Bhakti Shringarpure

“War may be serious business, but you would never know it from the casual manner in which African wars tend to be reported in the Western media,” Ugandan intellectual Mahmood Mamdani observes in his book about the Darfur crisis. “Africa is usually the entry point for a novice reporter on the international desk, a learning laboratory where he or she is expected to gain experience. Reporting from Africa is a low-risk job: Not only are mistakes expected and tolerated, but often they are not even noticed…As a rule African tragedies happen in isolation and silence, under the cover of the night.”(1) 

In the past decade, not many places have been as over-represented and as under-understood than Sudan and the newly formed South Sudan. From a barrage of news articles to a flurry of op-eds, from millions of dollars spent on advertising and brand-management for Darfur activism to insipid, shallow visits from Hollywood celebrities to troubled areas, not a stone has been left unturned in the media hype that is called Sudan. This is not to say that there is nothing going on, but simply to posit that there has been no well-rounded, comprehensive or non-ideological approach to the crises that have been transpiring there since the late eighties. In the face of the one-note depiction of Sudan merely as a place of war and atrocities, then, this Warscapes Retrospective, “Literary Sudans,” is intended to highlight the two Sudans as vibrant sites of literature and culture.  

The earliest forms of literature from Sudan can be traced to stories transmitted orally from generation to generation. In her comprehensively researched overview of Sudanese literature, Eiman Abbas El Nour claims that, while mainly focused on themes of great heroes and battles, these stories, “deploy a rich repertoire of imaginary worlds and characters.”(2) The transition from oral to written culture started sometime in the seventeenth century, though remained limited due to the unavailability of presses. With the British occupation of Sudan in 1898, Western-style education with mandatory English language schooling came about, though Arabic remained dominant, particularly in the North, its use persisting as a form of resistance against British domination. Written literature really came onto the scene with the appearance of newspapers, which led to an expanding readership for magazines and other publications, mainly imported from neighboring Egypt. 

The 1920s were a turbulent decade for the region, and the first uprising against the British in 1924 was violently suppressed. The period also saw the implementation of the “Southern policy” part of the larger colonial political objective to “reorganize colonial populations around narrower identities,” as Mamdani has noted. Areas of the South were cut off from the rest of the region with the intention of erasing any Arab or Islamic influences. There were bans on the use of Arabic language in education, while Muslim and Arab traders were removed and special permits created for North Sudanese wishing to enter the South. The administration of the South almost like a separate country, with education controlled by missionary groups, created a Christianized, Anglicized Southern elite and a discontent Arabicized, Islamic North, an issue that lies at the heart of the civil conflict that has eclipsed this region and has been detrimental to any unity since. However, the bitter experience of the 1924 uprising’s defeat led to calls for a new Sudanese literature, one existing outside British or Egyptian dominance.  

There was a flowering of literary activity sometime in the 1930s evidenced through the publication of stories, literary criticism and essays, as well as a consistent growth in the tradition of poetry. Foreign influences by way of Egypt led to early experiments in novel writing and there was an added impetus with the return of many young Sudanese who had been educated in England and elsewhere. Social realism, romance and political issues found their home in novels of the 1960s and 1970s.(3) Though the impact and production of Sudanese works remained insular and confined to the national space, some Sudanese novelists did try to push for dissemination to a wider, international audience. 

One of the early international novelists is Francis Deng, then a diplomat living in the United States, who published two novels in English, The Seed of Redemption (1986) and Cry of the Owl (1987). Of these, Eiman Abbas El Nour writes that, “[t]heir value, however, stems from there being a major contribution by a writer who, although a native of the Arabic-speaking north, writes from a southern Sudanese perspective, since he belongs culturally and ethnically to the non-Arab minority in the south. This is a significant step in Sudanese literature, as previously works with a southern, non-Arab theme were practically nonexistent.” However it was Tayeb Salih that made real inroads into the Sudanese and international realms with his acclaimed novel Season of Migration to the North (1968), which draws on traditions of oral storytelling to weave an elegant tale of village life along the banks of the Nile. 

This special Warscapes issue spans narratives of returning home from exile in the west to migratory journeys within Sudan, as well as war's impact on women and children. Leila Aboulela, author of Lyrics Alley and Minaret, has a new short story, Souvenir. Her protagonist Yassir visits his family in Khartoum after five years abroad. It is a bittersweet return, replete with the realisation that neither he nor his Scottish wife and daughter could ever fit in to the place he once called home. Also touching upon the themes of exile is trilogist extraordinaire Jamal Mahjoub (Navigation of a Rainmaker, Wings of Dust, In the Hour of Signs) and he offers a sampling from his moody 2006 novel, The Drift Latitudes which is, in his own words, "a position of uncertainty" and "a sense of belonging to more than one country".

Two young new voices from South Sudan offer suspenseful and filmic short stories. Edward Eremugo Luka, a doctor in Juba, gives us Casualty. In this deceptively simple tale, young kids stumble upon relics from an old civil war as they play in the field, with disastrous consequences. And in Seiko Five by David Lukudu, a spirited woman, Fatna, makes a living in an Omdurman slum by brewing and selling some of the best liquor in town. The tension becomes palpable as the corrupt and brutish cops turn her place upside down for evidence of illegal activity.

New fiction that is not anchored in its literary history can feel very rootless. Though it would be tough to go as far back as we would wish, we were glad to include an excerpt from Francis Mading Deng's 1987 novel Cry of the Owl, a now forgotten novel which was one of the first to explore the fragile mythology of identity politics that has torn the north and south apart. Tarek Eltayeb's 1992 novel Cities Without Palms, originally written in Arabic, has also been included. Eltayeb's trajectory is particularly cosmopolitan and his hero Hamza's journeys from a small village in Sudan to Vienna is unique and perhaps representative of many in the Sudanese diaspora.

Mahmood Mamdani writes that, “History is important because it permeates memory and animates it, shaping the assumptions that we take for granted as we act in the present.” Though the two Sudans occupy a space that has been heavily politicized, their literature and arts have not had much breathing space precisely because of this politicization. Literature might help us all arrive at a better historical and cultural understanding of the place. So lets enjoy this rich outpouring of stories, characters and imaginations from the two Sudans.  


(1) Saviors and Survivors : Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror by Mahmood Mamdani, New York, Pantheon Books, 2009.

(2) “Nationalism and the Rise of the Sudanese Novel” by Eiman Abbas El-Nour in The Road Less Traveled:  Reflections on the Literatures of the Horn of Africa, edited by Ali Jimale Ahmed and Taddesse Adera (Trenton:  The Red Sea Press, 2008), 4.

(3) Prominent works include Osman Mohammad Hashim’s love story, Tajuj, Badawi Abdul Qadir Khalil’s Ha'im 'ala i-ard aw rasa'il al-hirman (A wanderer on the earth, or Letters of deprivation),  Hatta ta'ud (Until you return) by Shakir Mustafa, Sirra al-dumu' (The secret of tears) by Mohammad Osman Sabbad, Hayat al- dumu' (The life of tears) by Hindi Awad al-Karim, Al-Faragh al-'arid (The vast emptiness) by Malkat ad-Dar Mohammad which was the first major work by a woman, Ma'sat al- qubur (The graveyard tragedy) by Abdul Fattah Suardabi, Min ajil Layla (For Layla's sake) by Elsir Hassan Fadl, and Bidayat al-rabi' (The beginning of spring), Al-Nab' al-murr (The bitter spring) and Al-Qaft fawq al-ha'it al-qasir (Jumping over the short wall, 1976) by Abu Bakr Khalid.