Emerging Sudanese author Mansour El Souwaim has received a number of plaudits. He was named one of the “Beirut39” in 2009, one of the top 39 Arab authors under 40, won the Tayeb Salih award for his second novel, and was selected to participate in the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction nadwa. Souwaim has a new novel out, The Last Sultan, which Nassir Elsayed Elnour says “calls on us to rethink history”:

By Nassir Elsayed Elnour

441Prominent Sudanese novelist and writer Mansour El-Souwaim, who was born in 1970 in south Darfur, recently released his fourth novel,  Akhir Asalateen (The Last Sultan), in Cairo. Mansour’s newest work explores the story of the last Sultan of the Darfur Sultanate in western Sudan. This is the same region where, since 2001, the ongoing brutal conflict between the central government and Darfurian armed movements has escalated to a genocide by international human rights standards.

The Last Sultan has attracted interest from a broad range of readers and critics all over Sudan and the Arabic world. In it, the author combines his potent imagination with historical events. The main character is Ali Dinar, the last Sultan of Darfur, who ruled in the nineteenth century.

Ali Dinar ruled as Sultan during a brief era of relative independence from Anglo-Egyptian bilateral control. Through the use of compelling and well-developed characters, Mansour brings alive the flamboyant history of this now defunct African Sultanate, beginning with the British overthrowof the Mahdi’s State. This collapse of the state marked a new era in Sudanese history and a period of peace and relative independence for Darfur, located along Sudan’s western periphery.

The novel has been constructed using many voices in a way that thrusts the reader into the culture, events, and values of the time.

The novel has been constructed using many voices in a way that thrusts the reader into the culture, events, and values of the time. While the novel’s narrative is well-grounded in methodical research and historical accounts, Mansour transforms these dry facts into an original and thought-provoking story, bringing alive the social fabric of the Darfur community. Mansour’s powerful narration relies on folkloric songs and metaphor. Although place is central to the theme of the novel, the material elements of the story transcend both place and time.

Sultan Ali Dinar has long played a mythical and historical role in the Darfurian public consciousness. Mansour’s novel catches us all up in the last days of the Sultanate and their frantic preparations to confront the British, who ultimately annexed the Sultanate of Darfur to the British Empire. While all of this was happening, and Sultan and his aides struggle to find a strategy for opposing a powerful force armed with all the most modern instruments of war, the capital city of the Sultanate, Alfashir, is embroiled in human affairs, including a love story and conspiracy. Throughout the novel, the champion of the imminent confrontation is not exclusively a single person, the Sultan. We also learn about the role of women in Alfashir and how they helped their Sultan teach the conquerors an unforgettable lesson in courage.

The language used by the characters reveals hidden meanings behind the what they say, and it is the language that fuses plot and the story’s main elements in a thrilling representation of one of Darfur’s most iconic heroes.

The Last Sultan sums up chronological events without judging the results. Simply put, it goes beyond just telling the history of the rise and fall of the character Sultan Ali Dinar. It is also a contemplative exploration of Darfur’s role in history. The irony is that this region, which began by defending itself against an external threat, paradoxically became a region whose people risked extinction by a threat from their fellow Sudanese.

The novel calls upon readers not just to resurrect the Sultan, but to rethink history. It ends with the Sultan’s inevitable defeat in a battle where he was ambushed and killed, resulting in the collapse of the Darfur Sultanate in the land of the Fur people.

More:

Writings from Sudan: An Interview with Mansour El Souwaim

authorNassir Elsayed Elnour is a Sudanese researcher and writer.

One thought on “Mansour El Souwaim’s ‘The Last Sultan’: A Historical Paradox

  1. Thank you, Nassir. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on why this novel appeals to critics in Sudan and more broadly in the Arabic-speaking world. In what ways is it similar to early works of fiction set in Darfur, such as Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin’s “The Messiah of Darfur” (Masih Darfur), published in 2012, or the short stories and novels of Ibrahim Ishaq. The latter is especially interesting because he has been writing about Darfur since the 1970s, long before the current conflict with the central government, and his fiction gives us insight into the cultural and social dimensions of Darfuri life before the current cycle of crisis and tragedy.

    I suppose the large question is how and why areas of intense political and military conflict are drawn back into the world of fiction, and how readers and critics respond to the fictionalization of very real experiences of human suffering.

    Looking forward to your thoughts.

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