The Khartoum I knew in the early ‘80s, was a dry, sprawling low-rise city, where the dominant mode of transport was still the horse and cart. The Hilux pick-up bus, known locally as a ‘box’ had started to become more commonplace, bouncing over the vaguely tarmacked, sandy roads that ran even in the city centre. The sense of Khartoum’s history, and place on the African continent was etiolated behind the overwhelming sense of culture clash that I and other ‘hawajas’ felt, under the unremitting sun; a culture clash further exacerbated by the division between the Arab and African populations of Sudan.
But even under that disorientating sun, there were indications of a rich and complicating life lived by those who stayed there. Returning to the house we had been lent in our final days there, we saw a man and a woman leaving the house together. They didn’t seem to be married in this increasingly Islamic society, and we tended to assume that they’d used the empty house, to which clearly they had keys, as a trysting place. In the provincial town of El Obeid, where we lived, the Sudan Club was forced to destroy its supplies of Kronenberg, when the then-President, Jafar Numeiri, moved the country into Islamic Sharia law.
Khartoum was always a magnet to the many ethnic groupings that have comprised the population of Sudan. And Comma’s The Book of Khartoum contains stories written by writers from Kassala in the east to Argo in the north, and Kosti in the south, and Arthur Gabriel Yak, who works as a journalist in the capital of South Sudan, Juba. Some of these writers are now based outside Sudan, in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even Austria.
The provenance of the writing is matched by the range of styles in this book. Ali al-Makk’s seemingly slight story appears at first glance to be a story about the initiation of an innocent from the north, Hassan, into the ways of the big bad city. The story focusses on the inner braggadocio of Hassan as he is taken by a friend to drink at a local brothel. The outcome of this visit is as low-key and bathetic as might have been predicted. But what al-Makk seems ultimately to show is that, in a society where certain behaviours are heavily proscribed, inner identity may often be weak and ill-formed.
Other stories move within a kind of Sudanese magic realism. The first story, Ahmed al-Malik’s ‘The Tank’ is a particularly fine version of this. It begins very simply, ‘It’s been a week since I took delivery of the tank, which I bought from a middleman who lives nearby.’ Initially, it being Sudan, I thought this must be a water tank. But, the tank is, actually, a military tank. The story renders, quite exquisitely, the reactions of those around the unnamed narrator and his family. Including ‘the strongman who pulled carts with his teeth and broke boards with a single bare hand [who] fled before me.’ And other stories are still more surreal, as in Bushra al-Fadil’s ‘The Story of the Girl whose Birds Flew Away’.
The final story in this fine collection is the almost Tolstoyan ‘The Void’ by Hammour Zaida. It recreates the final days of the so-called Mahdist war culminating in the vast defeat of the Mahdi’s army in Omdurman. The story is Tolstoyan in its focus on the pain, suffering and fantasies of the wounded and dying. Its central protagonist is the wounded soldier, Hadija, and the unnamed woman who tends to him. Their relationship is depicted as a delicate dance of nursing, rumour and facts about the war.
Sudanese literature has had little exposure in English. El-tayib Saleh’s Season of Migration to the North is often the only Sudanese book that gets read. However, Leila Aboulela’s fine novels, written in English, are also opening British eyes to Africa’s largest country. This collection of deeply affecting stories, often exquisitely translated, can only be a welcome addition to that continuing exposure.