Combustion in the Writing Range

By: Iman Ahmed Al-Khawad

It has been said that writing in Sudan is like sailing against the current. In this metaphor, the current is social life which continues with constant intensity throughout the seasons of the year.

The Sudanese person is always immersed in social life; consoling one for their loss, congratulating another for their achievement, or meeting others for a friendly gathering. Whereas these are normal human activities in other societies, in Sudan they are assigned enormous value and appreciation and those who seem less committed to them are deemed to have committed a great offense, to the point of damaging the “Sudanese social fabric” altogether. Although the singularity and exceptionality of these Sudanese customs that have presented an outlet at times of hardship and crisis, they can also be time consuming, exhausting and a waste of resources. And if this is true for the Sudanese person, it is more so for the Sudanese woman, who bears the additional burden of being subjected to a social system that requires her to adhere to specific models of feminine beauty that disrupt her hands and feet for long hours. As the famous Sudanese singer Khalil Farah cleverly whispered in the ears of Sudanese women, “you who have been embellished, women , your train has passed and  left you behind!”

A woman writer in Sudan is anomalous, not just in this regard, but in even more complex respects. The first of these clashes is that women’s writing (i.e., writing by women) confronts a culture that controls the reader’s mind as he or she is part of the culture, a culture that deplores the writings of women. This targeting is not exactly in the manner suggested by Noman al-Alusi, author of the “The Pertinence of Debarring Women from Writing,” but in a two other ways. The most common is attacking the writer’s character in various forms. The harshest is challenging whether the written material is authentically produced by the woman writer and/or claiming that a man is writing for her. A number of Arab women writers have suffered from this (we will refrain from naming Sudanese women writers so the reader is not distracted by the names and characters).  

Among them is the Lebanese poet Warda al-Yazji, the daughter of sheikh Nasif al-Yaziji, the owner of the Bahrain Complex, and the sister of sheikh Khalil al-Yaziji, who was accused of having her brother and father write her poetry for her. Another, well known Algerian novelist Ahalm Mosteghanemi whose novel Memory of the Flesh, has had doubts cast on her authorship as well. There are many examples of this, and perhaps this explains why many women writers used pseudonyms up until the middle of the last century before the idea of aliases disappeared all together. However what is remarkable in these instances is that while a few of who used this trick hid behind male pseudonyms, the majority used a female name or alias.

The examples are many, including but not limited to Bint al-Shati, “the girl of the shore” for Aisha Abdelrahman; Fatat Ghassan, “Ghassan’s girl,” for Fatima Suliman Alahamd; and Bahethet Albadaya, “Bedouin seeker,” for Malak Hanaf Nasif. Besides denying women writers attribution of their work, their capacities are also challenged and often their lives, and particularly their personal behavior, is exposed. The written material produced by women has also been attacked by undermining its technical and objective value. It receives harsh criticism that follows narrow criteria which constricts and doesn’t widen, repels and doesn’t support judgment of women’s written product. The latter form of targeting, which is presented as objective literary criticism is no less harmful than one that targets the women’s character and behavior as it gives the impression of objectivity, when in reality it internalizes bias. In a study by Iraqi writer Reda al-Thahir, pointed to bias in literary criticism when critiquing women’s work and concluded that “the tainted system of literary criticism in Arabic culture contributes to the exclusion of women writing, marginalizing and disintegrating it” as he puts it.  

However, we must not overlook the fact that disparaging women’s work is counterbalanced by over-parading their work, as both hinder the development of women’s writing and prevent its natural advancement. The intention is not to be absolute or to generalize literary criticism.  

Syrian writer and novelist Rosa Yassin in her effort to follow the lives female writers in the Arab world documented the sad destinies of a number of Arab women writers in an article titled “Combustion in the Writing Range”. Inspired by Mai Zayada’s quote “the history of women is a long martyrdom” and pointing to Zayada’s own fate that landed her in a mental hospital for a nervous breakdown, to which Bahethet Albadaya had preceded her. Whereas Dorya Shafiq, author of the novel “I am in Hell,” swooped down from the sixth floor after suffering from severe depression, whilst Arwa Salah, author of “The Premature” committed suicide when she jumped from the tenth floor. From suppressing one’s identity behind pseudonyms to death by suicide, women writers have paid high prices for the accusations, trials and abuses which accompany their work, while some writers chose to withdraw altogether and stop writing which explains the occurrence of literary one hit wonders. The majority, however, will choose to combust in the writing stove in the words of Rosa Yassin which reminds us of the noble challenge formulated by the late poet Salah Ahmed Ibrahim: “As you’re as aromatic as you are, burn”.


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