Writings of the general word's body

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Salih on the Sudan

I'm sorry, I don't feel able to blog the usual stuff today. I've been thinking about Darfur in Southern Sudan.

I'm reminded of Tayeb Salih, Sudanese writer of Season of Migration to the North - the book considered to be the most important Arab novel of the 20th Century. I photographed him (above) During African Visions at the British Library last October. My article on the Salih event was published in The Guardian, Lagos, on Sunday 9th April 2006. He had some things to say about the Sudan. The piece is reproduced below...

Recalling Tayeb Salih at African Visions
By Molara Wood

The 5th African Visions Literature tour, organised by the Africa Centre in London, took place at the British Library over a weekend late last year. With diverse writers from across Africa taking part in various events, timetable clashes were inevitable. And for an hour on the afternoon of the second day, one could either hear Malawian poet Jack Mapanje reading from his collection, The Last of the Sweet Bananas - or catch a discussion with Sudanese writer, Tayeb Salih.

The Salih event was a rare opportunity during African Visions to hear a writer that straddles the divide between Africa and the Arab world. And with the situation in Dafur, Salih, an Arab from Northern Sudan, would come with a particular perspective. Any disappointment at missing Jack Mapanje was soon forgotten by members of the audience as they fell under Tayeb Salih’s considerable gift of the gab. Salih would often speak on and on in mesmerising tones only to then stop and ask: "What was the question?"

Born in 1929, Salih is the author of Season of Migration to the North, the book selected by a panel of Arab writers and critics in 2001 as the most important Arab novel of the 20th Century. In an event tagged in Arabic as ‘Hiwar Ma’a Al-Tayyib Salih’, the author was in conversation with Dr Ahmed Al-Shahi, a social anthropologist and author who specialises in Sudan and the Middle East.

Introducing Salih, Al-Shahi observed that: "Some people say, is he Sudanese, an Arab or an African; he is very international… We can all be grateful to Salih for enabling us to know how it feels to be Sudanese." He added that in Salih’s books "we are told that life in the rural area is graceful and beautiful."

Tayeb Salih discussed what he called the "mosaic of the Sudan", asserting that: "The Nubian civilisation was not an echo of the Arab civilisation; it was a civilisation in itself. Then the Arabs came, [then] the English, the Ottoman and God knows what. Sudan is really a mound of civilisation and I approach it like an archaeologist… layers of civilisation. I am very grateful to have been born in this area."

"The favourite colour of the Northern Sudanese is not white or brown - it is black. Akhbar is black. Later in America they said: ‘black is beautiful’. With us, beauty is in being black. Sudan was Christian for centuries. Then Islam came - it was not imposed [but spread] over time through inter-marriage. They have never thought that religion is something to fight about." Salih argued that the Sudan was "a harmonious society - no exaggeration. Anyone who lived there in the 40s, 50s, and 60s will agree. Sudanese Jews - we didn’t know they were Jew until they emigrated to Israel - we’d always thought they were Sudanese!"

"I was re-reading Achebe recently. I was amazed at how much of the rituals had crept to the Sudan. The Sudanese get the essence - the African essence. What is Africa anyway? We tend to oversimplify; the oversimplification comes because of political conflict." Chinua Achebe had been instrumental in getting Salih’s work published in the African Writers Series, and the Sudanese spoke of his friendship with his Nigerian counterpart. "There is a great fondness between my humble self and Achebe," he disclosed. "It’s the same world in my work and Achebe’s. Of course there are differences, but deep down, it’s the same society."

Salih returned to the Arab/African question. "People these days fuss too much about whether one is Arab or African. The Northern Sudanese have solved this problem; to them, one is either blue or green." The Arabic language, he pointed out, has a wonderful approach to the racial issue when it comes to its treatment of colour in people. "The words ‘black’ and ‘white’ do not exist in Arabic… people are red, blue or green, which is a very good way of solving the issue. We don’t conform to the stereotype of the Arab. [When you read the] history of Arabs in the Peninsula, they were not white or black; they were blue and green. I hope the day will come when people will move away from stereotypes."

However, having declared that: "I don’t believe in Arab superiority," Tayeb Salih was somewhat controversial in his view of the conflict in the Sudan. "Our brothers in the South wanted to make a case that they were oppressed but [they were] not oppressed in the way they describe. Then they went on to say that the Northern Sudanese is intrinsically racist, which is not true." He added that: "We are Africans because we are in Africa - we also have Arab blood. We look African, for God’s sake." A member of the audience probed further about Southern Sudan. "The word is racism, really," the author cut in. "You are trying to say the Arab in the Sudan are racist. I don’t believe so. If you believe that, then you are very mistaken, my friend."

Asked how he got his first break with the BBC by a lady in the audience who complimented his voice, Salih replied: "I am very flattered that you liked my voice." He had been working as a teacher in Rufah when he saw a BBC advert for an announcer and, having had problems getting higher education, he "felt London could help, I got a letter and so here I am." He continues to write in Arabic because "English is not my language. In Arabic, I can take risks, so why bother, when there are good translators?"

Growing up in his home country under British rule, "we didn’t know the British were our masters - can you believe it? - because they were so rare, we only saw one in a blue moon." The author said he would have liked to go back and live in the Sudan, but "we know that something unattractive has occurred. With due respect to the [Sudanese] Ambassador (in the audience), I don’t want to say anything nasty, but something horrible was done."

Nevertheless, Salih remains very proud of being Sudanese. "It is a matter of principle to me - what some would call a question of identity. I have lived [in Britain] for a long time, married here and I have never asked for British citizenship - and I hope the British don’t feel insulted. But it is really a stupid thing on my part because the Sudanese passport has become very difficult, with all due respect to the Ambassador - it’s not his fault! The Sudanese passport - it changes colour - sometimes it is blue and yellow."

Tayeb Salih then went on to share a traveller’s experience that would ring true to most Africans - Nigerians especially - who travel through Western airports. "The worst is when you try to enter America. They do horrible things to you. They make you go naked into paradise!"

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