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The Book of Khartoum

  • By Raph Cormack
  • 9th May 2016
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Writer and translator Raph Cormack discusses The Book of Khartoum, a short story collection he has co-edited, within the context of the political climate in Khartoum.

On Thursday 14 April, one of the first copies of The Book of Khartoum, a book of Sudanese short stories that I have been co-editing with Max Shmookler, dropped through my letterbox. Around the same time, news was also coming out of Khartoum University that protesters had clashed with the police and that many had been arrested. The next week saw different demonstrations, which started after a student was murdered in Kordofan, spread to Khartoum and have since lead to the death of a number of students. Just as this book of short stories is about to be released, protests in Khartoum are back in the international media.

When we first started reading through stories for a collection set in the city of Khartoum, we discussed the selection criteria we would use. Very early on, we decided that, as much as would be possible, our choices would be primarily literary and not political; a radical aesthetic is of as much interest as (possibly more than) a political one. As outsiders to Sudan, we were very wary of wading into the murky waters of political loyalty. At times, we were, in fact, very grateful not to be guided by particular political loyalties when reading all the authors we were considering for the collection.

However, the literary and the political are often difficult to prise apart. Almost all of the authors in the collection have been affected by the government’s opposition to their literary work. A number have left Sudan in order to find an atmosphere more conducive to experimentation. In 2012, Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin’s books were seized from Khartoum Book Fair and he is currently seeking asylum in Europe. The work of other authors could be read as using stylistic and formal techniques to undercut dominant official narratives and create their own intellectual and cultural autonomy. Ahmed al-Malik’s ironic tale of a man whose life is dramatically transformed when he comes into ownership of a tank could be read as a comic deflation of the military establishment. Mamoun Eltilb’s oblique, poetic style could also be looked at as a way of reclaiming the Arabic language for literature and creative production, freeing it from its drab shackles.

This does not mean that all the authors are active opponents of the government. Mamoun Eltlib has said in an interview with The Believer magazine that:

[W]e don’t care about the government, we don’t care about the political parties, they are not our target – our target is the people, spreading knowledge, spreading music and fun and dance.

On World Poetry Day, the Sudanese Poetic Movement released a statement  in support of writers imprisoned across the Arab World. The last paragraph starts:

The word ‘free’ has returned and the dream of Mohammed al-Mahdi al-Majdhub is being realised. ‘I dream of a generation that makes writing a part of life, like drinking water’. This freedom – poetic freedom – is revolutionary and renews itself every day, every hour, every moment.

Despite the government’s wariness about potentially subversive literary events and the many other obstacles in the way, Sudan’s cultural life is surprisingly lively and exciting. Every time I have been to a reading, a discussion about books, or a book fair in Khartoum, it has been full. Once, in a rather innocuous venue off the main road in Khartoum, Bahri and I saw the poet Atef Khairi recite his work. Long before the performance actually started, the hall had been filled and a growing crowd was gathering outside. We began to get more and more agitated, until the organisers managed to set up some speakers outside the hall to broadcast what was going on inside. I have never seen so many people anywhere in the world wanting to listen to a poetry reading. 

The Book of Khartoum wants to capture part of what makes this literature so exciting. In doing so, we have selected ten short stories that cover a range of styles, subjects and themes, and show Khartoum as a city of many aspects, from the painful to the pleasurable. We have tried to be guided by the same “poetic freedom” that the Poetic Movement mentioned in their statement, and to be part of the “human fraternity” that they say links writers and poets.

Of course, this could be said to be a political act, and not just in the context of Khartoum, but also globally. However, it is not always straightforwardly so. In Europe, we are currently witnessing a discourse grow around refugees, including those from Sudan, that risks becoming dehumanising. People are crammed into boats across the Mediterranean and many have ended up in camps across the continent. They have become a “political” problem and are no longer just people. Arthur Gabriel Yak’s account of the refugee process in Khartoum, which features in this collection, shows this story from the other side.

So this book, the first major anthology of Sudanese and South-Sudanese short stories translated into English, includes ten aesthetically experimental, sophisticated, and vital stories about the city of Khartoum. It lets English speakers glimpse the deep and cultural life of a city that is often ignored, and allows them access to a world of writing that they have likely not experienced before.

Click here to read an extract from one of the short stories featured in The Book of Khartoum – “The Tank” by Ahmed al-Malik, translated by Adam Talib.

The Book of Khartoum is available to purchase from Comma Press here.
You can 
also ask your nearest independent bookshop to stock it.

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