Death by Heartbreak

The truth and mythology of a Somali poet, lover, and hero

By / February 2015

Elmi Boderi died of a broken heart. To Djiboutian women he is a hero, a paragon of true love. To Djiboutian men he is the fool who ruined their chance of ever finding love. “Who can love like that?” Goudal, a teacher, said. “To see a beautiful woman in the street and never speak to her and then die?” He shook his head. “How is a man supposed to love like that? He was crazy.”

“No man in Djibouti can love a woman like that,” Sagal, a cleaning woman, said. “They are too full of chewing khat and too interested in flirting with more than one girl.” (Khat is a popular leafy amphetamine chewed primarily by men in the late afternoons.)

“I don’t even think it is a true story,” Goudal said.

“Absolutely it is a true story,” another cleaning woman said. “I’ve seen Elmi’s grave in Somaliland.”

No matter what people personally believe about the veracity of Elmi and Hodan’s story, simply mentioning their names stirs up impassioned conversation. At an English class, one student leaned in and propped up on his elbows, his eyes light and his voice vibrant. “You know,” he said, “we Somalis are a people who get easily excited. It is because of the hot temperature. We can’t control our emotions. This is why Elmi died.”

The details regarding this love story vary wildly but Elmi Boderi was in fact a real man. Born Elmi Ismail Liban in 1908 on the Ethiopian-Somali border in a region under British colonial rule, he earned his nickname “Boderi” from the mispronounced English word “border.” Around 1931 Elmi moved to Berbera, which was then the seat of the British administration.

Hodan Abdi, the object of Elmi’s love, was born in Berbera, a blisteringly hot coastal town in northern Somalia. Elmi worked in a bakery and one day Hodan walked in to buy bread. With one glance at the young woman, Elmi fell hopelessly in love. He kept his love a secret until he could bear concealing it no longer and revealed his affection to his closest friends, Musa Farah and Tabase.

Eventually word spread throughout the village but Hodan never returned Elmi’s love. Instead, he began composing poetry about Hodan:

She is altogether fair:
Her fine-shaped bones begin her excellence;
Magnificent of bearing, tall is she;
A proud grace is her body’s greatest splendor;
Yet she is gentle, womanly, soft of skin.
Her gums’ dark gloss is like unto blackest ink;
And a careless flickering of her slanted eyes
Begets a light clear as the white spring moon.
My heart leaps when I see her walking by,
Infinite suppleness in her body’s sway.
I often fear that some malicious djinn
May envy her beauty, and wish to do her harm.

— From “Qaraami” (Passion), as presented by Margaret Laurence in A Tree for Poverty

Elmi couldn’t bring himself to directly approach Hodan. He heard she washed clothes near a well with other women from Berbera once a week and went to the spot in the hope of meeting her. She didn’t come. He went to her aunt’s house with Musa Farah and tried to draw her out to talk, she refused. Elmi couldn’t sleep, he was so filled with love.

One day Hodan, having heard rumors of his affection and unable to resist any longer, came to the home he shared with Musa. Elmi, exhausted, had finally fallen asleep. Hodan waited and waited but he didn’t wake up and Musa never woke him. Eventually, she left and when Elmi woke he composed a poem about how his greatest friend had caused the greatest deception.

Hodan’s father worked as an interpreter for British colonial employees and his salary placed the family solidly in the middle class, well above that of an itinerant baker from an obscure rural village hundreds of miles away. Hodan’s family knew of Elmi’s love and refused the match. Possibly because of economic disparity, possibly because of clan complications, possibly because of the erotic poetry he wrote of her. One poem spoke of once seeing Hodan’s naked body, a serious offense in this devoutly Muslim society.

Elmi became so distraught, barely able to eat or work and Hodan’s family was so upset about his poems that they threatened to kill him. To protect him from himself and from Hodan’s relatives, Elmi’s friends exiled him to the village of Zeila. But Zeila was not far enough away and news reached Elmi that Hodan was engaged to another, Mohamed Shabeele. He fell into a dangerous fever and delirium. In a desperate attempt to save his life his friends brought him other young, beautiful women who, as expressed in a later poem, exposed their breasts, hoping to lure him away from Hodan.

These women failed to tempt Elmi and he grew weaker and weaker, his body ravaged by both love and love denied. He hovered between life and death and after months, perhaps years, of suffering, he gave up the fight and died.

*****

The Somali language was not written down until 1977. Somali history and culture has been primarily transferred through the millennia orally. Though blog posts and essays abound both in print and online about Elmi and Hodan, and every Djiboutian Somali I spoke with about their story had their own version, it is difficult to find a conclusive history. It is difficult, even, to find an agreed-upon spelling of Elmi’s last name. Booderi. Boderi. Bonderi. Bondhari. Boodhari.

The story as I’ve recounted it is based on articles, books, and interviews with Somalis and is filled with tangled information, half-truths, misunderstandings, and wild guesses. Some people claim Elmi is not the author of the poem Qaraami. Some say Hodan was eight years old, other that she was fifteen. Some say Hodan rushed to Elmi’s deathbed and wept tears of grief. Remorse? Love? Relief? Others say she most certainly did not come to his deathbed. One young woman, who confessed she had only heard the story, never studied it, thought Hodan died when she heard Elmi died. But Hodan actually remained happily married to Mohamed Shabeele, bore children, and allowed one of her sons, Rashiid Shabeele, to interview her about Elmi, though these interviews didn’t take place until nearly fifty years later and her son tiptoed around some of the more erotic and potentially embarrassing or dishonoring aspects of the story.

The women who bore their breasts to tempt Elmi? Probably a mistranslation and could refer to women in relatively low-cut dresses. The woman who saw Elmi’s grave in Somaliland? It is likely she saw the grave of an Indian man. Elmi’s sister Halimo Ismail Liban says Elmi asked his friends to hide his grave, adding a level of mysticism and mystery to his life and death.

The basic facts are these: A man named Elmi fell in love with a young woman named Hodan. Elmi worked at a bakery in Berbera and composed poems inspired by his love for her. He failed to win her love in return and they never married. Instead, Hodan married Mohamed Shabeele and Elmi married a woman named Faqira who later divorced him. Elmi died.

Here, the speculation comes in. What did Elmi die of? A broken heart? Every Somali I spoke to firmly believes this. Can one die of a broken heart? Why not? You stop working, stop caring for your hygiene, stop sleeping, stop eating. You wander the streets in a love-induced fog and eventually, you die. This is completely plausible in the passionate Somali worldview.

This view is vividly depicted through poetry. Somalis are famous for their poetic oral tradition but until Elmi, most poetry was used to describe war, camels and livestock, the traditions of nomadic life, and work like the poems women chanted while constructing aqals, their nomadic homes. After Elmi died, a wave of new poetry swept through Somali culture, composed and recited by young men and filled with rich, romantic vocabulary. This poetry is known as belwo and is sung as opposed to the chanted and more strictly rule-governed gabay.

The scholar Jamal Abdi Gaboobe in his doctoral thesis suggests that though few facts about Elmi’s life can be verified with absolute certainty, Elmi’s influence on Somali ideas about romance and on the evolution of Somali poetry is unparalleled, likely because of the intensity of his brokenhearted suffering.

“Speaking about French culture, André Marlaux was reported to have said, ‘we are profiting from the suffering of Baudelaire.’ The same could be said of Bodari with regard to Somali culture. Bodari’s suffering has enriched Somali culture. His poetry rescued Somali poetry and culture from the danger of irrelevance to modern life. It strengthened it, made it more capable of handling issues and concepts that until then it could not handle in an effective manner.”

Westerners, like me, who ask whether or not Elmi actually died of a broken heart or who demand facts that can be verified beyond the shadow of a doubt, are fixated on the wrong details. This causes us to overlook the broader points of the story of Elmi and Hodan. Gaboobe’s thesis, for instance, also considers the Islamic Sufi influence on Elmi and Somali poetry.

From my conversations with Djiboutian Somalis, I gathered that Elmi impacted two fundamental aspects of Somali life. First, Elmi brought poetry into the realm of the deeply personal. By the outpouring of other Somali poets following his death, it seems his courage in exposing his desire allowed others to embrace the idea of openly addressing their intimate lives and relationships through poem and song. Second, Elmi’s passion revealed a gentle, affectionate side of Somali masculinity that, up until his era, had remained mostly obscured behind the fierce, warrior persona.

Some say Elmi was crazy, an idiot, weak. That he deserved his suffering. Some say he was a hero, a creative genius, the ideal lover. To me, it doesn’t seem to matter which he was. What does matter, what seems pertinent to modern-day Somalis, is the question his story raises: Who would give up their life for the sake of love? This is the question young people ask as they consider romantic relationships and future marriage. Is it possible or wise to love with such abandon that one would even be willing to die?

Like Goudal said, “Who can love like that?”

 

Rachel Pieh Jones is a writer living in Djibouti City.

 

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