Sudanese Writers Respond to Union Shutdown

Three writers respond to the shutdown of the Sudanese Writers Union, which happened at the end of last month:

Mahfouz Bushra, writer and journalist

bushraThe closing of the Sudanese writers association can now be added to a series of bannings, preventing the independence of civil-society projects. This is an issue with the current regime since 2012, when a number of the independent cultural centers were closed.

When looking deeply to the type of activities which are conducted by these banned cultural bodies, we notice that these cultural bodies mainly concentrate on strengthening the culture of diversity, freedom, and equality, supporting democracy and human rights, and fighting against discrimination. However, these values are completely against the regime’s single project in Sudan.

The government’s progressive war against independent cultural work is accounted for as the government clearing the Naivasha [treaty’]s remains, which means that it’s as if the government is headed back to the time before signing the comprehensive peace agreement in Naivasha in 2005, as the slight freedom that came because of these agreement and enabled some organizations such as the Sudanese Writers Union to restore their legal status. The Writers Union had been closed for a number of years, shut down directly after the Gen. al-Bashir took power in 1989. This shutdown is a clear statement that, in the time that ensued after its approval, the government was upset at giving these freedoms and was just looking for a suitable chance to close the centers that are working on presenting such enlightening issues.

Finally, the Sudanese Writers Union has been working as a civil and nongovernmental organization, according to democratic rules, in a region that is about to forget the meaning of the word democracy and lose touch with its values. Closing the union again means that the Sudanese writers will be just individuals, losing the power of being collected together around a symbolic institution that unites our voices.

Najlaa Eltom, poet

eltomArabLit: What effect do you think this will have on writers in Khartoum and beyond?

Najlaa Eltom: The banning of the Sudanese Writers Union is a strong political message to silence Sudanese writers and intellectuals. It is an episode in an incessant attack on freedom of expression in Sudan where Sudanese writers, journalists and reporters are subject to harassment, interrogation by the security service, and even trials. However, at bottom, this banning unearths the anxiety of the Islamists. People should ask the question why Al Bashir’s Islamist government feels threatened by the union? I think as disadvantaged as it is, the union resuscitates what the Sudanese Islamists strive to undermine; the institutionalization of a secular tradition, the tradition around writing, reading, debating and being critical to what you read. This tradition is at odds with the whole discourse of Wahabism, where people should follow and obey. In the union, people can attend activities as citizens, not followers or worshipers. The very act of attending a seminar or a poetry reading disturbs the discourse of the Wahabists that criminalizes reason and critical thinking.

The banning also undermines the sense of continuity. The union asserts this theme all through its different activities. It deliberately speaks of Sudan as a continuous space. It speaks of a tradition that goes back to five thousand years of writing. If you visited the union, you would see the portraits of modern Sudanese writers, the founders of the modern tradition: you can see history and see roots. The Islamists on the other hand speaks of Sudan in terms of the arrival of Hassan Al Trubai, the rebirth of religion, the process of “reshaping” the Sudanese people. Al Bashir’s cult does not recognize Sudan as a space of continuity. For them our history is a link to infidelity. There is much to say about these layers of ideological contention, but as a direct effect the banning halts the process of building a counter discourse, a discourse that contributes something to the idea of the citizen and equality. It takes away an important space of debate, encounters, and activities. It takes away a possibility of an intellectual production that addresses human not metaphysical questions. It deprives the Sudanese writers of a forum where they can perform their intellectual collectivity, a collectivity that they consciously committed themselves to. It is indeed about the right to choose your own identity.

AL: What do you think will happen next?

NE: It is not certain what is going to happen now, but I’m very skeptical. The Union might remain banned for a long time. All other local organizations that have been banned in previous recent two waves of crackdown against civil society (2009 and 2012) remained closed. The Khartoum regime sees an old foe in the Writers Union: the Al Bashir government has banned the Union before from 1989 to 2005. This recent history of confiscation and banning invites repetition in rather a more aggressive tone. I’m saying this because compared to 1989, Al-Bashir has managed to step up from a small local dictator to an international symbol of terror and criminality. You know that he is the first indicted sitting president in the history. It is an established knowledge that the shadow of the International Criminal Court (ICC) guides his actions and reactions. It is very dangerous to have a dictator who has nothing to lose. I think the prolonged atrocities against the people of Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile testify to this disastrous recipe, the one way ticket situation. But, with regards to seeing the union active again, there is one certain fact that the government won’t be willing to reverse its action against the union without a well-organized action, a persistent national and international pressure. Some observers read the banning of the union (together with other independent NGOs) as a preemptive procedure in the context of the upcoming presidential elections. The election is obviously the big show now and they don’t want noise. After the elections the government might want to make a trade off unbanning the union and the other organizations to send a message to the international community about freedom of expression, etc. Particularly because some factions of the opposition are ready to legitimize Al-Bashir’s renewed Presidency. But the reality is that cultural activism will remain hostage in the hands of the regime as long as it exists, it is a strategic ideological conflict.

Amir Tag Elsir, novelist

amir-tag-elsirOf course I was quite surprised by the dissolution of the Sudanese Writers Union and the closing of its headquarters, a decision that cannot be justified. The Union was a beacon of enlightenment, dealing with literature and the arts, and hosting various literary and intellectual seminars for Sudanese creators, as well as those from abroad — not armed forces to be fought. I attended several seminars in Khartoum on my visits, and despite the lack of support they were successful.

I think that when culture is respected, it is the sign of a nation’s health, and it’s a sick country that fights against it. I hope that the government will reconsider its decision to abolish the Union, the only outlet for creative Sudanese after their paths have been narrowed.