Poetry by Mohammed El-Makki Ibrahim appears in Adil Babikir’s new collection Modern Sudanese Poetry, one of contributor Lemya Shammat’s favorites of the year. She reflects on one of the contributors:
By Lemya Shammat
Mohammed El-Makki Ibrahim is a visionary poet and iconic figure of the Sudanese cultural scene. Born in El- Obied, North Kordfan in 1939, El-Makki got his B.A. in law from Khartoum University and an M.A. in political science from the Sorbonne. He is a former diplomat and a citizen of the world who manages to make himself at home across various countries and cultures. However, he is best known for his multidimensional creative trajectory as a writer, essayist, critic, translator, political analyst, and activist. His publications include four collections of poetry, several books, and hundreds of essays and articles. El-Makki was among the pioneers of “The Bush and The Desert” literary and intellectual current, whose main question and quest was how to creatively realize idiosyncratic and uniquely Sudanese artistic expression.
El-Makki first achieved local literary recognition during his secondary school days, when his distinctive contributions called attention to a genuine poet in the making. His vast poetry, with its unique voice and vision, continued to inspire and to steal Sudanese ears for decades, remaining imprinted in the collective memory and keep imaginations alight.
This comes as no surprise, as his creative production touched people’s lives in a whole range of ways; being keen to discover the unexplored, narrate the untold stories, touch the unresolved traumas, and tell the unspoken about the overwhelmed and downtrodden who have been othered by their own societies. Captivatingly, the poems and articles revisit themes of Africanity, Sudanism, love, and liberation. They also embrace the marginalized, neglected, and forgotten to deftly bring them to life and light.
I am but a drip of your nectar
You are the orange.
Your thighs are brimming with Khilassi offspring
Partly a Negro you are,
Partly an Arab – and for sure,
Some of my words before the Lord*
It’s no accident that his creative project enjoys a vast fanbase that cuts across gender, ethnic, and age groups. People seem to feel that their thoughts and emotions are echoed by his tenderly intimate poems, finding in them debates, reflections and recollections. They seem to identify with the enlightening and inspirational poems to such a degree that these poems keep resonating down generations, stirring up the bittersweet, bringing them to their feet and to tears.
“October songs,” with their enthralling balance of biography, social and political history, came as a tribute to the October 1964 Revolution and a vivid chronicle of the 1960s and 1970s, which witnessed the peak of Sudanese cultural revival. Perhaps most strikingly, El-Mekki’s collaboration with the massively prolific Sudanese musician and singer Mohammed Wardi was an immediate success, and has hailed for their revolutionary-themed masterpieces, contemporary national epics and wake-up calls that continue to enthuse people and inspire them to stand dignified and tall.
Your name, a synonym of triumph,
is blossoming in people’s hearts,
injecting faith and good omen;
a scarf wrapped around the jungle and the desert,
and a torch in our hands, and a weapon.
Armed with October,
We won’t flinch; won’t step back an inch.
Equally important are the pastoral poems, which, on the other hand, marvelously weave nostalgic yearning with melancholy in their portrayal of otherworldly natural realms. Glorious scenes of peaceful water streams, woodlands, leafy canopies, and acacia-covered hillsides are portrayed with lyrical tenderness. The fabulously diverse climates and geographies where seasons altruistically give way to one another are eerily captured. In a posy of narrative poems, with heavy nostalgic outpouring and lifelike filmic quality, stories of the neglected far-flung rural edges are pieced together.
The ocean is peaceful and serene,
Palm fronds caressing and romancing,
The palace pool lush with water lilies,
and the bees showering flower buds with kisses.
Now I am elegant like never before,
more vigorous than vigor,
glittering in attire of new light.
So feast your eyes on me,
before the next tide drifts me away.
On the whole, the rhythmic structures, musicality and sonic authority—together with the linguistic inventiveness, with its striking metaphors, graphic imagery, puns, and fresh coinages that are daringly innovative—and a humanized and humanizing language densely layered with folklore, rituals, cultural flavors and textures and historical references, are among the most distinctive qualities of El-Mekki’s unique poetic project. His articles, in the same way, are rich intellectual debates embellished with quick-witted, whip-smart and sharp-sighted comments.
El-Makki collected his poetry books into The Complete Works, which were issued in 2008 by the Abdel Karim Mirghani Cultural Centre. From his residence in California, he paid a special tribute to the current Sudanese revolution through his new long poem “They Will Stretch Out their Own Hands to be Cuffed.”
*Translations are from Modern Sudanese Poetry, ed. Adil Babikir, used with permission.
Essayist, short-story writer, and critic Lemya Shammat has a PhD in English Language and Linguistics from Khartoum University and is an Assistant Professor at King Saud Bin Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A member of the Sudanese Writers Union, Shammat has published a book on literary criticism and discourse analysis as well as a collection of short-short stories. She also translates between English and Arabic, and her work appears in ArabLit Quarterly.