De Gabay Interview: Poets Hassan Panero and Ahmed Yusuf

 

Asked how ‘De Gabay’ has changed them as poets, Ahmed Yusuf and Hassan Panero agree that where they used to write for themselves, ‘now we write for everyone.’ The pair, who – along with Ali Goolyad – form the core group of Somali poets at the heart of National Theatre Wales’ latest mega-production, cannot seem to help but finish each others’ sentences. Each has a very different story, but they have no doubt that the future holds more in the way of collaboration. ‘We’re trying to bridge a gap,’ says Ahmed of what they see as the production’s main theme, ‘between the young and the old. The young have forgotten the wisdom of the old; the old have forgotten the importance of the young.’

The two poets themselves are in no danger of forgetting. Each of them talks vividly about the average Somali’s ability to recite their family tree, a litany of names stretching back generations. Ahmed gives a quick example; within ten seconds he must be back into the eighteenth century, the names of his forefathers taking on a lilting rhythm that immediately envelops the listener in an ancient oral tradition alive to the importance of cadence in both memory and beauty.

‘The young have forgotten the wisdom of the old; the old have forgotten the importance of the young.’

Ahmed was born in Somalia, but moved to Warrington in the north-west of England at the age of five. Just four years later, the fact that his family were the only Somalis in the town meant the young Ahmed was on the move again – this time to somewhere that felt like home from home. ‘My mother had family in Cardiff, so it was the obvious place to come,’ he explains. This was 1994 and Ahmed has long since settled in the city, having been educated at Cathays High School, where he met Hassan, who has a very different – and yet strangely familiar – tale. Born in Frankfurt but having grown up initially in Copenhagen, Hassan’s family were – like Ahmed’s in Warrington – ‘one of the first six Somali families to come to Denmark’. When Hassan’s mother became disabled, a lack of opportunities in the Danish capital meant that she too, with family and friends in Cardiff, followed the well-trodden Somali path to Butetown.

‘Everyone in Somalia knows Cardiff,’ enthuses Ahmed. ‘It’s famous because in the past so many people used to send money home.’ With the first seamen from the Horn of Africa settling in the docklands communities in the 1890s, it is hardly a wonder that such well-established ex-pat links mean that newer generations of settlers make Cardiff their port of choice. ‘In the past, it was Cardiff or Liverpool – the big ports – or London, of course; if you say to someone in Somalia you’re from Britain, they ask if you’re from Cardiff or London. But in London,’ Ahmed explains in his soft Cardiff brogue, ‘everyone already knows where you’re from ’cause of your accent.’ However, in terms of affinities within the British Somali community, both poets agree that they feel most akin to the 4-5,000 Somalis in Sheffield, those who settled in the steel city in the 1930s as well as the more recent immigrants from the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

‘Everyone in Somalia knows Cardiff’

It is clear from our brief conversation that both poets are equally proud of their Somali heritage and their Cardiff community, and each aspect of their identities will be explored in ‘De Gabay’. Hassan explains that ‘we used to write for the page – this is very much off the page.’ It reminds him of the moment he feels he ‘became a poet’: back at school when he began to read his scribblings out to classmates and, by all accounts, anyone who would listen. ‘Initially, I thought of my writing as a diary. It was my way of documenting transition in my life. Other people might take pictures. I would write.’ But despite that Hassan now ‘thinks in English’ – despite also being fluent in Danish and Somali – it seems that the deeply ingrained oral tradition and poetry of his heritage played a prominent role in his poetic development. ‘I was writing a diary, but I did it in rhythm and rhyme.’

Ahmed picks up the loose thread of the conversation by referring to Dagdeer, a mythical witch who, in Somali folktales, hears everything that children say. Both poets remember these stories – a useful way of controlling children’s behaviour – being told to them from an early age, and it is a love of narrative as well as a commitment to a rich inherited culture that has driven both young men to become poets. Excitingly, both also seem to view ‘De Gabay’ as the beginning of something rather than an end.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis