Khartoum — Literary critic, story writer, Nabeel Ghali is one of Sudan's most outstanding Christian writers and journalists in the Sudan, having spent about half a century in the world of letters. Ghali had published a collection of short stories he named "Eittika'a Tahta Eyoun Habeebaty" (A Repose Below my Sweetheart's Eyes), in addition to two bibliographies: one about novelist Ibrahim Ishaq and the other about the Sudanese novel. Ghali had enriched literary magazines and newspapers with lots of controversial articles .In addition, Ghali is the writer of unique cultural articles. He had also published the cultural magazine al-Zarqa'a (The Blue) as the first regional publication. He had served in a lot of periodicals and newspapers and has now settled down as managing editor of the al-Yawm al-Tali Arabic daily newspaper.
Ghali had spoken to Sudanow Magazine on his experiment as a writer, the country's current cultural situation and the contributions of his fellow Sudanese Christian Copts in the country's cultural and literary life.
Sudanow: You are an efficient story writer. Why did you stop? Is it because of age or out of a personal perspective?
Ghali: I am honored by your testimony that my texts are efficient, though I do not like the word "stop" because it gives me the feeling that I am a retired office employee. Nonetheless, there is no writer who stops from writing because of old age. We have seen many aging writers who kept up writing until their last days in life. Yes I have stopped writing short stories, but the short story is ingrained there in my soul- in a state of hibernation if you like. May be the short story had taken other shapes. I am not a writer who runs after material gains, and there are lots of such writers now... They assume easy ways of writing and the end product is "emptiness". They are writers of "quantity" and not "quality". The desire of some young writers to write and publish every week, every fortnight or every month, has its justifications: They want to say: we are here. At their age we were persistent about writing as they are now. But at this late age we are in no need to procure a story writer's birth certificate! Republish some of the texts I published thirty years ago and you will find that they carry the same "blood sample" of texts from the early years of the Third Centennial. That means I am, literarily speaking, a contemporary of these young writers... without any exaggeration. It is no doubt that there are some outstanding examples in the history of human literature that continue to be present on the literary scene. That is because those names have been faithful to the criterion of creativity...That is why their works had become immortal. That is to say that not everything written now represents this age. The time frame in which the writer writes is not a criterion.
Sudanow: We are now hearing an assertion that the short story is defunct?
Ghali: Talk about the death of the short story is an immature and fragile expression. It has no legs to stand on from the perspective of literary criticism. The notion that this is the age of the novel is baseless. It has been propagated by amateur writers. It is just a trend which will one day eclipse. If we take, for example, the Sudanese novel, we would find a big sum of novels which were published in the last two decades. But if we subject these works to real novel test, not many of these works will get the pass mark. The rest is just foam. Now, based on this, can we say that we in Sudan are living in the novel age?!
Talk about the death of the short story is not new. It was said about half a century ago. It was aired in Europe when the short story was widely present on the literary scene in Asia, Africa, in the Arab World and Latin America.
The short story is still alive. Even at the level of our country, it is present in the press cultural supplements and in the collections of short stories being printed. Even some short stories published in the 1960s-1970s of the last century are finding their ways to the readers in second prints. Moreover, the literary awards set by some institutions for novels and novel writing, have been supplemented with awards for short stories. If the short story is dead, why should organizers of novel awards subsume them in their contests?
The short story is closest to the characteristics of the age we live in, not the novel! But if we speak about the death of the best model of the short story, that could contain some truth. Until very recently when one of the symbols of short story writing published a new text, it was met with euphoria on the part of critics and readers alike because he had deviated from the "model". But now where are those ideal story texts?
Sudanow: Do you think your bibliographical project is more important than your creative project, as there are many other researchers who can undertake bibliography whereas creative writing needs certain abilities?
Ghali: I don't just believe, rather, I have an answering conviction that the bibliographical project I am undertaking is more worthwhile than my creative project. In my bibliographical project I dig with my nails in a solid rock of documentation. While in my creative project I play my forefingers on the flowers of creativity. The difference is so wide between the two. You cannot imagine the sum of exhaustion and patience needed in a project for documentation, in particular when the one doing this documentation is a single individual and not an institution or a research center. I was preceded in such an endeavor by our pioneering master, Professor Gasim Osman Noor who really captured my attention and at whom I stopped as a young man, especially when I read his book" A Directory of the Sudanese Story" that covered the period 1930-1973. Two prints of this directory were made so far (1975 and 2004). It was at this point that the seed for documentation had started to grow in me. Ever since, i.e. since the 1970s, I was keen not to miss any cultural supplement or a Sudanese magazine or journal that contained writing about stories, poetry or literary studies. I was keen to sort out the works of each creative writer and put them together. I became a semblance of a mini house of archives in this domain which I loved. Moreover, I helped whoever was looking for a work he published and lost. This had also helped me to keep in store whatever Sudanese novels or stories that I could put hand on. I kept that treasure out of the eyes and hands of my guests and would-be borrowers. But as years passed on, and in the absence of suitable containers, some of those publications have rotted or were lost as I moved from one house to another, in particular when I finally moved from Sinnar and settled down in Khartoum. I have decided to complete what was begun by Prof. Gasim Osman Noor. Here I worked on two literary genres: the short story and the novel. I first took care of the Sudanese novel. That took me long years until I published the bibliography in 2016. But that effort did not deter me from compiling a bibliometric documentary about our novelist Ibrahim Ishaq, which was published in 2015. For now I am working on a documentary on the Sudanese short story from 1953 to2016. The books published about the Sudanese novel and Ibrahim Ishaq have become references for every interested researcher. There are many likes of novelist Nabeel Ghali, but there are not too many of Nabeel Ghali the documenter of the novel and the short story, particularly in the absence of documentary centers for these two literary genres. Every literary creator should renovate his project. That is for granted. My special renovation is "documentation". I am striving to achieve a great deal in documentation, despite my old age and the difficult circumstances I work within.
Ghali: How would you view the relationship between journalism and literary writing and do you perceive journalism as a hindrance to the literary writer?
Sudanow: I became a professional journalist in 1986 when I joined the daily newspaper 'Assiyasa' and from there on I went on as a journalist. I have gained too much from journalism: My writing became simple, without any wordiness or obscurities. Journalism has sown in me a spirit to follow-up all what is new and contemporary in the different domains. It has endowed me with an intimacy with my readers. Journalism enhances imagination and turns it (imagination) into an exciting reality. But one of the liabilities of journalism is that it sucks out your time. It eats your time as does erosion to the river banks. That is why exercising any hobby beside journalism is a far cry, especially for those who made journalism a true profession and not just a stepping stone for personal gains: a profession, not just deception. For myself, I cannot say how I could marry journalism with my project for documentation. It is a miracle the Almighty had bestowed on me in these harsh times.
Sudanow: Your experiment as a literary critic reflects an aggressive temperament. Why?
Ghali: Aggressiveness is a nature and not something you acquire. Let us say it is seriousness, because I don't appreciate the art of courtesy, in particular in literary criticism. You can call it "'stern criticism ". How can't I become aggressive in a scene that swarms with fakeness: fake writers and fake critics who have dominated the scene for decades? How can't I be aggressive while the dark clouds of favoritism cover up the entire cultural space? How can't I be aggressive when criticism has become a happy hunting ground for everyone? How can't I be aggressive when guests of this country come to our cultural events and sell us what they call 'research papers' in clear deception? How can't I become aggressive while every group assigned to a cultural event strives to isolate others, and when it invites them it gives them no more than the leftovers? How can't I become aggressive while our creative writers do not tolerate criticism-that is a virus we contracted ever since the 1960s? Regardless, I have no bad feeling towards those I disagree with. I harbor for them every love and appreciation. I am not that bellicose. But I have to ask the question: Is it too much for me to obey my literary conscience?
Sudanow: What are your observations about the present state of affairs with respect to culture and literary criticism?
Ghali: Our present cultural situation is just empty noise. Tens of poetry collections, novels and story collections are published per annum. And then what? Who is the poet, novelist or story writer whom we can call a true creative writer ever since the beginning of the Third Millennium. There is no creative current. Do our 'valiant' critics monitor the Sudanese novels, poetry and short story collections that are being published? We still yearn for the memory of our late creative writers. Why don't we make of their anniversaries real festivals? The cultural supplements of our papers vary in the degree of their seriousness. Where are our cultural magazines? What is the criterion for selecting our representatives in external cultural events? What did we do to take care of our creative writers? Where is the theatre? Where is the cinema? Where is the T.V drama? Where are the fine arts? Where is the children literature? Where are the original songs? What we have is a cultural scene that swarms with everything that is immature and superficial, save some glimpses here and there. Our current cultural situation is a mirage.
Sudanow: What do say about the unspeakable in our literary writing?
Ghali: If you want to become a writing star, then aim at the unspeakable. And if you want to produce a film that pays in our Arab world, then take aim at the unspeakable. If you want to become a singing star, look for taboo topics in poetry. If you want to criticize your government, then look for the unspeakable. This is the time of the unspeakable.
The unspeakable is represented in the triad: religion, politics and sex. Because religion is sacred it should be kept away. Politics has become an open book where there are no red lines, thanks to the new media. The third of the trio is sex: Sex has become the subject matter. The human body is a periphery of a closed world, even if it is nude. The unspeakable in the Arab literature may need a research paper, or even a book to account for it. Sudanese and Arab writers do not deem it inappropriate to tap sex to present the components of their creative world, regardless of the shame associated with the word sex. There are Arab novels that are daring to the level of debauchery. We have continued to see this in the writings of fame seeking Arab female writers. This is a sort of a shockingly sensual literature. As I see it, this sort of writing does not belong to the novel, but, rather to the borneo literature, that seeks bestselling. I have noticed that there are some Sudanese novels (or the so called novels) whose sewers are flooded with sex, just in search for investing in official bans that could create a media hype and that open doors for distribution. There are writers who target whatever could prompt an official ban in order to sell what they write. The celebration of 'the body' in some Sudanese novels needs a pause, more contemplation. Regardless, we have to read the books where sex is the fabric: we must read them out of literary logic and not out of moral logic.
Sudanow: Would you please shed some light on the contributions of the Sudanese Christian Coptic community in the cultural domain?
Ghali: Copts have an undeniably conspicuous political, economic, medical, social, artistic, literary, educational and athletic presence. In that connection we could see a number of articles of journalist Hussein Khojali in which he tried to urge me to write about the Coptic men of letters in Sudan. Though this was a noble invitation, I never had a desire to write about this topic. That is because the Coptic literary writers are not too many in this country. Second there is a feeling that these writers have become part of the fabric of the Sudanese literary community. In addition, I have no inclination towards the ideological classification of writers: to say this writer is Moslem and this one is Christian. This is because from the perspective of literary criticism all these are literary writers, no more. However, I can mention some shining names on the Sudanese literary scene.
Let us begin with Poet Aziz al-Toam Mansour. I first had heard him and received part of his biography from the late poet Ibrahim Omar al-Amin when he was with us in Sinnar in the 1970s. Aziz had graduated from the Gordon Memorial College. He had served in the Ministry of Culture and, bored from his this job, he migrated to Abu Dhabi and worked there to the rest of his life. I have come to learn that the late Aziz has a poetry collection published in Beirut, but I could not find it. The name of Poet Aziz was included in the Babtain bibliography of Arab poets. A book about him under the title "Sudanese Poet Aziz al-Toam" was written by Prof. Abdelhameed Mohammad Ahmad.
Another Aziz was Poet Aziz Andrews who shone in the 1940s-1950s . He was a prolific poet with seven published poetry collections, a number of unpublished poetry collections, a novel he entitled "talida" and a book on literary criticism.
We must also mention the poet who wrote under the pen-name "Zuhair". That was Shafeeq Fahmi al-Dongolawi. He used the name Zuhair because he was fond of the Arab Poet al-Baha'a Zuhair. Shafeeq died in 1970 and his name was included in the Babtain bibliography.
Then we must remember Poet Salih Butrus, a member of the 1924 Revolution. Literary historian Mahjoub Omar Bashary had written that "the study we made about Butrus was not enough to accommodate his creation."
Then we have the late barrister Henry Riadh, the story writer and literary critic who supplied the Sudanese library with a number of books, some of which were translations of foreign works. Henry, who was dismissed from his job in the judiciary for political reasons, deserves to be honored by barristers, his fellow writers in the Sudanese Writers Union, and local cultural centers.
One of my contemporary writers was Jamal Abdelmalik (Ibn Khaldoon), a literary critic, story writer and translator.
We also have to mention Poet George Benyoti and story writer Jirjis Aziz Zaki who reminds me of the genus Sami Yousif Gobrial who died too young. Zaki had left behind his collection "growth under the droplets of blood" and two novel manuscripts which, unfortunately, were lost.
Can we forget the role of Poet Sa'ad Michael and his book "poets of the Sudan" in which he documented 37 Sudanese poets.
Finally we should not forget the Rev. Prof. Filothawus Faraj and his book "Copts of the Sudan", which is an encyclopedic documentation of the history of Sudan. In this respect we have to mention the book "Copts of the Sudan, Past and Present", by Professor Sa'ad Mohammad Ahmad, an important book which can help researchers and academics interested in the history of Sudanese Copts.
Sudanow: Would you please tell us about your encounter with Egyptian-International writer Yousif Idris?
Ghali: It was during the Second Cultural Festival in Khartoum in 1957. As a young man, the then Minister of Culture and Information Ismael al-Haj Musa picked up a group of young writers to escort the prominent Festival guests. My humble person was named to escort the big writer Yousif Idris. It was a difficult job for a 'regional' youth like me to be in the company of such a renowned writer. I consider myself lucky to have lived in the age of Yousif Idris. I seized the opportunity to conduct the longest interview Idris had ever given. Idris is one of the World's pyramids of short story. His writings were like a hurricane. Equally, he was a prominent playwright, in particular his play 'al-Farafeer'. Some of Idris's novels are landmarks in the Arab novel. And regardless of the multitudes of M.A and Doctorate theses written about his works, I consider Idris a virgin field for research. Idris is one of overcoats of the short story!