Last month, Sudanese authors Ahmad Al Malik and Tarek Eltayeb spoke in London about their writing and the state of publishing — and reading — in Sudan:
By Valentina Viene
Sudanese authors Ahmad Al Malik and Tarek Eltayeb were in London this June for an evening of Sudanese literature. Both discussed their literary production, but they also shed light on the huge challenges that face the publishing and distributing books in Sudan.
The authors read excerpts from two short stories: Ahmad Al Malik’s “Lovers Don’t Steal” and Tarek Eltayeb’s “Helmy Abu Ragileh.” The pieces were humorous, skilfully constructed, and thematically rich. They undoubtedly sparked an interest, amongst the audience, for a literature that is lesser-known, even among Arabophiles. Although both authors live abroad, Al Malik in Holland and Eltayeb in Austria, their stories are mostly set in Sudan, written in Arabic, and aimed first at a Sudanese audience, although, as I will explain later, translation is becoming more and more important for Sudanese authors.
Sudan boasts centuries of oral tradition, as kaleidoscopic and rich as the population that composes it. Contemporary written production builds on, runs parallel to, and echoes this tradition. If there is one aspect that can define Sudanese literary production, that surely is, according to Ahmad Al Malik, diversity itself.
From the time the great Tayib Saleh’s work was recognized as pioneering production in the mid-Sixties, Sudan’s political and cultural landscape has changed noticeably and so has the country’s readership. In recent years, people are reading more and more fiction, as opposed to books on politics, a genre that was more popular in the previous fifty years. Thanks in part to the establishment of literary prizes that award money to authors and translators, the country has seen the emergence of a young generation of writers whose work has also been translated into many European languages, as in the recent The Book of Khartoum, co-edited by Max Schmookler and Raph Cormack and published by Comma Press.
But the developments of the literary scene have not gone hand in hand with the Sudanese government’s agenda, which seems — instead of fostering literary developments — to be hampering and combating the circulation of literature. To start with, a literary work is subject to taxes and customs, whereas a religious book is not. This makes publishing creative pieces a failing business from its very start.
At the June event, Ahmad Al Malik recounted that, in the past few years book fairs and cultural centres, like the Sudanese Studies Centre and the Sudanese Writer’s Union, have been shut down. Internet is not widely available and was made more expensive as soon as the authorities realized that it was being used as a platform to get messages across. Nur Al-Huda, Head of Azza Publishing, said in an interview in Banipal that “Imprisoning people in Sudan does not require laws,” and then added that “banning or confiscating a book is […] a lesser evil than imprisoning an author[…].”
So how does a novel see the light of the day in Sudan? Most books, Ahmad Al Malik and Tarek Eltayeb explained at the June event, are printed abroad, often in Egypt. A copy is then smuggled into Sudan and is photocopied — counterfeited with the tacit approval of the author — in order to reach the Sudanese readers. Books would otherwise be too expensive both to produce and buy.
It does not help that the writer, being tied to a contract with his publisher, is not allowed to put the book in PDF form so that it can be available on the Internet. The counterfeiting of books poses a further challenge to the publishing industry, already on the brink of going under. Azza Publishing seems to be one of the very few names still able to stay afloat, managing to distribute its books in every Sudanese city, both in North and South Sudan.
According to Tarek Eltayeb, Sudanese authors have a moral responsibility to keep writing and talking about the truth, directly or indirectly, each according to their circumstances. Politicians will always look for a political interpretation of a book, even if it’s a piece of scientific research. That should not stop writers from doing their job. He explained how living abroad can often work to a writer’s advantage, as she or will be able to express himself more freely than if they lived in the homeland, and deal with issues that would be subject to censorship or persecution.
Eltayeb encouraged the younger generations of Sudanese writers to persist in their quest to publish, and to not give up at the first obstacle that they will encounter, as the path to publishing can be long and windy. He also stressed the importance of the role of translation in the spread of Sudanese literature abroad. This allows Sudanese literature, he said, to skip over some regime barriers. In this respect, Banipal magazine has done a great job in bringing to prominence 15 Sudanese authors, whose works have been translated into English. Banipal 55 is available in print and online on www.banipal.co.uk, where you can also read excerpts of Sudanese literature.
Valentina Viene is a translator from Arabic into English and Italian and a literary scout focusing on contemporary Arabic literature. A graduate of the Orientale, Naples, she has translated a number of Arab authors and her articles have appeared in Italian academic journals and blogs. She has lived in and around the MENA region for several years.