Cross-Border Relationships: Passing Poetry Over the Sahara

In a recent interview with the Centre for African Poetry, Egyptian novelist and “occasional poet” Youssef Rakha talked about the possibilities of greater contact between various African literatures: 

Stolen from Youssef Rakha's blog,
Stolen from Youssef Rakha’s blog,

It seems a rather anodyne view: that literature could benefit from more chatter across the Sahara. Yet this rather bland statement has been met with some skepticism.

I have heard — from a number of African writers who live south of the Sahara — the suspicion that North Africans aren’t interested in intra-African literary traffic, and that Moroccans, Algerians, Libyans, Tunisians, and particularly Egyptians are satisfied in making Arab (or European) connections, and have no need of particularly African ones.

In an interview with poet-novelist Youssef Rakha, the Centre for African Poetry (CAP) asks:

At the Centre for African Poetry, we are interested in promoting African writing across national, regional and even language borders, but also note the existing emotional ties and regional loyalties, sometimes even racial and religious preferences, which make such cross-border relationships a challenge. As an Egyptian and North African do you think there is enough cultural interest in Africa among Egyptian writers and readers – any growing evidence of African literature in Arabic translation, or sustained interest in contemporary African poetry and other writings? Is there a cultural will to sustain and reach beyond the significant Moroccan experiment with the Arab-African Cultural Forum at Asilah, establishing the Tchicaya U Tam’si Poetry Award?

Unsurprisingly, Rakha says, hey, yes, we’re interested:

 There definitely should be; among readers of poetry there is a lot of interest in what’s happening poetically in sub-Saharan Africa, but maybe the infrastructure isn’t there for sufficient exchange. Despite pan-African stabs at postcolonial unity in the sixties, Egypt is the least connected to Africa of the African Arab states, perhaps because of stronger historical links with the Levant, and yet Egyptians are true east Africans in so many ways, once you learn a bit about the history and culture of this part of the world, variety notwithstanding.

Now, I was a bit startled to see my couch-side interest in promoting greater dialogue between African literatures boiled down to “merely wanting a legitimate share of the African inheritance” for Afro-Arab authors. I’ll clarify: The inclusion of North African writers in prizes like the Caine or in African literary journals surely is not important because North African writers need more cash. (Writers needing cash is an entirely separate issue.) If inclusion is important, it’s because there could be fruitful and interesting exchanges — exchanges that could be quite different if they don’t go through London or New York.

Certainly, The Standard also makes strong points about the Caine Prize — particularly its UK- and US-facing nature. Should there be pan-African literary prizes at all? Perhaps, perhaps not, but there should certainly be literary communication across borders.

The talk between CAP and Rakha is worth reading on a number of other fronts: Read the full Q & A here.

Speaking of cross-border writing, submit to this pan-African writers collective. The most recent call-for-submissions has passed, but surely there will be another.


  1. Interesting! Personally, I suspect a kind of snobbish pecking order lurks in the shadows of this discussion.

    1. I think, even more importantly, a lot of fears & assumptions lurk in the shadows of this discussion. Yes, and unaired racism/Arabophobia. But all things that would benefit from talking them out!

  2. I see this post as a very welcome follow-up to the conversation we had on twitter. The most significant answer to this lack of collaboration question is the issue of the lack of infrastructure. If there was a mature, African-funded system for translating both ways across the Sahara, we would go a long way. As I recommended on twitter too, what about North African and Sub-Saharan African universities sponsoring a couple of PhD students in exchange, to work on translating major poets both ways? So much can be done. Great post.

    1. I totally agree — so much can be done, and there is interest in both directions. We just need a connected & motivated person to get it rolling…

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