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Against all odds: Sudanese literature today

Khartoum street (file photo) showing Fatih Hotel, formerly owned by Libya under its late leader Muammar Gaddafi. Photo: AFIS
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Khartoum street file photo showing Fatih (aka Corinthia) Hotel, formerly owned by Libya under its late leader Muammar Gaddafi (1942-2011). Photo: AFIS

Life under international sanctions in Sudan is glimpsed in contemporary fiction being written in the country or in Sudanese diasporas under challenging conditions, as evidenced in London literary magazine Banipal‘s current issue. Banipal 55 is focused on the new, contemporary and modern fiction writings in the country and by Sudanese in numerous diasporas.

Amidst a political climate blighted by the government’s response to the sanctions and Sudan’s diplomatic isolation, writers seem to persevere against heavy odds employing the medium of fiction to draw attention to fact.

Issue 55 of Banipal, focused on Sudanese literature today
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Issue 55 of Banipal, focused on Sudanese literature today

“While much of the Arab world is plunged into chaos with wars and devastation, sectarian divisions, repression and censorship, the Arab literary side of life remains essentially modernist, secular, progressive and enlightened, speaking out for the marginalised – and needing to be heard across the world,” writes Publisher Margaret Obank.

For the first time in the journal’s 19-year history almost the entire issue of Banipal 55 has been given over to voices of writers from Sudan, with further translations and articles available online at Banipal’s website. The journal plans to add to the wealth of contemporary Sudanese literature by publishing more new material in the coming issues.

Obank recounts what preparing the Sudan issue entailed: months of work including emails, Skype conversations, working with authors and translators, locating lesser known works of novels, short stories and poetry.

Over the last few years, she adds, Sudanese writers have been crowding onto the Arab literary scene in increasing numbers, making headway in several pan-Arab literary projects and prizes. With the majority of the writers living out of the country in the Gulf’s Arab countries or in Europe, “they are creating almost a virtual Sudanese literary scene, one that cannot be silenced or censored.”

In an introduction novelist Ahmad Al Malik, who lives in the Netherlands, says Sudanese writers are finding new openings for sharing their work “despite the formidable hurdles” which include routine “confiscation of books and newspapers” and the closure of cultural venues.

The dire state of publishing in the country is cited by publisher Nur al-Huda Mohammad Nur al-Huda, head of Azza Publishing, in a candid interview. He outlines the problems he faces in relation to the high costs and lack of modernisation in the printing industry, random banning of books, curtailment of libraries and “worsening illiteracy and poverty.” Some but surely not all of those difficulties can certainly be blamed on the sanctions.

The problems, he says, are compounded by Sudan being “the greatest consumer of counterfeit books” which are sold for half or even one third their prices. Meanwhile, absent from the scene is the government’s will to develop people through knowledge acquisition. Despite those obstacles, he points out, the Sudanese reader is changing and that “the novel has jumped to first place and become the most read genre.”

As in neighbouring Egypt, where the state’s and government’s problems with the outside the world become pretexts for clamping down on expression, Sudan may be losing out on making the most of its intellectual capital, independent analysts believe.

The Banipal 55 issue contributors include Leila Aboulela, Mohammad Jamil Ahmad, Emad Blake, Hamed el-Nazir, Mansour El Souwaim, Tarek Eltayeb, Najlaa Osman Eltom, Stella Gaitano, Abdel Ghani Karamallah, Jamal Mahjoub, Rania Mamoun, Tayeb Salih and Hammour Ziada.

Of the two poets in their midst,  Najlaa Osman Eltom writes of ‘Maryam’ — her verse transporting the reader into the hot liquid imagery of aching sorrows, glaring idlers and crowded dusty streets; while Mohammad Jamil Ahmad presents tableaux of silence, the overbearing and oppressive reality of the absolute, secrets and whispers. “There is no one chasing after me to frighten me, dear loneliness/I am the isolation of words,” he writes in the opening lines of ‘Silence,’ effectively encapsulating a lot more perhaps than he intended in an anthology such as this. ©Sajid Rizvi. Sajid Rizvi is the commissioning editor of Saffron Absolute Fiction series at SaffronBooks.

 

Author: Editor

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