National Allegories: The Case of Poet Abdel Wahab Latinos
Naljaa Altom is a Sudanese poet, writer, translator, academic, and intellectual activist. She was born in Khartoum in 1975 and since a few years back she lives in Sweden as a dissident. She also writes songs and was once an important voice in the diaspora for the Sudanese Revolution that eventually managed to overthrow the dictator Omar al-Bashir. With impressive literary and intellectual merits, she stands forth as a unique feminist voice in the Arabic, Sudanese, and African contexts. She has published two collections of poems: The Perfect Disappearance Doctrine (2015) and Perpetual Crime with Earring (2019). Her poetry and essays are often quoted and shared on the web. In this text she highlights another aspect of the oppression in Sudan.
Jasim Mohamed, poet and translator
On Aug. 20, 2020, Sudanese poet Abdel Wahab Latinos drowned in the English Channel with an unknown number of African immigrants. Death and the desire to diminish were frequent themes in Abdel Wahab’s poetry, so much so that I thought he grieved poetry and life even when he was immersed in love, and maybe especially when he fell in love. Ultimately, in a momentary recall of Lorca’s loss, Abdel Wahab’s poems replaced their writer and became, rightfully so, the only voice of the poet who delicately cherished the details of his death in his texts, and thus became the strange passerby, for whom we know no other grave, other than the waters of strangers. I could not find a more evident way to look at the strange metaphor of the sea being the tomb of the poet than Frederick Jameson's conception of the national allegory as a destiny for the individuals, an everlasting nightmare.
In his discussion on the existential burden of Third World writers, Jameson, in his well-known essay ‘Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism’ (1986), opposes the contempt of central European criticism of literature outside the West – the so-called Third World literature. Jameson argued that this literature is totally independent of the lineage of the Western literature and distinctive from the known sources of Western literature. He also argued that writers in the Southern hemisphere are wholly, and from the very beginning, part of the destinies of their countries. Their individual salvation is inseparably attached to political salvation, whether they like it or not.
Jameson elucidated the particularity of the Southern hemisphere saying that the identification between the individual and the nation is disparate to the familiar western modernist individual philosophy, which draws contiguous boundaries for the Western literary heritage. Our writers on the other hand earn their uniqueness in the crumples that were caused by postmodernism. In this sense, the Southern literature did not evolve from the Enlightenment narrative, from which modern Western literature emerged; rather carries the cross of the collapse of the traditional systems under the weight of the colonial capitalist system that this narrative produced. Therefore, I assume it is difficult to catch a balanced picture of rebellious of poets from the South, for the sheer fact that they existence constitutes a confusing exit on a dominant pattern. It is an obscure existence, which calls for exceptional measures, such as the explanations of Jameson and Gayatri Spivak about the importance of the need for the peripheries to have their own voice.
When we try to invent a grand narrative about the revolt of African writers, for example, we will always stumble upon a pile of unknown bones – those of Abdel Wahab - which constitute the history of resistance; the history of defeat; the history of colonialism and slavery; the history of the failure of the post-colonial state; the history of racism, civil war and genocide; and the history of neo-colonialism – that is the heavy burden the name of Africa carries. In his texts, as in the strange waters that drowned him, Abdel Wahab wrote the metaphor of the lost Africa, with his bones that we will never find, with the announced events of his death, his death that was repeated thousands of times in other bodies, and other texts, in a vicious circle.
The intellectual endeavour in Sudan was considered, to a large extent, an arena for internal confrontation. A confrontation that intellectuals wage against state violence, cultural violence, and the violence of the tools of intellectual and cultural production. The sooner we pay attention to the problem of the violence practiced by the tools, the closer we get to grasp our complex reality. A few days ago, I had an arduous interview with the writer Omar Soba, for the Al-Ba’eed e-magazine, that is yet to be released, about developing the Fur language and converting it into a written language that is registered in international systems. Fur is the second largest language in Sudan after Arabic, in terms of the number of people who speak it among the population. For me, the restoration of the Fur language and some other indigenous languages, from the extinction that was prompted by violent cultural policies, is the most important cultural event in Sudan in recent years. I got to know Omar at the beginning of the year through my friend, Sudanese blues singer Ibo Kordem. The pandemic was the context that brought us together. When the Covid-19 pandemic reached Sudan last March, we decided to engage in health awareness efforts.
I agreed with Ibo to form a group that would be interested in translating health advice into major Darfur languages, such as Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa. Omar Soba was the main and only Fur language translator, and he contributed a great deal to translating, preparing and publishing audio files that carry Covid-19 protection guidelines. In this language lab, I got to know one of the pitfalls of developing indigenous languages in the Darfur region, a region that was penetrated by the civil war, the only genocide that humanity has witnessed in the current century. In 2003, the region was inflamed by a systematic war led by the central government in Khartoum. Three hundred thousand Sudanese citizens from Darfur were killed, hundreds of thousands of women were raped, and more than two million people were displaced to IDP camps that still exist.
Information on human violations, direct violence crimes and developmental structural violence has become more accessible. However, information about the cultural war that preceded and accompanied the civil wars in Darfur and other areas in Sudan, such as the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile and South Sudan before the secession in 2011 has not been disclosed. No complete picture of the racist cultural violence, which the state practised in the region, and which forced individuals to emigrant across the world, including Israel, was available. During the interview, Omar Soba told me about the time when he discovered that his name was Omar. It was when his family registered him at the primary school. His name was not Omar, but the government would not register any student with a non-Arab name. The policy forced families to invent Arabic names for their children in order to send them to school. “Most of the people you know from the region do not use their original names,” he told me. In Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and different areas in eastern Sudan, and in the Blue Nile, students are forced to speak only Arabic, which has made many of those who had grown up speaking the Bedouin language, Tikrit, Fur or Zaghawa to drop out. Children who decided to stay were severely punished for simply uttering a single word in their own languages. Those cultures have swallowed the Arabic language with the blood from their children’s wounds. “We really cannot understand why would this happen. Why should we be beaten up and punished because we spoke the language of our mothers?” asked my friend, who thought his name was Omar.
In Khartoum, where I was born and raised, the state allowed us to use our real names but it stole our future. Sudan entered the tunnel of military rule for the third time in June 1989. When the third coup against democracy took place, I was a student in middle school. Thus, I grew up in a militarized city with no libraries or books. Still we were the lucky children in my country, because we were not born in conflict zones. When I entered the world of culture and literature as a career in the mid-1990s, I was a witness to the state's systematic war on freethinking and creativity. School library activities ended and students were forced to wear ridiculous military uniforms. The books authored by my colleagues and friends, and even by the iconic writers, whom we dearly cherished, were confiscated. Tayeb Salih's novel ‘Season of Migration to the North’ was confiscated and rescinded from university courses. Thousands of Arabic and translated books were confiscated and denied circulation, while the libraries were filled instead with ancient religious books. Books by political opponents were banned, while the volumes of religious reformer Professor Mahmoud Muhammad Taha were strictly prohibited. Taha was executed by a former dictator in 1985. The 1990s were a period of organized cultural war in my country. Millions of Sudanese who lost their jobs in waves of unfair dismissals found themselves obliged to migrate, including intellectuals, writers and publishers. The writers were hounded as if they were a plague. They were prevented from being part of the writers' union and cultural associations. They were isolated in scattered, exhausted circles. Not only was the publication of philosophy books banned, but also children's books. That included a children's storybook written by one of my friends, Stella Gaetano, with drawings by Hassan Moussa. The novels of Abdulaziz Baraka Sakin, Asma Othman, and a large number of Sudanese writers, inside and outside the country, were confiscated.
Courageous efforts at redemption matured, reaching a climax in December 2018 when the largest organized political activity against the Islamist military dictatorship, backed by the Janjaweed militias, erupted. Astounding resistance escalated by all standards, led by young women and men of the “Resistance Committees in the Neighbourhoods”, which were revolutionary grassroots organizations outside the corrupt, aging political space that had dominated the political scene in Sudan since independence in 1956. Despite the huge sacrifices of the Sudanese revolutionaries, the country is still hostage to the warlords who are supported by some Gulf countries, but mainly the European Union. Do you remember the Janjaweed militia, which carried out the genocide in Darfur? It ended up taking over the reins of power in partnership with civilians in August 2019. They are the same militias that the European Union recruited in a deal you may not know much about, called the Khartoum Process, in February 2014. The Khartoum Process is an agreement to limit the number of African migrants who want to cross the Mediterranean, in cooperation with African countries, headed by Sudan. In order to achieve this goal, the European Union found no embarrassment in using the Janjaweed militias to "clean" the desert and contain the human trafficking, as militia commanders claim in recorded official statements.
The Khartoum Process, which provides millions of dollars to the warlords and strengthens their power, is the most complete expression of the collapse of world values that arose after World War II, in which the philosophy and concepts of democracy, transparency and human rights were crystallized, which represent the foundations of the modern state. Europe has found a militia carrying out its dirty tasks in the African Sahara, far from media coverage, under the pretext of fighting human trafficking. This obnoxious act by the European Union has encouraged other countries known for violating human rights, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to use the same militias in the Yemen war, committing atrocities, of which the world is so ashamed that the international media claims they did not happen. In 2003, the Janjaweed exterminated the family of the poet Abdel Wahab Latinos and displaced others, including his relatives, from their villages, causing the largest wave of migration in the western Sudanese region. Then they themselves proceeded to guard the southern European Union borders inside Africa to solve the problem of unorganized immigration to Europe. Well, the militia did not succeed in aborting the operation of the poet Abdel-Wahhab Latinos. He and a group of angry people managed to reach the sea and Abdel Wahab, went a step further, into his final allegory.
However, hope continues. A few weeks ago, I came across this announcement, which was published by Afyal Bookshop on its official page. “Celebrating the freedom to Publish and read during the Week of Banned Books, the Afyal Bookshop offers a 50 percent discount on books and novels banned from publication at different times and for various reasons.” Al-Ba’eed electronic magazine published a number of texts in the original Sudanese languages, such as the Fur and the Masalit, in complete independence of the dominant language. This may be the beginning of a slight shift in the process of building the Sudanese state, which is led by young men and women of the Resistance Committees in Neighbourhoods, in the villages and displacement camps, since December 2018 and onwards into the future.