The Sudan Series: The Power to Narrate

Image Credit: 4nine2

Sudan is in a state of crisis. It has been for the last twenty-seven years. Since the pro-democracy protests broke out in December 2018, however, the tension has escalated between the protestors and the military council.

The protests started in eastern Sudan last year over the financial crisis that was exacerbated by the government’s decision to triple the prices of good (following the cut to bread and fuel subsidies).

In addition, the protestors demanded that the country’s dictator al-Bashir and his government, who had been in power since 1989 (yes, for thirty years!), stand down.

In 2010, Bashir was charged with having led the Darfur genocide in western     Sudan in 2003.

Bashir got arrested in April during a military coup orchestrated by Sudanese defense minister, Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf, and his military council. Dismissing the protestors’ demand for democracy, Ibn Auf announced that a military council would take control to oversee a transition of power.

The demonstrations have spread to the capital, Khartoum, since. The military council has retaliated by arresting hundreds of protestors, attacking the pro-democracy camps, killing several people, according to witness testimonies and media records.

Hasan Minhaj offers a detailed explanation of the historical events that are      unfolding in Sudan right now in an episode of Patriotic Act. 

The protesters who are fighting for democracy demand that their voices be heard globally, but this has not been the case so far.

Ala Kheir/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

Here’s the thing. We may or may not hear about their bravery and demands. We may or may not share an article or two about it on Instagram and Facebook. We may or may not start a conversation at a dinner party by asking, “did you hear what is going on in Sudan?”. The truth is, after a while, our interest dwindles, and only gut-wrenching images of violence linger in our minds. (Despite all its complexity, history repeats itself: see Turkish Gezi Park protests (2013), The Egyptian Revolution (2011), and so forth)

Sudanese-American activist Nadia Abdel-Halim Elamin brings into focus the ways in which we tend to anthropologize the historical events that unfold in the Middle East and Africa:

…those of us living in Sudan, born here or otherwise, are not another case of “history gone wrong.” We are not to be studied and analyzed, without recognition of our humanity. We are human beings. We deserve true democracy, we deserve human rights. And we deserve to be able to provide for our families’ basic needs.

In the end, the media’s coverage of most African and Middle Eastern countries centers exclusively on uprisings and violence. As Abdel-Halim Elamin discusses in her article, there is a propensity to romanticize, and at times fetishize, others’ struggles. These historical moments of suffering are repeatedly brought to our attention as mere stories of consumption, and the images of riots and blood get etched in our collective memory. If we’re lucky, we realize that our knowledge of such countries as Sudan, Eritrea, and Egypt (whose past is haunted by colonial rule, civil wars, and dictatorships) is limited to the circulating narratives on chaos and struggle through which the news media feeds into existing bias.

 ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

There’s no doubt that chaos, battle, and struggle all have played a pivotal role in shaping the sociopolitical, cultural, and economic realities of these societies. But the overwhelming emphasis on suffering eclipses the richness of their cultural histories.

In other words, while it is crucial for us to highlight what is going on in Sudan right now, we need to make sure that we aren’t discussing a diverse group of peoples as a monolith. It is crucial to acknowledge, in Abdel-Halim Elamin’s words, that “we are not simply a story for media consumption. We are intelligent people, just like you, in a situation that many people could never dream of enduring.

And this is where fiction comes into play.

Fiction allows us to transgress headlines and stereotypical representations that permeate the hegemonic discourse. It brings us closer to the complex realities of peoples. As Marion Dane Bauer writes:

“The power of fiction is that it gives us, as readers, the opportunity to move inside another human being, to look out through that person’s eyes, hear with her ears, think with his thoughts, feel with her feelings.”

She adds:

“It is the only form of art which can accomplish that feat so deeply, so completely. And thus it is the perfect bridge for helping us coming to know the other – the other inside as well as outside ourselves (x).”

Fiction has the power to uncover what is left unsaid in headlines and social media posts. It disrupts the chain of narratives that insidiously silence the voices of those who demand to be heard. That’s why I want to kick off this blog with reflections on some of the masterpieces written by Sudanese authors. It’s not my intention to use fiction as an anthropological tool (a topic for another post). Instead, I want to call attention to alternative narratives told and retold about home, belonging, the rich cultural history of Sudan, and the complexity of what it means to be Sudanese. The Sudan series will thus discuss Elsewhere, Home (2018) and The Kindness of Enemies (2015) by Scottish-Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela and introduce other Sudanese authors who write in English and/or Arabic such as Jamal Mahjoub and Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim. In the meantime, you can follow the hashtags #SudanUprising, #BlueforSudan, #SudanMassacre, and #IamtheSudanRevolution on social media to keep track of what’s going on in Sudan and to share. But remember: what you are witnessing is merely one small piece of Sudan’s history. As a young Sudanese poet aptly puts it:

“Hello world, it’s nice to see you listen. I wish you were listening when it was beautiful still. When we had names instead of numbers. When we were drowned in love. We could’ve really taught you something about freedom. Keep listening though, you might still learn.”

The good news is that the world can still listen and learn.

Lucky for us that Sudan’s storytellers have kept beauty, love, and hope from vanishing. Lucky for us that the demonstrators are following their lead.

Keep listening, sharing, and reading ❤

-Neri

Stay tuned to read about Leila Aboulela and Sudanese literature!

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