Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Culture of Sudan

Culture of Sudan
Members of Sudan’s Nuba community perfom a traditional dance called the Kambala as they take part in the Nuba Mountains Cultural Heritage Festival, marking the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, on August 15, 2015, in the capital’s twin city of Omdurman. AFP PHOTO / ASHRAF SHAZLY


Much is said about the causes of what some describe as the “bad luck” that befell the Sudanese literature, hindering its spread among readers and critics except for two prominent names, Al-Tayyib Saleh and Muhammad al-Fayturi.  Researchers  attributed the causes to difficulties facing writers and other creators when it comes to publishing their intellectual and innovative works.

These difficulties are related – as they believe – to social and political changes, and many disturbances in the country. Plus, it is not possible to address culture in Sudan without considering a wide variety of determining and restricting factors for culture in Sudan, among which; the existence of diverse ethnics in the Sudanese society, language, religion, tribes, primary allegiances, and geography.  

In this manner, the “Great Sudan” didn’t have – before the independence of South Sudan in 2011 – one or unified culture, but rather divergent cultures, and different fortunes of urbanization and civilization. Due to the connection of the “Great Sudan’s” north to the Nile, then to Egypt, and the Red Sea culture to some extent, ancient civilizations emerged in the north, some of which are derived from the Pharaonic civilization  according to researchers, and some other are the products of internal interactions, such as civilizations of Kerma, Napata and Meroë. Northerners succeeded in inventing their alphabet to become a written language.

The Republic of Sudan “geographically” after 2011 was previously affected by the Abrahamic religions, and throughout history, it became a linguistic crucible, in which the Beja, Nubian, Greek, Roman, and Arabic languages interacted. Its people converted to Islam before they were arabized. Today, Sudan is still full of multiculturalism.

Modern Sudanese literature has witnessed –  according to researchers  – transformations that formed the foundations of Sudanese literature and brought out the most famous of its authors and writers. The period from the 1950s until the mid-1960s was the starting point for sometimes a stumbling and sometimes an impulsive beginning in the field of Sudanese writing, depending on a collection of late novels such as “Ennahom Bashar” by Khalil Abdullah al-Haj, “Al-Faragh al- A’reed” by Malkat Ed-Dar Mohamed, and “Al-Qafz fawqa al-Ha’et al-Kaseer” by Abu Bakr Khalid, which were the cornerstones of the period that came after them with the finest crops of Sudanese literature.

Their next stage was marked by criticism books, prose, and objective writing that did not acquire a complete form and remained separated from each other, which until now still gives Sudanese literature a state of being lost between the novel and Arab criticism.

Sudan has known the arts of drawing, engraving, and sculpture since prehistoric times, and in the modern era, visual arts have been closely linked to the national heritage, local environment, and social development, in addition to the global transformations in the fields of graphic arts.

Sudan is characterized by diversity. Many families, clans and tribes claim genealogies that can be traced back generations to Arab origins. Yet the complexity of ethnicities indicates genetic and cultural intermingling that goes back much further.

Islam is an integral part of Sudan’s social fabric and media landscape as well as a politically mobilizing and polarizing force. However, other socio-economic and cultural factors play various interlinked roles in shaping the country.

Rural communities are characterized by traditional tribal and ethnic social structures and subcultures. Modern large-scale agricultural projects, such as the Gezira irrigation scheme, attract labourers from all over the country, forming a sort of national melting pot, especially in and around the capital Khartoum.

To learn more about the culture of Sudan, check what Fanack has covered about this file.

Islam, State and Identity

Islam is the religion of the vast majority of Sudanese, and has been a key part of Sudanese politics since the Mahdia era. Numerical dominance does not, however, mean that there is a consensus regarding the role of Islam in politics and power. There are differences between parties that adopt Islamic positions.

Before the rise of political Islam in the mid-1970s, the military government of General Ibrahim Abboud (1900 – 1983) sought to Arabize and Islamize southern Sudan in the early 1960s, as a way of creating a national identity and restricting the rebel movement.

Culture of Sudan
A South Sudanese soldier stands with a South Sudan flag in his boot during a parade to celebrate the 31st anniversary of the Sudan People Liberation’s Army/Movement (SPLA/M) forming at the Dr John Garang memorial mausoleum in Juba on May 16, 2014. (Photo by Charles Atiki LOMODONG / AFP)

The emergence of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), a party initially founded in 1983 as the political wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in mostly non-Islamic South Sudan, and the proclamation of sharia law in the same year, brought identity to the political forefront. The government in Khartoum has since been associated with Islam and Arab descent and culture, in contrast with the SPLA, which is associated with Africanism, indigenous beliefs, African culture and, to some extent, Christianity, in the eyes of the southern elites.

Many non-Arab ethnic groups in northern Sudan, particularly in the Nuba Mountains, the Ingessana Hills, Darfur in the west and Beja in the east, began to realise that the boundaries of socio-economics and development were indistinguishable from ethnic and cultural boundaries, with the Arabic-speaking Muslims of central and northern Sudan dominating both. This realisation triggered a national identity crisis.
The famous black book, published by the Justice and Equality Movement and published in 1999, a Darfur rebel group, detailed the extent of the imbalance of power and the distribution of wealth in Sudan, and how the less populated north dominated the south politically and economically, including in recruitment into politics, the civil services and the army.

The identity crisis contributed to a flare-up in ethnic tensions and armed conflicts at the marginalised edges of the country, leading to the secession of the South in 2011 and the continued civil war in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and the Ingessana Hills in the southern Blue Nile province.

Many intellectuals, even among the dominant northern elite, began to question the issue of national identity and the authenticity and practicalities of insisting on being an Arab country and forcing an Arab Islamic identity on the Sudanese people.

In addition to the horrors of civil war, many northern elites began to reconsider their Arab-ness after hundreds of thousands of Sudanese expats in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states were confronted with discrimination, being rejected as Arabs because of their dark skin, despite being devout Muslims and speaking Arabic well.

The issue of national identity in Sudan has become an entrenched part of the debate around politics, war and peace, unity and disintegration. The Islamic government in Khartoum has begun to accept this and to make it a part of its political agenda.

Acknowledging the cultural and ethnic diversity of the country and recognizing and respecting other languages, cultures and ethnic groups will be a key factor in achieving lasting peace, and the only guarantee that no single ethnic or cultural group exploits religion and language to their socio-economic advantage.

Literature in Sudan is Finally Finding its Voice

Sudanese literature has for a long time struggled to find its rightful place in Arabic literature. Some critics ascribe this limitation to difficulties in publishing works by Sudanese writers as a result of social and political changes and unrest that hinder their capabilities. Novelist Al-Tayyib Salih and Sudanese-Libyan poet Muhammad Muftah al-Fitouri have been the only writers to find international recognition since the 1980s.

History of Sudanese Poetry

Sudanese written literature started with poetry, according to well-known critic Muhammad al-Mahdi Bushri, who affirmed that the Sudanese mood has been dominated by poetry since the Funj Sultanate of Sennar (1504-1821).

Modern education and civic life later facilitated attempts for creative genres such as novels.

In the book Nationalism in Sudanese Poetry by Al-Basha Burshum, the author traced the national motives and their impact on the poets of each era, including the Funj Sultanate, the Turkish era, the Mahdism era, the British colonial era, and the ‘Forest and Desert’ school, which was the most important intellectual school of thought to emerge in the 1960s.

In the author’s opinion, Islamic mysticism, which prevailed in Sudan during the Funj Sultanate, played a key role in shaping the poetry from that period.

In addition, readers became more familiar with the Sudanese colloquial, which characterized the poetry of that time, enabling later poets to shift easily to standard Arabic. Sudanese poetry was influenced by migrants from the Arab world, who attached greater importance to Dubt in Sudanese literature. Dubt is a type of Persian poetry that was incorporated into Arabic literature and which the Arabs referred to as Rubaiyat, a Persian quatrain.

Rhythmic poetry emerged during the Turkish rule of Sudan (1821-1885), followed by the poetry of The Mahdist revolution (1885-1889), although the poets of the latter followed the traditional approach in terms of rhyme and rhythm and used to start their poems with the ghazal (a rhyming syllable at the end of the second line of each two-line verse), followed by the purpose of writing the poems.

There was some stagnation in the post-Mahdism period and the British re-colonization of Egypt (1899-1956). With the emergence of Sudanese alumni and journalism clubs in 1920s, new platforms were opened to poets to express their nationalist sentiments and awareness. This had an impact on the overall cultural, political and social movement in Sudan.

Modern Sudanese Poetry
In the 1930’s and 1940’s, distinguished poets such as Tidjani Yusef Bashir, Idris Jama and Hamza al-Malik Tombol, renewed Sudanese poetry and developed it in terms of meaning and structure. They were followed by poets that gained a lot of attention on a wider Arab scale. In the 1960s,Umm Kulthum sang the poem “A ghadan aIqak” by the Sudanese poet Al-Hadi Adam, It was like a once in a lifetime opportunity for the Sudanese poets on the Arab level, as it opened a wide field for other Sudanese poets to increase their spread at the regional level.

The issue of identity as a national issue captured a great deal of poets ’attention, and the School of the Forest and the Desert appeared. It is a poetic cultural movement founded in the early sixties of the last century, and it saw in the concept of Arab intermingling, which it symbolized the desert and African culture, and indicated it by the forest, as a discourse on the issue of Sudanese identity.

One of the most important features of the Sudanese poetry movement in the past three decades is the overwhelming expansion of the Sudanese colloquial poetry at the expense of poetry written in classical Arabic. The colloquial poets represented by Muhammad al-Hasan Salem Hamid, Muhammad Taha al-Qaddal, Atif Khairy, Mahjoub Sharif and others presented pure Sudanese poetry in a renewed local colloquial language that carries new modernist contents, visions and ideas with special rhythms and styles drawn from the history and traditions of Sudanese culture, and at the same time based on the best achievements of modern Arabic poetry.

We cannot overlook the contributions of the millennial youth poets whose productions belong to schools of prose poetry, which continue to cause controversy in the cultural arena.

Novel and story in Sudan

In his book The Short Story in Sudan, Fuad Morsi describes the negative aspects of that period as being ‘writing about reality with preconceived ideas governed by traditions rather than dictated by artistic and aesthetic necessities, apart from common flaws such as the descriptive and detailed style and digression at boring levels’. He believes that romanticism was the predominant feature of literary writing at that time.

The beginnings of the contemporary short story date back to between 1933 and 1945.

The most famous pioneers of the short story were Sayed al-Fil, Abdul Halim Mohammed, Badawi Nasser, Mohammed Ahmed Mahjoub, Arafat Mohammed Abdullah and Muawiya Mohamed Nur.

Another important contributor to the emerging genre was Malikat al-Dar Ahmad, who started out writing short stories and went on to become one of the country’s first novelists.

Yet even as the idea of a modern national literature gained legitimacy, other influences made them-selves felt as authors combined influences and styles. For example, the traditional Eastern Sudanese story of Tajuj and her tragic lover Muhalliq was rewritten by Mohamed Osman Hashim and published as a novel in the style of a French romance in 1948.

These authors paved the way for the post-independence writers of the 1960s and ’70s. As elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking world, some writers turned to social realism to express the political changes taking place, but in general the period was characterized by a creative flourishing that saw the publication of hundreds of novels.

Al-Tayyib Salih: Literary Icon

Culture of Sudan
An undated file picture shows Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih in Khartoum.(Photo by ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP)

The literary productivity of post-colonial Sudan continued into the new millennium. However, it is Al-Tayyib Salih (1929-2009) who remains the unsurpassed icon of the Sudanese novel. Salih started writ-ing in the late 1950s. He was obsessed with his Sudanese environment, and he reflected this in his work. He used his writing to address cultural collisions, notably in his 1966 masterpiece Season of Mi-gration to the North.

Voted one of the 100 best works of fiction in 2002, the book tells the story of intellectuals torn between their native Sudan and Europe. The main character, a Sudanese student both intrigued by and disgusted by the West, moves to the United Kingdom where he has a string of affairs with women similarly taken by the east.

“I have redefined the so-called east-west relationship as essentially one of conflict, while it had previously been treated in romantic terms,” Salih once said of the book, which has been widely distributed internationally and translated into dozens of languages.

Among Salih’s other works are the Sudanset short story collection The Wedding of Zein, an adaptation of which won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976, and The Cypriot Man.

Glimpse of Hope

Over the decades, Sudanese novels have matured and gained in reach and recognition. Two novels by Amir Taj won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2017 and 2018. Shawq al-Darwish by Al-Shab Hammour won the same prize in 2016, confirming the growing presence of Sudanese novels and their ability to attract non-Sudanese readers.

Furthermore, The Messiah of Darfur by Barakah Saken won the Committed Book Prize of La Cène Lit-téraire in Switzerland, and The Monster of al-Qulzim by Emad Blake won the Atlas Award. The Egyptian and Gulf publication market is an important outlet for Sudanese novels.

The current generation of novelists has undergone qualitative transformations, applying new tech-niques, critiquing reality and analyzing the political and economic structures and complexities of socie-ty, as in Marwan Hamed’s Bounty and the Return. Some novels have been influenced by Latin American magical realism, such as The Birds of the Last Days of Autumn by Ahmad al-Malik. Other novelists, such as Hassan al-Bakri and Hammour Ziada, incorporate historical events in their works.

Feature Films Notably Absent from Sudanese Cinema

Sudan- Cinema sudan
A picture was taken on December 22, 2014, shows the closed Halfaya Cinema in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. Many cinemas in Sudan stand empty after closing their doors because of the economic hardship and government policies after 1989. Photo AFP

9sCinema reached Sudan soon after its invention in Europe in the late 19th century. However, more than 100 years later, the country’s relationship with this art form has not progressed much beyond the production of short films, mostly documentaries, with an almost complete absence of feature films.

A decade after the world’s first film screening in Paris in 1895s, a cinematographer arrived in Sudan to make films. In 1910, Swiss filmmaker DM David filmed a fishing trip to Sudan. Pioneering Sudanese filmmaker Kamal Mohamed Ibrahim wrote in his book Cinema in Sudan, Present and Future that the first screening in Sudan was held in the city of al-Abyad in 1911, as part of celebrations marking the completion of the railway project there.

In the 1920s, a cinema named Skating Ring in the capital Khartoum began regular screenings of silent films. The audience was mostly made up of British colonial administration personnel and other foreigners. The British rulers then introduced a travelling cinema that toured the country. This was followed in 1930 by the first ‘talkie’.

By the 1980s, the country had 71 cinemas, according to director and film researcher Abdulrahman Najdi. However, this growth came to abrupt halt. Less than two years after the Islamist takeover in 1989, the Sudan Cinema Corporation, which was responsible for importing and distributing films, was terminated and screenings began to slow. By the mid-1990s, almost all cinemas were abandoned. Currently, Sudan has only one functioning cinema, in the Afra Commercial Centre in Khartoum.

Film Production

The Sudanese Cinema Company was established in 1940, producing short musical films with the Egyptian Company for Acting and Cinema. However, the beginning of film production was associated with the creation of the Sudan Film Unit by English colonists in 1949. The unit’s production at the time was limited to promotional, informational and instructional films and the publication of a biweekly film production newspaper.

In 1951, the first Sudanese black and white film – a recording of a song for artist Hassan Attia – was produced. There is no filmography of the Sudan Film Unit’s productions. However, a committee was formed in 1999 to archive 3,564 chapters (ten minutes for each chapter) of films and newspaper issues that had been produced over the previous 50 years.

The Sudan Film Unit was associated with the names of pioneering filmmakers Kamal Mohamed Ibrahim and Jadallah Jubara (1920-2008),, who joined the unit upon inception. They wrote and directed all the unit’s initial films. They also supplied the national cinema archives with dozens of documentaries and feature films over the decades.

In the 1960s, the Department of Film Production was established at the Ministry of Culture. The Sudan Film Unit was incorporated into that department. Moreover, a film unit was established at Sudan Television. Several pioneering filmmakers began to make a name for themselves, including al-Khayyir Hashim, Mohammed Eid Zaki and Rashid Mahdi. In 1972, a cinema section was established at the Department of Culture within the Ministry of Culture and Information.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the second generation of Sudanese filmmakers emerged, most of whom had studied filmmaking in Europe and Egypt. This generation, prominent members of which were Hussein Sharif, Ibrahim Shaddad, Anwar Hashim, al-Tayyib al-Mahdi, Sami al-Sawi and Abdulrahman Najdi, revolutionized filmmaking in Sudan. They established a creative cinema that diverged from the propaganda and instructional films that marked the first years of the Sudan Film Unit. Instead, they produced documentaries and films based on short stories that were rich in aesthetic elements.

In addition to films produced by pioneers such as Shaddad and Jubara, many other documentaries were released, including Modern Sudan by al-Khayyir Hashim, Jaz al-Nar (the Sudanese tradition of stone throwing during the harvest), Tigers Look Better by Hussein Sharif, Circle Around A Stone by al-Sawi and The Zar (possession trance dance ritual believed to facilitate a relationship with the possessing spirit to prevent future occurrences of illness) byr Huriyah Hakim, The Shrine and Four Wives (Raising) the Kids by al- Mahdi.

Feature Films

Only seven feature films have been produced in Sudan. The first was in 1970, when the al-Rashid Studio Company produced Hopes and Dreams, directed by Ibrahim Malassi. This was followed by Tajuj (1982), Blessings of Shaykh (2001) and The Miserable by Jubara, Shuruq (‘sunset’) (1973) and A Journey of Eyes (1983) by Anwar Hashem,, and Justice Above the Law and There is Hope by Abdulrahman Mohammed Abdulrahman. This was in addition to Zein’s Wedding (1976), which was written by and featured Sudanese actors but was produced and directed by a Kuwaiti, Khalid al-Siddiq.

Efforts to produce feature films began early in Sudan, but they were mostly limited to short films, first introduced by Ibrahim and Jubara, with the former producing Homeless Childhood (1952) and The Stricken and the latter producing Tur al-Jar at the Clinic. Other productions followed, including The Dislocation of Amber by Hussein Sharif (1975), The Camel, The Rope and A Man by Shaddad and The Station by al-Mahdi.

Some Sudanese films won prizes at international and regional festivals, including The Shrine, which won the Golden Pyramid Award at the Cairo International Film Festival in 1972. The Earth Moves by Suleiman Mohammed Ibrahim won the gold medal at the Moscow Film Festival in 1979, and Shaddad’s The Camel won the Critics Award at Cannes Film Festival in 1986, the Night Festival Award and the Golden Sword Award at the Damascus Documentary Film Festival.

Moreover, The Rope by the same director won gold at the Damascus Film Festival the following year, and Jubara’s Tajuj won several prizes in nine international and regional festivals.

Parallel Activities

The development of cinema in Sudan coincided with other cultural and intellectual activities related to filmmaking. The Khartoum Film Society was established in 1957, the Sudanese Cinema Club was established in 1978 and the first issue of Cinema magazine was published by the Ministry of Culture in the same year, followed by Cinema and Society magazine in 1980. In 1989, the Sudanese Film Group was founded with a focus on filmmaking and training.

Absence of Feature Films

In his book Cinema is the Inverted Pyramid of the State, director and film researcher Wajdi Kamel summarizes the main issues facing the production of feature films in Sudan. These include the reluctance of the private sector to invest in the film industry and a tax system that discourages such investment, the collapse of cinemas in the 1990s, the lack of modern hardware and imaging equipment, the dearth of graduates in several specialized areas of filmmaking and strict censorship. These issues, according to Kamel, stem largely from ‘ poor artistic skills and technologies in the few attempts to produce Sudanese long feature films’. He said that those early efforts had not allowed feature films to move beyond the experimental phase, causing them to fail commercially and artistically. As a result, viewers and investors had little appetite to support them.

Industry Decline

Culture of Sudan
A picture taken on December 22, 2014 shows a disused antique movie projector and empty films at the Halfaya Cinema, which is now closed, in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. (Photo by ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP)

In his book The Genesis and Evolution of Documentary Films in Sudan, Nasser al-Tayyib, the last director of the Film Production Department, wrote that filmmaking ‘continued to go well until 1981-1982, after which the state’s interest in cinema started to decline’. After the Islamists came to power in 1989, the collapse of cinema audiences severely harmed the filmmaking industry and parallel cultural activities.

The government’s Islamist ideology considered cinema and all other performance arts to be non-Islamic and contrary to Islamic morality. The state terminated the cinema section at the Department of Culture and the film unit at Sudan Television. It also closed down the Sudanese Cinema Club and Cinema magazine. No state financing has been available for filmmaking since 1995. A number of filmmakers left the country.