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After travelling for several hours, the family had just settled into their new location with ample grazing ground and access to water nearby. The mother was disassembling the hut, sticking the Dhigo and Udub firmly into the soil and in close proximity were the two young girls holding the harness of the camel on which their elderly grandmother sat. Just as the two girls approached the hut, they were ambushed by loud chanting and the cries of ululating women drifted along the cool breeze and landed on their ears.

This they realised was an emancipation of the soul (it is not very often that weddings take place in the nomadic settlements) and were quickly impassioned. Imbued with an intense passion to participate in that wedding, the girls exchanged giggles and elatedly talked of attending the dance session afterwards. And quite rightly so, for this was their chance to mingle with the locals and exchange some verses of poetry.

Their grand-mother who, due to infirmity of age was too weak to walk and had to travel on camel-back, heard all the girls’ excited wails from her resting point. She too, though, hears the voice of ululating women resonating from the dark plains, not far from where they were now settling. After the girls had discussed their plans to attend the wedding, the grand-mother interrupted them and said:

‘Girls, girls! Would you stop the camel so that I can dismount and join those ululating women…’

They girls were taken aback by this request and stared at each other in amazement, unable to decide whether the old woman meant what she said or merely spoke in jest. This feeble woman, they thought, could not stand the noise and the dancing that takes place.

‘O’ grandmother, are you joking or have you finally gone insane’ they said.

Their grandmother smiled and then laughed, shaking her head slightly. Little do the girls know about the feelings of the old woman and what she is going through! Little do they know that over half a century ago, in an evening very similar to this, the very place that they have now settled bore witness to their grandmother’s first wedding! And in a manner similar to this evening’s wedding that the girls were planning to attend, many people from all over the countryside attended her wedding too. It was even perhaps here where her firstborn’s umbilical chord was buried. But to all this they were unaware, over taken by the wails of the wedding nearby. Even before the start of their long journey to this place, the grandmother was well aware of where they were headed and the wedding taking place.

In a short, succinct poem, the old lady relates her complete life story to her adolescent grand-daughters, wistfully lamenting her ripeness of age and the different stages in her life. She said:

 

  • Beri baan, beri baan          
  • Wax la dhaloo dhulka jiifta ahaa
  • Beri baan, beri baan
  • Bilig bilig baraar celisa ahaa
  • There was a time; There was a time;

    when I was newly born, lying on the ground

    There was a time; There was a time;

    when I scuttled around tending to lambs

  • Beri baan, beri baan
  • Daba-jeex dabka qaada ahaa
  • Beri baan, beri baan
  • Rukun rukun, reeraha u wareegto ahaa
  • There was a time; There was a time;

    when I was entrusted to kindle the fire

    There was a time; There was a time;

    when aimlessly I ran around the huts

  • Beri baan, beri baan
  • Raamaley riyo raacda ahaa
  • Beri baan, beri baan
  • Habloweyn had hadaafta ahaa
  • There was a time; There was a time;

    when I was a juvenile guarding the goats

    There was a time; There was a time;

    when I was a strolling mature girl

  • Beri baan, beri baan
  • Aroos indha-kuulan ahaa
  • Beri baan, beri baan 
  • Mar curad marwo reerle ahaa
  • There was a time; There was a time;

    when I was a mascara-clad bride

    There was a time; There was a time;

    when I was a first-time mother and a housewife

  • Beri baan, beri baan
  • Laba-dhal laafyoota ahaa
  • Beri baan, beri baan
  • Saddex-dhal sit sitaacda ahaa
  • There was a time; There was a time;

    when I was an elegantly ambling mother of two

    There was a time; There was a time;

    when I was a dazzling mother of three

  • Beri baan, beri baan
  • Afar-dhal afo aada ahaa
  • Beri baan, beri baan
  • Shan-dhal sheekaysa ahaa 
  • There was a time; There was a time;

    when I was the finest mother of four

    There was a time; There was a time;

    when I was a gossiping mother of five

  • Beri baan, beri baan 
  • Lix-dhal liibaantey ahaa
  • Goblan talo aduunyoy 
  • Ma hadaan gabooboo
  • Laygu qaaday guro awr. 
  • There was a time; There was a time;

    when I was a triumphant mother of six

    Woe to you o’ world!

    did I now become old

    That I am carried on camel-back

 

Image by Photogenic. Story translated from Guri Waa Haween.

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old

time to rest

Everything in life has its peak then its glory fades. And we are no different. After a man’s life has reached its pinnacle, having attained all the sagacity and prudence it could, it starts to wane. Soon everything he possesses will start to either diminish or disappear. Whether he likes it or not, the dreaded wrinkles begin their assault on the once handsome face and the inevitability of age becomes certain. Then he starts to walk on threes, and finally on all fours. Like a toddler learning how to walk, the old man staggers and stumbles a multitude times. Hesitant and unable to walk long distances, he becomes confined to his resting place. Rendered immobile and almost out of touch with the community, he rests under the shade of his hut or a nearby tree and awaits any passerby to inform him of the events and news around him. Despite being hungry and weak, he is unable to eat and meals become almost unpalatable to him, except for whatever he could gulp down of camel milk.

As the sun sets everyday, his uncertainties grow – unsure whether he would be fit enough to see the break of dawn. And if he makes it to the daybreak, he becomes even more uncertain of its dusk! He starts to realise that soon, like his friends, he too will share a dark and dismal pit with the insects while the soil gnaws away at his fragile bones. If he was a poet it dawns on him that his friends with whom he would have exchanged banter with are long gone, as Dharbaaxo Jin said:

  • Raggiise aan la maansoon lahaa aakhiro u meerye
  • Raagihii mudnaa iyo Qamaan mawdkii baa helaye
  • Sayyidkii murtida sheegi jirey meel fog buu tegaye

 

  • The men I would’ve versed with have left for the hereafter
  • Death has caught up with the venerable Raage and Qamaan
  • The sagacious Sayyid too has departed to a far away place

In his feeble state, the old man become slightly petulant and develops an unpleasant disposition. The strident wails and laughter of frolicking kids annoys him. He is perturbed by loud noises and disturbances of any kind. Being in an isolated state, he often requires a constant companion to tend to his needs. And if not for a dutiful son or grandson or an unusually compassionate young man or woman to look after him, the old man if often left in his lonesome state.

When the poet Faarax Xasan Cali (farax Afcad) was in a ripe old age, he recited a poem describing the sort of woman he would marry, if he were to do so. He said:

  • Caanaha cidey kama bogto oo badey gugeygiiye
  • Hadba balaq midaan ii shubeyn waan ka boobsanahay

 

  • Cidey’s milks I am not satiated with as my years have increased
  • And she who wouldn’t readily pour me [milk] then I am wary of

It is also usual for an old Nomad in this decrepit state to completely lose his eye sight and/or become deaf or become partially sighted or partially deaf. When night falls and others are in deep slumber, he lies awake in his lonesome place twisting and turning, his groans and grunts filling the dark space. he is rendered sleepless at night and restless during the day, waiting for the angel of death to cast a shadow of gloom on his sombre existence.

Sheikh Axmad Gole was an erudite scholar, renowned throughout the Somali lands, particularly Western Somalia, for his understanding of religion. But when old age got to him, he was asked about his state and he replied thus:

 

  • Indhihii mid waa jaw                  the eyes, one is completely gone
  • Midna jeex yar baa haray           and a portion is left of the other
  • Jaaha iyo gacantii                      the face and the hands
  • waa wada jirkoodaas                  are but that mere skin
  • Dhegihii waxbaa jooga               a fraction is left of the ears
  • Waase sii jufmahayaan               But they are deteriorating
  • Ushaa ii jifada dheer                  that stick with the steel end
  • Waa jimicsigaygii                        is my tool for my exercise
  • Gol hadaan ku joogsado             if one a hill is step
  • Waan luqun jubaarmaa               I lose my footing and tumble
  • Dhul hadaan jadi maago             if on land I decided to walk
  • Waa badi jugleeyaa                    I stagger and fall on my bottom
  • Jidba geeljireentana                  if on my back I lie
  • Dhabarkaa I kala jaba                 my back would break
  • Hadaan jimicsi doonana             if I decide to stretch & exercise
  • Jiliftaa I kala baxa                      my spine splits into two
  • Hadaan jeenan waayana            if nourishment I don’t get
  • Sidii inan yar baan jalan            like a toddler I’d whine
  • Jil hadii aan qaatana                 and if I swallow a little
  • Waa jululuqeeyaaye                 my stomach starts to rumble
  • Jirkaygii hufnaanjirey              my once beautiful skin
  • Waa meela joolla ah                 is decrepit and old
  • Jismigii madoobaa                    my once dark hair
  • Hadmaa jookh cad lagu rogey   when was it encased in black?
  • Naagihii aan jeelkeenay            the women that I married
  • Way I jidi necbaadeen              have started to despise me
  • Wiilashaan jeclaan jirey            the sons that I used to love
  • Jawaab igama qaadaan             take no response from me
  • Odaygu waa jinoobaa               that the old man is possessed
  • Waaba lagu jalbeebtaa             they say and secretly gossip
  • Jiriidow Allahayow                   Oh Allah, you are Omnipresent
  • Kolba joogi meynee                 and we won’t last for eternity
  • Jidkii nebig na qaadsiiyoo       guide us to the path of our prophet
  • Jahanama hanoo geyn            and keep us away from hellfire

 

….To be continued

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drum

 

Once the drumming starts and the Gaaf is initiated, silence fills the air. Every ear is tuned towards the person reciting the poetry or singing, in order to assess and judge the worth of his/her words. Addressing everyone present, the young girl starts the ceremony with these lines:

 

Hoobe hobaala hoobala hoobalow

Ee hoobe hobaala hoobalayey hadaba

Salaamu calaykum safiya iyo daahirow

Salaama calaykum safkan meesha joogayow

Salaama calaykum soomaaliyey dhamaan

 

Hoobe hobaala hoobala hoobalow

Ee hoobe hobaala hoobalayey hadaba

Peace be upon you O’ Safiya and Daahir

Peace be upon you O’ who have assembled here

Peace be upon you Somalis in your entirety

 

One she has passed her greetings to everyone in the room, then she explains her reason for travelling so many nights to attend this grand occasion:

 

Beryaan soo dhaxayoo bogoxaa shishaan ka imid

Calaf ma dooneyn cagahana ma daalineyn

Oo soor ma dooneyn saaxiibna uma gudeyn

Boqorada iyo boqorka soo booqo baan is idhi

Ciyaarta ka tiiri oo caawi baan is idhi

 

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

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

 

Then a few words of the merriment of the occasion and the Gaaf:

 

Oo wiilka guurkiisu gacaleeye waalanaa

Afartaa geesoodba gurmad baanu kaaga nahay

Oo gaafka kuu taagney wiilal iyo gabdhaba

Oo ku guulayso anna iga uga gudoon salaam

 

O’ how dear is the man’s wedding to us

From the four corners arrives you an entourage

And at your Gaaf we assembled both boys and girls

May this be a triumph for you and I bid you peace

 

Then she would praise the girl:

 

Gabadhu waa ubax la beeroo uroon indhaha

Waa iftiin belelayoo waa ilays la shiday

Ragbaa u janaaney jaaheeda inay arkaan

Badda kuwaa jiiray Beledweyne orod ku tegey

Kuwaa ka sahwiyey salaadii Ilaahigay

Kuwaa riyo moodey oo aan rumaysan weli

Kuwaa dhuuniga la quutaa dhunkaal ka yahay

Oo walaal Dhooley nimaad dhaaftay dhimasha gaar

 

The girl is pleasing to the eyes like a flower sown

She is a glaring beam; she is that kindled light

Many men have gone mad for a glimpse of her sight

The ocean many have stormed and reached Beledweyne in a sprint

Some have blundered and mistaken the prayers of Allah

Some thinking it a dream have not believed it yet

For some all things edible have become but poison

O’ dear Dhool, he whom you have missed has reached his death

 

Further praising the girl, she says:

 

Shan iyo toban geela niman baa ka shubi lahaa

Kun baa loo diidey boqolbaa berriga fadhiya

Adaase lagu qaadi waayee qalbiga ku hay

Oo gabadhu caynkay tahaan kuu cadaynayaa

Casaan weeyaanoo midabkeedu waa cajiib

Casarkii ma wareegto oo waaberi lama celcelin

Timaha ma casaysan oo baarra kama cashayn

Kuwa cishaha dheelmadana caado uma lahayn

Waxaa dhalay reera dhiirdhiiran oo kulkulul

Dheregna ma ay waayin guri dheelan bay ka timi

 

15 camels some men would have paid to have her

A thousand have been rejected; a hundred lie wretched on land

You were too worthy to let go, so that you should know

And now I will shed light on the type that the girl is

She is fair in complexion and her tone is astonishing

She neither roams in the evening nor restrained in the morning

She hasn’t dyed her hair and from bars did not eat

And those who travel at night, she isn’t among them

She is born to a family hot-blooded and passionate

And provisions she lacks not, coming from a wealthy house

 

Then, praising the man (I haven’t got many poems praising the man) she says:

 

Markuu lebisto markuu laamiyada marmaro

La wada damacyee ma dumar buu u qaybsamaa

 

When immaculately dressed and strolling the streets

Though desired by all, is he divisible amongst women?

 

Then giving advice to the man she says:

 

Gabadhu waa hogol guyoo waa hilaac mar baxay

Hadba ninbaa haybinaayoo adaa hantiyey

Harraad iyo gaajo midna yaaney halis u noqon

Oo yaaney saxar taabanoo siigo yaaney qaban

Minaad la qosleyso mooyee qallooc ka dhawr

 

A girl is like thunderous rain; she is a flash of lighting

Every now and again a man sought her but you won her

To thirst and hunger may she not succumb

May not a speck of dirt touch her, or dust stick to her body

Except that you’re laughing with her, protect her from evil

 

Giving a classification of men and women and praising the newly-weds, the young girl adds:

 

Nimanku ma gudboona guntigay ka siman yihiin

Garkaa wada marayoo garashey is dheeryihiin

Midbaa is garaadiyoo geesi loo filaa

Midbaa gurigii lasoo goodey kala gilgila

Midbaa garanwaaya hawshiisa gaar ahaan

Adiga guulaystow kuuma qabo gedaa

 

Not all men are of the same calibre though equal of the girdle

The beard runs along them all but wisdom, one another they excel

There is one that professes nobility and perceived to be brave

There is one that shakes and disassembles the assembled hut

There is one that is oblivious to his duty as a whole

You, o’ victor, among them I count you not

 

And the women:

 

Dumarku ma gudboona gambadey ka siman yihiin

Midbaa is guduudisoo gaarri loo filaa

Midbaa garanweyda hawsheeda gaar ahaan

Adiga guuleysatoy kuuma qabo gedaa

 

Not all women are of the same calibre though equal of the scarf

There is the one that brightens herself and perceived to be obedient

There is the one that is oblivious to her duty as a whole

You, O’ victor, among them I count you not

 

And she ends with a general advice for the girl:

 

Laba nin oo haybta sare ka siman

Naa hooda guur iyo haween bey ku kala hadhaan

Haweeyoy inanka hano hilib hadeynu nahay

 

Two men, though equal on the outer appearance

It is through marriage and women that they each other surpass

Look after your man, O woman, if we are of the same meat

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picsunset

boaters sunset

Whenever I close my eyes I see her. Her ageing face, pleasant with a few incipient delicate wrinkles; her skin, dark against the resplendent multicoloured stole gently resting on her shoulders; her wizened eyes still bearing the same reprimanding look that she had always effortlessly maintained; her greying hair neatly tucked away under the pale black scarf, with a few protruding strands softly lapping at her brow; her cheerful disposition and her ‘always vigilant’ outlook on life. Now here she lies, withered and wasted, under the soil that constantly gnaws away at her bones; her throbbing heart had finally come to rest, her muscles have renounced the battle, her limbs lie unconstrained and her body tranquil.

It was a sombre March morning when I became aware of it, 19 March 2006 (two years ago today) to be precise. A forlorn mist ominously hissed past the damp and empty Greenwich streets. It seemed colder than usual. The car’s windshield had been frosted with a thin coating of ice and my friend Abdi, drove along the A406 with extra care. I gazed out the side window into the early morning mist; the yellow sun’s lingering rays were slowly emerging, with a few fragmented beams that thawed the thick fog on the bare-branched trees along the road and far into the fields. The fields themselves seeped of insipidity and a motionless mist had cast a permanent gloom over the grass. I was on my way to the airport that Sunday morning when I received the call that changed my life as I had previously known it. ‘Unknown’ said the little screen as my hand hesitantly held it up and answered it. A crackling noise, with half unintelligible words and half drowned by the fading signal, greeted me on the other end. My brother Mursal’s voice it was, I recognised. And though indiscernible it may have been, the message was deafening clear. She had passed away; my aunt Maryan.

Ever since I became aware of my surroundings and was able to determine right from wrong, I remember her as always being there – a statue-like figure, imposing in its appearance, permanently ingrained in my mind’s eye so that it constantly stared down at me like a silent sentinel. Like a majestic tree in its full glory she once towered over my life. Not like the trembling Aspen whose lithe frame and slender branches sway with the slightest breeze; nor like the beautifully soaring Beech with its vivid mosaic of colours and a canopy of foliage that falls off at the hint of autumn, but like the mighty Oak whose sturdy trunk and rigid roots, though furrowed with age, stand strong in the face of unsettled seasons. Such was her character – bold, brash and dominating. Now, drained and debilitated, the mighty Oak has, at long last, given in. Its broad leaves have now wilted and finally dropped; its inflexible branches, that once sheltered a variety of life, have now shrunken and its strong roots have shrivelled.

Along with the frost and mist, time too had frozen. The seconds slowly gave way to minutes and minutes to hours; faintly the tarmac rolled, like a giant carpet that was being pulled smoothly beneath me in slow motion; the wind howled past at great speeds; horns blared and brakes screeched, but I was benumbed by the news and deaf to the noise, and quietly insentient and oblivious to my surroundings. Her face had covered my horizon – her image draped itself on the canvas of motorway signs, her words chimed and swam soothingly in my ears and my mind relapsed to a time many years ago when I left her.  

Had it not been for a broken leg and the bouts of illnesses she had suffered a few years prior to her death, no age could wither her nor slow her down. At 66, she could walk faster than any man her age so her death was a bolt from the blue. Having grown from toddler to a man under her care, my entire life revolved around her. My parents, nomadic pastoralists, have entrusted me into her care at the tender age of five. So I was beholden to her for things too many to mention, but before I could be of any service to her and repay the kindness of her guardianship in my childhood with compassion and care, we became separated as I left for England.  

And as distance makes the heart grow fonder, everyday life’s little pleasures had started to dwindle without her presence to illuminate them. And now, all life’s subtle joys and attractions have abruptly been terminated when that stream of consciousness was ended by her death. The cool shade of the oak had been lifted and the cloud that constantly overshadowed and sheltered me from life’s trials, even in her absence, had, in that very instant, disappeared – it felt as if she had entered into a deep slumber, taking all she’s ever given me along with her. Know my Aunt, that the caravan awaits and I am coming too…  

My mind now solemnly gravitates towards the lost stream of consciousness; towards the unattainable past. Her malevolent scolding has now mellowed down to a mellifluous melody with a tuneful, comforting resonance. And her memory leisurely lingers to fill me with hope. The Mighty oak may have withdrawn its branches and departed with its abundant shade but it has dropped its acorns, and from among these acorns another mighty oak shall soon grow…

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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

 

SOMALIA2 030  SOMALIA2 125

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.

SOMALIA2 126

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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