1 July 2017

Sudan: A Review of Abdel Goddous Al-Khatim's Book 'Reflections On Sudanese Culture'

book review

Abdel Goddous al-Khatim is one of the most influential literary critics who has made colossal contribution to Sudanese literature. He has written plenty of well thought critiques that have placed him among the top critical figures in post-independence Sudan.

Born in the mid-1940s, al-Khatim studied at the University of Khartoum and at the University of Central London. He worked for the Ministry of Culture in Khartoum and the Office of the Sudanese Cultural Attaché in London. He published two books: Critical Essays, 1977 (republished in 2010) and Reflections on Sudanese Culture, 2012 (Abdel Karim Mirghani Cultural Centre). He won several awards, including the Switzerland Intellectual Property Award, and was honored by Tayeb Salih International Award for Creative Writing

Reflections on Sudanese Culture:

The 134-page book is divided into three sections. The main part includes 29 critiques of the Sudanese literary and cultural scene from the early 1930s to the present time. Part 2 is a selection of English poems translated by the author, including works by poets like W. B. Yeats, Karl Shapiro, Alexander Pushkin, and Vladislav Khodasevich, while the third chapter is primarily a compilation of press interviews with the author.


Al-Khatim seems bothered by the fact that literary criticism has not built a sustainable flow that can serve as a solid platform for continuous critical discourse. In the presence of such a platform, he argues, "we would not need to prove that al-Mahjoub was the first to write a foot poem in the Arab World, and that Muawia Mohammed Nour was the first to introduce the stream of consciousness into the modern Arab story. Nor would we have trouble tracing the beginnings of cultural criticism in Sudan to the writings of Mohammed Ashri al-Siddiq."

To al-Khatim, Mohammed Ashri al-Siddiq was a pioneer critic who started to shine as early as the 1930s. Since that time, he strongly emerged as a critic of note, who had a unique style, characterized by composure and thoughtful reflection. Al-Khatim pays tribute to another pioneer, Mohammed Mohammed Ali, whom he describes as "a man of dialectical mentality that pierced into the heart of things", and "a skillful swimmer against the current". An example of his unorthodox views is his description of al-Tigani's poetry as obscure. However, he later excuses Tigani's obscurity on his young age and limited experience.

In reference to what the author called "the phenomenon of political and literary splits that emerged strongly after independence", he noted that the civil service gave birth to an elite class that separated itself from the public and lived in ivory towers. The Sudanese culture, he notes, continues to suffer from a cocktail of chronic diseases such as social schizophrenia, division, exclusion, ambivalence, regionalism and tribalism.

The author emphatically calls for rewriting both old and contemporary Sudanese history to wipe out the tribal sediments and to document the untold story (the history of the neglected history), as "the past is valueless if it only aims to justify the present".

In this context, al-Khatim celebrated Wrath, a novel by Shawgi Badri, as a bold attempt to address the issue of slavery in an extremely candid manner. Employing stark realism, the narrative decried fragrant acts against the dignity of the marginalized and unearthed the tragedies, misery and deprivation that was prevalent at the bottom of the old city of Omdurman.

Issa al-Hilo

He also praised the pioneering contribution of Issa al-Hilo to Sudanese fiction. Making a particular reference to his short story The Smoke, from his collection The Angel on his Daily Trip, he described al-Hilo's language as lively and grabbing- like movie scripts. To the author, al-Hilo was the first to break away from the conventional event-focused storytelling style in favor of internal depth and intensification of the unconscious in character building. "A writer of al-Hilo's caliber, who has been writing for more than forty years, deserves a new type of critical writings that can capture the mysterious artistic sensitivity that he has woven into the texture of Sudanese fiction."

Another story that won al-Khatim's praise was Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin's The Lover (from his collection A Woman from Cambo Kadees), which was written in a style closest to natural realism.

He also mentioned Abdel Gadir Mohamed Ibrahim as a writer who was particularly smart at imaging troubled personalities. "Ibrahim excelled in writing for children and was one of the pioneers of that rugged path".

He draws attention to the novel of "Tales of al-Musbah Village" that can be read at several levels, as it provides a model of the Sudanese village and its evolution since the era of the Blue Sultanate in the 15th century.

About Tayeb Salih, he underlines the need for freeing him from the yoke of ill-sighted criticism and naïve media. He believes Salih deserves unbiased criticism that can highlight his genius contributions. "We also need to rid him of the media armies chasing him wherever he went, hounding him with silly questions like 'Are you Mustafa Saeed?'" In response to such questions, Salih often spends incredible time answering such questions and even giving explanation about the intent of his novels.

Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin

Reflecting on the Sudanese narrative scene in general, al-Khatim claims that only a few novelists seem to be committed to a certain 'scheme'. All narratives, except Tayeb Salih and Ibrahim Is'haq, lack such commitment. He also claims that the Sudanese novelists generally lack sense of humor, ironic and sarcastic touch.

On biographical writing, the author presents a number of interesting findings. He asserts that biographies of Sudanese writers, politicians and artists draw heavily on the collective history and hardly reflect the author's personality. One notable exception is Babiker Badri, whom the author places, in terms of candidness, at a par with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Sudanese writer Hassan Najeela (in his book "Features of Sudanese Society").

He also refers to Bagady's diary, which raises important issues such as freedom of thought and the press, commitment to the party, and the tragedies in Sudanese political literature after independence. The author argues that the real Sudanese history is still lying in the shelves of National Archives and some foreign libraries, such as the University of Durham and the Turkish and Egyptian universities.

One of the articles deals with Mohamed Osman Yassin, author of "Memories and Talks", which was dedicated to the memory of Yassin's lifelong friend, the poet Tawfiq Salih Jibriel. The book presents insights into the emerging nationalist movement in Sudan at that early time, the burgeoning civil service, as well as comparisons between English and Arabic poetry and reflections on the classical music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

Using a combination of methodologist and impressionist approaches, the author provides a thorough review of the Sudanese poets of the 1960s, who, in al-Khatim's opinion, tried their best to bridge the gap between generations. Mohammed al-Mahadi al-Majzoub, for one, was "the legitimate father" of the "the Bush and the Desert" stream. His emotional pieces about Africa were driven not by a search for a political identity but rather by pure longing for the "innocence of early humanity".

Mohammed al-Mahadi al-Majzoub Mohammed al-Makki Ibrahim

The critiques closely follow the impact of the 1960s poetry and the evolution of major cultural currents such as the Bush and the Desert, which advocated an Afro-Arab identity, followed by Apademak, which called for a pure Sudanese culture. The latter subsequently developed into the so-called Sudanism; a term coined by Nuraddin Satti, Ahmed al-Tayeb Zainal Abidin, and Ahmad Saghairoun.

In this context, al-Khatim examines the contribution of Mohammed al-Makki Ibrahim, whom al-Khatim considers as a milestone in the history of Sudanese poetry. He closely follows the development of his poetic glossary, artistic maturity and his ability to explore new horizons in poetry writing. He reflected on Ibrahim's first collection, "Ommati" (My Nation), which was influenced by the rising global leftist tide, when socialism and social justice were at the peak of their luster. Capturing that mood, the collection's underlining tone was outpouring and enthusiastic. The Orchard Hides in the Rose, on the other hand, reflects Ibrahim's ability to grasp subtle details of life and seamlessly assimilate them into the texture of his poetry. His third collection, I'm Part of Your Nectar, You're the Orange shows marvelous images and a flow of simple yet captivating language. In the poet's latest collection, The Tent of Amiriyah, verse transforms into pure music that transcends language restrictions to become a splendid piano concerto.

In a separate article, al-Khatim examines the various voices, echoes and cultural ethos in Salah Ahmed Ibrahim poetry. He directs attention to the main characteristics in Salah's poetry, which encapsulates mythical, cultural and philosophical themes, since his first anthology (The Ebony Forest) which manifests a strong commitment to and sympathy with the needy and marginalized. The key points addressed in the article are the visionary language, which emerges as roughed prose that exudes deep distress and wisdom, which seems to be an impact of his diligent reading of Whitman's poems. Salah as well deepened his knowledge on the new global trends and boldly injected new blood into the arteries of the Sudanese poetry of the 1960s. Al-Khatim credits him with introducing the form and the subjects of Haiku poetry.


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