For our May focus on Sudan, we asked a few Sudanese writers and translators what they would include in a canon of Sudanese literature. Scholar, translator, and writer Adil Babikir highlights a few of Sudan’s key literary greats:
By Adil Babikir
Tayeb Salih’s (1929–2009) classic Season of Migration to the North (1966) still sits comfortably on the top of the list as the most celebrated novel by a Sudanese writer. It received critical acclaim as “one of the finest six novels ever written,” in the words of Edward Said, and “the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century,” according to the Damascus-based Arab Literary Academy. It was translated into more than 30 languages and selected by the Norwegian Book Club among the world’s top 100 classical works.
More than 50 years since it was published, the Season is still as intriguing as ever, inviting fresh interpretations every now and then.
Salah Ahmed Ibrahim (1933–1993) is one of Sudan’s literary icons who stands out as a cultivated intellectual, highly acclaimed for his superb poetry. He was among Sudan’s avant-garde poets who led the transition from romanticism to social realism. His first two collections, Ghabat al-Ababnous (The Ebony Forest) and Ghadbat al-Hababa’y (The Rage of the Hababay), are replete with references to Greek mythology, theology, and Arabic and African heritages.
Editor’s note: Tomorrow, we’ll have a special reflection by Adil Babikir on the poetry of Salah Ahmed Ibrahim.
Muhammad el-Mahdi el-Magzoub (1919–1982) was a transgenerational poet who tackled virtually all forms of poetry, from the classical to tefilla all the way to prose poetry. He is classified among the pioneers who helped in driving Sudanese poetry away from excessive rhetoric and romanticism, setting for it a new course more reflective of the present time.
His verse was a reflection of the multiple cultural influences he was exposed to: his upbringing in a prominent Sufi family, his schooling under the colonial educational system, and his life in “the city of the Turks” as he called it, in reference to Khartoum during the colonial period. But it also mirrored his restless soul, an overpowering feeling of estrangement and a perpetual yearning for freedom from all constraints. El-Magzoub left behind ten collections of poetry, which carried moving images captured by a highly sympathetic artist, exposing the hardships endured by women who sell kisra (traditional bread) and foul (broad beans), shoeshine boys, beggars, and other underprivileged segments of the population.
El-Magzoub’s poetry was a main source of inspiration for a group of young poets whose endeavors to probe a way out of the polarization between Arabism and Africanism gave birth to the Jungle and the Desert group, which has made a discernible impact on the evolution of Sudanese poetry.
The Socialist Realism Pioneers
Scores of Sudanese poets—and fiction writers—were influenced by the strong waves of socialist realism in the 1950s and ’60s. Notable among them were Jayli Abdel Rahman (1931–1990), Taj el-Sir el-Hassan (1935–2013), and Mohiyiddin Faris (1936–2008). The three of them studied in Cairo and quickly made their way to the fore of the literary scene in Egypt. Their poems, which were published in Cairo’s major literary magazines and newspapers of the time, mirrored the frustration and broken dreams of the poor and marginalized.
Cairo saw the rise of another Sudanese star: Mohammed el-Fayturi. Born in Sudan to an Egyptian mother and a Sudanese father of Libyan origin, el-Fayturi lived a good part of his early life in Egypt and became a prominent figure in the Egyptian literary scene. His poems reflected the high mood of nationalistic aspirations in the Arab world and Africa.
The influence of Russian poetry was particularly palpable in the poetry of Jayli and Taj who spent some time there. Jayli’s poetry presented a new style of expression that was a direct reflection of his life experience as a nationalist struggler. He lived in extreme poverty, but he never lost his optimism, resolve, and commitment to his class. In terms of style, Jayli and Taj were among the first in the Arab world—along with the prominent Egyptian poets Salah Abdul Sabur and Ahmed Abdul Mu’ti Hijazi—to adopt taf ’ila (the single metrical foot), a major departure from the classical rhymed form. That new form was more in tune with the new ideas and concepts addressed in their poetry, which echoed the aspirations of the deprived population.
Taj’s poetry is full of nostalgia. His tone is revolutionary and outpouring. He was a loud anti-colonial voice. His “Afro-Asian Song” celebrated the birth of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961 as a brilliant endeavor by Third World countries to break away from the yoke of superpowers. That poem eloquently captured the high mood that swept the Third World as leaders from Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe met in Bandung, Indonesia, to set a new course for their independent states:
When I play our ancient songs, O my heart,
as dawn lands on my chest aboard a winged cloud,
I’ll serenade the closing stanza to my beloved land;
to the dark shades in the jungles of Kenya and the Malaya;
to the iconic beacons built by the First of May;
to the green glee nights in the new China,
for which I play, out loud, a thousand hearty poems;
to my comrades in Asia;
to the Malaya and the vibrant Bandung.
Adil Babikir is a Sudanese translator into and out of English & Arabic, living now in Abu Dhabi, UAE. His translations to English have appeared in Africa World Press, Banipal, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Al-Dawha Magazine, and others. His translation of Tayeb Salih’s Mansi: A Rare Man in his Own Way, (Banipal Books, 2020) won the 2020 Sheikh Hamad Translation Award. Other published translations include The Jungo: Stakes of the Earth, by Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin (Africa World Press, 2015), Literary Sudans: an Anthology of Literature from Sudan and South Sudan (Africa World Press, 2016), The Messiah of Darfur by Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin (excerpted in The Los Angeles Review of Books, 2015), and a translation to Arabic of Summer Maize, a collection of short stories by Leila Aboulela (Dar al-Musawwarat, Khartoum, 2017). He is the author of Modern Sudanese Poetry: an Anthology (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).
For further reading, see Modern Sudanese Poetry: an Anthology, University of Nebraska Press, 2019.