Home | Comment & Analysis    Tuesday 7 June 2011

Breaking Fast: A year with and without poetry in Sudan


by Toby Collins

A disclaimer

Hawajat [1] in Sudan are stubborn; running away from something or towards oblivion; or in the wrong place. I had been sold on Sudan with stories which I half believed and in retrospect, I was guilty of all the aforementioned.

Coffee for sale in Medani souq, the Republic of Sudan (photo: Heidi Erickson)

The British Ambassador’s bodyguards in Khartoum, the capital of the Republic of Sudan, were bored out of their minds. The ex-Foreign Legion haulier I met in Juba, the capital of the soon to be, Republic of South Sudan, was drunk out of his mind. In the isolated pockets of excess people exhibited strange behaviours like animals in captivity.

Many of my Sudanese friends fought for excess and spoke about their Romantic environment without fear of disjointedness or pretentiousness or cliché or embellishment of the truth or self-aggrandisement. This is an ode to them, not about them.

There are still Bohemians in Khartoum; sometimes eating, sometimes drinking and always smoking in barren rooms with noisy fans. They embrace the verbose and do not glorify brevity. They tell long, lyrical stories that, if I had free abandon, I would link to a slower and more rhythmical pace of life, an inherently nostalgic light and the desert. I might even stretch to the haboob, great dust storms which march from the deserts into the towns and eat away at the buildings, returning them to powder. But the metaphorical mention of hour glasses makes me wince. Perhaps if this was a translation I could get away with it.

Fierce rocks in the desert

I lived in a small town in the desert on the Sudanese side of the Ethiopian border. It was the metropolis of the Gedaref state where private and alien groups of people met and bartered. The water was brown and the wind was always hot. Most people used the remains of the train track as a thoroughfare. We jumped between the beams high above the deep, dried-out river to where we smoked shisha [2] at night. Once we saw a goat with a cardboard box stuck on its head in the riverbed – the spectators were going berserk and after three months there, I understood why.

Eid Mubarak  [3]

Sometimes I took the bus across expanses sparsely populated with nomads and their camels, armed with a bundle of security papers to the bright lights Khartoum. This time they played Rambo III, where he joins forces with the Afghans, against the Soviets.

Near Souq Arabi, there is a man who sells the books which he shouldn’t. Unless someone is privileged enough to go, or to know someone going overseas, this is the man they have to see. Although censorship of this kind is becoming harder with the massing digital cloud, the availability of controversial texts in Arabic is still limited. For the majority, internet access is still found in the internet cafés, monitored and with rudimentary censorship (perhaps courtesy of a deal struck with the CIA). When the internet enabled phone is cheap and cheerful, the second digital revolution will take place.

Partly by imposed isolationism, the old traditions of Sudanese poetry have a solid footing in the modern Sudanese psyche.

A bag of tombac [4] was being passed around and people were beginning to lie back onto the grass or pick at what remained of the spiced yoghurt; peanut, tomato and chilli; wet dates; sweet pastries; gorasa [5]; assida [6]; kissra [7]; and abray [8].

I asked a friend if he had heard of the Sudanese poet, Gely Abdel Rahman. He smiled.

We were breaking fast in a packed, chattering park to the east of the Nile; the north and thankfully downwind of the fish market; the west of the tank waiting outside the TV station, since the media savvy Darfurians crossed the desert in pick-up truck to storm the city in 2008, hoping to address the nation with the state’s own apparatus; and a stone’s throw from the house of the great-grandson of the Mahdi – the self-proclaimed messianic redeemer of Islam. He fought General Gordon in 1880s and his great-grandson studied at Oxford and was Prime Minister of Sudan in the 1960s and 1980s. The statue of colonial Britain’s Gordon which was in Khartoum, where he died, is said to be resting at the bottom of the Nile. What the Nile definitely has contained is gallons of Khartoum’s booze. In 1983 people watched as the then president, Nimeri poured it in, to mark a new era of harsh sharia [9] law, which has been memorialised in song.

There were shifting, sprawling groups of friends and families, with children darting about in sweet and balloon induced stupors.

It was my first Eid and therefore the first time I had had a fast to break. The sun had set and a Hadendewa man in a white jalabia [10] sold us his coffee. He was a descendant of the warriors Rudyard Kipling described in his poem ’Fuzzy-Wuzzy’ – they broke the symbol of military and empirical might, the British Square.

We drank from a fist-sized pitcher, hammered out of aluminium cans, kept warm by coals on a tray, held precariously above his head, poured into tiny bell-shaped cups, more than half full with sugar. Rich, thick and spiced. Coupled with the tombac, mind and stomach were gently fizzing. My friend recited a lengthy Rahnman poem from memory.

The day before I broke fast in Souq Arabi with my friends at the phone shop. It was eerily quite without the traffic. The shopkeepers laid mats out on the street and waiting in long lines, either side dishes of food. Everyone was waiting for the muezzin [11] to announce the departure of the sun. There were a couple of false starts but I didn’t mind – some tea ladies from the Nuba Mountains, hiding behind a parked car had already ushered me over to eat with them.

After eating, a man of some religious seniority came to lead people in prayer. He pointed at me with his stick and asked those around me if I was going to pray with them. He gave me a relaxed smile and I went for some coffee.

The ontology of Sudan’s poetry

In the second half of nineteenth century there were two major waves in Arabic poetry which are the fundamentals of the majority of contemporary Sudanese poetry: The first was the rediscovery of classical Arabic poetry. This renaissance was spearheaded by the Egyptian, Mahmid Sami al-Barudi and Syrio-Lebanese, Maronite Nasif al-Yazif, who showed little Western influence in their work.

In the second wave, English and French literary influences started to creep in. It was dominated by the Diwan poets, most of whom studied English Literature. The Mahj group, from the Syrian Diaspora in North America were also significant. They expressed a sense of being in a culturally alien environment. Unlike the Diwan, their otherness had been thrust upon them. They had forgotten some of their traditions but the nostalgic nuance of their work gave the impression that it was an unwanted forgetting. The Apollo group focused on the second generation of English Romantic poets and romanticised England.

In the 1940’s a new form of Arabic poetry came out of Iraq and took hold in Lebanon, Egypt and then spread throughout the region. It was less constrained by the traditions of rhyme and meter.

In the 1950’s Free Verse was de rigueur. Form was the albatross around the poet’s neck.

In the 1960’s Arabic poetry gained more direction. The political context of the time meant that modernity became synonymous with rebellion so there was something to kick against. Understanding life rather than describing it became the focus. Modernity meant access to information was freer but it also meant personal isolation.

Some of the dice of the recent Arab uprising have been thrown and there are plenty of unpredictable African countries in the mood for insurrection, yet to come to the table. Poets will be there to log the existential crises of the process and inshallah [12], in doing so, create solidarity and empathy.

The elephants’ graveyard

To get to the park in Omdurman, I had changed at Jackson bus station, which takes its name from a member of the British colonial administration. It is alive with place names proclaimed by conductors: ”Arabi, Arabi, Arabeeeeey!”, “Shooada, Shooada, Shooada”, “Bahribahribahreeeeee!” They slap the sides of their buses like unruly cattle . The only sense not assaulted is taste – tankards of fresh, thick, icy mango juice. That day I drank water from the bucket. Boys carrying buckets of water and ice clink their metal cups together patrol the station. The dubious provenance of the water makes it all the more indulgent.

Sat on the bus I was hit by wave after wave of nostalgia for things I had never experienced. The light had the right mix of red, yellow and grey to make the jallabiat outside glow. Old Sudanese music played on the radio. The tassels around the driver swayed like Sufi [13] dancers.

Everything had been in the sea. Everything was washed up on the shore a long time ago. Everything was covered in a fine red dust. The sky was darkening and everyone in the bus was rolling and pitching gently, in silence, thinking about longer journeys, looking about without seeing a thing. I really was smiling. I had an inexplicable and very powerful sense of contentment, as though lots or pernickety frets had converged into a manageable cloud.

The conductor held folded money between his fingers. He casually kept count of the payees and the change they were due. He resolved disputes between passengers who were insisting on paying one-another’s fare. He listened out for the clicks of the passengers fingers and relayed it to the driver with a “kisss kisss” which told him to stop. He hopped off the bus as it moved, his footsteps in perfect harmony with the bus.

People from other worlds

There was a man who wandered around Gedaref with a bag string, calling out his job again and again for hours. He fixed the beds that most sleep on, string tied to a frame - cooler than a mattress. Another aged man rode a tricycle at speed while playing a home made trumpet – announcing his unrefrigerated ice cream for sale, for a limited time only.

There were two little girls in the shop opposite. They used kittens as boxing gloves. They ran barefoot on the rocks. Their younger brother, a baby, had Downs Syndrome. The family joke was to call him Cini – Chinese. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh. I know on some days they didn’t have enough to eat but would insist on giving me coffee, thick with sugar. When the mother pounded the roasted coffee beans with a hunk of iron, she sang in rhythm, with her daughters.

The shop next door was run by an Eritrean man who was all for Hitler because he hated Jews.

The teaching assistant at university risked her marriageability by eating an hibiscus ice lolly in the park with me.

There were young men proud to have lost their virginity to Ethiopian prostitutes in the brothels on the border.

Tribes and hearsay

The Beni Amir and Hadendewa (both Beja) wore black waistcoats over their jalabia and carried ornate swords and had dramatic hair. They sold milk from aluminium urns just off Million Stupid Street.

The Rashida wore platform shoes and their women were heavily veiled, with ornate jewellery pouring out of every available gap in the fabric. They fled Saudi Arabia a century ago and they smuggle Iranian arms from Eritrea to Palestine and keep their money in holes in the ground. They rebelled against the government as the Rashida Free Lions, then joined with the Beja Congress to form the Eastern Front in a rebellion against the Khartoum regime.

The Mbararo women were topless at home in their tents and had powerful sorcerers whose hijab [14] of powdered lion forehead protects the wearer from bullets. They chose their husbands, who had meticulously coiffured hair and wore multiple watches with their colourful robes. A doctor saw an Mbararo sorcerer in the village of Elephant’s Stomach draw a donkey in the sand and make it materialise.

The first time I met some Mbararo, they were wearing different clothes from anyone else around. One had cat whisker shapes scarred into his cheeks. My friend knew their language but they refused to acknowledge they were Mbararo. Subsequently we were told it is a derogatory term. However, they put me in contact with a chief who invited me to come to Elephant’s Stomach in the cab of his son’s lorry (there were fifteen other passengers clinging to the cargo on the back).

I went to Elephant’s Stomach and saw a man holding a hijab in his mouth stab at his stomach with a knife. It was in candlelight, he was overweight, I don’t know how sharp the blade was and I don’t know how many layers he was wearing; it was still arresting.

I went to a place where I was sold water in a bowl with ice served with a soup spoon and it was the most delicious water I have ever drunk. That night under a mango tree a generator powered a techno cassette and a single light bulb. All that was recognisable was a thick, sludgy beat. People danced in and out of the darkness. When the generator died there were just the rustles of nature and humanity and a hint of moonlight.

After the British colonisation of northern Nigeria in 1903 there was mass migration out of the country. Mbararo had taken the same route across Africa on Hajj [15], through Sudan, for centuries.

Their cattle are larger zebus than most used by northern Sudanese, linking them them to South Sudan.

Their allegiance in Sudan shifts. They are perceived by some as enemies of the north and south. They are not particularly popular with ex-car mechanic and current president of the Republic of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir.

Key to their social system is foulanite – self-denial, modesty and toughness. Something which the elders feel is being lost.

There are no lions in Sudan, they were eaten or fled in the war between the north and south.

I saw women with tattooed faces when I went to a crumbling coral city called Suakin. This is where pilgrims used to depart Africa on the Hajj. It was lit by candlelight, there was no electricity. A few miles down the road in Sinkat, I wanted to get a lift to Erkowit – a place where New Zealanders flew RAF planes to attack Italians in Eritrea - and was picked up by the security services. A man without uniform put me in the back of a truck and drove me around the state all day. There are rumours of Palestinian freedom fighter training camps in the area.

So, I was on the back foot. Rather than the neatly codified Orientalism I had hoped for, I was barraged by waves of otherness. This otherness stretched out to the horizon. I had heard of a few Sudanese poets, but they seemed preoccupied with a romantic past which I assumed would be overarching in the present. I was struggling to marry what I had imagined and what I was experiencing. I was powerfully aware that I was an alien and I was subject to Sudan’s sleight of hand.

Going about town

En route to the shisha place we went past the gun shop and the abandoned cinema. Past outdoor TVs, to the gym on the edge of the football pitch. The gym equipment was made up of bits of old lorry – cogs on an axle and so on. That’s where we got rushed by the police.

At night we sat there and smoked shisha and talked of distant lands where women wandered the streets in bikinis. That night a primary school teacher from a village on a dirt track was talking about Wasteland. For many of the younger people in Gedaref I represented either debauchery or freedom and for many of the older generation either oppressive colonialism or sagacity and resolve,

The legacy of colonial rule lives on in a generation of English students trying to learn from teachers who don’t know English, being taught The Wasteland and Shakespeare. They learn from text books riddled with spelling mistakes.

A line of policemen emerged from across the football pitch. Their guns were illuminated by moonlight and the licks of orange light from the shisha coals. They did not stop. The nonchalance with which they carried their guns was intimidating. Without shouts and without fuss everyone stood up from their collapsing chairs and ran, and the police chased.

We met there the following night and no one seemed to know what had happened or why. Someone was muttering about the Ja’aliyyia [16]administration, some of whom consider themselves to have patrilineal descent from Prophet’s uncle, Abbas. It was out of character.

The poetry book left on the train

I was collecting contemporary Sudanese poetry for a book and was interested in how it related to a long history of lyricism in Arabic and in Sudan in particular.

Near the vegetable market on the edge of town, in an area populated by immigrants, on the flat, low-walled roof my friend’s house we were sitting on paint tins and drinking aragi [17]. The air was still dusty and there were stragglers, pieces of rubbish still floating about in the trail of the haboob, which had long since cut the power. After an hour or so of hitting the paint tins like drums, revelling in the cool breeze that always follows the storm, the mood became solemn like clockwork, and I asked the assembled about Sudanese poetry. Drinking from the same cup like this, everyone gets drunk at the same time and when drinking is an act of rebellion, there is a sense of comradeship, a sense which is fortified by drunkenness. It also stilts development; there are some very old teenagers in Khartoum.

After a few days I met someone from the party in a café near my home that sold liver and beans. He handed me a folder of yellowed photocopies and told me how he came by it:

SudaNow was a magazine of value in the eighties. It had short stories and poems of a different calibre to what you will find today. There was more freedom at that time and people could remember what Sudan was like when we were really free. This new generation have never known and the arts are dying.

We are going through a difficult divorce. Everyone is thinking about separation now so they can’t think about rebellion. Sudanese protest when they are hungry anyway.

We were speaking just before the 2011 referendum vote in which South Sudan voted overwhelmingly to secede become an independent state. The plebiscite was a condition of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement which marked the end of more than two decades of civil war between north and south Sudan. The Republic of South Sudan is scheduled to declare her statehood in July 2011.

With the director of the Goethe Institute in the eighties I compiled these poems. These are what we thought were the best poems of the eighties. She fled the country, I can’t remember why, she was married to a Sudanese man. She was carrying a copy of the collection with her back to Germany for publication. She left her copy on a bench at Cairo train station. I don’t know what happened to her.

The poetry book did not contain what I expected. There was the spattering of colonial ghosts which I had expected – sunburnt wives of diplomats desperately romanticising their surroundings - but there was poetry written by South Sudanese which I did not expect and the content was predominantly racy and universal.

Khediry, the translator of the poems is old and blind. He lives to the north of Khartoum, and travels by donkey. I wondered how these translations could retain their lyricism, but Sudan is a place familiar with translation.

Arabics in Sudan

Daragi or Randog or Sudani, the Arabic of Khartoum is clearly suited to poetry. In the east of Sudan, bordering Ethiopia, there is a spattering of Amharic ’shoya shoya’ or ’little little’ or to translate it further, ’a little bit’ in the East, becomes ’tinish tinish’.

In South Sudan the ’ayn’ is softened and are more distinct melody is added. It’s something like the -ch from loch but with the retching muscles doing more work. In Darfur their Arabic is eloquent and archaic.

Across Sudan there are hundreds of languages. In the north many have Arabic as their second language. In the South, Arabic is perceived by some as the language of the oppressors. English is is the official language but for many it is the third, after a tribal language and Arabic.

Communism, atheism, alcoholics and other affectations of middle-classery

I used to exchange lines of poetry with my friend in Khartoum.

Now the Sudanese youth text poems to each other. They have condensed ancient poems and they are alive again.

Poetry in relevant in Sudan. Perhaps this has something to do with the Koran – many Sudanese learn great tracts of it off by heart and it is lyrical. The Koran, unlike the Bible, for its followers, is the verbatim word of God and is written in a difficult, archaic Arabic is for some, at times incomprehensible.

Some of the poets in Khartoum sit in the concrete remains of the bars their parents frequented. Glugging from scuffed water bottles of booze, sometimes with perfunctory cardamom pods in them. When some of them say they are communists, they mean they smoke. Some women conceal it with their headscarf in public. Some drink because they don’t want to be there. Some drink because they feel apart from Sudan and a part of it. Some drink because they are tortured by the security services.

But, there are some who successfully embody this bi-polarity of environment and people. The bar of rebellion is so low and the suppression is so systemic that the kicking is inward.

There is a precise word in Sudan – Gatia’a, a kind of Schadenfreude gossip.

I went to an apartment furnished with a string bed, fan and scrawls all over the walls, to meet a studious man watching Inland Empire on his laptop. Through a translator I recommended Antichrist to him and he was very pleased. That night I was accused of working for Mossad, and I was not sure if it was a joke, but it ended in hugs as everyone gradually converged to an international proto-language of slurs and slow, wide gesticulations.

Sitting with a tea lady on the roadside, with patterned scars on her face, the air rich with bahoor [18], with her singing in a Nuban language under her breath was, for me, exotic. For the man who had spent his life in an environment where the women on billboards cover their hair and tradition dictates that a guest should only ever be asked about the length of their stay after a month has passed, it is hard to imagine how Lars von Trier sits.

It is less difficult to imagine how T. S. Elliot, Philip Larkin or even James Joyce sit. Their abstraction and aesthetics are far more fluid. What unified it all was their sense of otherness. Not only outside the cultural context which they experienced, but occupying a singular space outside time.

That these artefacts are experienced by a clique, driven on by a claque whose payment is membership to the clique, where some of the women are perceived by some to have less robust moral outlooks, and that they meet in secret places and do the secret things they see codified in fiction, unifies them. That is not to say that these are acts alien to Sudanese society. But, the alchemical combination of history, personalities and circumstance means some of them are creating something worth sitting up and listening to.

A friend left Khartoum and headed north to make his millions in a gold rush last year. When he came back, everyone knew that he had failed, knew that he had been as foolish as Dick Whittington, but the way this was dealt with was alien to me, but joyous. Upon his return we went to the grassy bank of the Nile where Southerners sell aragi – they walk back and forth, darting into the bushes and emerging with bottles.

Anyway, he tackled it head on. He described his experiences in minute detail, with necessary prompting from his friends. He orated his experiences, which involved the death of scores in pits in the desert, with all the nuances to suggest that there were truths in every twist and turn of the tale and he ended with a punch line – “the only people making money were the Rashida hiring out the metal detectors.”

Sufi poetry

I went to a town north of Khartoum with a friend who was after a cure for recurring headaches. We went to visit a Sufi preacher who when he heard my name asked “why not three ’b’s?” in perfect English. There was a storm outside. The streets that had been alive with the song and dance of Dervishes [19] and their drums, were rivers of mud ferrying torch-lit raindrops and umbrellas.

We were all huddled in the low ceilinged room. Its, walls, steps and wood shiny and smooth. It was full of cats sheltering from the storm, who seemed quite at home in the hushed, reverential confusion. A Dervish recited an epic poem about the Sufi preacher, everyone was waiting for a minute with. He sat cross legged on a palm mat, grinning into the middle distance. A man at his side was on fly duty, ensuring that none remained on the preacher for an irreverent length of time, yet the preacher had a monstrous hair growing out of a mole on his face like an antenna.

He prescribed my friend a treatment we got from another room. The room was full of men writing sections of the Koran with special ink on special paper. They lent on wooden boards. Everything was stored in alcoves in the walls. The relevant section was transcribed and folded small. My friend stewed it in water which she drank and bathed in over the next few days.

The other poets

There are other cafés in Khartoum where you can buy bad coffee. This coffee costs the same as a meal for five. But, it offers escapism. There are young Sudanese who take rebellious brunches. Many of them were schooled overseas. They discuss cupcakes at length and pretend they are in Sex in the City without the sex. Too many of them are poets. There are open mic nights where they read poems about a nebulous and toothless peace as if they were not connected war. The civil war between north and South Sudan ended in 2005. But, this artificiality in itself, is interesting and some seem aware of it and are bound to make good use of it.

The languages of South Sudan

The South is a very different place. But... there is something indescribable that links it with north Sudan. Despite the dissimilarities in landscape, faces, cultures and religions, the sum of the sameness is greater than the language, history and heart parts. It has something to do with pace and movement and the Nile and stories and the quixotic.

The ’natural units’ of administration, as the British officials of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan described its tribes speak languages that fit into the band of sub-Saharan languages which crosses the continent from Senegal to Eritrea, what Diedrich Hermann Westermann described as Sudansprachen. They tend to have logophoric pronouns. For example, he thought he could understand is ambiguous in English – the two hes involved could be the same person, or they may not be. Logophoric pronouns disambiguate this.

Romantic poets and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army

Once upon a time I was in the Nuba Mountains, the edge of the Republic of Sudan, where the Republic of South Sudan begins / will being. There were no buses so to get from place to place we had to catch a ride. After a night of harassment by the police we went to the market square to look for someone ticking one or all of the following figure of authority boxes: old, with a big stick, strikingly white jalabia, sunglasses. We found our man and drank tea with him. He put us on the back of a lorry carrying troops from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army south. It was scorchingly hot and bumpy and unnerving. We watched their AK47’s bounce around in the spare tire. By hour three they had had enough of eyeing us up we had run out of places to look, to avoid eye contact. There was a studious looking soldier with glasses who seemed to have some authority. He asked me a question I heard a thousand times in Sudan: “What is the best way to learn English?” I wittered on about the BBC World Service and remembered that I had a book of Wordsworth in my bag. He read I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud out loud. We were passing baobab trees in bloom, his rank was painted onto his shoulder with oil paint. This was not the transubstantiation of a donkey or magic teabags or the voice of a nation.

He thanked me for the book which I had not planned to give him as and we came to a group of Joint Integrated Units [20]. He took off his glasses and stared them down. As someone from a dreich land it still does sit right when the flowers are in bloom and the light is clean and yellow, for the mood to be so dark. He turned back to us and smiled and asked to us to spend the night at his family’s home.

Originally published by The Conversation Papers

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[1’Foreigners’ in Sudanese colloquial Arabic. Probably originally referred to the Turkish colonial forces in Sudan.

[2Water pipe used to smoke tobacco. Shisha bars are common across Sudan. Often shared with friends and accompanied with coffee.

[3’Happy Eid’, Eid is a Muslim religious period in which food, and in Sudan, water, cannot be consumed while the sun is in the sky.

[4Tobacco squashed into a pellet and stored under the lip.

[5Okra stew.

[6A giant dumpling made of ground millet.

[7A giant savoury pancake.

[8A sweet drink made from fermented kissra [7].

[9Islamic law.

[10A long, white robe. Similar to thobe worn throughout Arab but with wider sleeves and no collar. Associated by some with the proletarian. Prestigious in squint-inducing white.

[11Leader of Islamic prayer.


[13Islamic mysticism.

[14A piece of leather containing things which are believed to protect the wearer.

[15Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

[16North Sudanese tribe.

[17Moonshine, traditionally made with dates.

[18Mixture of frankincense and other incenses.

[19Travelling follower of Sufism who leads ascetic life.

[20Forces made up, in accordance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, of troops from north and south Sudan.

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