Hargeysa Experiences: Conversation With Raphael d’Abdon

African poet

Raphael d’Abdon is a man of two continents, having been born and raised in Udine, a small town in the North East of Italy, and moved to Pretoria, South Africa, in 2008. He is a writer, scholar, editor, and translator and teaches at the University of South Africa, Pretoria. For a man who walks and lives poetry, finding himself in Hargeysa was just another trail in the literary hike.

Somaliland being such a poetic country, in the real sense of the word, Raphael was almost in ‘familiar’ territory albeit so foreign to his experiences. Not the ones he is accustomed to at Mzansi Poetry Academy, Johannesburg, where he sometimes lectures.

In Hargeysa, he would read from his poetry collections Sunnyside nightwalk, published by Geko in 2013, and Salt water, self-published with Poetree Publishing in 2016.

A book is the reflection of the writer’s journey in that particular phase of his/her life. Mine are no exception. When you write a book you interrogate and creatively develop a particular concept, Raphael says. I wrote the first one when I was living in Sunnyside, a neighbourhood in downtown Pretoria inhabited mostly by African immigrants, and the stories I tell in it are related to (and inspired by) that particular experience. When I wrote the second book I was looking for healing, I had suffered a major trauma, and I was trying to recover, going to therapy, and all that … The book is titled after the following poem, which is quite self-explanatory:

salt water

they say
the cure for anything is
salt water

the sea

so i
run barefoot
and cry
on the seashore

and heal

Was it your first time in Hargeysa? How did you land the artist invite?

Yes, it was my first time in Hargeysa, although I had heard about the book fair from fellow writers and scholars who had attended it. I was contacted by Jama Musse Jama, one of the organizers, because the featured country for this year’s edition was South Africa, and he found my profile interesting as a representative writer for the country. The funny thing is that the first email he sent to me was, obviously, written in English, but after he read in my response that I was born in Udine, he replied with a message fluently written in Italian. We have been corresponding in Italian since, and he writes much better than many Italian acclaimed writers.


South Africa is a huge book festival nation. SA was also the guest nation at the HIBF 2017. How would you compare the Hargeysa International Book Fair to those you have attended in SA (and other places). What really fascinated you most?

I have been featured in several book fairs and festivals in South Africa (Johannesburg, Kimberley, Durban, Polokwane), but I never saw anything comparable to what I saw in Hargeysa, which was truly awesome.

It was awesome to see so many young people attending all the sessions, and interacting with the speakers. It was awesome to see them buying tons of books and reading them in the intervals between the sessions. It was awesome to see how many books the same young people had written (many of them were launched during the book fair), and it was even more awesome to see how most of them were written in Somali, and not in English.

The response of the youth was always fervent. The main venue of the festival was a huge tent located in the middle of the Hargeysa Cultural Centre, which could accommodate some 800-1000 people. It was always full, and at least 80% of the people in the audience were in their 20s or younger.

The last evening the book fair hosted a concert with legendary local musicians and poets in a different venue, one that could fit over 3000 people. The venue was packed (again, with young people), and there were several thousand people gathered outside of it. The crowd was so massive that it congested the whole city centre. The organisers actually received a call from the chief of police who had to deploy several units to manage the traffic and the chaos that was created in the area surrounding the venue. I found this passion and enthusiasm for literature and the arts very refreshing and encouraging.

Unfortunately in South Africa the situation is quite different: usually young people do not attend book fairs and festivals, or attend only a few, selected events; they are not voracious readers (many of them don’t read at all); they don’t publish their work consistently, and when they do it they usually opt for the English language. I wish some of the youngest South African writers (or self-appointed writers) could visit the Hargeysa Book Fair and witness their Somalilander peers’ approach to literature. They will learn a great deal about what it means to be a writer, and probably get inspired the way I was.

What advice would you give someone planning to go to Hargeysa next year?

Expect to be inspired and captivated by the atmosphere, and just enjoy the energy of the book fair and the good vibes of the city. And if you drink camel milk, make sure there is a toilet nearby, because its … cleansing properties are quite strong. This is one of the first pieces of advice I received when I arrived in Hargeysa, and I find it important to share it.


Raphael d’Abdon is the editor of the academic journal Scrutiny2. He has also edited two poetry books, I nostri semi – Peo tsa rona: Poeti sudafricani del post-apartheid, and Marikana: A moment in time.