On the Khartoum Omnibus: Stories of Sudan’s Cosmopolitanism

This first appeared at Global Urban History. It is reprinted here with permission.

By Raphael Cormack

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Mafroosh used book market, Khartoum. Photo by Raphael Cormack.

In July 2005 a helicopter carrying John Garang, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and new vice-president of Sudan, crashed in Uganda. Garang and the 13 other passengers were all killed. The most important leader of the South Sudanese liberation struggle was dead and, as the news spread, the reaction profound. In Khartoum, some of the city’s South Sudanese inhabitants began to violently protest and the Government responded by imposing a curfew.

This crash came at an important turning point in Sudanese history. Earlier in the year, John Garang had signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the Sudanese Government of Omar al-Bashir, designed to bring an end to decades of civil war between the North and the South of Sudan. The hopes for the future took a hit after that day in July.

Stella Gaetano, the South Sudanese writer, chose this moment for her story “The Smell of Labour”. The action is set on a bus driving across a bridge on the Nile away from the city, carrying a variety of different passengers out of Khartoum – some clearly South Sudanese and others not. A mechanic, a writer, an amateur musician, men and women, young and old are all crushed together into the small vehicle. The various odors of work and food that hang on everyone in the bus are mixed together and become the “Smell of Labour” of the title. News of John Garang’s death hangs heavy over the group. The story reaches a climax as the driver has a heart attack and the bus careers of the bridge and into the water. The connection between this crash and the helicopter clash is clear.

Earlier this year, a book of short stories – The Book of Khartoum – was published by Comma Press, edited by Max Shmookler and myself. In it, the central question we wanted to ask was how Sudanese and South Sudanese authors constructed the city in their writing. How could Khartoum be represented in literature? This story by Gaetano helped us answer that difficult question.

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The bus and its motley ensemble of occupants form the heart of Gaetano’s short story. As it crosses the Nile this bus comes to embody the country and its capital, where people from all parts of Sudan gather. Thrust tightly together in cramped seats the people form a unit, a cipher for the state. So, the symbolism of the driver’s heart attack and the bus’ crash in the Nile is more than just an echo of John Garang’s helicopter. It is a representation of the powerful emotional shock that John Garang’s death dealt to many in the country, particularly the South Sudanese.

As Max and I read more short stories about Khartoum for the collection, we began to notice that Gaetano’s focus on a bus was far from unique.[1] Public transportation played an important part in a surprisingly large number of Sudanese short stories. When writers tried to capture this city in their work, the bus was often their way in.  It became a trope that was impossible to ignore, so we were forced to think about why it was such a common theme in writing about Khartoum.

In many of the stories, the bus plays an important role as a means of getting people from the countryside to the capital. Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin, an author who now lives outside Sudan after his works were seized by the Sudanese government, wrote the story “Butcher’s Daughter”, in which, a man comes from outside the capital to Khartoum to find his daughter studying at University. The story starts “as soon as the bus pulled out, heading for Khartoum.” Rania Mamoun, a writer and journalist arrested during anti-government protests in 2013 (her own account of the violence she suffered is here), wrote a short story following a bus and its passengers as they make their journey to the capital. The central character is a woman making her first trip to Khartoum and the narrative is held together by a fly whose buzzing irritates the characters of the short story.

Khartoum, both now and historically, has been a center of a huge amount of internal migration within Sudan, often under some kind of duress. As early as the 1880s the Mahdi’s Khalifa began a policy of tahjir, which forced people to move to his new capital of Omdurman, across the river from Khartoum. Still today, people are coming from the countryside trying to improve their lives as others flee war and aerial bombardment in places like Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. For those seeking refugee status outside Sudan, the city also acts as one of the stops on their journey. Movement and transport from outside the city defines a lot of what Khartoum is.

Writers in the collection have also used the image of the bus to invert its association with progress and positive movement. They have set scenes of greatest disappointment in a space, which should embody hope. In Bawader Bashir’s “Next Eid” the central character is a young man starting university in Khartoum. When he goes back to his village his friends and family idolize him, imagining how sophisticated and high-class his life in Khartoum must be. When the narrative returns to the city, it is revealed that his life in Khartoum is much more of a struggle than the rosy image his family had painted. In order to keep money coming in, he has taken a degrading job collecting the passengers’ fares on a night bus. Riding the bus through the town, “the crowded streets of Khartoum swallow him up then spit him out at the end of the night.”

Arthur Gabriel Yak is the only South Sudanese writer who features in the collection and since the country’s independence in 2011 he has been living there. His story is about a South Sudanese refugee’s attempts to get out of the county. It comes to a disappointing ending as the protagonist’s imaginative journey is cut short and he finds himself not in the safety of Canada, Australia, or anywhere else but back in Khartoum “[on a] bus … in the middle of Burri Bridge, crawling like a tortoise just three months old.” The disappointing ending in a stationary bus on a bridge over the Nile is, again, an ironic reversal of the role of transport to get people to different place. The bus, in both these stories, instead of a vehicle for opportunity, becomes a space of disenchantment, reflecting people’s experience of the city of Khartoum itself.

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Bridge on the Nile, Khartoum. Photo by Raphael Cormack

We also saw public transport play another part in short stories about the capital, beyond just getting people there. Khartoum is a very cosmopolitan city, which is home to people from all over Sudan and neighboring countries. However, despite the government’s slogan of “unity in diversity”, the city is not always a melting pot. In 2008, Munzoul Assal described what was happening in Khartoum in the early twenty-first  century as “pathological urbanization – it is occurring without social integration.” He argued that, despite the diversity of people in the city, they “are not integrated into the urban system in a meaningful manner.”

Even if this is true (or perhaps because this is true), the network of minibuses that snakes through the city, with their conductors signaling the destination with byzantine motions of the hand, forms a space in which people do mix and allows for moments when divisions begin to dissolve. It is moments like this that literature can take inspiration from and which can give us alternate views of a city that is so demanding. The power of the fleeting, one-off, interactions is one of the reasons creative writing about cities can be so revealing. It shows things that are insignificant on a large scale but which can have a deep effect on people.

The residents’ experiences on buses have the power to bring them together emotionally, as they did in Stella Gaetano’s stories, but they can also be an annoyance. In Bushra al-Fadil’s “Story of the Girl whose Birds Flew Away”, the central character’s view of his bus trips is much less positive. As the bus jumps around on the potholed streets and the engine croaks, the passengers irritate him with their “onionized” odors: “Their mouths gaped like empty salt dishes… It was like Noah’s Ark inside. Every face imaginable.” Whether the portrayals of these meetings offer inspiration or annoyance, the bus is one place where the cultural and regional divides in the city can be suspended, at least for those not rich enough to have a car.

Sudan is a multi-ethnic country that has seen conflict throughout most of its modern history. Khartoum, the dominant and controlling center, has a diversity that comes as a result of violence, struggle, and forced movement. Movement, interactions, and the mixing of people in public transport, therefore, carry many contradictions and ironies that writers in Sudan have been able to exploit in their literature.

At the beginning of the process of editing this book I was expecting to find stories focused on the landmarks of the city: the old colonial building downtown Khartoum, the domes of Omdurman, or the stalls of the Suq al-Arabi. Instead, we found minibuses. The geography of urban space is not only about static buildings; it is also about the links between them and about movement. Nowhere is this truer than in Khartoum and its literature.

[1] These thoughts come from discussions between myself and Max and I am greatly indebted to his insights. It is always hard to know in such conversations exactly who ideas come from but I credit him with being the person who first noticed the prevalence of bus transport in the stories we were reading.

Raphael Cormack is the co-editor of the Book of Khartoum. He is also writing a PhD on Arabic adaptations of Sophocles Oedipus Rex at the University of Edinburgh.

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Categories: Sudan

2 replies

  1. Thanks a lot for the post on Arabic Literature. It’s very interesting.

    I’m wondering if you have some information about the situation of the Palestinian writer Ashraf Fayadh, who is in prison in Saudi-Arabia?

    Thanks.

    Lieve Franssen

    Comité #FreeAshraf Belgium

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