In a Sudan Where Literature is Often Smuggled, the Short Story is a Perfect Form
Marcia Lynx Qualey on the Rise of a Complex, Capacious Literary Genre
It was June 2, 1934, when a group of young men published the first issue of al-Fajr. This twice-monthly magazine followed the short-lived Nahda, which closed after its founder’s death in 1933. Al-Fajr’s core was formed out of study groups and friendships at Khartoum’s Gordon Memorial College in the late 1920s and early 1930s. At the time, possession of Egyptian literary magazines was an “incriminating act,” according to Sudanese scholar Yousif Omer Babiker, who wrote that the young men smuggled Arabic periodicals into the English school under their clothes.
Ninety years later, literature is still smuggled into and around Sudan. Before the Khartoum sit-in was brutally stormed at dawn on June 3, 2019, banned books were available at the protesters’ informal libraries. Before that, many could be found at the open-air book market called Mafroosh, held in Khartoum’s Etienne Square on the first Tuesday of the month.
Max Shmookler, co-editor of the short-story collection Book of Khartoum, said that when he was looking for Sudanese short stories in 2014, he found a few less controversial ones “in the dusty book shops clustered around the University of Khartoum.” But he found most in Mafroosh, where banned books were circulated by hand and where you could get a copy of the underground literary journal Elixir.
The number of books being published has dropped since then. Last year, the Sudanese Ministry of Culture announced a new censorship measure: that Sudanese publishing houses would have to submit their books for approval before they could be displayed at the annual book fair. Osama El Reyeh, director of El Musawarat Printing and Publishing, said on Radio Dabanga that “apart from imposing censorship, the idea is ridiculous as everyone understands that there won’t be many new publications this year.”
Short stories do continue to be published: in Egypt or Lebanon, online, and sometimes in Sudan. Easier to publish than novels, they continue to transgress official linguistic, political, and cultural borders. As with local music, Sudanese stories fuse together a variety of popular and classical forms. Many Sudanese authors write in Arabic. But unlike in North Africa, where only a handful of languages dominate, Sudan has more than 100 living languages, in addition to several distinct Arabic vernaculars.
Sudanese stories are also suddenly and variously appearing in English translation. It started with the Book of Khartoum (2016); one of the stories, by Bushra al-Fadil, won the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing. The Book of Khartoum led to Rania Mamoun’s collection Thirteen Months of Sunrise being translated by Elisabeth Jaquette (2019). Literary Sudans came out in 2017, Stella Gaitano’s short stories were finally translated by Anthony Calderbank in 2018, and several Sudanese authors have had works appear on the Short Story Project. The Common magazine is also at work on a portfolio of Sudanese short stories.
This wave of interest started before Sudan appeared in the English-language news for ongoing civil-society protests; its roots are in how the stories have surprised readers by braiding together African and Arab literary traditions.
Sudanese literature didn’t begin with Nahda and al-Fajr. The record of earlier written works is patchy, but we do know that classical poetry was a prestige literary form. We also know that, in the centuries before al-Fajr’s founding, thousands of popular oral tales were composed by unknown Sudanese authors. These included local ballads, such as the Epic of Sha al-Din.
By the late 19th century, during the Mahdist uprising, spoken-word poetry had both aesthetic and political power. Among the popular vernacular poets who addressed events of the late 19th century were two women: Bint al-Makkawi and Umm Misaymis. Records of Sudanese literary history may be fragmentary, but women’s writing never seems to be absent.
Indeed, although it was young men who founded al-Fajr in 1934, they attended literary salons hosted by women. According to a somewhat disapproving Babiker, it “would not be unfair” to describe these salons “as unchaste and erotic in most cases.” He added, in his 1970 dissertation on al-Fajr: “Apparently singing and drinking were characteristic of these assemblies.” Egyptian critic Abdul Majeed Abdeen later described the stories in al-Fajr as unruly and excessive, influenced by translations of European adventure and romance, as well as by “Bedouin” tales. The chief editor of al-Fajr, Arafat Muhammad Abdallah, was a pioneering short-story writer in Sudan. Other early short-story practitioners were the bohemian bibliophile Muawiya Nur, who moved between Khartoum and Cairo, and fellow al-Fajr founder Mohammed Ahmed Mahjoub.
It is poetry and novels that have brought international recognition to Sudanese writers. Yet while the short story form may not herald fame or fortune, it offers excellent ground for high-speed invention. In “About the Short Story in Sudan” (2016), author Ibrahim Ishaq writes that “the short-story genre suits the age of pioneer writers.” In part, he says, this is because such writers are in a hurry. But it’s also because, “Their readers desire this concentrated capsule of beauty, which fits their demand for concentrating the elements of life as much as possible.” The short-story form, he says, is particularly matched to “times overflowing with feelings and experiences.”
It was 1947, another time of change, when the teacher Malakat Al Dar Mohammed won the first short story contest run by Sudan Radio Station with her “Hakim al-Qariya,” or “The Village Sage.” By mid-century, most stories had turned away from heady romantic adventure to social realism. Radio and newspapers allowed space for the form.
The towering figure of Sudanese literature, Tayeb Salih (1929-2009), wrote his first short story in the mid-1950s while working in London. According to translator Denys Johnson-Davies, Salih approached him with a “small number of typed pages,” which turned out to be his classic “Handful of Dates.” In Salih’s early stories, there was an intense concern with the lives of ordinary Sudanese. In a 1978 interview, Salih told journalist Amina Sabry that his intention had been to turn Sudanese people into “mythical characters similar to those of The Iliad.”
Notably, almost none of the well-known short-story writers publishing at mid-century—Malakat Al Dar Mohammed, Tayeb Salih, Issa al-Hilu—were born in Khartoum. Although most came to the capital, they brought the rhythms and stories of their villages.
In the 1980s, short stories became even more concentrated as microfictions grew popular with the newspaper-reading public. Among practitioners of the ultra-short form was the influential Fatima as-Sanoussi.Easier to publish than novels, short stories continue to transgress official linguistic, political, and cultural borders.
As-Sanoussi was also born outside Sudan’s capital city, in Hasahesa, in the early 1950s. After graduating from the University of Khartoum’s arts faculty, she joined Sudan Radio Station. Her stories, according to author Lemya Shammat, had a broad influence on young writers. As-Sanoussi’s densely packed narratives resonated with many young people who later emerged as writers, including Shammat, who said she was “profoundly nurtured” by these “free short narrative bursts that were wittily crafted” and which, she said, moved outside “existing structures and genre constraints.”
As-Sanoussi’s popular short-shorts often end with a twist, as here: “In the heart of a distant cloud they dug a hole as a hideout for their love. / The cloud rained. / Love spilled over the city.” Or, in another: “His warm spirit spread all through the gathering place. / I saw candles laugh till they broke into tears. / We celebrated without putting out a candle, so as not to silence the deep, weeping laughter.”
By the 1990s, writers like Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin and Bushra Elfadil were pushing the short story form in new directions, infusing it with fresh influences.
Like many students who came of age in non-aligned Arab nations in the 1970s, Bushra Elfadil traveled to study in Soviet Russia. He earned a PhD in Russian literature, and that was the subject he taught at the University of Khartoum until he was forced out by Omar al-Bashir in the early 1990s.
Elfadil continued writing from Saudi Arabia, and later from Canada. He won the 2012 Tayeb Salih Prize for his story “Above the Bandar Sky” and the 2017 Caine Prize for African Writing for “The Story of the Girl whose Birds Flew Away,” translated to English by Max Shmookler. Caine Prize judges recognized the story’s tug of different elements: classic and vernacular, freedom and exile.
Elfadil’s stories, which have been published in The Book of Khartoum and ArabLit Quarterly, are often underpinned by a troubled humor. He’s also known for his inventive wordplay, and a number of his made-up words have entered the popular lexicon. In one story, a monstrous taffabie appears, a word that Lemya Shammat says has come to mean “the corruption of politicians and aggravating political dilemmas.”
Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin was also caught up in taffabie and forced to leave Sudan. Sakin was born in eastern Sudan in 1963, and he also has roots in Darfur and Chad. His work has been both acclaimed and denounced: he won the Tayib Salih Prize in 2009, although the prize-winning book was seized and banned by the Sudanese government. He won the Committed Book Prize of La Cène Littéraire in 2017 for a novel that was sold, and then seized, at that year’s Khartoum Book Fair. Yet despite the bans on his work, Sakin remains one of Sudan’s most beloved writers. His books, which are published abroad, are privately traded inside Sudan and online.
Sakin’s short stories often focus on the human experience during times of violent conflict. In an interview for Warscapes, Sakin explained: “I write to expel my fear of war.” His visceral, deeply embodied stories bring together dark, diverse, and sometimes fantastical landscapes. In his short story “Birth,” the narrator sees a poor woman go into labor on the street. She begs the narrator for help before she passes out. Curfew is in half an hour, and the woman had said she can’t afford a hospital: what should he do?
The narrator decides to drag her to a main street for the police to discover. But before he can, they’re both picked up by a curfew patrol. The young woman eventually gives birth to something that has a rectangular head and “tiny black whiskers drenched in sticky, translucent, jelly-like mucus.”
When this creature pops out, it’s “nimble and energetic, as though strains of the reggae music were giving a rhythm to the flow of blood in its newborn arteries.” The story’s wild soundscape includes “Qur’anic chants, the cooing of the doves, and the hymns of adoration,” as well as the sounds of the doctor’s retching. The story bears the political realism common in much of Arabic short fiction, but also an existential folklorism that’s more like the contemporary Nigerian short story, while its soundscape shifts between reggae and Qur’anic chants.Work by Rania Mamoun and Stella Gaitano, both born in 1979, increasingly foreground Sudan’s multi-ethnic, multilingual character.
Work by Rania Mamoun and Stella Gaitano, both born in 1979, increasingly foreground Sudan’s multi-ethnic, multilingual character. Mamoun’s debut short-story collection Thirteen Months of Sunrise (2009) focuses mainly on life in the cities of Wad Madani and Khartoum. Yet different languages and musical traditions are woven deep into its structure.
The collection’s first story foregrounds a friendship between a Sudanese woman and an Ethiopian man, where their words—and even their names—shift as they search for ways to communicate, both in their own languages and in English. The narrator recalls: “It’s ‘tea’ in Amharic, and ‘teha’ in Tigrinya, he told me every time I ordered a cup of tea.” Throughout Thirteen Months, the stories cross borders between Arabic and other languages, life and death, human and animal. They cross nearly every border except the one between poverty and wealth.
Money also forms a singularly hard border in the stories of Stella Gaitano, who was born in Khartoum to South Sudanese parents. Gaitano studied at the University of Khartoum, where she navigated three Arabics (Sudanese, Juba, and classical), all while conducting her studies in English. The stories in her folktale-infused first collection, Withered Flowers, were written between 1998 and 2002, when Gaitano was still a student. This early work moves between gritty street scene and countryside narrative in tightly plotted stories. The author attributes her storycraft to the women in her family, to whom she dedicates the collection.
Both Mamoun and Gaitano have collections available in English translation. Mamoun’s was published by Comma Press, the same specialty publishing house that brought out the Book of Khartoum. Gaitano’s collection, Withered Flowers, was translated by Anthony Calderbank and came out from Rafiki for Printing and Publishing, based in Juba, South Sudan, thus making the collection available to South Sudanese who don’t read Arabic.
Arabic is, after all, only one part of the Sudanese short-story landscape. English stories also proliferate; Leila Aboulela, for one, has developed wide readerships for her compelling short-form portraiture. And while most Sudanese authors choose to write in Arabic or English, there are also some who work with Dinka, such as Francis Mading Deng, and some who compose in the Beja language, as in a recent collection produced by Uhaashoon and Red Sea University.
The Sudanese short story may continue to take a backseat to poetry and the novel. Yet it is a hub for literary experimentation like no other: a place where languages, poetry, songs, histories, and legends can traverse borders to meet and become something new.