In February of 2015, my father, Said Sheikh Samatar, took a fall down the stairs of his home in South Orange, NJ and suffered a brain injury from which he did not recover.
A year later, I am thinking about him through his things. These things are objects that carry words, written and recorded. They are in my office, some of them still in boxes. I don’t yet know what to do with these personal archives. I mourn through them.
Throughout his life, Dad kept notebooks in which he wrote down English words and phrases. I never knew him to be without one of these notebooks nearby. He took snatches of language from television programs, especially the news, from articles he read, from overheard conversations. The entries are numbered, but because each notebook starts with the number 1, it would take an immense effort to find out how many words and phrases he wrote down in his life. He rarely forgot a word: he had the most powerful affinity for language of anyone I’ve ever met, the greatest facility with words, the deepest delight in their peculiarities. The best gift you could give him was a strange word or pithy quote. One of the last quotes I gave him was from Samuel Johnson: “It may be reasonably imagined that what is so much in the power of men as language, will very often be capriciously conducted.”
Language, especially the notoriously ill-behaved and rule-breaking language of English, confirmed his belief in the absurdity of human beings.
I will probably never count up the number of entries in his notebooks. The number doesn’t matter; what matters is the discipline, the practice.
Recently, my mother told me that she has had to begin using a dictionary. For decades, she, a native speaker of English, would never bother to look up an unfamiliar word. She would just ask Dad.
I have inherited most of my father’s books. I have not read them all, but I hope to one day, to trace the field he inhabited and shaped as a scholar of African history. Among his many books on the Horn of Africa, especially Somalia and the Somali territories, are works by his two favorite English-language authors, Joseph Conrad and Mark Twain. He knew whole Mark Twain stories by heart, and would sometimes quote them in full when guests came over: at such times, it was as if the American author I knew from texts was being returned to his true character as an oral storyteller.
My father worked at the confluence of oral literature, history, and politics. His book, Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayyid Maḥammad ‘Abdille Ḥasan, investigates oral poetry as a political tool. Nowadays, “interdisciplinarity” is an academic buzzword, but in the early 1980s, when the book was published, the approach was unusual enough that a reviewer in The Journal of African History expressed doubts about the book’s contribution: was it supposed to be literary criticism or history?
Among Dad’s papers, I found a letter to the editor of the journal, never published, which shows both his confidence in his work and his mastery of what is now known as the “clapback.” (Anyone who knew Dad will tell you he never held back from an argument. A prominent Somali writer once introduced himself to me by saying, laughingly but with a true sense of accomplishment: “I haven’t fought with your dad yet!”)
Of Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism, the reviewer wrote: “This is still an important book, to be sure, but it is less valuable to the historian than it might have been because of these shortcomings.”
Dad responded: “My gratitude for the sentiment expressed in the first part of this sentence would be matched by my appreciation of the strictures of the second part if [the reviewer] were qualified to make either judgment.”
In addition to being a writer, my father was a collector of others’ words, an editor, an archivist. For twenty-five years, he served as editor of the Horn of Africa journal. Back issues of the journal line the walls of my office. I also have boxes of audiotapes of Somali oral poetry performances he recorded while researching his book in the late 1970s. Something must be done with these tapes. Many have torn or disintegrated over the years. Can they be fixed? I have to find someone to help me with this, to repair them, to digitize them. My dream is to make these recordings available online, but I lack everything: the equipment to play the tapes, the language to understand what they say.
A year after his death, this is what I feel. I lack everything.
The problem of the tapes is a practical one, comparatively easy to solve.
There are other problems that cannot be solved easily—perhaps not at all.
For now, I stand here. In the archives.