Sudan: Adieu... Great Novelist Ibrahim Ishaq

24 January 2021

Khartoum — Renowned Sudanese novelist, short story writer, Ibrahim Ishaq died early Saturday while on medication in the United States, aged 75.

Writer Ishaq is seen as a land mark in Sudanese modern literature. In an eulogy, the Sudanese Writers Union, said: The late Ishaq, God rest his noble soul in peace, had built a wide literary reputation with distinct, innovative novels new to Sudan, and in which he presented new technical images from Western Sudan. Ishaq had dug deep into his local environment of Western Sudan. In addition, Ishaq's narrative had touched the Sudanese conscience with a language quite unique and special."

Ishaq's first novel "Happened in the Village" was published in 1969. Then he published a number of other novels that include "The Festival of the Old School", "Works of the Night and the Village". "News of the Girl Mayakaya", "Scandal of the Norain Family". He had also published the short story collections: "People From Kafka", "Tales From the Villages," and Kabbashiyya's Petitions".

The late Ishaq had also published the studies "Migrations of the Hilali's from Arabia to North Africa and Sudan", "The Folktale in Africa" and "Achievement of Dr. Mohammad Abdalla Diraz".

He had also published hundreds of articles and studies in literary criticism and heritage in Sudanese and Arab newspapers, periodicals and magazines.

The late Ishaq had won the encouraging prize in arts during the Culture, Arts and Literature Festival 1979. He was also awarded honorary doctorate from the Alfashir University in 2004.

Ishaq was born in Wada'a Village in East Darfur in 1946. He received his primary education in the cities of Alfahir and Omdurman. He graduated from the Higher Teachers Training Institute in 1969. He served as teacher of English in the secondary schools. He obtained an M.A in folklore from the University of Khartoum's Afro -Asian Institute in which he served as a researcher for sometime. Then he travelled to the Riyadh City, Saudi Arabia, where he taught English since the 1980s until he returned to Sudan in 2006.

In 2009, writer Ishaq assumed the office of chairman of the Sudanese Writers Union. He was also member of the council for the promotion and development of national languages in Sudan.

He was arbiter in several literary awards in Sudan, such as Al- Tayeb Salih Prize for Creative Writing organized by Abdel Karim Merghani Cultural Centre and Tayeb Salih International Award for Creative Writing under the sponsorship of telecom provider Zain Company.

The Sudanese-International Novelist Tayeb Salih said about him: "Ibrahim Ishaq is a really great writer with novels that presented majestic technical images from Western Sudan, seen for the first time in Sudanese literature. It is a world nearly unknown to the people of central and northern Sudan. I met him in Saudi Arabia to find in him a tactful, kind human being like all his fellow western Sudanese. It is clear from his novel "Evil in Kalamendo" that he was not idle, but thinking and writing throughout all his long period of silence. When I read Ibrahim Ishaq's novels and the beautiful short stories of Zaha'a Altahir, I feel sorry not to have known that remote, amazing world."

Meanwhile the Council of Ministers and the Ministry of Culture had announced obituaries for the late Ishaq.

Sudanow magazine had conducted a lengthy interview with Ishaq in August 2017 followed by a forum in which experts had discussed his literary experiment and the role of translation in informing the world about his literary production. The event was attended by senior literary critics, writers and translators.

For the benefit of the reader Sudanow is hereby republishing the interview:

Novelist, Storywriter Ibrahim Ishaq Speaks On His Experience, Current Cultural Status

06 August, 2017

By: Mohamed Najeeb Mohamed Ali

  • -I began by writing novels, writing short stories was a challenge-
  • -The prizes largely contributed to the rise of new novelists
  • -The foreign translator seeks suspenseful topics that excite the readers in his country
  • -The narration technique of Al-Tayeb Salih is not yet emulated by any Arab novelist

KHARTOUM (Sudanow) - Ibrahim Ishaq is considered an outstanding fiction writer in Sudan. He published his first novel "What Happened in the Village" in the same year in which Al-Tayeb Salih published his novel "The Season of Migration to the North" in 1969. Ishaq has until now published six novels and three collections of stories besides two studies on the folklore tale in Africa and the Hilalieen Migration. He has numerous studies and articles published in newspapers cultural supplements.

Several critics tackled his work and the usage of the Darfurian slang in his novelistic dialogues has aroused wide disagreements to the point that some critics regarded it a reason for not achieving a worthy circulation of his writings.

The works of Novelist Ishaq are chosen as topics by university graduates for master and doctorate theses in different subjects.

I had with him a lengthy interview that covered his experience and the current cultural status in Sudan. The interview was followed by testimonies and statements from prominent critics and novelists on his experience, his innovative value and his writing vision.

Translation of the Arabic text of the interview follows:-

Q- The Darfurian language you have used in your novels has raised a lot of controversy to the extent that some persons considered it as the reason behind failure of your works to reach the people. But now the language you have used in your recent novels has become an Arabic language that is comprehensible to everyone. How do you take this?

A- My beginnings were in the High Teachers' Institute in Omdurman in 1968 when I decided to respond to the challenge of James Joyce book Ullysses, a novel of 600 pages, in one day. And I decided to write "what Happened in the Village" to take one day. I had to solve the technical problem pertinent to the credibility of the character and decided that the solution, in my opinion, would be to make the characters talk in the local language of eastern Darfur and this, coupled with the oddity of the environment I was writing about, made a feeling among my readers that I was an enigma. There was no other option and I thought that the problem would be solved by more writing. And one year later, I wrote my second novel "The Night's Deeds & The Village" in the same style. The style which I applied a year later in "The Old School Festival" and the fourth year later I wrote "The Norains Scandal" in the same local language. Despite the fact that the printing of those works was delayed, the successive publishing of short stories in the newspapers made the serious 1970s readers feel that there was no alternative other than accepting my writing as it was. This has affected the volume of the readership but the technical value was maintained. The dialogue language of the works which were issued 10 years later was changed on the field and therefore there was no problem. Why? This was because the civilized communication between the people of the village in which I write and the vast world changed the language of our people, making it nearly similar to the language of Omdurman. So, there was no problem except the oddity of the way of life on which I write. And it is left to the serious reader to solve this problem by himself.

My latest novel "Turmoil in Klymendo" that was issued for the first time in 1998, faced no language problem, but the names of the plants, animals and social habits may remain an obstacle for a person who would not bother to identify. I was glad that Syrian writer Nabil Suleiman read this novel in 1999, expressed his admiration and wrote about it. Late Al-Tayeb Salih also extolled my short stories which he read on the newspapers. He also voiced his admiration of my novel "Turmoil in Klymendo".

Q- You have written stories and novels. Why does the writer shift from one field to another? What are the essential differences? Why have you moved to writing short stories, although you have started by writing novels?

A- Yes. I began with the novels and started writing short stories only after it was rumored in the Sudanese cultural circles that I could not write good short stories. So, it was a challenge for me. I do not know what other writers believe but as for myself, I think a big, long-lasting incident with many characters requires a novel form which takes me three to four weeks to write, while the short story is a limited incident with few characters and events, although the drama in both kinds may be of the same importance, but they are of different casts. I have written six novels and three collections of short stories in these forms. To me, it is as if there is a wide plain full of trees, including tall ones, like the Tabaldy (baobab tree) neighboring the smaller ones, but all present integrated scenery. The small trees are the short stories while the Tabaldy are the novels. And so as long as the critics say that this world is integral with its novels and short stories, I believe the integrated scenery is based on something big.

Q- Referring to your studies on the folklore and the folkloric tales in Africa, what is the relationship between the African tales and the modern story? How much have you benefited from this?

- I think I have read a great deal of the folkloric tales and anecdotes in both Arabic and English since my studies in the intermediate and secondary schools and in the university. I believe I did not understand then the folklore as a modern science but my readings were similar to the understanding of the folklorist of the folkloric tales. I wrote four series on folkloric tales for the monthly Khartoum Magazine in 1975 in response to a request by late Jaily Ahmed Omar. The late poet Mohamed Abdul Hay asked me to collect and present to him those series which he published among the publications of the Sudanese Culture Department in 1976. Sayyed Hamid Hiraiz, Mohamed Omar Beshir and Ahmed Abdul Rahim Nasr got interested in my African folklore writings and asked the council of the teachers of the Institute for African and Asian studies to waver the regulations and register me for studying the Master degree in folklore. This was in 1978. I believe my imaginative narration in the novel and the short story has merged with the folkloric narration and they moved together.

Q- Referring to your study on the Hilaliyah Narrative in Sudan (Abu Zaid Al-Hilaly), could you make a comparison between this and the same account in Egypt, Tunisia, the Arab Maghreb and other countries?

A- When I had to find a dissertation for PhD, I had two choices: studying the Hilaliyah Account as a piece of literature or as a historic traditional folklore. The first was proposed by Sayyed Hamid Hiraiz and the other I picked from a book by Professor Yusuf Fadul titled "The Arabs and Sudan". In northern Sudan the Hilaly narrative is related for entertainment and education, but in western Sudan, Chad and North Africa they mostly narrate the story of Abu Zaid Al-Hilaly as their ancestor, because they believe they were successors of the Hilaly tribes that entered Sudan after the 11th century AD. For this reason, I decided that my study would be based on the historic popular tradition. I took up the subject from the Southern Arabian Peninsula, moving along with the Hilaly tribe across Najd, the Syrian desert, Sinai, Upper Egypt, across the Arab Maghreb until the appearance of the Arabs who came east with the Hilaly tribes to the northern borders of the Burno Kingdom according to a historic document mentioned by Al-Gugushundy in the 14th century AD. The Arabs arrived then in North Chad, South Chad and North Darfur, and therefrom the bedouin vanguards reached Central Africa. For this reason, I named the book "The Migration of the Hilaly tribes from the Arab Peninsula to North Africa and The Sudan" I do not want to praise this book, but I think I traced most of the literature of the Hilaly tribes in this vast area and, an evidence of the acceptance of this work was the exaltation of it particularity by the external examiner late Abdul Majeed Abdin. Another evidence of its acceptance came from the King Faisal Society that published and distributed it in 1996. The Sudanese also got interested in the book and printed a second edition of it. I was very glad that the book spread out to the point it was lauded, even if verbally, by Al-Munsif Al-Marzouqy, the former Tunisian President.

Q- We notice that sometimes you engage yourself in pure scientific studies, like the Hilaliyah Account and the humanistic researches, is it that you are exploring new horizons for your novels, or is it a different effort?

A- It is not extraordinary for a fiction writer to shift, at a certain stage in his life, to research writings, and there are several examples to that. I think, staying away from the village affects and weakens the sources of fiction narration, but this is overcome by the wide readings, particularly if the writer becomes qualified in writing in both fields. And therefore he gets himself engaged in the two fields. Since the 1970s I began to write articles in three fields: folklore, the humanist issues and theoretical views on fiction. These articles can make up one or two books on each field.

Residence in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for 23 years provided me with an opportunity of going through a lot of Islamic readings and this helped me in writing two books on Islamic topics: a study on the works of Abdul Razzaq Noufal, plus a book on the standards of the general Muslim consensus about Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. I intend, God willing, to continue writing in every one of those fields, including fiction.

Q- Now that a decade has elapsed since the demise of the renowned novelist Al-Tayeb Salih, what addition did he offer the Arab and Sudanese novel?

A- To be fair we must say that the narrative technique Tayeb Salih possessed has not yet been equaled by any Arab novelist. It is enough to indicate that his novel "The season of Migration to the North" was the only Arab novel that was chosen among the best 100 novels worldwide.

Salih left a fingerprint in fiction writing and equally in the critical writings he managed for his page in the Saudi Almajallah Magazine and in all the Arab cultural activity with his interviews and participation in the cultural seasons and his job as under-secretary for the ministry of culture in Qatar as well as an expert with the UNESCO. While the peoples of the world acclaim the accomplishments of Al-Tayeb Salih, we, as Sudanese, should be proud of the lofty position he accorded us.

Q- What results has the Council for Development of the Sudanese Languages attained after years of a continued research?

A- The Council has, in eight years, experienced several problems, including its limited budget and weak administration. Yet, it has managed to acquaint the Sudanese public, through more than 30 monthly symposiums, with the Sudanese languages as sounds, grammar and literature. We believe that the Council has largely mitigated the feeling of marginalization felt by the communities of unwritten languages and has made them feel that their language heritage is a basic part of the Sudanese identity. The Council has issued nine books on the Sudanese languages in the north, east and west of the country as well as the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile region. We wish the Sudanese policy-makers would not abandon this Council and exert efforts with UNESCO and other international cultural institutions and to assure the United Nations organizations that we are pledged not to allow any language go into oblivion.

Q- You have written about west Sudan while Al-Tayeb Salih has written about the north and center of the country. Is it expected that other Sudanese novelists would produce works about the remaining regions of Sudan?

A- I have always thought that the novelists from the Sudan's different regions should introduce their localities to the Sudanese and international readers. We have to follow suit of the American writers who have introduced their different regions to the world, like Hemingway, from the Lakes region, Faulkner from the South, Truman Cabot from the Center and Steinbeck from the far West.

I wish the Sudanese novel and short-story writers would contribute to the different localities of Sudan by presenting bright regional pictures that contest and even excel the works of Al-Tayeb Salih and Ibrahim Ishaq.

Q- You have received your higher education in Khartoum and you resided in the Sudanese capital for nearly half a century. Now you keep making Darfur a venue for your novels and never mentioning the center of the Sudan. Can you explain this?

A- I think I spoke about Omdurman and Khartoum in eight stories and also in "Turmoil in Klymendo" novel, while "The Traditions of Dame Miyakaya" was focused on the White Nile region. Yet your observation is correct because the novelist and the story-writer is obliged to his own people where he originated. For instance Mikhail Sholokhov lived most of his life in Moscow and other big cities of Russia, yet all his writings, even the short stories, centered on the Don River Valley. William Faulkner strolled through Europe and lived in Hollywood but the American South was his favorite place that he portrayed. If I have to write better about Omdurman and Khartoum, I must bring the third generation of the Kabbashy family, my narrators, to the forefront as they are now studying and working in Khartoum. If their modern concerns were linked to their environmental backgrounds, we might one day write some work that links characters from west Sudan with others in central Sudan, in the capital or elsewhere.

Q- Some critics believe that you are borrowing Faulkner's technique and the circuitous style in your writings. How about that?

A- I don't deny this. I don't deny that I have derived my vision of my environment from the integral world that was created by James Joyce, William Faulkner and Mikhail Sholokhov who are, to me, the world's best writers of fiction and their production has enriched our knowledge of Man. Al-Tayeb Salih confines all his works within the circle of moving out of and revisting the world of Wad Hamid in north Sudan. There are writers who write in a scattered way- a character from here and a reality from there, according to the choice of their topics. While there are other writers who are concerned with presenting an enigmatic world with its most precise components. But even though we should not blame anyone of them or transgress their freedom of innovation.

Q- Is there an existential story in Sudan?

A- I believe there is no one who has made an effort on the existential story more than Eissa al-Hilo. But there are a lot of short stories that can be classified in this connection.

Q- What do you think of the Arab novel forums and the contests in which professional novelists and young ones compete, except the international Al-Tayeb Salih competition in which no professionals participate?

A -First, I think the prizes have largely contributed to the rise of new novelists and the emergence of a good writer out of those contests is likely as was the case of Ali al-Rufae from north Sudan. The professionals may not take part in those competitions because they do not want the arbitrators to judge their works. There are two kinds of prizes: the appreciative and the encouraging ones. The latter encourage the beginners to come up with good novels. We wish the professionals are better considered in the appreciative prizes so that their works would get what they deserve.

Q- Why there are no forums other than those of the novels?

A- Al-Sharqah Emirate has established six or seven platforms for poetry in the Arab countries. Those platforms provide distinguishing poets with opportunities to issue collections of their works. But the novel gains more importance because it discusses humanitarian issues, uses a poetic language and competes against the camera. I do not think poetry can compete against the novel in those aspects, and therefore I think the future will be for the short novel which is not monotonous. This is the age of the intensive novel that touches the emotions and the illusions of the reader and offers him a service that is similar to the camera.

Q- How do you view the works of the new writers?

A- I cannot claim that I closely follow the works of the new writers because reading a great deal makes a writer like me to reach a stage at which he cannot bear the techniques of the beginners. We may say: he is almost saturated. However, I followed the works of the good writers of short stories in the past three decades and I praised what I admired.

Some readers might still remember an article I wrote on Alwan daily newspaper about a novel by Omar al-Saym titled "Mar Khader". My advice to the new writers is to perfectly learn the language in which they write, absorb the techniques they try to employ and to possess an imagination that serves much of the reality and address its problems. We do not ask them to stop introducing fantasia and oddities but let their texts address the humanitarian reality they experience.

Q- Some people believe that non-translation of your works into other languages was behind the failure of your work to reach foreign readers. Do you agree?

A- I cannot ask people to translate my works into foreign languages, but this can be done through two ways: one of them is that the state may translate the works of prominent writers, as late Egyptian President Jamal Abdul Nassir was doing. The second way is for foreign translators to do that if they recognize the technical and moral value of the work, such as Denis Johnson did with the works of al-Tayeb Salih. It is true that the translation into other languages is beneficial to the writer because he will be read worldwide. But at the present time only insignificant works are translated into other languages and, as Sudanese writer Amir Taj al-Sir once remarked that many translated Sudanese works were weak and were translated only because they discussed contemporary hot issues. I wish there are translators who would find an interest in translating my works, but I can't ask them to do so, and, at the same time, I feel sad that the state is not doing any effort in this respect.

Q- Can we say that non-translation of your works is a reason that hinders you from reaching the position you deserve?

A- Could be. But I can't also judge my works as excellent and that the non-translation is the obstacle. Why? Because you cannot determine the people's tastes. The taste common to many readers, at the present time, is directed towards unspoken political, religious or sexual issues.

Q- Is there any difference between the Western and local tastes?

A- Yes, but I think a work deserves to be translated if the translator appreciates its technical element and considers its humanitarian background. But I would not say this is the reason that prevents the translation of some works, and as I have previously noted that the reason lies in the fact that the environment and the environmental components I write about is difficult to understand even for the Sudanese in central Sudan. But any person who is interested can simply understand by asking local people or by consulting dictionaries of colloquial languages to pick up the meaning of any difficult word, and this person can enjoy the work if he skips that word while he is reading like what al-Tayeb Salih and Nabil Suleiman and others have done in reading my fiction.

Q- The remark you have just attributed to Amir Taj al-Sir, does it indicate corruption of the translation?

A- We do not say it is corruption of the translation as much as we can say that the foreign translator looks for a topic for exciting the readers in his country. And the wide circulation of issues in the international media makes some works highly acceptable; take for instance "The Messiah of Darfur" novel which was met with a great demand by the readers in Europe, regardless of its content. In contrast, "Turmoil in Klymendo" means nothing to those readers.

I believe that the choice of the work by the translator is the reason behind its wide circulation or poor circulation and, as Amir Taj al-Sir has stated, many novels were translated for political, rather than technical reasons.

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