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Sudanese Writer in Exile Knows Life’s ‘Violent Reality,’ and Its Flashes of Joy

/ 04 Dec 2020

Sudanese Writer in Exile Knows Life’s ‘Violent Reality,’ and Its Flashes of Joy

During the spring 2019 sit-in in front of the Sudanese Army headquarters in Khartoum, one of the protesters’ tents was nicknamed “The Jungo.” This, says translator Adil Babikir, was a tribute to the novel of the same name by exiled Sudanese writer Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin.

Sakin has been living in Austria since 2012, and his books were banned in Sudan from that year until former president Omar al-Bashir’s ouster in 2019. Yet his stories have remained in wide circulation. Despite the seven-year ban on his work, Sakin is still one of Sudan’s most popular novelists.

His books have won praise both in Arabic and in translation. Most recently, Sakin won the 2020 Prix de la Littérature Arabe for Xavier Luffin’s French translation of The Jungo.

But Sakin’s path to literary acclaim was not direct.

The author grew up in eastern Sudan, and although he knew early on that he wanted to be a writer, he went to Egypt to study business. While a student in the late 1980s, he published one of his plays, yet he did not pursue a career in theater. Instead, Sakin went to work with Unicef and Save the Children, and he also taught English to refugees in eastern Sudan.

It wasn’t until 2000, in his late 30s, that Sakin began publishing novels and short stories, and he has published steadily ever since. In the past two decades, Sakin has brought out more than a dozen novels, as well as several short-story collections and books for children.

After 2000, “he quickly established himself as the voice of the margins,” Adil Babikir said over email. “And he became one of the most widely read novelists in Sudan.”

Praised, and Censored

Sakin was also quickly established as a threat to the ruling regime. His first collection of short stories, originally published in Cairo in 2002, was re-published by the Sudanese Ministry of Culture in 2005. But that year, it was also confiscated and banned by the same ministry.

When The Jungo was published in 2009, it was a favorite of Sakin’s fellow writers, and the novel won the 2010 Tayeb Salih Prize at the Khartoum Book Fair. But, also in 2010, The Jungo was confiscated by the Bashir regime. Sakin adds that copies were torched in what he called the country’s first-ever book burning.

Officially, Sakin’s books were banned for their sexual content. But Sakin says the bans really came about because “the Sudanese government, at that time, was a racist and regionalist government, and such a government can act only in this way.”

Things escalated from there. In 2012, during a widely reported incident at the Khartoum Book Fair, Sakin says all of the books he had brought in to exhibit and sell were confiscated and banned. “I was also arrested for a short period,” he said over email.

Since that time, Sakin has lived in Austria, where he says it is safer for him. But life there is also complicated, he adds, as one either has to be wealthy or “work like a machine, sacrificing all the joys, sorrows, and great opportunities that life offers for self-development.”

Officially, Sakin’s books were banned for their sexual content. But Sakin says the bans really came about because “the Sudanese government, at that time, was a racist and regionalist government, and such a government can act only in this way.”

“It’s purely political—a kind of a moral killing of me as a writer and a human being.”

He added that the Sudanese government was not the only one to suppress his writing. His recent novel Samahani, which deals with the Omani occupation of Zanzibar in the 18th and 19th centuries, was banned in Oman and Kuwait.

Yet despite the bans, Sakin’s books continue to circulate online and in behind-the-counter bookshop sales. Babikir said the censorship never made the books any less popular. “Even during the heavy-handed rule of Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorship, children at Abu Shouk camp for displaced people in Darfur performed a play adapted from Sakin’s novel The Messiah of Darfur.”

Raised on Edgar Allan Poe

Sakin’s seminal novel, The Jungo, opens at a women’s prison in the city of Gadarif. This setting carries an echo of the author’s own childhood. He was born in 1963 in Kassala, a town on the border with Eritrea. Soon after, his family moved south, to Gadarif, where his father worked for the prison police.

But it wasn’t until after his father’s death, when the family moved to Khashm al-Qirba, that Sakin stole his first book off his older brother Hassan. “Its title was Stories and Horror and Fear, written by Edgar Allan Poe and translated by Khalida Said,” Sakin said over email. “I was attracted by the terrifying title. And, after reading this book, which was the first literary text I read outside the school curriculum, I decided to become a writer.”

“Sakin is one of the most courageous writers working today. Despite enormous constraint and danger to his life, he has continued to produce writing on the war in Sudan and has remained critical about the political regime.”

Bhakti Shringarpure   Editor of the collection Literary Sudans

Although he read many other books growing up, Sakin said his passions were the books of Edgar Allan Poe and Gibran Khalil Gibran.

And indeed, the macabre and the mystic are both evident throughout Sakin’s work, as is a dark wit and a disregard for red lines.

“Sakin is one of the most courageous writers working today,” said Bhakti Shringarpure, editor of the collection Literary Sudans. “Despite enormous constraint and danger to his life, he has continued to produce writing on the war in Sudan and has remained critical about the political regime.”

Violence and Pleasure

Brutality and joy often appear cheek-to-jowl in Sakin’s writing, as for instance in his surreal and startling short story “Birth.” In that story, a woman begs a stranger to help her give birth to some mysterious ugly-beautiful creature that comes out of her claws-first.

“We live in a very violent reality,” Sakin said over email. “State violence. Domestic violence. Violent teachers in schools. Violence from doctors in hospitals. A violence of human emotions. Violence of police and traffic cops. Violence by judges and prosecutors. The violence of social control. Violence of artistic and literary works. Violence of friendship, marriage, parenthood, and childhood. The violence of security officers and the military, and the absolute violence of the Janjaweed,” the brutal militias that cooperated with al-Bashir’s forces and are accused of crimes against humanity. (See a related article, “A New Academic Freedom Report Describes Worldwide Attacks on Higher Education.”)

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All this violence, Sakin said, “is carried on the back of the writer … who must write it all down. And in the midst of this storm of violence, there is the struggle for life, a flash of joy and pleasure.”

This is the space Sakin often captures in his writing: a beauty in the pause between horrors.




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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام