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Health Canada must reconsider man's bid to use magic mushrooms for cluster headaches, Federal Court rules

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a blue glove holds up a magic mushroom

A Federal Court judge recently granted a judicial review forcing Health Canada to reconsider a Calgary man's request to use medical grade psilocybin to treat extreme pain from cluster headaches. The decision also highlights the need to consider a patient's Charter rights in requests to access controlled substances.

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The case for banning billionaires

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When I read that Harrods, “the world’s leading luxury department store,” sells a 250-gram jar of Western Australian honey for £750 (A$1430), I nearly choked on my muesli. At about $40 per teaspoon that would make for a very expensive breakfast — though you do get to drizzle the honey with a handcrafted glass dipper from a jar inlaid with 22-karat gold.

It turns out such excesses are not the preserve of upmarket British retailers catering to the aristocracy. To celebrate its 185th birthday, Australia’s David Jones is offering a “truly remarkable limited edition” 230-gram jar of honey for $1600 — that’s close to $50 per teaspoon. It’s sold as “some of the worlds [sic] highest potency manuka honey” (whatever that means) and comes from New Zealand forests “so remote, they are only accessible via helicopter.”

The word “obscene” springs to mind, and not just because harvesting honey by helicopter seems calculated to accelerate an ecological crisis that will wipe out bees for good. How can anyone be so carefree with cash that they would squander $1600 on a jar of honey and some superfluous extras? And if not honey, then wine, truffles, caviar, handbags, watches, suits, cars, space flights… Whatever the chosen luxury, some people seem to have more money than (moral) sense.

According to Oxfam, the carbon released into the atmosphere by the consumption habits of the richest 1 per cent of the world’s population is equivalent to the amount emitted by the five billion people who make up the poorest two-thirds. If we’re looking for quick wins on the climate front, banning private jets and super yachts seems like a good place to start.

Some might accuse me of indulging in the politics of envy. But even if I did wish I could spread the world’s most potent honey on my toast, that would be beside the point. As Dutch philosopher Ingrid Robeyns writes in her new book, Limitarianism: The Case Against Extreme Wealth, we should consider the substance of an argument, not the attitude ascribed to the person advancing it.

Besides, what’s really at stake are not so much personal lifestyles as the social, economic and legal systems that shape and enable (or constrain) them. As Tom Malleson put is in Against Inequality: The Practical and Ethical Case for Abolishing the Superrich, the point is not that high net worth individuals are evil but that their existence is “structurally immoral.”

While accepting that some people will always be better off than others, both these books argue that we should put a cap on the amount that anyone can earn or own — hence the term limitarianism. We’re familiar with the concept of a minimum wage, writes Malleson, so why not a maximum wage? In effect, Robeyns and Malleson want to ban billionaires (and most multimillionaires too).

Inequality is generally measured using what’s called the Gini coefficient, which produces a number from zero to one for each country, where zero represents absolute equality (everyone has the same share) and one represents absolute inequality (one person has everything). If we accept that neither of these extremes is feasible and neither necessarily desirable, then a core task for democratic societies is to determine what level of inequality is feasible and desirable. In other words, how big should we allow the gap between rich and poor to be?

In Australia, the Gini coefficient for household income is about 0.32, which puts us around the middle of the OECD pack. Australia’s tax and welfare systems do a better job of smoothing disparities than those in Britain (0.35) and the United States (0.4) but we lag more egalitarian European nations like Austria (0.28) and Denmark (0.27). Wealth is generally less equally distributed than income, and this is true in Australia too — at 0.61, our Gini coefficient for wealth is almost double that for income.

Malleson make this abstract figure more meaningful by imagining a parliament with 100 seats distributed according to wealth. In the United States, the richest third of Americans would have 92 seats. The picture in Australia is almost as alarming. Extrapolating data from the latest ACOSS inequality report suggests that the wealthiest 20 per cent of Australians would fall just shy of a two-thirds majority, commanding sixty-two seats. The next 60 per cent — the middle classes if you like — would share the other thirty-eight seats, while the poorest 20 per cent of citizens would have no seats at all.

We may accept that inequality is an inevitable outcome of a market-based economy, and possibly believe it is necessary to drive efficiency and encourage competition, but it is always a question of degree.

Back in 1965 the typical American chief executive earned about twenty times as much as the average worker. By 2022 the ratio was 344:1. As Malleson writes, it “stretches credulity” to believe that such a huge jump in executive remuneration reflects real increases in productivity, especially when the multiples are much lower in other industrialised countries. Japanese chief executives typically earn less than a fifth of their American counterparts and pay substantially higher marginal tax rates. This doesn’t stop Japanese companies trading successfully.

In Australia too, the divide between workers and bosses is less extreme than in the United States, and marginal taxes higher. Still, there’s little evidence to suggest that paying chief executives in ASX 100 companies fifty-five times average adult earnings produces better corporate results, let alone more positive social outcomes.

Criticism of excessive riches often provokes knee-jerk defences, including from supposedly left-of-centre politicians. Responding to a journalist’s question about chief executives’ bonuses in 2010, Barack Obama said he didn’t begrudge other people their success or wealth, because that’s part of the free market.

In a democratic society we should debate the question of how much inequality is reasonable, but it’s not a conversation we are keen to have. As Ingrid Robeyns comments, poverty is a politically safe topic, whereas inequality raises uncomfortable questions about societal structures, political choices and power differences.

In Australia, Labor politicians talk constantly about tackling disadvantage and increasing opportunities but rarely mention entrenched privilege or unequal outcomes. This is in keeping with the conventional view, that, as Robeyns puts it, “poverty is what really matters; inequality is just a distraction.” In a similar vein, Malleson quotes eminent moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt, who wrote in a famous 1987 article: “If everyone had enough, it would be of no moral consequence whether some had more than others.”

But Frankfurt was wrong. As Robeyns writes, “inequality is bad because it has bad consequences.” She and Malleson marshal plenty of evidence to back up this assertion.

Excessive inequality damages the economy because the affluent hoard most of their riches. If more of their money were redistributed to people on lower incomes, they would be much more likely to spend it on goods and services, boosting demand, creating jobs, reducing poverty and smoothing economic volatility.

Malleson argues that more equal societies “grow faster and more sustainably than less equal ones” and have greater social mobility. Innovation and productivity rise because more people develop skills: “It is hard to believe that an egalitarian society in which the money of the superrich is not spent on yachts, personal jets, and vacation homes, but is instead invested in excellent, state-of-the-art education for everyone, including poor, previously marginalized children, would not perform significantly better in terms of developing general capabilities.”

Malleson cites “extensive empirical evidence” that inequality undermines social cohesion by making people less generous and less willing to help their neighbours: “The bottom looks up with anger and resentment while the top looks down with contempt and mockery.” This echoes the views of American philosopher John Rawls, who held that the attitudes engendered by inequality were great vices: “deference and servility on one side and a will to dominate and arrogance on the other.”

Highly unequal societies are generally lower-taxing societies and invest less in public goods like healthcare, education and infrastructure. Carbon emissions and crime rise with inequality, while mental and physical health declines.

Then there is the distorting effect of inequality on politics. Robeyns cites the outsize influence of the Koch brothers in the United States. In Australia we have the likes of Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart, and both countries have Rupert Murdoch to contend with. “The rich,” writes Malleson, “are a Trojan horse within the walls of our democracy.” Even if we were to restrict donations, cap election spending and regulate lobbying, wealth would still shape policy and opinion because many facets of the political process — disseminating ideas, communicating opinions, mobilising organisations — are facilitated by money.

Malleson calls this the paradox of liberal democracy and illustrates it with an equation:

economic inequality + freedom of expression (including normal market freedoms) = unequal political influence

This leaves us with a stark choice. Either we restrict political speech (a “terrifying prospect” that would mark the end of liberalism) or we tackle rampant inequality. To leave things as they are is to give up on democracy and the ideal of political equality and allow the thought experiment of a parliament of wealth to become the reality of how we are governed. Malleson reckons it’s already much closer than we think: “It is quite stunning to reflect on the fact that although the majority of every country is composed of workers and caregivers, the system of electoral democracy has practically never produced a government wherein the majority of legislators themselves come from such groups.”

This adds urgency to a question formulated by philosopher D.W. Haslett and quoted by Robeyns: “We abolished the inheritance of political power; why, then, should we not abolish the inheritance of economic power, too?” While philosophers disagree about many things, she says, “there is striking unanimity among them that inherited wealth is undeserved.” Malleson informs us that more than four in ten of the top 400 billionaires on the Forbes rich list inherited their fortunes and many of the rest started out with more than a million dollars.

Australia abolished all state and federal inheritance taxes more than four decades ago. Even though there’s no hint of Labor bringing them back, that doesn’t stop “death tax” scare campaigns. Inheritance taxes are a low priority for reformers anyway since they don’t raise much revenue. (They are only paid by a small fraction of the population — those who die each year leaving significant riches.) But the purpose of an inheritance tax is less to fill government coffers than to reduce the dynastic concentration of wealth and enhance social mobility.

Even if inheritance taxes might not raise substantial sums, taxing wealth could. Malleson calculates that an annual 2 per cent tax on the wealth of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates alone would raise enough money to eradicate homelessness in the United States. Since their average return on capital is much higher than 2 per cent, their riches would keep mounting up anyway.

Translated to a global stage, a tax on the world’s estimated 2781 billionaires with a combined worth of $14.2 trillion could be transformative. As economist Jeffrey Sachs told a UN summit in 2021, “I have it on good authority that you don’t need more than $1 billion to live comfortably. Even if every billionaire kept $1 billion, that would leave around $10 trillion for ending hunger, poverty, and environmental destruction”

Attempts to reduce inequality run up against four main arguments, writes Malleson, two practical and two ethical.

The first practical argument is one of feasibility: that it is pointless to try because the rich will always find ways to evade and avoid taxes on their income and wealth, especially in a global economy. This is nonsense. They will try, but they won’t necessarily succeed, as is evident from the fact that some countries are far more successful at using the tax system to redistribute income and wealth than others.

It is more a question of effort. Most nations are more intent on policing the poor than the rich, a fact which has not escaped the notice of Austrian Marlene Engelhorn, who inherited a huge fortune, and who, like American Patriotic Millionaire Abigail Disney, is urging her government to “tax me now.” Engelhorn thinks the enormous bureaucratic energy focused on investigating whether poor people on government benefits are cheating should instead focus on wealthy people like her. She told Robeyns that tax evasion is estimated to cost Austria about one thousand times more than welfare fraud (€12–15 billion compared €14 million).

The second practical argument is that the costs of reducing inequality outweigh the benefits. If you penalise the rich with taxes, they will “work less, save less, and invest less, leading to slowed economic growth, unemployment, and ultimately reduced prosperity for all.” Again, there is little evidence to support this view, at least until tax rates become extremely punitive.

According to Robeyns, it is well established that there is a “riches line” in every society — a point beyond which additional money doesn’t increase your standard of living in any significant way. Beyond that, people work hard not to earn more but because their well-paid jobs tend to be “meaningful, exciting, influential, or intrinsically rewarding,” says Malleson. Such non-monetary rewards mean most top earners don’t reduce their effort when marginal tax rates go up. Robeyns quotes former Shell CEO Peter van der Veer, who admitted before leaving the job that he wouldn’t have done it any better if he’d been paid fifty per cent more, nor any worse if his salary had been halved.

The first ethical argument against addressing inequality is the merit argument — that people deserve to be rich because their wealth reflects their contribution to the economy or is a just reward for their talent, dedication, training or effort. Since some jobs are more difficult or risky than others, some require more years of study and some have greater social value, Robeyns thinks reasonable variations in pay are legitimate, but she says no amount of merit can justify the gulf between childcare workers and chief executives.

If we truly believed in merit, then we would bring back inheritance taxes, since no one “deserves” their parents. But even without the lottery of birth, merit is a flawed and pernicious concept. As philosopher Michael Sandel argues, merit encourages us to we view ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, and to care less about those who struggle. “If my success is my own doing, their failure must be their fault.”

Merit also rests on a mistaken view of how the economy works. “Even geniuses are just the tips of broad social icebergs,” writes Malleson. “They may be eye-catching, but we should not overestimate their economic importance.” The successes of any individual are always due in large part to what Malleson calls the “understructure”: physical assets like roads and ports, institutions like the legal system, publicly funded research, natural resources and other factors that enable social and economic activity.  The most important and most neglected part of the understructure is care — “the ladder of congealed, mostly feminine, and often racialised labour” that everyone climbs to reach their goals.

These arguments also serve to counter libertarianism, which Malleson cites as the second ethical objection to tackling inequality. For libertarians, redistribution via taxation is equivalent to theft and inherently tyrannical. Inequality is morally justified because, to paraphrases philosopher Robert Nozick, it arises from free and voluntary exchanges between informed adults. Perhaps this is what Jeff Bezos was thinking at the launch of his first space flight, when he thanked every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer “because you guys paid for all this.”

But even if you accept the proposition that selling your labour to the union-banning Amazon is a completely “free” exchange, this again ignores the fact that Bezos’s business success is enabled by public investment and collective goods. As Robeyns says, entrepreneurs build their wealth on the “bequest of past generations.” Often those bequests were not voluntary, as Nozick would have it, because the history of property acquisition is, as Malleson writes, “interwoven through and through will all kinds of brutal violence and injustice.”

In 2021 the Ukrainian-born British-American businessman Leonard Blavatnik topped the Sunday Times “rich list” as the wealthiest person in Britain, with a fortune of £23 billion. To give readers a frame of reference this mind-boggling sum, Robeyns calculates that to earn that amount in a lifetime — fifty hours a week from the age of twenty to sixty-five — you’d have to earn an hourly wage of £196,581.

Malleson offers a similar calculation. When Elon Musk was the world’s richest person, he was worth US$270 billion. To earn that much money, an American worker on the median wage would have to toil for seven and a half million years. To put it another way, every fourteen minutes Musk had accumulated as much money as a typical American earns in their lifetime.

Clearly, this is beyond the pale. But how much is too much? Plato reckoned the richest person should have only four times as much as the poorest; Aristotle thought the ratio should be five to one (though whether either would have considered slaves or women in their calculations is doubtful).

Robeyns offers two limits — one political, the other ethical. The political limit — the one she thinks governments should make law — would cap wealth to about ten million in the relevant currency. So, £10 million in Britain, €10 million in the Netherlands, US$10 million in the United States (and presumably A$10 million in Australia). The ethical limit, which is a matter of personal conscience, would be one tenth of that. In other words, you should give away anything beyond your first million pounds, dollars or euros. (Since you’ll be living in a limitarian system, Robeyns assumes that you have access adequate services including a reasonable age pension and a reliable public health system.)

Malleson is a bit more generous to the wealthy, suggesting that the highest income anyone can earn should be twenty times the minimum wage. In the United States, that equates to a maximum annual salary of $400,000. The most wealth Malleson would let anyone accumulate would be 400 times median wealth, capping personal fortunes at $40 million.

When I’ve mentioned this figure to friends, they’ve reacted with surprise. “Why so much?” they ask. At the moment, though, whether you opt for the lower limit suggested by Robeyns or the higher one proposed Malleson is an academic question. Both writers mount a strong ethical and pragmatic case for limiting extreme wealth. The challenge is how to get there. •

Limitarianism: The Case Against Extreme Wealth
By Ingrid Robeyns | Allen Lane | $44 | 336 pages

Against Inequality: The Practical and Ethical Case for Abolishing the Superrich
By Tom Malleson | Oxford University Press | £18.99 | 352 pages

The post The case for banning billionaires appeared first on Inside Story.

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the philosophy of self, identity, and memory

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<em>Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind</em> stars Jim Carrey in one of his most powerful dramatic roles.

Enlarge / Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stars Jim Carrey in one of his most powerful dramatic roles. (credit: Focus Features)

Last week, the 2004 cult classic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind marked its 20th anniversary, prompting many people to revisit the surreal sci-fi psychological drama about two ex-lovers who erase their memories of each other—only to find themselves falling in love all over again. Eternal Sunshine was a box office success and earned almost universal praise upon its release. It's still a critical favorite today and remains one of star Jim Carrey's most powerful and emotionally resonant dramatic roles. What better time for a rewatch and in-depth discussion of the film's themes of memory, personal identity, love, and loss?

(Spoilers for the 2004 film below.)

Director Michel Gondry and co-writer Pierre Bismuth first came up with the concept for the film in 1998, based on a conversation Bismuth had with a female friend who, when he asked, said she would absolutely erase her boyfriend from her memory if she could. They brought on Charlie Kaufman to write the script, and the three men went on to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for their efforts. The title alludes to a 1717 poem by Alexander Pope, "Eloisa to Abelard," based on the tragic love between medieval philosopher Peter Abelard and Héloïse d'Argenteuil and their differing perspectives on what happened between them when they exchanged letters later in life. These are the most relevant lines:

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88 days ago
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Where can we go to talk?

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Third spaces are the answer to social isolation and more sustainable living

Graphic Sara Salsabili
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102 days ago
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A Country Shaped By Poetry

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It was a dark February evening when a young Somali math professor posted a poem on his Facebook page. In keeping with the tradition of his ancestors, who maintained an oral culture until only recently, he spoke it aloud in a rhythmic cadence:

When I realized
there is neither
wells dug for you,
nor rescuers on the way

and the leaders elected to serve the nation have corrupted the resources;”

Then he uploaded the recording to his profile.

In Somaliland, poems were often recited to pass the time by men leading camel trains and by women weaving mats to cover their domed huts. Like the lives of the nomadic people who spoke them, the poems were cyclical. When their speakers moved, they brought their animals and their poetry. At each stop along this annual migration, the women would reuse the verses as they built their thatched homes and the men would recite them as they moved their herds to water.

But poems also served a utilitarian, public purpose: they could be deployed to argue a court case or to make peace between warring families. And their lines were powerful in ways few other nations could understand. In Somaliland, an autonomous region perched at the northern tip of Somalia, poetry had sparked wars, toppled governments, and offered paths to peace.

The math professor’s voice layered over a picture of him on a blustery beach, continued:

when I witnessed
MPs who were expected to work for the nation,
fear Allah,
and sympathize with vulnerable people,
those when he needed them
gathered under the hot sun [to vote for him];
he forgot their rights
when he reached his goal,
failed to keep the pledge
and became a businessman
who [sells] his dignity
and your [natural] resources”

Xasan Daahir Ismaaciil wrote poetry in his spare time under the name Weedhsame. And as he spoke this poem, on that night in 2017, he didn’t yet know he was adding his name to a roster of poets revered in his country as modern sages. He didn’t know he was starting a poetry debate, or that this debate would shake the nation.

this poem of worry
like a [song] for lambs
this poem that moans 
responsibility tells me to recite – 
and circumstance tells you to listen.”

By the time he was done, the poem was more than 300 lines and the video stretched more than 10 minutes long.

When Weedhsame started writing poetry as a teenager, he felt like he was releasing something that had always been inside him. His first poems were about love, though he didn’t have a girlfriend. He was drawn to the rhythms more than the words. But when he began writing about corruption, taxes, mismanagement of resources and nepotism, the words flowed. Such a shift wasn’t strange — poems and politics intermingled in Somali society, and it was seen as a poet’s duty to write about the injustices they saw.

In Somaliland, there were many. There were those imposed by the outside world: The fact that few nations recognized the tiny, autonomous sliver of land meant its people were largely cut off from the world’s institutions. The isolation had officially begun in 1991 when a civil war separated Somaliland from Somalia. But really it was a retreat back to a border drawn by British and Italian colonists in the 1880s, when they created British Somaliland and Italian Somalia.

After the war, when Somaliland gained partial independence, the injustices were less visible, but they had not stopped. People complained about corruption, nepotism and repression. Foreign aid money flowed into politicians’ pockets and hardline religious leaders stifled the music and theater that Somaliland had once been known for.

Weedhsame saw examples daily, and so, when he began writing poetry, he did what generations before him had done: he looked around. His early poems on corruption didn’t get much attention when they were first published, but years later, Weedhsame told me, they’d be memorized by a generation desperate for someone to speak their truth.

A view inside one of Radio Hargeysa's studios. Sakaria Ahmed, a journalist and one of the heads of the Radio Hargeysa, prepares himself for an afternoon program session. The first Somali radio station was Radio Kudu, which is now known as Radio Hargeysa in Hargeysa, Somaliland. It is still the only radio station operating in Somaliland. Radio Hargeysa was founded in 1942 by the former British Somaliland protectorate as the first Somali language station. (Mustafa Saeed/Noema Magazine)
A view inside one of Radio Hargeysa’s studios. Sakaria Ahmed, a journalist and one of the heads of the Radio Hargeysa, prepares himself for an afternoon program session. The first Somali radio station was Radio Kudu, which is now known as Radio Hargeysa in Hargeysa, Somaliland. It is still the only radio station operating in Somaliland. Radio Hargeysa was founded in 1942 by the former British Somaliland protectorate as the first Somali language station. (Mustafa Saeed/Noema Magazine)
LEFT: Inside the archive room of Radio Hargeysa. RIGHT: Programs operator at the Radio Hargeysa. (Mustafa Saeed/Noema Magazine)

Poetry As Politics

No one knows when the first poetry debate was held in Somaliland. For generations, poetry had been woven into every facet of life.

The poetic guidelines that have lived in the heads of Somali poets could fill an encyclopedia. There are styles for love poems and styles used for nationalist verse during the independence struggle; there are styles to be accompanied by the oud, a stringed instrument from the Middle East; and a shorter, faster meter reserved for women.

“In Somaliland, an autonomous region perched at the northern tip of Somalia, poetry had sparked wars, toppled governments, and offered paths to peace.”

In the 1850s, when British explorer Richard Burton visited the tip of the Horn of Africa, he was amazed to find that every Somali chief had a private poet, dedicated to praising his leadership and defending the clan’s honor. “It is strange that a dialect with no written character should so abound in poetry and eloquence,” he observed in what’s now Somaliland. “The country teems with ‘poets, poetasters, poetitos, and poetaccios:’ every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines.”

Over the years, the Somali people tested 18 different writing systems, but history and culture continued to be passed down orally, memorized in songs, poems and plays. It wasn’t until 1972 that a formal written form of the Somali language was standardized.

For more than a century, Somaliland had suffered under colonialism, dictatorship, civil war and economic collapse. Sometimes tensions became so taut that they seemed to explode into verse. Although journalists were often stifled, poets could more freely air their grievances publicly and watch them spread. One poem might spark another, then another and another.

When a debate — known as a silsilad or “chain” — was in full swing, poets near and far could weigh in with verse of their own. They’d recite their contributions publicly, relying on the listeners to memorize and spread the poems. Later, technology allowed them to record their contributions on cassette tapes and send their voices into the diaspora, where they’d be copied and shared.

It had been many decades since Somaliland’s last poetry debate — a multi-year affair that some say set the stage for the toppling of a dictatorship — when Weedhsame posted his poem on Facebook.

In 2017, the Somaliland parliament was considering whether to allow the United Arab Emirates to build a military base in its port city of Berbera. Weedhsame watched in shock as the measure seemed to have passed without debate. He wondered: had money traded hands to make that decision?

Feeling frustrated and powerless, he thought of his own children and their future and he began to write. His poem, “Plaintiff,” imagined a courtroom drama in which he held the government to task for corruption.

Unlike poets of the past, he didn’t hide behind allegory or metaphor. “Plaintiff” was the most direct verse he’d ever written: as a mathematician, he loathed making statements he couldn’t prove, but to him, this vote had crossed the line.

Weedhsame knew a poem could harness emotion in a way other forms of protest could not. Even so, he was shocked when it went viral. He’d been venting his frustrations, unaware that thousands of Somalis across the world felt the same way. As the number of views crept up by the tens of thousands, people from Canada to Abu Dhabi commented on his post. Presidential candidates, opposition party leaders and parliamentary leaders began calling, some to garner goodwill, others to complain, some to threaten or to attempt to bribe him. He couldn’t walk or drive down a road without hearing shouts of congratulations, and his phone would not stop ringing.

In the United States, his friend, the poet Cabdullaahi Xasan Ganey, saw the poem and decided to reply. In the courtroom Weedhsame had set up, he would be a witness to the charges made by the plaintiff. In a long poem he wrote of how the country had been betrayed by its politicians:

“The oppressed person said:
‘No matter how bitter,
the truth is necessary:
[you] sell the airports 
put the ports on sale, 
export all the minerals,
or are the brokers;
[you] disorient the youths,
sell them to smugglers.
By Allah you have endangered yourselves; 
you are without conscience.’”

A debate must have at least two sides, and soon another poet entered, taking the government’s defense, and calling Weedhsame and Ganey traitors who denied their country economic development. Daaha Cabdi Gaas wrote:

“In my mind and spiritual heart
it seems that the poets were told
that the purpose of poetry
is to unfairly attack [the government];
do you know that is a tragedy
and trouble [to use poetry]
like a sharpened saw”

Then another poet weighed in, imitating a judge ruling in favor of Weedhsame. Soon reactions were being recorded and added as comments onto his post. Weedhsame had resurrected a tradition that stretched to his poet forefathers: he’d launched a poetry debate.

“Although journalists were often stifled, poets could more freely air their grievances publicly and watch them spread.”

Somali poetry is almost always metrical and alliterative, with verse revolving around a certain letter. “Plaintiff” used M, and others would have to follow this structure, giving a name to the poetry debate it sparked: Miimley, or, “The one in M.”

While other chains were slow and steady, dependent on the cassette tapes traveling across the Somali diaspora, this was instant. Over the next two months, Weedhsame acted as the clearing house for poems: scanning them to avoid mentions of ethnic rivalries, before posting the latest responses to his Facebook page.

“We adopted poetry as our language that transmits the fatal and important issues,” says Weedhsame. “We are still an oral society. We depend on the words recited by our poets.”

Inside the archive room of Radio Hargeysa. (Mustafa Saeed/Noema Magazine)

The Cassette Tapes

When Radio Hargeysa launched, in 1941, there was nothing to feed its airwaves. Somali poetry and music had rarely, if ever, been recorded, but the need for radio programming changed that. That year, scholars believe Somali poetry was put on tape for the first time, and even before playing songs, the station aired poetry.

The archives of that radio station — one room of floor-to-ceiling shelves in the city’s downtown — is effectively an archive of Somali history. When civil war arrived in 1988, radio operators scrambled to preserve it by smuggling tapes out of the city or burying them in tunnels beneath the station. After the war, the new Ministry of Information set about collecting every cassette tape in town. Today, those 5,000 thousand tapes are the most comprehensive historical repository held by the Somaliland government. 

The Hargeysa Cultural Center, however, set about collecting every Somali tape in the world. Tapes line the walls of the center, where the archivist is a 21-year-old college student named Hafsa Omer. Omer juggles studying psychology, playing on the local underground women’s basketball team and cataloging the poems and songs of her forefathers.

In the Somaliland Omer grew up in, war is the main narrative. Its neighbor, Somalia, was long regarded as a failed state by the international community. In Somaliland, there are few opportunities for cultural production and even fewer venues to experience it. But listening to these tapes opened Omer’s eyes. 

“I had this idea in my mind that Somalis weren’t smart, that they couldn’t initiate something,” Omer says. She changed her mind when she heard the poetry debates that had shaken her parents’ generation. “They were thinking about us… They were imagining how the world looked in two or three generations.”

Hafsa Omer posing at the Hargeysa Cultural center in Hargeysa, Somaliland. (Mustafa Saeed/Noema Magazine)
LEFT: The outside of the Hargeysa Cultural Center. RIGHT: Archived cassette tapes inside the cultural center. (Mustafa Saeed/Noema Magazine)

From an online archive she’s spent years organizing, she pulls up a recording of one tape. It opens with a poem, then the smooth meter of a talk-show host: “It’s me Xasan Mohamed, interviewing Yusuf Shaacir, talking about the poems of the Siinley…”

Shaacir, a poet, had memorized every poem of the Siinley, or, “The one in S,” a debate in the early 1970s. He told its story interspersed with lines of verse he knew by heart. Siinley hadn’t been planned as a debate, he said, but had sprung naturally from a song in a play written by a playwright named Cabdi Aadan Xaad, known as Cabdi Qays. In it, Qays wonders where the afterlife is: in the stars, on the land, in the mountains?

The song stirred something in Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame, a poet known as Hadraawi, the revered father of Somali poetry. Since 1969, Somalia, which then included Somaliland, had been ruled by the brutal dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, who exercised authoritarian control through a system called “scientific Socialism.”

Hadraawi interpreted the afterlife Qays asked about as a search for freedom and justice — as an escape from repression. The song, he felt, offered an entry point to talk about the government, so he responded in a poem.

The poems bounced back and forth between Qays, who by then had moved to Djibouti, and Hadraawi, in Mogadishu, Somalia. Soon symbolism and allegory took over: “What I’m asking is: Is tendon a meat? Is charity wealth?” Qays asks in one. “Is the middle finger equal to the thumb?” He speaks of a story their mothers told them, about a camel with a house on top of it. He asks whether moans of pain could be a song. Soon, 20 poets had joined in, from Djibouti, Mogadishu and Hargeysa, offering their own cryptic takes on the state of the nation.

“Poems and politics intermingled in Somali society, and it was seen as a poet’s duty to write about the injustices they saw.”

There had been poetry debates before: the Halac-dheere chain at the turn of the 20th century debated the ethics of hospitality between two clans. After nearly 10 years, eight poets had contributed poems to the debate. In verse, one of the participating clans was called out as greedy, leaving a lasting stain on their reputation. A few decades later, the Guba — or, “The One That Burns” — chain spanned two generations of poets over nearly three decades; it has been blamed for inciting two tribal wars. “The mouth is a sharp saw,” one of the debate’s poets later said.

But this was different. The verses of the Siinley were so cloaked in coded, symbolism-laden messages that few listeners understood exactly what the poets were talking about. Was it love? Was it politics? Was it a competition of who knew more words? Even some of the poets seemed to not grasp the subject matters they juggled. One contributor compared the poems to a sandstorm and confessed that he didn’t understand exactly what they meant. Shielded by metaphors, they circled the day’s hottest topics, like the unification of the Somali people into one nation.

It was jaantaa rogan — “a flipped shoe” in Somali — directionless. Twenty years later, the poets would meet at a conference in Djibouti and ask each other what their poems had meant. But despite the opacity, the dictatorship understood that a strongly worded poem could threaten its grasp on power, and soon banned the tapes.

On the taped radio program, the host chimes in, noting that despite the confusion, the government crackdown revealed the true nature of the poets’ verse: “A lot of people think that Siinley was the first open door to criticize the government.”

The government arrested Hadraawi, who spent the next five years in jail. But it was too late. Regular Somalis were listening to the cassettes under their beds and hiding them in the roofs of their houses before passing them on to friends. Those listening “were thirsty for somebody to say anything against the government,” the poet Shaacir noted in the radio interview. “What gives meaning to the poem is the communities who listen to it. And the communities interpret it as what they need…Siinley was whatever that person needed.”

And before long it opened the door for a poetry debate powerful enough to topple the government.

Abdirahman Yusuf Ducaale in his living room in his house in Hargeysa, Somaliland. (Mustafa Saeed/Noema Magazine)

The Collector

Gathering an oral history tradition is like chasing leaves as they fall from a tree. The painstaking task has fallen to Abdirahman Yusuf Ducaale, the unofficial chronicler of Somaliland. What he didn’t collect in the years he helped fight the civil war, which began in the 1980s and ended with Barre’s fall and Somaliland’s partial independence in 1991, he gathered after, as a minister of information for its new government.

His home, on a quiet, sandy corner in Hargeysa, is filled with scraps of paper, news clippings, meeting minutes, photographs, cassette tapes, films — even the canes that once helped balance Somaliland’s leaders. This physical record provides a rough outline of Somaliland’s history.

Ducaale’s literary output fills a coffee table in his living room: books about famous poets and unknown poets, books on war and peace. Even now, he’s dictating his latest tome to a young student who comes to his house to type since, at 75, his own eyes have grown milky with age.

When Ducaale sets out to write a book he must start from scratch. To write a biography of his favorite poet, an illiterate farmer named Timacadde, he went from house to house, collecting verses memorized by those who lived in the poet’s hometown. He opens a YouTube video and sings along.

“With such a voice it penetrated into the ears of people,” he says. Each poet has a signature tune, and a poet without a strong voice might hire professional singers to ensure their words reach far and wide.

“We used poetry in the war, we used poetry in peace, we used poetry in fighting colonialism,” Ducaale says. “So from day to day it was changing.”

To write “Deelley: A Prophecy That Came True,” his book on Somaliland’s most important poetry debate, Ducaale tracked down every one of the dozens of poets who participated and mailed them a questionnaire. His findings filled 468 pages.

“Regular Somalis were listening to the cassettes under their beds and hiding them in the roofs of their houses before passing them on to friends.”

In 1979, this debate would change Somaliland forever. That year, a poet named Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac, known as Gaarriye, published a poem called “No Refuge is Offered by Tribalism.” Somali society revolves around sprawling family trees that descend from five major clans, which trace their roots back to two brothers. These allegiances fuel politics and conflict. In the late 1970s, Barre’s government wanted to counter the power of these tribal connections; it commissioned a debate and asked Gaarriye to initiate it.

Gaarriye’s poem, which in Somali begins with the word “Dugsi,” set up a chain of alliteration in the letter D. Some 50 poets would end up contributing their metered thoughts to the chain, which became known as Deelley — or, “The One in D.” Within six months, nearly 70 poems filled out the chain and the government had canceled its endorsement.

Unlike the Siinley debate a few years earlier, no one was hiding. The poems quickly turned against Barre’s government.

“For the first time, Somali people were talking against the regime in front of him,” Ducaale says. Apprehensive about imprisoning the poets, Barre organized an awards ceremony at the national theater. By giving out medals, he thought, the poets would understand the debate had ended. His plan failed, Ducaale says: One year later, the debate was still going. The next year, in 1982, the Somali National Movement was formed; it would become the main government opposition in the civil war fought at the end of the 1980s.

“It was almost the rehearsal of the armed struggle,” says Ducaale. “It was a test for the people to speak in front of the dictator, to criticize him.”

Jamac Cali Xassan at a restaurant in Hargeysa, Somaliland after Friday prayers. (Mustafa Saeed/Noema Magazine)

A New Nation Of Poets

Today, the old poets recall when poetry and politics conspired to build a new nation. After three brutal years of civil war, the dictatorship ended and Somaliland disentangled from Somalia to form its own government in 1991. Poets gathered to help, settle the old rivalries and find a path toward peace. There were around 10 of them, known as the reconciliation poets.

Today, Jamac Cali Xassan, known as Gaashaan-cade, is grey-haired and walks with a cane. He recalls the days when traditional leaders gathered to elect the first president, and the poets gathered and recited poetry. They were beloved. Politicians would invite Hassan to their homes and tapes of his poems were sent to Somalis living abroad.

After, when the official reconciliation conference ended, he was asked to stay and record cassette tapes. For more than two months he sat in a room reciting his poems from memory onto individual cassettes, sometimes up to 10 at a time. “Poetry is what tells us who we are, it is our literature, it’s our culture,” he says. “I want people to use this culture.”

Somaliland’s poets are torchbearers with a hefty social responsibility. Now in his forties, Weedhsame knows that few people pay attention to the lessons of history. In his culture, this information still gets passed down in layers of verse: people turn to poets to analyze their society, to reveal what’s hidden.

“Every poet is some kind of politician,” Weedhsame says. “They don’t have a political position but they’re voices for society.”

Weedhsame’s predecessors hoped their poems would spread naturally by cassette tape. Today he posts his poems to his 314,000 Facebook followers. By writing them down, he’s veering away from the oral tradition but also preserving it. And his followers are listening.

By the end of the Miimley debate, more than 90 poets had contributed some 120 official and unofficial poems. It had drawn more poets and poems than any other debate and in record time. Around six months later, Somaliland voted in a new president. The candidates debated corruption, national resources, international recognition — issues that had been stirred by the poetry debate. Muse Bihi Abdi, who would go on to win the election, even came to speak with the poets about their criticisms.

Weedhsame was pleased that they were recognized. “At least they saw that a young generation of poets can organize themselves,” he says. “They see we can influence the votes of people.”

Though he believes the corruption he railed against still infects politics, he knows the debate was a reminder that politicians can’t overlook poetry. Poets have long been able to get away with criticism that others might not, but cloaking their opinions in verse hasn’t always protected them. Under Barre’s authoritarian rule, some poets were arrested and a few were killed. Others took government money to stay quiet or toe the party line.

“This is a medium that, crucially, lets people say things they might not otherwise be able to say,” writes Christina Woolner, a scholar of Somali poetry at the University of Cambridge, in her upcoming study of the poetry debate, “and that in so doing makes space for a deliberative reckoning about the present and future of Somaliland’s democratic sphere.”

Each generation arrives with a new take on the old ways, down to the length of the lines and the style of their meter. To capture shrinking attention spans, new poetic styles have become shorter and snappier. The words are changing too, as nomadic tribes settle into the nation’s cities and traditional dialects give way to a more uniform language.

But every new poem carries an oral culture into the modern world. In recent years, as Somaliland’s government cracked down on free speech, jailing multiple poets and journalists, their own persecution inspired the very thing the government hoped to quash: a small poetry debate. It was titled “Liinta xoorka leh,” so named for the beverage served to new inmates in Somaliland’s prisons — free-speaking poets and journalists among them. It didn’t last long, or make a splash like Miimley, but it was new and relevant. It was another rung in a time-honored tradition.

Strochlic’s reporting from Somaliland was supported by the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

Poetry translations courtesy of Christina Woolner, with input from Abdihakim Omer and Kenedid Hassan.

Hafsa Omer working on archiving cassettes at the Hargeysa Cultural Center. (Mustafa Saeed/Noema Magazine)

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