Hargeisa — Ahmed Saleban Bide, a 69-year-old Somali artist, recounts his promising artistic career over 20 years ago when he had a good income and reputation, as well as steady government support.
But when the Somali central government collapsed in 1991, the entertainment industry was brought to a standstill, says Bide, who performed in more than 40 plays throughout the country during his career.
In an interview with Sabahi, Bide spoke about the future of the arts in Somalia and the dire need of support artists need to bring the industry back to its former glory.
Sabahi: Tell us about yourself.
Ahmed Saleban Bide: My parents told me I was born in Hargeisa in 1943. Our family was [financially] comfortable and had livestock in the countryside. We lived in the city because my father was an officer working for the British colonialists, and he took part in World War II.
Sabahi: When did you begin working as an artist?
Bide: During school breaks we held small parties at which debates or plays were performed. Those presentations were my first performances.
From 1964, I was officially part of and worked with the arts and literary community. I was a member of the literary unit of Radio Hargeisa, and I later transferred to Mogadishu. Every week, our literary team at Radio Hargeisa and Radio Mogadishu used to create at least four plays. The plays were small ones called "radio plays", and were mostly to entertain the public.
Sabahi: Tell us about the differences between the old days when the industry was at its peak and its current state.
Bide: Under the civilian government, we had theatres and every town had a venue for the performing arts. For example, Hargeisa had a theatre and the radio station had a large hall that could be used for rehearsal. Later, when the military took over the country, the government expanded the performing arts in every town. It was called "sermonising", and every town had it. Hargeisa and Mogadishu each had two large theatres.
That time cannot be compared to this one, as the collapse greatly affected the performing arts. The performing arts community is afflicted by poverty and does not have expertise, equipment or recording venues. Artists also do not have unions to connect them or advocate for their interests.
Sabahi: Previously, when plays were performed, were there any regulations that required governmental compliance?
Bide: Yes, plays had a censorship board that included religious scholars, the military, the local government and the central government. The selected board would evaluate the play for indecent content or anything that was against religion, culture, the people and the common good. Such content would be banned.
Afterwards, the censored play, with a formal clearance letter from the government, was publicly performed for the people.
Sabahi: What themes did you address in plays?
Bide: Every play that we performed was for the general public, so everyone would find something [that resonated with them]. Some people only looked for the comedic and entertainment parts, others for the romantic parts, some liked the wisdom and others enjoyed the cultural aspects of the play. Each play addressed various subjects; however, most of what we made was about Somali culture and heritage.
Sabahi: What are Somalis watching today?
Bide: There are Turkish, Arab and Indian films, some of which have been translated into Somali. That is what is popular now because the [Somali] performing arts community does not have the venues to produce plays. We also lack [financial] support from the government or anyone else.
Sabahi: So the Somali society is hooked on foreign films?
Bide: Yes. I believe this issue brings about a lot of cultural changes, and it is altering our society. [Foreign films] include things that are not in our culture.
[Before the civil war] foreign films were available in separate cinemas, but in the old days, we did not get this many. People were connected to artists who followed their own culture.
Sabahi: What are the challenges facing Somali performing arts?
Bide: Today's performers are mostly [Somalis] who live abroad, and I applaud the role they have played [in keeping Somali entertainment alive]. In 2010, I attended the Somali Week Festival that takes place annually in London, and I met many good songwriters. However, the performing arts community lacks governmental support, a review board, and unions to organise it. New performers should be connected to veteran artists so they can learn from them. There is also lot of talent inside the country [that needs to be developed].
Sabahi: The theatre in Mogadishu has been re-opened, and the theatre in Hargeisa is being re-built. Is this part of reviving the performing arts?
Bide: It is a huge part of it. Some people have the wrong perception of theatres. [Beyond entertainment] theatres serve as "the people's house". A theatre can host government meetings, artistic performances, and religious lectures. A [functioning] theatre is a necessity for the country.
Businessman Omer Aided is rebuilding the Hargeisa theatre. He has achieved great progress. I would urge other Somalis who can afford it and anyone who can offer support to rebuild theatres in every town so that people can have entertainment. If that is achieved, performers will be able to [use their artistry] to promote peace and advance progress.