Biting their Mother Tongue: Three Sudanese Short Stories about Estrangement

The three short stories collected here offer a glimpse into contemporary Sudanese understandings of estrangement, a theme with a long history in Arabic letters. From the pre-Islamic renegade poets who chose exile over the social constraints of tribal life to the medieval debates about the treatment of non-Muslims and other foreigners, the intertwined questions of estrangement and belonging have run through Arabic literature.

In pre-Islamic times, wandering poets such as Ta’abbata Sharran and ‘Urwah ibn al-Ward built their reputation on verse that praised solitude and criticized the social mores of tribal life. The rapid expansion of Islam and the introduction of the Arabic language and culture as far as southern Spain and what is today called Afghanistan raised the question of how to treat the stranger (and the non-Muslim). Such questions became all the more important as prominent Muslim scholars in Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo began to attract students from across the Muslim world and members of the Sufi orders adopted a form of permanent exile and a life of wandering as part of their spiritual path. As Franz Rosenthal has documented in The Stranger in Medieval Islam, these encounters gave rise to debates among early Muslim historians, Qur’anic exegetes, and poets about the hardship of a life of estrangement and the legal and ethical obligation to welcome the stranger—that is, the person from another country, what we might called today an “immigrant.”

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the encounter between the colonial West and the Arabic-speaking world has given rise to a new set of concerns about national and ethnic identity which further complicate the question of who belongs—and where.

This complex history is reflected in the rich web of meanings associated with the Arabic root gharaba, from which the term “ghurba,” or estrangement, is derived. Starting with its most literal sense, gharaba means to leave or depart, to pass away, to withdraw from the world of men, to set (said of the sun and the stars), to be unintelligible (said of a language) and to be strange (said of a word). From the same root, we also find the word gharib, or stranger; gharb, meaning both west, the direction, and “the West”; and istagharb, to find something strange, odd, or absurd.  In modern times it has also come to mean, quite fittingly, to Westernize.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, the association between estrangement (ghurba) and the West (al-gharb) has run deep in Sudanese society and literature. The best-known Sudanese novel, Tayyib Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, tells the story of a young man who has recently returned to his bucolic village at a bend in the Nile after seven long years of study in England. As he tries to settle back into a world that he once knew so intimately, he meets an enigmatic older man named Mustafa whose troubling experiences in the West draw them together. The West serves as the geographic site of estrangement from Sudanese culture, certainly, but also the place where academic ambitions can be realized and Sudanese social taboos transgressed. This particular iteration of the journey story is not unique to Salih: Taha Hussein, the great Egyptian literary critic, pioneered this genre in The Days, an autobiographical account of his experiences as a doctoral student at the Sorbonne.

Yet as the stories presented here make clear, a new generation of Sudanese writers has moved away from the theme of geographic estrangement. For them, it’s not about going to the West and coming back, although some of them have done so. While the relationship to the former colonial metropole and the English language are still important, the radically changed conditions at home have imposed a sense of estrangement that has little to do with the colonial encounter and questions of modernity—at least directly. Estrangement has become an internal matter, concerning a self (and perhaps a soul) alienated from the contradictions and trials of postcolonial life. Here we find the tension between Sudanese society as it is and how it might have been and could, perhaps, still become. This is the tension between the present state of conflict—over resources, political power, and identity—and the nostalgia for a more harmonious past, or perhaps the aspiration for a different type of future. We see this nostalgia in “Conjunctions,” Nagi Al-Badawi’s story of an idyllic childhood turned violent.

These are not easy texts to translate, in part because much of their sophistication, charm, and literary merit comes from the Arabic language. Consider, for instance, that Al-Badawi does not mark his characters’ stream-of-consciousness thought with quotation marks or paragraph breaks but by simply dipping into the vernacular mid-sentence. This serves as a subtle guidepost for the Arabic reader between a character’s internal reflections and the narrator’s description of a scene, and mirrors the looser style of narration one finds in the oral storytelling tradition (known as hakawati). At such moments, footnotes have served us well.

But what is the translator to do when the style itself operates as a commentary on estrangement? Sabah  Babiker Ibraheem Sanhouri’s “Isolation” is written in a tight, clipped prose, stripped of the poetic devices of meter, assonance, alliteration, and lexical coupling that give Arabic its particular aural appeal. Even in the original, it sounds strange and unfamiliar, as if it had somehow been translated into Arabic, performing its alienation stylistically as it also depicts it thematically, through descriptions of the lone narrator and the desolate, dystopian town in which he finds himself. As with Sanhouri, Adil al-Qassas’s short story, “A Condition,” draws almost entirely from the impersonal register of formal Arabic to describe a man planning the final stages of his own suicide; in the original, the tension between the stiff language of description and what is being described is palpable.

One wonders whether such stylistic decisions are not a reaction to the fact that young Sudanese writers have come of age at a time when Arabic is a language of literary culture in Khartoum and other urban centers but a language of profound violence elsewhere in the country. Since independence in 1956, the central government has attempted to “unify” post-colonial Sudan by imposing the Arabic language and an Arab identity on the great diversity of Sudan’s non-Arab ethnic and tribal groups, leading to a series of devastating wars and the ultimate separation of South Sudan in 2011.

These conflicts are painfully present in the three stories translated here, predominately in their absence: we do not learn the names, ethnic identities, nor genealogies of most of the characters; cultural features of Sudan as a country are mostly absent; and each author, arguably, in their own way, attempts not only to depict estrangement but to estrange themselves from the very language in which they are writing—and biting, in effect, their mother tongue.

© 2013 by Max Shmookler.  All rights reserved.