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Literary Resistance in Sudan: Background information when reading Elsewhere Home

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Elsewhere Home

by Leila Aboulela

Elsewhere Home by Leila Aboulela X
Elsewhere Home by Leila Aboulela
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    Feb 2019, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Erin Lyndal Martin
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About this Book

Literary Resistance in Sudan

This article relates to Elsewhere Home

Print Review

Khartoum residents browse books at the Mafroush book fairLeila Aboulela's books, including the story collection Elsewhere Home, illuminate modern life in Sudan, sharing bits of culture and geography alongside the experiences of faith and human relationships. The author joins in the tradition of Tayib Saleh and other fiction writers who've brought the Sudanese diaspora experience into Western view. In recent decades, though, an oppressive political regime has limited the ability of writers in Sudan to share honest narratives of their lives.

In 1989, Omar al-Bashir staged a successful military coup in Sudan, beginning a presidency that lasted until a new coup forced him out in April 2019. Under Bashir, Sudan became an autocratic, single-party Islamic state. One of the many areas this impacted was the literary culture of the country, which had been steadily burgeoning with publishing and reading opportunities. At one time, Sudan's capital city of Khartoum contained over 400 bookstores, including Al-Dar Al-Sudaniya, the largest one in the Arab region. Under Bashir, libraries and many bookstores were ordered to close, their contents destroyed. Those that stayed open reported massive losses in revenue.

In addition to censorship, Sudanese citizens have also faced incredible economic hardship, worrying more about buying groceries than about reading books. The once-prestigious education system declined sharply under Bashir. All this strife seemed insurmountable, but it only provided more inspiration for the writers of Sudan's literary resistance.

Used bookstores gained new importance, whether in traditional form or in private citizens selling paperbacks they'd cached beneath the floorboards in their homes. Khartoum writers banded together to make an easily accessible public literary event, launching Mafroush (which means "displayed") in Arabic. Held the first Tuesday of every month, booksellers and book buyers gathered in Etinay Square with flattened cardboard boxes displaying used books or underground publications. Many of the 30 (on average) vendors reported selling more on that day than on the rest of the month in their shops combined. At the monthly event, local publications like women's magazines debuted, bringing a grass-roots spirit to publishing as well as reselling books.

Mamoun EltlibMamoun Eltlib, a young writer and cultural activist, was one of the driving forces behind Mafroush. For him, creating a literary community was just as important as redistributing books. At the first meeting, he asked writers to bring copies of their favorite books to display and discuss, but not to sell. Eltlib's drive to revive the literary scene in Khartoum comes in direct response to a childhood spent attending school in a country that no longer had school libraries. In addition to writing his own fiction and starting the open-air event, Eltlib began an English language newspaper in Sudan, re-started the Sudanese Writers Union (which was later banned by Bashir), formed an arts collective, founded a publishing house for young writers and contributed political commentary to worldwide outlets. Mafroush was operating in 2015, but it is unclear if the event is still being held at the time of writing. We are also unable to find current information on Eltilib, who was detained in January 2018 along with about 50 others following a protest over the price of bread, and his Twitter account, which was at twitter.com/mamouneltilib, no longer exists.

As of May 2019, after the ousting of al-Bashir, Sudan is under the governance of a military council, but a coalition of activists known as the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF) is working hard to pressure the council into establishing a democracy.

Mafroush book fair, courtesy of The New York Times

Mamoun Eltlib, courtesy of The Guardian

Filed under Books and Authors

This article relates to Elsewhere Home. It first ran in the May 15, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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