On an iron-grey Tuesday night earlier this week, the first floor of Waterstones Piccadilly (or Waterdilly as my best friend and I call it) was filled with the murmur of voices from a truly staggering array of cultures. It was an evening in celebration of Arabic literature and the launch of the fifty-fifth issue of the Banipal magazine.
The magazine itself is significantly named for the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal who mobilised all the 7th-century-BC resources at his disposal to establish the first organised library in the Middle East. This treasure trove of fledgling-world-literature was located in the largest city in the world at that time, Nineveh, a sprawling fortress-town of red brick where the Tigris and Khosr Rivers meet. Ashurbanipal’s library saw the accumulation of thousands of Sumerian, Babylonian, Mesopotamian, and Assyrian clay tablets. The logistics alone of transporting so many fragments of engraved rock from across the Assyrian empire to a single city perhaps epitomises the ferocity of the spirit that has been so characteristic of Arabic literature ever since; a literature that began as an oral tradition, growing and fluctuating with all the many peoples who would one day share the incredibly rich language that evolved from it. Nowhere is this fierce literary pride more intense than in those nations under those regimes that still seek to repress it.
It is, therefore, very apt indeed that Banipal-55 focuses specifically on today’s greatest Sudanese writers, collecting their latest works into a garishly yellow and vital volume of translated short stories.
Sudan’s republic, though democratic in theory, is fettered by the authoritarian National Congress Party who retained power in a rigged vote in 2010 that saw the re-election of President Omar al-Bashir, despite the international warrant for his arrest. This controlling regime and the fact that its legal system operates under Sharia law mean that the arts are virtually non-existent, at least to an outsider.
On Tuesday evening, Waterstones welcomed Sudanese authors Ahmad Al Malik and Tarek Eltayeb, two contributors to the Banipal-55 publication who characterised the situation in Sudan today in a moving expression of quiet passion and simmering resentment. Literature of course exists in Sudan, and is in fact flourishing, but publishing houses are fatally repressed, the internet is censored and restricted as much as humanly possible, and any paperbacks that do make it across the border must be secretly photocopied and distributed through the black market in books flowing out from Khartoum. Due to this rather desperate model of literary dissemination, piracy is rife, which though increasing circulation to a point, actually damages the growth of Sudanese writing in the long run as those authors working abroad then face losing their platform of expression. The majority of these authors now live in Europe due to the desire for a medium in which thoughts can be expressed freely without fear of discrimination and persecution. It makes one think of the “thought-fish” Virginia Woolf wrote of in her infamous, feminist polemic, and the necessity of a medium in which they can swim without impediment.
Under Waterstones’ flat, muted lights, these two sleek-suited and enigmatic authors graciously answered questions in broken English interspersed with streams of melodious Arabic, which was then frantically translated verbatim by a German interpreter scribbling Arabic script as they spoke and converting it immediately into English for the more linguistically-challenged of us in the audience.
In fact, the room was filled to the brim with polyglots from every walk of life. Eltayeb was born in Cairo but spoke with a perceivable intensity about Sudan and his Nubian mother, who unlearned Nobiin (the descendent of Old Nubian) as she learned more Arabic. Both Eltayeb and Malik were venturing into their third language when they answered questions in English, and Malik described it as being like walking into a different room in his mind. Suffice it to say, the entire evening was a rather bewitching euphony for the ears.
Above all, it was a profound reminder of the role of language as the gateway to other cultures, especially those repressed by regimes constricting their medium of expression. Indeed, the native speakers of every language still surviving today have something of a moral responsibility to be the torchbearers of their language’s literature. Not only is it the one most comprehensive creative outlet and medium for social commentary in every culture, but a language’s survival relies on its literature. As soon as its writers stop producing new works for people to read and discuss, it is left behind, yet another dusty signpost dwindling in the rearview mirror marking a point assigned for evermore to history.
This, of course, is not an imminent danger for Arabic, but it is so important for those writing in that distinctively Sudanese Arabic to keep writing no matter how desperately others try to silence them. And that’s why publications like Banipal are so essential.
It is as that old Arabic proverb says.
أول الشجرة بذرة
A tree begins with a seed.