Across the divide: Somali poet finds a voice in King’s Cross
Somali poet Abdullahi Botan and translator Rob Inglis
Somalia is a nation of poets – I grew up hearing poetry as part of an oral tradition’
AT first sight they might seem a bit of an odd pair – but when Somali poet Abdullahi Botan and translator Rob Inglis get together, creative sparks fly.
Together, they write vivid poems with titles like “Mouse Kills Lion”, “Central London” and “Mirror Image”, which describes a flight from Somalia.
Somalis make up Camden’s second largest migrant community – and most of those who are a part of it know Mr Botan, who runs a little café on Cromer Street in King’s Cross.
“I have written hundreds and hundreds of poems”, he said.
“Somalia is a nation of poets. I grew up hearing them, as it’s an oral tradition.”
Although he said he enjoyed composing comical poems, he added that writing also helps him come to terms with haunting memories of the past.
Mr Botan left Somalia’s capital Mogadishu 10 years ago in the midst of a ferocious civil war.
Somalia has been without an effective central government since President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, leaving the country in a state of constant strife and turmoil.
An estimated 60 per cent of the capital’s residents fled their homes.
“I had just finished national service and was planning to go to university” said Mr Botan.
“It is a horrible feeling when you can’t take anything with you. And you don’t know where you’re going to end up.”
In Mr Botan’s case it was King’s Cross, where he met Mr Inglis, who began translating his poems.
Mr Inglis said: “In Somali, a pattern is created by particular consistent alliterations – it happens that a consonant is repeated again and again.”
Mr Inglis does not actually speak the language but his Somali friend describes his ideas to his “translator”, who puts them on paper in a form accessible to English readers.
Mr Inglis is an immigrant himself, having moved from Australia to England in 1955.
For many decades he worked as an actor and a writer. With his theatre company, Musical Flying Squad, he produces musicals about local history in Camden.
The creative relationship between the two men began when they were introduced to each other by a Somali woman in 2003.
“We just knew straight away that we wanted to work together,” Mr Inglis said.
Together, they recite their pieces to audiences across London and the poem “Central London” was published in the Mayor’s Annual Equalities Report.
The pair hope to publish more works together.
Mr Botan, 39, is a member of the Camden-based Sohaan Somali Art society, which introduces various traditional Somali art forms to schools.
Once a week he teaches his language at Richard Cobden Primary School in Camden Street.
He said: “So many beautiful, historic places got bombed in Mogadishu. It was bad before, now it’s only getting worse.
“I am very homesick,” he added. “We all are.”
But in his poetry, Mr Botan does not look back.
“I focus on life in Britain,” he said. “Being a refugee is a constant struggle, but I always stay positive and work hard.”