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HERO FOR A THIRSTY LAND
Kenny Moore
May 30, 1988
ABDI BILE, THE WORLD 1,500-METER CHAMP, IS THE PRIDE OF SOMALIA, A COUNTRY OF POETS AND DROUGHT
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May 30, 1988

Hero For A Thirsty Land

ABDI BILE, THE WORLD 1,500-METER CHAMP, IS THE PRIDE OF SOMALIA, A COUNTRY OF POETS AND DROUGHT

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But, in a rush, platters of rice crash down on the table, followed by rib cages of goat, haunches of beef and calabashes of salad. Growling, the diners attack. What seemed food for the weekend is devoured in 10 minutes. Then, as if a storm has passed, the dignitaries groan and stand, and sluice the grease from their fingers, and listen to speeches.

"There is no doubt that the night Abdi Bile was born a man came into the world," rumbles the chairman of the city council. "Millions of women have been influenced by what he has done and are now making traditional dances, shouting the name of Abdi Bile Abdi."

Bile stands and says, "I never fought for my country. I'm a coward." There are bellows of disagreement. "I don't know how to fight with a gun. But I know another way to bring respect to the country. Today in the world people have stopped fighting because of sports. Whole nations can rise and be understood by their athletic achievements."

He leaves them spellbound. Later Yusuf will say, "No, not politics. He doesn't like politics. Business, that's where he'll be best." All the same, one thinks, heroism agrees with him so.

Bile confides that his trip home was richer in show than substance. "I was telling the president and his ministers all the time that the least a country with a world champion can do is have a track," he says. "I kept expecting them to say. "We'll build one.' But they didn't."

It is put to Bile that he must have seemed a windfall to his strapped government, a champion who came absolutely free, one to be feted, photographed with and forgotten. Bile doesn't like the idea but admits the possibility.

At last, drinking powerful, sweet Somali coffee in an outdoor cafe, the runner is asked about these claims that he is a poet. He says he dabbles but not lately. He is pressed. What are his favorite verses?

He leans against a wall, and a rift deepens in his forehead. He takes the visitor's notebook and begins to write in a neat, swift hand. After a few lines he consults with cousin Ahmed in Somali. They argue about a word. Their driver leans in and adamantly dictates a phrase. Patrons from other tables take up this mysterious poem. Finally the page is filled.

Then the whole discussion is repeated, over how it ought to be translated. They conclude that the poem's power and humor refuse to depart from Somali into any baser language.

"Of course this is only one small part of a longer work." says Bile at last. "It is by Ismail Mire. Here goes:

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