Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Book of Khartoum: ten short stories offer a dynamic tour of Sudan's capital


"The stories in this collection pick up where Season of Migration leaves off," write Raph Cormack and Max Shmookler in their introduction to The Book of Khartoum: A City in Short Fiction which they edited for Comma Press of Manchester, England. "From the 1960s to the present, these stories explore a post-colonial world shaped by conflicting aspirations and daunting obstacles."

The editors' reference to Tayeb Salih's novel Season of Migration to the North, published in Arabic in 1966 and in Denys Johnson-Davies's English translation in 1969, reflects the towering and enduring presence of Salih (1929-2009), the great pioneer of Sudanese, Arab, African and post-colonial literature. But in the years since Salih burst onto the international literary scene far less Sudanese literature has been translated into English than has literature from certain other Arab countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Morocco. 

The Book of Khartoum claims to be the first major anthology of Sudanese stories to be translated into English, and is much to be welcomed. The acclaimed Sudanese novel and short story writer Leila Aboulela -  who writes in English - says in a comment on the cover that the book is "an exciting, long-awaited collection showcasing some of Sudan's finest writers. There is urgency behind the deceptively languorous voices and a piercing vitality to the shorter forms."

The Book of Khartoum won from English PEN both a PEN Translates Award and a PEN Promotes Award. It is the latest, and tenth, anthology in the Comma Press series 'Reading the City'. Previous titles in the series include  Madinah: City Stories from the Middle East  (2008) edited by Joumana Haddad, and The Book of Gaza: A City in Short Fiction (2014) edited by Atef Abu Saif.


Raph Cormack

The editors of The Book of Khartoum are from the new generation of Arabic scholars and translators. Cormack is a translator and PhD student at the University of Edinburgh in modern Arabic literature. Max Shmookler is a doctoral student and translator in Columbia University's Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies. His research is on Arabic literary history, particularly modern prose, and he has also worked as a refugee rights advocate.

Cormack has a translation blog, Curiosities, on which he has translated works by, among others, Egyptians Mohammed Taymur and Ahmed al-Kashif, and Sudanese writer and politician Mohammed Ahmed Mahjoub. A 30 December 2015 post, 'Muawyia Nur: Buying Books in Early 20th Century Egypt and Sudan' , profiles this key figure in the development of the Sudanese short story who died  in 1941. In their introduction to The Book of Khartoum the editors describe how Nur "moved back and forth between his home in Sudan and a bohemian existence in Cairo, writing stories and literary criticism and producing a huge body of work in his 32 years of life."

Max Shmookler

Cormack and Shmookler note that the countryside remains an important theme for much Sudanese literature: many authors including the famous Tayeb Salih and Ibrahim Ishaq made their names through works based outside big cities. Sudanese literary culture has also taken much interest in folk tales. The focus of The Book of Khartoum is avowedly urban, showing many facets of the Sudanese capital. The introduction includes a map of the city, with the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, and sets the scene of Khartoum's geography and literary activity, past and present. The derivation of the city's name is uncertain. It may come from the Arabic word for an elephant's trunk, or the "meeting point of two rivers" in the Dinka language, or the local Beja word hartooma meaning meeting place. Others claim the name refers to a drink that leads to speedy intoxication.

The Book of Khartoum contains ten short stories by ten authors including two women - Bawadir Bashir and Rania Mamoun - rendered into English by ten translators. Cormack and Shmookler write: "These literary portraits of Khartoum offer a dynamic tour of the city, its residents and its many peripheries. Yet the authors are not only guides to the city, but also sophisticated literary figures in their own right. They both draw from, and contribute to, a variety of literary movements in Sudan, the broader Arab world, and beyond."

Sudan's modern history has been filled with wars and turmoil and its writers practise their art in an often difficult environment. A number of the country's writers now live abroad. Take the example of Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin, born in Kassala in eastern Sudan in 1963. The author of many novels and short story collections, his 2010 novel al-Jango was banned by the Sudanese government shortly after it won the al-Tayyib Salih prize. Sakin's  books were confiscated from the Khartoum book fair and banned. They included Woman from Campo Kadis (2004) from which his contribution to The Book of Khartoum, 'The Butcher's Daughter', is taken. Sakin left Sudan and lives in Austria, while his work is published in Cairo.

a nightmarish vision 

The stories in The Book of Khartoum have energy, humour and vividness of expression. The techniques used are often experimental and enigmatic, with forays into fantasy. Violence, explicit or lurking under the surface, is present in several stories. 'The Passage' by poet, journalist and short story writer Mamoun Eltlib, translated by Mohamed Ghalaeiny, presents a nightmarish vision reminiscent of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The story, written in poetic prose, has a cosmic quality and is full of disturbing images. "I saw all kinds of creatures and behaviours and horrific experiments. I saw people smiling acquiescently, as they were being slaughtered on blocks cast from solid gold. I saw men and women arriving with dry nibs to dip in fresh warm blood, before rushing to darker corners to start their writing - great stacks of books rising high beside them, their edges dripping with blood." Eltlib is a prime mover on the Khartoum literary scene, and part of a group which organises a monthly book market-cum-cultural event called Mafroosh which promotes literature in the capital.

Hammour Ziada

Several of the stories have footnotes containing essential historical or literary information. This is particularly the case with Hammour Ziada's story 'The Void', translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, set after the Battle of Omdurman or Karari in 1898. The story is prefaced by a Reuter report from The Egyptian Gazette headlined 'Shocking Details' describing the stench, the hundreds of wounded, streams of blood blackened in the sun. But 'no sympathy can be felt for them, for these fiends have already disniterred and mutilated our dead. If the Sirdar errs it is on the side of leniency.' The Sirdar refers to Kitchener, commander-in-chief of the Egyptian army. Ziada shows the aftermath of battle from the other side, mown down with the weapons of modern warfare. The protagonist of his story is a wounded soldier who has endured horrific experiences on the battlefield. His sister tends to his wounds and cuts out a bullet embedded in his thigh. The story of military conflict is intertwined with that of her brutal marriage.

'The Void' is part of Ziada's literary explorations of Sudanese history. His novel The Longing of the Dervish set in nineteenth century Sudan won the 2014 Naguib Mahfouz Prize for Literature and was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2015. Jonathan Wright's English translation of the novel is forthcoming from Penguin.

'you're a disgusting refugee'

Over the years many refugees have made their way to Khartoum. The story 'It's Not Important, You're From There' by the young South Sudanese writer and journalist Arthur Gabriel Yak, translated by Andrew Leber, gives the perspective of a refugee from "down there - that city with a Southern air." The story is  written. largely in the second person. The refugee will find "the office you've heard so much about. Inside there'll be people with pale faces who can't stand you. You're a disgusting refugee." The Christian refugees from the South suffer torture, imprisonment and possible death. The story conveys the depersonalisaton of the refugee, still dreaming of  possible futures and of being resettled abroad:  "Smiles of a 'migration to the North' will be drawn across the faces of your children."    

Ahmed al-Malik's 'The Tank', translated by Adam Talib, is a satirical exploration of the gaining of power by an individual through  the acquisition of arms. The deadpan first-person narrator buys a second-hand army tank, parks it under a tree outside his house and observes the effect on his friends ('it hasn't escaped my notice that most of them haven't visited me since'), tradesmen and others.

Several stories explore tensions between life in the countryside and in Khartoum. The central figure in 'Next Eid' by Bawadir Bashir, translated by Thoraya El-Rayess, is a village boy who has gone to university in Khartoum. Uthman returns to his village every Eid carrying presents, but he is envied by other villagers and 'despite his attempts to get closer to them, a coldness has formed between them...' A rumour spreads that he has a girlfriend in the capital, to the dismay of the village girl who longs for him. But the reader learns that Uthman's life in Khartoum is not what the villagers assume, and that he is caught in a cycle of deprivation. 

'In the City' by Ali al-Makk (1937-1992) , translated by Sarah Irving, depicts a boy named Hassan who leaves his village to go to secondary school close to Khartoum and faces difficulties in meeting women. His new friends take him to a brothel and he is quietly certain that, despite his lack of skill in engaging in small talk and the other rituals of the establishment, his innate virility will prevail.  "The guys in the village bragged much of this hidden potency, and left the sweet-talk and the niceties to the regular city folk... talk ... and more talk... let him be what he is."  The outcome is sad and comic.

'The Butcher's Daughter' by Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin, translated by Raph Cormack, concerns a father who takes the bus to Khartoum, tormented by suspicions that his student daughter is engaged in shameful behaviour and may have entered an Urfi (unregistered and unwitnessed) marriage. He uses his ingenuity and a touch of menace to try and outwit the teacher with whom he believes she is involved.

'A Boy Playing With Dolls' by Isa al-Hilu, in translation by Marilyn Booth, is a delightfully imaginative tale in which a toymaker leaves his 13-year-old son alone in his shop. The boy creates a kind of theatre with dolls on  a glass surface. "He made each of them move in turn, like in a waking dream, or a dreaming wakefulness. On this mirror-surface the child remade his world." The boy invents a succession of scenarios, culminating in a voyage on a paper boat. The stories within a story reveal the boy's psychic state, anxieties and sexual awakening.

Bushra al-Fadil's 'The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away' translated by Max Shmookler gives an atmospheric portrait of crowds in the streets of Khartoum before zooming on a beautiful girl and her younger sister. The story includes a small drawing of the girl, with whom the first-person narrator becomes  obsessed. The story has references to Arabic and Sudanese poetry and mythology. Al-Fadil has a doctorate in Russian language and literature, and Russian influences are discernible in his engaging story. He now lives in Saudi Arabia.

Rania Mamoun

Rania Mamoun's elegiac story 'Passing', translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, is a delicately nuanced account of a father's death seen through the eyes of the daughter who knows he was disappointed by her failure to  keep her promise to become a doctor. The daughter senses her father's presence: "Your scent fills every inch of space. It pulls me out of a whirlpool of memory, tossing me into another, wider and deeper, and the feeling that you are close to me swells."

The launch of The Book of Khartoum happens to coincide with the publication of Banipal Magazine issue 55 which is largely devoted to a special feature on Sudanese Literature Today, comprising short stories, novel extracts and poems by Sudanese authors, and reviews of published works. The focus on Sudanese literature will continue in Banipal issue 56. The two publications complement each other well. Several authors feature in both, and in one case the same story appears in both, with different translators.  Readers may like to compare  Elisabeth Jaquette's translation of Rania Mamoun's  'Passing' with William M Hutchins' translation of the story in Banipal 55.
by Susannah Tarbush - London

2 comments:

Arabianstories said...

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Tony M. said...

Good post.