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WDN Person of the year: A Legend living among us: Said Salah Ahmed


It is hard or rather impossible to scoop a handful of seawater and call it a “sea” or to unfurl a sheet of clothing and call it a “land.”  Such is the Said Salah Ahmed’s lifetime achievement in the fields of education, theater and poetry composition, not to mention just being a conscientious citizen beyond Somalia.  Yet that is exactly what we are trying to do here, forcing fifty years of unparalleled lifetime achievements in a few pages.

Said_SalahSaid Salah’s lifetime journey began at the dawn of kaliil in 1945 on the mountainous land of Sanaag region Somalia, west of Laas Qorey.  Similar to many Somali boys, he was snatched from the jaws of a nomadic life but in his case only at age six, when in his absence an uncle of his dared to register him in a school that was about to open its doors for the first time ever in the city of Laas Qorey.  He went to Ceerigaabo, then to first ever Dayaxa Intermediate School that of which later became one of the best in the nation though short-lived.  Walking by one day, the assistant principal of Dayaxa Intermediate School, Farah Hussein (Gudle), heard a voice emanating from a class that he assumed to have been unoccupied.  The incomparable Farah Hussein, who on his own right was a capable, caring and compassionate legend with enormous contribution to the culture of education, not only in the north but also in the whole nation, sauntered into the class to investigate.  To his surprise, he found Said Salah, a seventh grader at the time, lecturing to empty seats.  As Farah Hussein walked in, Said Salah thought he was in trouble.  He knew that Farah Hussein was an uncompromising disciplinarian, thus the fear that he was going to make him pay for the unauthorized excursion to a sacred teacher’s territory assaulted him.  However, the legend assistant principal knew talent when he saw one.  Therefore, he called Said Salah and simply asked, “Said, do you like to teach?”  Without hesitation, he responded in the affirmative.

There he gave Said Salah an enviable assignment: to tutor the newest arrivals, the 4th graders.  Even since that day, Said Salah has been in one classroom or another, teaching.

To climb up the ladder of education, Said Salah went on to graduate from Camuud Secondary School and Hargeisa Teachers’ Training Center in 1963.  For his first assignment, he was sent to NFD of Kenya (Northern Frontier District) to teach English (Somalis were anticipating NFD to reunite with the rest of Somalia) when the region was ceded to Kenya and the plan was scuttled altogether.  Reasonably, Said Salah began his teaching career in Hargeisa, moved on to Cadaadley, then Burco and then to Beer.  There he travelled to the south and on to the land of the famed Somali National University of Lafoole.  Graduating with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry in 1968, he continued his illustrious teaching career in Lafoole and later on to Banaadir Secondary School as a principal.

While still in Lafoole and among a group of four (Gaariye, Hadraawi, Said Salah and Muuse Gadhle) all from the north with creative mind and raw talent, he participated in composing one of the most memorably enduring and powerful play, Aqoon iyo Afgarad.  Once the play hit theaters across the country, it stirred a firestorm of emotion that exploded into the public arena with an antithetical interpretation to message that the creators had not meant to convey.  They, the group of four, were trying to criticize the foreign educated Somalis.  To them, those who had gone abroad for higher education came with alien culture and concepts, thus importing back to Somalia, imposing on the Somali youth rather than reinforcing and strengthening theirs. Contrary though to the creator’s intent, both the public and authority saw the play as anti-government.  Consequently, Siyad Barre’s regime banned it.  However hard the authorities tried to stop the play, they failed miserably, because the play, particularly its songs, took a life of its own, perpetuating the now legitimized public interpretation: that it was anti-authority and about the public’s stifled grievances.

As a result, the ban itself forced a spin off audacity of poems that would spiral into a chain, called Siinley. Siinley would live on to become one of the most important Somali poetry series. Here too, Said Salah was an invaluable participant of that young, creative Siinley crew.

Consequently, Aqoon iyo Afgarad and its spin off Siinley brought about a literary political awareness that forced a paradigm shift.  Siinley for example, hurled a major poetry power shift by replacing the traditional Gabay as medium muscle of might to reach the masses with Jeefto.  From there on, Jeefto, this time on Siinley medium moved to the lead and never looked back.  Aqoon iyo Afgarad on other hand legitimized the simile and satire as a weapon against the tyrannical regime.

Second, it was the first time that “Qalinley,” the educated, young elites, assaulted the field of traditional Gabay, which previously belonged to the sage nomadic men.  Historically, the sage Somali nomadic men looked down on the “the weak-minded and meek urban boys” of Qalinleey.  Now however, the same Qalinleey of Said Salah’s group and age, ran away with the poetry’s covet trophy by presenting Siinley in a Jiifto genre.

In 1975, Said Salah reached out to Iftin (the best Somali literary band and musicians) that was part of the ministry of education and took the helm.  The band succeeded in producing some of the best Somali, written music notes; and plays, placing itself prominently in the hearts and minds of Somalis.

In 1982-1985, Said Salah took on a daunting task of producing “Darwiishka Soomaaliyeed,” a movie about Sayid Mohammad Abdille Hassan, the indomitable father of Somali resistance, who, with his Dervish army, fought not only against the colonial powers of both Britain and Italy but Ethiopia from 1898 to 1920. Said Salah triumphed on this tall task by bringing the charismatic yet controversial leader to life.

Arriving in the US in the mid 1990s, Said Salah carried on the camel bell (koor) for education. Choosing to teach at an intermediate school in Minneapolis, he continued to multi-task by writing books as well as travelling throughout the world to keep the mother tongue, the Somali language relevant.

In late 2000, Said Salah, once more began to partake a push to make a case for Somali language to become one of the languages taught at the University of Minnesota.  Once again, with his effort as well as spirit, that goal became a reality.  Moreover, with the seal of a proud messenger, sworn to carry on the Somali language’s teaching baton, Said Salah himself teaches Somali language there. Simultaneously, Said Salah instituted The Somali Culture and Literary Study Circle and inaugurated a Minneapolis forum where literary-inclined Somalis congregate.

Finally, the fact that Said Salah became a well-known playwright, poet and leader in the creative crater was just an extension of his original love: teaching.  In his own words, he expanded his wings into the theater because “the class became too small for him.”  His finely honed craft based in history with traces of nomadic life, focuses on social justice and is always solo subject oriented.

Said Salah’s work won international recognition for both his poetry and his contribution to humanity such as the Virginia McKnight Winger and UNICEF awards. In Minneapolis, Minnesota on December 6, 2013 the night belonged to the legendary playwright, poet, producer and teacher Said Salah Ahmed hence, his fiftieth teaching anniversary, above all others, was celebrated. The anniversary was a marvelous one because there had never been one like it in the past in Somali circles and undoubtedly, it is not in our costume to acknowledge one’s lifetime achievement.

Fortunately, for Said’s case, the task to commemorate this momentous occasion began in June 2013 in Hargeisa-the most appropriately fitting stage where he started his professional teaching journey. The second leg of the same celebration travelled to London.  On both occasions, the accommodations fell on the shoulders of Hargeisa International Book Fair and Somali-week in London and later concluded it in Minneapolis, his home and residency now.

We are honored at to be part of the journey of the venerated Said Salah Ahmed. The year 2013 belongs to him, his fifty years of teaching legacy has been celebrated through many events spread out the globe. He is a peacemaker, a teacher, a poet and a mediator. He brought the mother tongue to many in the diaspora who wouldn’t have had the chance other wise. His deep rhythmic language has become part of a larger group of people who wouldn’t otherwise decipher their own mother tongue. And it’s his style that draws the young close even when they are stumbling on their first Somali words. His style is such that his students still want to be part of him. His teaching could have stopped long ago once the country collapsed, we would still give him his due if he decided to hang up his mantle, but that is not the legacy of the man. He continues to teach and bring alive the Somali in all of us making us love the language. His style of oration transports us making us one with the nomad roaming the vast villages of pastoral live and he forces us to experience childhood all over again as the stories that have long died in us rush back bringing to live the beauty poetic live we have once known.

Said Saleh’s presence on our pages belongs to everyone whom he has touched. As such he is one for the ages and the WardheerNews person of the year  for 2013.

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