Sketch of a Literary Scene

The stories in our collection span the roughly four decades since the publication of Tayyib Salih’s much acclaimed Season of Migration to the North in 1969. Some are works of social protest, others of technical mastery or experimental daring. Despite variations in theme and style, we’ve chosen them because they all revolve around Khartoum in one way or another. For that reason, contemporary literary culture in Khartoum is one of the most valuable frames for understanding the literature produced in and about the city. The questions are deceptively simple. Who writes? Who reads? Where do people in Khartoum go to buy books, hear poetry, discuss literature and workshop their own writing? By offering a brief sketch of the literary scene, based on my own short stay in Khartoum last year, I want to start to explore the city as a metaphor for the bundle of expectations, literary conventions, and social mores that shape what Sudanese writers write and why.

I myself have only become acquainted with many of the stories in my growing collection over the past year, culled initially from the dozens of books I carried back from Khartoum to Cairo in a cardboard box. The less controversial ones I bought in the dusty book shops clustered around the University of Khartoum, but the majority were recommended to me by friends and acquired at a monthly open-air book market called Mafroosh, written up not so long ago in the New York Times.

While the bookstores seem to trade predominantly in state sanctioned texts (which would explain the dust), Mafroosh roams the boundaries of the permissible. It is held in Etienne square, under eroded arches that once, I’m told, served as a gateway to the best nightclubs and bars in all of Sudan. This was during the early years of Jafar al-Nimeri’s presidency, who ruled from 1969 until he was deposed in 1985. Now the much-diminished square hosts a loose group of playwrights, poets, novelists and readers who gather to exchange books and thoughts about them. Some are the old guard of the Sudanese Writers Union, but many are younger poets and writers in their late twenties and early thirties. Some of these young men and women live in shared apartments and writers’ kerrets around the city, while others are married with young children, working as journalists and activists and writing fiction on the side.

At Mafroosh, and around the city, banned books are circulated by hand. One young writer said he could get me a copy of an underground literary journal called Iksir, or Elixir. The next day, he literally handed them to me in a paper bag under a table at a cafe. They each have a colorful, chaotic cover and contain dozens of stories, essays, translations, manifestos, and drawings in pencil, oil, and coal. The creative energy that went into producing these two collections is reflected in their titles:  “Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs” and “Torrents of Imagination”. And indeed, both the celestial and diluvian imagery is appropriate. The short fiction contained within trends towards philosophical abstraction, arcane Classical language, and a kaleidoscopic palette of cultural and literary allusions.

Etienne Square is a few blocks from downtown Khartoum, where a large parade ground boasts a dozen overturned dumpsters, their paint stripped away, their wheels exposed. Over the past decade, new flows of oil money allow for the possibility of a multi-billion Dubai style make-over, complete with glass office towers, a White Nile promenade, and a Kempinski hotel (a project that has been put, it seems, on indefinite hold).

Despite these ambitious plans, Khartoum is still the kind of city you can walk straight out of. From the middle class neighborhood of Taif, I would walk down to the Nile in the evenings, passing groups of young men drinking coffee by the light of their smartphone screens, huddled close, sharing earbuds, streaming the latest songs from Egypt and Ethiopia. Out further, near the brick yards, I would pass an old man in a white jalabeya watching TV in his courtyard. One night I raised my hand in greeting, and he his. All was good in the world, his kind greeting seemed to say, even as the television relayed news of the sacking of Umm Rawaba, a town five hundred kilometers to the south, a hard day’s drive from Khartoum. The old man shook his head in the dark and I walked down to the still-warm Nile, through the scent of the cooling brick.

A few days after book shopping at Mafroosh, I had the chance to meet the members of the executive committee of the Sudanese Writers’ Union. The Union itself is housed in a modest concrete building on a quiet side street. Outside, there was a small courtyard with a lemon tree and a brilliant advertisement for the savvy mobile phone company Zain, which sponsors some of the Union’s events. Inside, the director Kamal al-Jizouli gave me a brief tour. I remember the well-swept concrete floors, faded photographs in irregular frames hung on the wall, an old refrigerator humming from a kitchen tucked away beyond a corridor.

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Kamal and I sat in his office as the members of the committee shuffled in. They were mostly old Communist party hands, kind, sallow men of an older generation. Many of their colleagues, proteges, and students had left. Even the darling of the Writer’s Union, the enigmatic Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin, had left to seek asylum in Austria after publishing his most recent novel, al-Jango, which depicted the grotesque conditions in a women’s prison in the city of Qadaraf in Eastern Sudan.

After the meeting, we moved to the courtyard outside. They smoked Bringi cigarettes under a lemon tree, discussing an upcoming commemoration of the poetry of Mahjoub Sharif and the government’s unsuccessful attempts to take back the town of Umm Rawaba. As they talked, one man, a painter, surreptitiously filled his pockets with lemons. When he caught me watching him, he smiled and mouthed, “For my wife”.

About Max Shmookler

Max Shmookler is a MESAAS doctoral student at Columbia University, where he works on trends in contemporary Sudanese literature and the place of Arabic as a language of poetry and thought in the modern Middle East. He lived for many years in Cairo. His first collection of translations (with Najlaa Othman) was published online by Words Without Borders in December, 2013. He is the co-editor of “The Book of Khartoum”, which is forthcoming from Comma Press (2015).

5 thoughts on “Sketch of a Literary Scene

  1. Hi Max
    Nice piece on Khartoum!
    This city has deteriorated beyond what one would expect from corrupt city
    managment. Until the first devaluation of the Sudanese pound in 1978, Khartoum was a well-kept, clean and busy city. Your description brought back lots of memories of the cultural scene of the seventies when we as dwellers of Omdurman, the Mahadi’s stronghold-turned-into- a city, were able to cross the bridge on the Nile. We would first go for an ice cream or juice in the open-air cafe with it is famous central square-The Athenée, wrongly conveyed to you as Etienne. Then we would proceed along alJamhouriya street where bookshops and a place for selling used stamps would delay our progression to Khartoum University.
    Your mention of Bringi and Kamal Eljizouli nailed down all the nostalgia!

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