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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.

Sudan- Tayeb Salih
Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih is one of the most respected Arab novelists of the 20th century. Salih, wrote the classic “Season of Migration to the North” about a Sudanese man’s experiences of life and love in Britain in the 1960s. Photo AFP

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 1930s and ’40s, distinguished poets emerged such as Tijani Yusuf Bashir, Idris Jamaa and Hamzah al-Malik Tamal. They revived Sudanese poetry, developing its meaning and structure and gaining attention across the Arab world.

In the 1960s, Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum sang a poem by the Sudanese writer Hadi Adam entitled ‘Shall I See You Tomorrow?’, opening the way for other Sudanese poets to increase their regional reach.

Many poets examined the theme of national identity.

The Forest and Desert school adopted the fusion of Arab culture, symbolized by the desert, and African culture, symbolized by the forest, as a dis-course for Sudanese identity.

One of the most important developments in Sudanese poetry in the last three decades has been the widespread use of colloquial poetry at the expense of poetry written in classical Arabic. Notable proponents of this style, notably Mohammed Hassan Salim Hamid, Mohammed Taha al-Qadal, Atef Khairi and Mahjoub Sharif, produced a purely Sudanese literary art form that is enlivened with new con-cepts, visions and ideas, rhythms and styles derived from local history and traditions, while continuing to draw on the achievements of modern Arabic poetry.

Other significant contributions to modern Sudanese poetry have been made by young millennium poets whose works are considered part of the prose poetry schools, which remain controversial at a cultural level.

Novels and Short Stories

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

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.

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