma salli calal xabiib Muxamad

Oh Allah, shower your blessing upon our dear prophet Mohamed

The women approach the hut first, and the bride alone, still clouded in mystery under the long sheets held by the women above her head, enters the hut unseen. The rest of the women assemble outside the hut, leaving adequate amount of space for the approaching gentlemen. The men then arrive, with the tribal chiefs and revered elders on either sides of the groom, buzzing like bees in their mantra.

With slow, calculated steps, and chanting all the while, the groom makes his way into the hut while the rest of the men align themselves outside the hut, still persistent in their chants. With both parties now standing at the entrance of the hut, Ardaa, the chanting finally stops and the most notable member of the congregation gives a short speech and blessings are showered upon the newly weds. After verses from the Holy Qur’an are recited and Amen is declared en masse, three men fire three shots in short succession into the air to conclude the ceremony. This concludes the Gelbis After the feast of fresh meat and milk is consumed, the bride and groom are escorted with horses and camels to their new home and the party begins. 

As the poet, Cabdullahi Faarax Warsame ( Lecture) stated in one of his poems;

Waa gob iyo caadkeed
Aroos inay gangaamaan
Guri ay yagleelaan
Gelbiska iyo shallaadkiyo
Gole lagu kulmaayoo
Giringiro ciyaartii
Dadku gaaf ka boodaan
Wa gob iyo caadkeed

 

It is of Nobles and their custom

To coordinate a splendid wedding

And construct a house

The Gelbis and the chantings

At the places of gathering

Where the dance take place

And the masses leap at the Gaaf

It is of Nobles and their custom

As the sunset dips into the horizon and darkness engulfs the area, fires are lit and dances continue on through the night. After the Gelbis several routine and mandatory tasks are performed as part of the wedding. These include Gaaf, which is also known as Todoba Bax, Xeedho, Shaash saar, etc. depending on the region where the wedding is taking place. Even the dances differ from region to region.

This is one long post, so I will stop here and explain more about Gaaf, Xheedho and Shaah Saar in another post…

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