Last week Sudan bid farewell to two of its most iconic figures: poet Mohammed Taha Al-Gaddal and novelist, short-story writer, and critic Eisa Al-Hilo. Both have helped shape Sudan’s literary scene over the past five decades:
By Lemya Shammat
Mohammed Taha al-Gaddal (b.1951) first came to the attention of the Sudanese literary scene in the mid-1980s, as an audacious and passionate spoken-word poet with a distinctive style, rich aesthetic quality, and gripping performances. This won him a prominent seat among Sudanese poets, especially those who write in the Sudanese dialect and have enthralling oral poetic performances, such as Mahjoub Sharief, Himmaid, and Azhari. Al-Gaddal went on to make an enormous contribution to Sudanese poetry, helping shape a poetic tradition that keenly digs into the challenges and sufferings of everyday life and gives voice to the neglected, disadvantaged, and downtrodden.
Al-Gaddal’s intriguing and inspiring poems were characterized by a bucolic tone, symbolic, mythological and folkloric elements, fascinating musicality, lively cinematic sketches and striking metaphors that were attuned to the spirit of the time and indeed prophetic. Al-Gaddal will also be remembered for his strong, stirring performances that brought audiences to tears. He performed multilayered long-form narrative poems, memory-navigating and revolution-inspiring pieces, the beauty and boldness of which helped usher in a new era of hope and resistance in a situation otherwise filled with debilitating confusion and frustration.
Eisa Al-Hilo (b.1940) likewise has made a discernible mark on the literary landscape in Sudan. His engaging and densely textured narrations — with its deft characterization, perfect pacing, and poetic quality — has carved a unique stylistic imprint that has traveled down generations. His fictionalization struck a chord with readers and critics and deservedly drew accolades from both.
Renowned critic Abdel Quddous Al-Khatim once described Al-Hilo’s language as attention-grabbing and movie-script-like. He praised him as the first to boldly break away from the conventional and event-focused storytelling in favor of novelistic density and intensification of sub-consciousness in character-building. He referred to Al-Hilo’s style as “a mysterious artistic sensitivity woven into the texture of Sudanese fiction.”
His short-story collections include: “The Parrot’s Feathers”, “The Angel on its Daily Trip”, “A Red Rose for Mariam” and “Good Morning Beautiful Invisible Face” among others, together with his novels: “The Orange”, “The Paradise on Top of the Hill” and his recently published “Forgetting What Did Not Happen.” They explore themes of love, the painful quest of identity, and different middle0class occupations. His style knowledgeably invests in various literary devices, such as flashbacks, time and tonal shifts, and juxtaposition.
Al-Hilo had also left his mark on Sudanese arts and culture journalism. He worked as an editor-in-chief at different renowned local newspapers, starting in the mid-1970s, as well as writing a regular literary criticism column titled “Dialectic.” These cultural spaces played a large role in discovering, fostering, and promoting emerging talents. I was among those he helped and encouraged to publish in magazines, alongside established names I grew up reading.
Last May, the Sharjah Cultural Forum honored Al-Hilo’s fifty years of active and innovative artistic distinction, together with three eminent Sudanese literary figures, all celebrated writers who have enormously contributed to Arab culture in modern times.
Read and listen:
“Two Old People in a Tree” – by Eisa al-Hilo
Al-Hilo’s work was also included in the Book of Khartoum, ed. Raph Cormack and published by Comma Press. His “A Boy Playing With Dolls” was translated by Marilyn Booth.
Lemya Shammat is ArabLit’s Sudan editor.