Omar Ali Hassan: A passion for Somalia’s artistic and cultural heritage

8 Jun 2024

Omar Ali Hassan: A passion for Somalia’s artistic and cultural heritage

Mogadishu – Seven-year-old boys can have a wide range of interests. For some, the mechanical world of cars and trains appeals. For others, it is the rugged world of adventure and swashbuckling derring-do.

For Omar Ali Hassan, it was something quite different.

“Unlike other children who pursued typical childhood pastimes, I found myself enthralled by poetry and song and literature,” says Mr. Hassan, who is also known by the nickname ‘Serbia.’

“I cannot describe the passion and desire I have for these – I believe it is part of my being,” he adds. “It’s a hobby that cannot be replaced!”

As a young boy, he would spend time hanging around his father and his friends, who would regularly gather to listen to radio programming on a wide range of topics, and then discuss what they had heard.

“The radio became a constant companion, its broadcasts transporting me closer to a community of adults who shared my fascination. Back then, radios were a rarity, and I treasured the company of my father's friends who would gather to listen.” 

Those group radio-listening sessions set Mr. Hassan on a course to becoming something of an expert on Somali cultural traditions – so much so that he has made a career out of it.

Different direction

Born in 1991 in Qorijabley, 20 kilometres south of Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, Mr. Hassan did not hail from an artistic background, with his family working in the informal sector – far from the arts and culture scene.

His educational journey was also far from the Somali arts and culture scene.

In 2002, he was enrolled in the Aw-Bustaale Madrasa, where he spent three years immersed in Quranic studies, alongside subjects like mathematics, Somali and Arabic writing.

Three years later, he transitioned into mainstream secular education. He was enrolled at the Omar Bin Khattab School in the sixth grade, before going on to the Alnilean High School, a Sudanese government-run institution in the city. He graduated from secondary school in 2010.

He started his tertiary education at the Hargeisa campus of Alpha University, from where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in media studies in 2014.

At the same time, he also enrolled in the Open University of Sudan, a Khartoum-based institution offering courses through distance education. Mr. Hassan completed a bachelor’s degree in education there, also in 2016.

From there, he went in to earn two more degrees – a master’s degree in international relations and diplomacy from Mount Kenya University in Thika, Kenya, from which he graduated in 2023; and a master’s degree in educational planning and policy management from SIMAD University in Mogadishu in 2024.

The educational path ties into his passion.

“These educational qualifications help me to interact with people at an intellectual level. They have also provided me with the skills to conduct research, give interviews and write publications on arts and culture,” Mr. Hassan notes.

Working too

While Mr. Hassan’s studies may not have been centred on arts and culture, his employment was a different story altogether.

In 2011, he got his first break – he joined Oodweyne Media. He covered a wide range of news developments, including politics and economics, and also got the opportunity to report on arts and culture.

“Working as a journalist for this platform provided me with the opportunity to dig deeper into Somali literature and culture,” Mr. Hassan says.

Concurrently, he also worked as a freelancer and got writing assignments with local newspapers such as Geeska Afrika and Haatuf, to which he has been contributing articles since 2013. 

The work allowed him to interact with prominent and established artists, as well as promising and aspiring new artists, from Somalia’s musical and poetry scenes. 


Eventually, he knew he had to go to the locus of the Somali arts and culture scene: Mogadishu.

He moved there in 2015, taking up a job as a producer with a prominent media outlet, the Goobjoog Media Group. 

In this new position, he continued his work on programmes related to music, art, poetry and literature. He also kept freelancing on the side, including working with the National Theatre of Somalia for a year ahead of its long-awaited reopening in 2020.

“In 2019, I joined a local cable TV provider, Astaan, which has a variety of media platforms, and where I became the director of a special channel for literature and music – this allowed me to devote myself to these areas,” he recalls.

In addition to his studies and employment, Mr. Hassan started something else: a mission to collect and record the history of Somali arts and literature. 

This involved interviews with prominent poets, songwriters, musicians, playwrights, culture and arts scholars, as well as carrying out in-depth research and analysis of archival  documents and recordings. 

“I travelled all over Somalia to meet with families of well-known Somali arts and culture figures, but also neighbouring countries such as Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya for the same reasons of research,” he says.

Literary ambitions

Eventually, Mr. Hassan knew his next step: a book that his fellow Somalis could read to learn more about their country’s rich arts and culture sector and heritage. 

Leveraging his knowledge, research and extensive personal collection, Mr. Hassan started writing a book, titled ‘Fan iyo Fannaan,’ in 2018, relaying the stories of some of Somalia’s most prominent artists in the fields of music and poetry. 

“Collecting the history of Somali art and artists led me to write this book,” he says. “It is a work that recaps the history and contributions of roughly a thousand Somali artists, musicians and composers.”

“It touches on the history of Somali art, giving due credit to often-overlooked composers who play a vital role in creating songs,” he adds.

Completed in 2022, Mr. Hassan presented the book in Somalia and abroad, with the latter including the Somali Culture Festival in London.

“My primary motivation for writing this book was to contribute to the life of Somali art in any way I could. I’m happy to note that, with the current lack of strong investment in the revival and support of the arts, this book is already being used as a reference by young scholars, both within Somalia and abroad, for their research on Somali art,” he says. 

National efforts

The Somali authorities have been keen to draw interest in and engagement with the country’s arts and culture. Efforts in this regard include the Somali Academy of Science and Arts (SOMASA) resuming its activities in December 2016.

After being closed for decades due to the civil war, SOMASA is tasked with promoting, coordinating and monitoring activity in the science and arts sectors. The reopening of the National Theatre on 1 July 2020 was also a significant part of the country’s cultural revival. 

The United Nations recognises the vital role of arts and culture in promoting peace, social cohesion and development in Somalia.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has stated that art nurtures creativity, innovation and cultural diversity for all peoples across the globe and plays an important role in sharing knowledge and encouraging curiosity and dialogue. In this way, furthering the development of art also furthers our means to achieve a free and peaceful world.

In November last year, the UN supported artists in Somalia by organising the country’s first-ever human rights art competition, in collaboration with the National Museum of Somalia.