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NARRATING IDENTITY & CONFLICT:HISTORY, GEOGRAPHY, AND THE NATION IN JAMAL MAHJOUB'S PORTRAYAL OF MODERN-DAY SUDAN
By Caroline Mohsen
 
World Literature Today; Summer 2000

 (EXCERPT)

Jamal Mahjoub is without doubt one of the most cosmopolitan and multifaceted figures on the contemporary Sudanese literary scene. Born in 1960 of an English mother and a Sudanese father, Mahjoub lived both in the Sudan and in England before moving to Denmark, where he now resides. His prolific and critically acclaimed literary production has yielded him enough recognition to place him firmly in the footsteps of such pioneers of Sudanese literature as Tayeb Salih, whose writings put Sudan on the map of twentieth-century literature. Indeed, in the time frame of less than a decade, Mahjoub has written four novels -- Navigation of a Rainmaker (1989), Wings of Dust (1994), In the Hour of Signs (1996), and The Carrier (1998) -- as well as many short stories, including "Road Block" (1992), "The Cartographer's Angel" (winner of the Guardian Award in 1993), "Hands of Lead, Feet of Clay" (1994), and "A History of Amnesia" (1995), which present a kaleidoscopic and often disturbing vision of the Sudan's turbulent evolution from the midnineteenth century to the present day. In addition to his novels, short stories, and several poems, Mahjoub has produced essays and opinion pieces which virulently convey his political position on the current happenings in war-torn Sudan, and which convey yet another facet of his already polyvalent writing sitting astride worlds, politics, and generations.

Mahjoub's first three novels can be read as a trilogy which records the historic progression of political events in the Sudan, Emulating the turmoil and uncertainty of the Sudan; his writing distinguishes itself by its dynamism: landscapes are in constant motion; the identities of protagonists are often ambiguous or in constant mutation; history and the past are open-ended, holding within their seemingly streamlined narratives a wealth of interpretations and meanings; narrative style shifts from the lyrical to the pragmatic, from the memoir to the epistolary or the journalistic; the traditional framework of the novel is subverted by the fragment and the flashback or by processes of redoubling and mirroring. Mahjoub's stylistic diversity is also symptomatic of the plurality of origins of the modern African nation, as well as a strategy he uses to combat the amnesia that settles in narrative with the use of one genre or style. In privileging a pluralistic approach in writing, Mahjoub ensures that no one aspect of reality, no one narrative, will be privileged over another.

Beginning with the rise of nationalism incited by the unprecedented popular gathering under the wing of the Mahdi in the nineteenth century, and followed by a struggle against the combined forces of British and Turco-Egyptian imperialism in In the Hour of Signs, a clear historiographic project emerges in which Mahjoub seeks to find the early reasons for the failure of the present-day nation. In an exploration of the past through the narratives of a diverse cast of characters ranging from the lowly ranks of cook, prostitute, and soldier, to the controversial heretic scholar, the foreigner/colonizer represented by the minor British journalist, the British intelligence officer, and a cast of British military and political leaders, all the way to the high offices of the governor-general and Khalifa, the protagonists illustrate the manifold nature of the Sudan and provide insights into the emergence and development of the conflicts tearing the Sudan apart today. Much attention is devoted to the country's social and ethnic diversity, so that throughout the novel, Sudan -- the geographic place -- is a happening, an event, a gathering of constantly changing parameters: physical and geographic, social and political, cultural, religious, ethnic, and perceptual. As such, paths operating laterally are drawn and homologies are established, so that Sudan becomes an active agent instead of a framework onto which various discourses are superimposed. In the following works, the variegated cast of characters is gathered around the central figure of a main protagonist whose schizophrenic split personality mirrors the never-ending divisions that rack the Sudan from the time of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium on. Both Sharif in Wings of Dust and Tanner in Navigation of a Rainmaker are exiles, like Mahjoub himself, and possess the acumen that comes from straddling cultures. In both novels, war, drought, famine, the plight of refugees, corrupt governments, the ravages of neocolonialism, the multicultural south opposing a homogenizing Arabized north, and finally an increasingly dilapidated urban lifestyle under the rule of the National Islamic Front shake the very foundations of the nation-state itself.

The political and social issues cannot be raised, however, without addressing the role played by the landscape and geography in the creation of identities and the rise of human conflicts. The physicality of the Sudan, its landscape and geography are primary aspects of Mahjoub's narratives, so much in fact that the land, and especially the desert provides the context," the very occasion for the novels to unfold and for the protagonists to evolve (Gibbs, 444). All of Mahjoub's works capture the Sudan with a sensitivity rarely encountered except perhaps in Salih's Season of Migration to the North. In order to illustrate his geographic concerns, Mahjoub structures his narratives around the landscape, molding the text to fit the land instead of turning the Sudan into a background over which the narrative unfolds unproblematically. In each novel a different narrative strategy illustrates the importance of the landscape, its constitutive and commemorative relation to the singular event and to history as a process. In his examination of the desert, Mahjoub asks several crucial questions about the ways in which places are "metonymically and metaphorically tied to identities" (Feld/Basso, 3) and interrogates the role of geography in instigating history as well as reflecting it. Mahjoub's concerns revolve around the landscape's role in the formation of human identities and the creation of experiences of rootedness and dwelling, uprootedness and homelessness, or transrootedness and migration, the many ways the land transforms one into native, foreigner, colonizer, traveler, migrant, nomad, refugee, or exile. And if the land sums up the entirety of human experience and reflects its heterogeneity, then how can the landscape provide solutions to the Sudan's identity crisis?

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