Remembering Salah Ahmed Ibrahim, an Avant Garde Pioneer of Sudanese Poetry

For our special IN FOCUS: SUDAN section, which launched this month, scholar, writer, and translator Adil Babikir shines a light on one of Sudan’s most important poets, Salah Ahmed Ibrahim, who he says is deserving of much more recognition outside the country.

By Adil Babikir

Salah Ahmed Ibrahim (right)

Salah Ahmed Ibrahim (1933–1993) was among Sudan’s avant-garde poets who led the transition from romanticism to social realism. Even his romantic love poems are interlaced with allusions to identity, mythology, and Arab and African heritage.

“Maria,” one of his early poems in praise of the beauty of a young Greek girl, is replete with references to Greek culture. It opens with this wish:

O Maria,

If I had the chisel of Phidias,

the talent of a genius,

and an alabaster hill in front of me

I would carve, to your exact measurement,

a statue of wild charm.

Sending some strands down like a waterfall,

keeping some to the shoulders,

letting others scatter further down.

And another wish:

O Maria,

I wish I were sitting at the top of Olympus,

with lovely girls around,

and all the inspiration I need

sipping from the pure wine of Bacchus.

When the wine sends me into raptures,

I call out in delight:

O girls!

Take your harps and softly play at the strings

and let us hear songs

for Maria.

Even at the peak of rapture, self-consciousness of his identity imposes itself on him:

O Maria,

I am from Africa,

the Sahara and the Equator.

Suns have charged me with heat,

and roasted me like sacrificial lambs

over the holy fire of the Magians,

Scorched me into an ebony rod.

I am an inflammable sulfur mine

that catches fire upon smelling your inviting whisper

from afar.

O Maria,

I am from Africa—impatient like a starving infant.

Desperately yearning for a red apple,

whoever approaches it becomes sinful

Come on in! Forget about the foolish gods,

Tell them they failed to respect the desire of a human soul.

A paradise devoid of love is barren desert.

He closes his appeal to her with an invitation:

O Maria,

tomorrow the winds of separation will inflate my sails.

Perhaps we might not meet again,

so come sign your name with fire

here on my lips,

and say farewell.

Salah’s complex trajectory as a poet can be used as a mirror of major turbulences in his country and in Africa more generally. From the very beginning, he presented himself as an outspoken campaigner against oppression and injustice and a strong voice in support of human rights and national aspirations. His first two collections, Ghabat al-Ababnous (‘The Ebony Forest’) and Ghadbat al-Hababa’y (‘The Rage of the Hababay’), contained sensational elegies for the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, Kenyan independence fighters, and the Joudeh victims: tens of Sudanese peasants who, protesting for their rights, were held in a tiny, poorly ventilated cell where they died of suffocation:

Were they a bundle of arugula,

displayed for sale to the westerners in the big city,

they’d have been spared the scorching heat.

Instead, they’d have been carefully placed on a wet mat in the shade,

their lips kept wet with sprinkled water

their cheeks sparkling with freshness and moisture.

“Fil Gurba” (‘In a Strange Land’), an outcry against racial discrimination, eloquently depicts the bitter feelings of estrangement in exile.

Have you ever tasted the humiliation of color—

Fingers pointing at you, shouting:

Black slave!

Black slave!

Black slave!?

Or one day, full of compassion,

watching children at play,

you almost burst out:

“I love this innocent mischief!”

But they ran after you, hurling chants:

Black slave!

Black slave!

Black slave?

Have you ever tasted hunger in a strange land?

and slept on a damp ground, a hard bare ground?

A bent arm under your head to fend off the evil cold.

Your steps chased by suspicious eyes,

whispers of men, and malicious winks of women,

and sharp fingers,

deepening the wound in your bleeding heart.

Your skin color overburdening you like a permanent shame.

The scenes evoke memories and feelings of nostalgia:

One week after another,

and I am still hungry.

Hungry, but no heart seems to care.

Thirsty, but no one would offer a sip.

And the Nile is too far, too far.

Everyone is elegantly dressed,

except me, alone, heartbroken on the Eid day,

mocked by the colored lights and the din,

by my disturbed emotions.

Alone, secluded like an Indian outcast.

I remember my mother and brothers,

and he who in the depths of night

recites lengthy parts of the Quran.

In my country, the faraway land

far behind the sea and the desert,

where strangers are warmly welcomed

and guests favored

with the last drop of water

in the peak of summer,

with the children’s dinner,

or, when there is little to offer,

with the last portion of boiled beans, served with warm smiles.

Salah’s sympathy for the less privileged and downtrodden comes perfectly naturally in its outpouring. “Mebior” is a tribute to a young man from South Sudan who died during the 1964 demonstrations against the dictatorship of General Ibrahim Abboud:

Up there in the realm of light he passed away,

our friend, a chap from the south called Mebior.

In the morning he softly comes along like a morning breeze

lending joy and delight to every soul

with a shining smile

and teeth lined up like a gaggle of geese

on the serene waters of the River Jour.

Elegies for friends, family, and scores of obscure people feature high in his poetry. In “Death and Us,” a tribute to his family members whom death had snatched one after the other, Salah extends an open invitation to Death to feel free to come whenever “it craved more.”

Hover over our quarters, O death.

Line us up in the open.

Handpick everyone noble, merry, and faithful,

everyone forbearing and cheerful,

openhearted, open-handed.

When he warmly greets you at the door,

with an inviting smile,

and an immaculate heart—thrust

your nails into his chest

and snatch his soul.

And please, O death,

whenever you crave more,

do come along and be our guest,

and see for yourself the living legend that we are,

defeating extinction, outliving demise.


Note: Excerpts of this article appeared in the author’s introduction to Modern Sudanese Poetry: an Anthology, University of Nebraska Press, 2019.


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 BooksAl-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).