On the Heels of the Sudanese Writers Union Shutdown, Glittering Literary Awards

Tayeb Salih (1929-2009) is Sudan’s most famous literary son. The author of Season of Migration to the North is celebrated not only by Arab readers but worldwide, and several literary awards bear his name:

ZainIn 2010, a new “Tayeb Salih International Award for Creative Writing” was launched in Khartoum, sponsored by the Zain mobile phone company and supported by the Sudanese government. The award boasts nine different categories and doles out around $200,000 each year. The most recent winners were announced last Thursday, and they include lesser-known authors from Morocco, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan.

In theory, such a prize should be a boon for Sudanese writers. But it’s not, as poet and journalist Mahfouz Bushra wrote in Al Araby Al Jadeed this Friday. Many have been hostile toward the prize ever since its launch, seeing it as “an attempt to control the Sudanese cultural scene.” Now, Bushra writes, Sudanese voices against the award have grown even louder. That’s because the prize’s glittering awards ceremonies, which were supported by the Ministry of Culture, were held less than a month after the government shutdown of the independent Sudanese Writers Union.

“At the same time that cultural centres are being closed by security authorities,” Bushra writes, “they give their support and blessing to cultural projects established by commercial enterprises and affiliated with the government.”

The shutdown of the Sudanese Writers Union is not an isolated act. It comes as part of a “massive crackdown on civil society organizations and activists in Sudan,” according to Sudanese poet Najlaa Eltom. It followed the closing of other important public spaces, such as the Mafroosh used-book market. Mafroosh was a vibrant event held on the first Tuesday of the month, last staged in December. It’s unclear when it might have permission to open again.

But, among these shutdowns, the banning of the Writers Union struck a particular chord, prompting protests across social media and editorials urging the government to reconsider. “The banning of the Sudanese Writers Union is a strong political message to silence Sudanese writers and intellectuals,” Eltom said.

The Writers Union was ostensibly shuttered for organizing political events, which would be a violation of the Sudanese law that regulates cultural groups. But according to union members, the organization was careful to avoid even the appearance of political pot-stirring. It focused on hosting cultural and intellectual seminars, film screenings, and musical nights.

Yet the union didn’t only organize events: It also spoke on behalf of the nation’s authors. In an email interview, Bushra lamented the organization’s closing, saying that it “means that the Sudanese writers will be just individuals, losing the power of being collected together around a symbolic institution that unites our voices.”

Bushra knows the importance of being supported by fellow writers. He is currently the focus of a sham trial, accused of defaming the country’s National Intelligence and Security Services in an essay.

Certainly, the Tayeb Salih awards are not the only government-backed literary prize that has been scorned by writers. Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim famously refused his country’s Arab Novel Prize in 2003, saying that “it was awarded by a government that, in my opinion, lacks the credibility to grant it.” But the Sudanese prize doesn’t just lack credibility: It whitewashes the al-Bashir regime’s ongoing actions against writers.

In a statement issued last Thursday, the Zain company said that the Tayeb Salih award is meant to “uplift the banner of literature and the arts in Sudan and the Arab World.” A number of Sudanese authors, when asked, didn’t see the prize in the same light. Sudanese poet al-Asma’i Bashari called it “a poisoned feast.”

Bushra adds that he is unimpressed by the “poor standard of the winning works over the past five years. It seems that not a single work of these winners is remarkable enough to be remembered. This is not the case for some other works that have won less prestigious prizes.”

Meanwhile, the situation for Sudanese writers worsens. Najlaa Eltom said that, if there were sustained domestic and international pressure, the Writers Union might possibly be un-banned after upcoming elections. But, she said, “the reality is that cultural activism will remain hostage in the hands of the regime as long as it exists.”