Weaving a World

Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi talks about how creative translation can be a powerful force for dialogue.

“I have always been vocal with my opinions. A couple of weeks ago I was fired from my newspaper because of my politics. But that won’t stop me speaking my mind.” My suggestion that Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi is wary of producing explicitly political poetry has provoked the previously shy Sudanese poet seated opposite me. Al-Raddi has worked as a journalist for over a decade. But his position as culture editor of the supposedly independent paper Al-Sudani, covering Sudan’s arts scene under significant state pressure and censorship, became increasingly imperilled over the last few years: “I have seen a lot of pressure put on Al-Sudani and its journalists recently, especially with its ownership shifting to a businessman affiliated with the government”. It is a tragic indictment of the Sudanese press, a once powerful breeding ground for pioneering Sudanese intellectuals.

Al-Raddi is in London until October for a residency supported by Arts Council, England, at University College London’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. He is exploring the culture of the ancient Sudanese kingdom of Meroe, using the Petrie's significant collection of ancient Sudanese artefacts as the basis for a new series of poems. Reflecting on Sudanese antiquity is a strand long present in Al-Raddi’s thinking: “I believe that the history and civilisation of Sudan have affected me, and so it influences my work”. The residency is playing out as a continuously shifting, interactive process in which Al-Raddi has been classifying and selecting from the museum’s collection on a daily basis, drawing on the expertise of the Petrie’s curator, Dr Stephen Quirke, before starting to write.
 
While famous already in his native Sudan, Al-Raddi’s international status was marked when he became the first African poet to be published in the London Review of Books with his work "Poem of the Nile". Back in Sudan’s profoundly oral society, he has always maintained a balancing act between being a published poet and taking part in public readings. A reverence for audience interaction is everything in Sudan. “I have always been alert to the balance between being published and being publicly heard”, he reflects. “The older poets who influenced me had their work read and sung in public. And I have spent 27 years travelling to readings in Sudan’s cities, increasingly enriching my own vision.”
 
To better understand the kind of public engagement that drives Al-Raddi, it is necessary to go back to Omar Al-Bashir’s coup in 1989 which overthrew the democratically elected government of Saddiq al-Mahdi. In a news blackout, the 20-year-old Al-Raddi started impromptu word-of-mouth poetry readings, with thousands flocking from town to town to hear him. As a poet, he may be wary of seeking a kind of validation, yet his work has always been far from escapist abstraction. The gatherings organised by Al-Raddi in 1989 led to his imprisonment and torture. “By nature I am political. But at heart I am an artist”, he notes carefully, “and if my poetry is loaded with political messages, it prevents my literary skill and development as a creative writer.” Yet his poetry has continually borne messages that encapsulate his generation. The reference to April in his poem “Lost” from a sequence called “Weaving a World” refers to the 1985 uprising against the dictator Jaafar Nimeiri: 
 
 “I had somehow to hide
the frail, blood-stained shoots of April
inside me; I had to allow the crimson night-sky
its majesty; I had
to learn how to stain
the space of the present
with what seeps from a forgotten wound”
From "Weaving a World" by Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi (Translated by Mark Ford and Hafiz Kheir for The Poetry Translation Centre)
 
With Western media coverage focused on Darfur and the difficulties Sudanese President Al-Bashir has faced in propagating an exclusively Arab-Islamic regime, Al-Raddi’s poetry offers a refreshing revision of what might seem a crude, oppositional Sudanese culture. Above all, his work reflects Sudan’s rich complexity against Al-Bashir’s attempts to build a climate of cultural conformity. Al-Raddi’s work has been building a following over here since he began attending UK festivals in 2005, “engaging with the different audiences and different flavours of many cities, not just London” – no small task in a scene hardly attuned to poetry in Arabic. A few weeks ago, he represented Sudan at the international gathering for Poetry Parnassus festival at the Southbank – the brainchild of poet Simon Armitage. “The festival is unique in its nature – in its gathering together of over 200 poets and translators. It allows a positive exchange and dialogue,” Al-Raddi enthuses. For Al-Raddi, the insight into foreign landscapes afforded by the festival was an invaluable opportunity: “The interaction between poets and translators is a chance to look at how poetry is dealt with in different cultures, the chance to build real friendships”.
 
Above all, Al-Raddi's UK following owes much to his extensive collaboration with the Poetry Translation Centre, established in 2004 by the poet Sarah Maguire. In a 2008 article for the Guardian, Maguire observed: “Every significant innovation in English poetry occurs as a result of poets engaging with translation, either by translating themselves, like Dryden, or by falling under its influence – most famously like Keats first gazing into Chapman’s Homer”. Al-Raddi has been involved in the complex process of translating his poetry into English over several years - working with language experts to keep his original voice intact despite the shift between two very distinct languages, different imaginations and soundscapes. “I first started with the Sudanese language expert Hafiz Kheir, working towards a literal translation,” Al-Raddi explains, “and I ensured he grasped my meaning and voice." Hafiz Kheir, who'd grown up with Al-Raddi, brought his poetry to the attention of the Poetry Translation Centre. Since then, the translation of Al-Raddi’s poetry has also involved the language experts Sabry Hafez, Atel Alshaer and the poets Mark Ford and Sarah Maguire, with all these different backgrounds contributing to an increasingly diversified collection of his translated poems.
 
Maguire, who has been co-translating Al-Raddi for six years, says that he is one of the most complex, lyrically-charged poets writing in Arabic today. "Most people assume that, because he comes from Sudan, his work will be obviously "political", Maguire observes, "But the delight of his work is his use of multilayered metaphors that often refer to ancient Sudanese kingdoms in juxtaposition with contemporary observations". With Al-Raddi's residency at the Petrie coming at a time of intense Sudanese political upheaval, his work is weighted with growing urgency. "No poet could be more perfect for the job," Maguire says, "steeped as Al-Raddi is in the history of his country, and with his ability to make connections between the ancient past and the politically-charged present".
 
Al-Raddi belongs to a generation of poets who have focused their work on Sudan’s kaleidoscopic identity, and its place in both Arab and African worlds. He was born in 1969 in “the cultural centre of Sudan”, Omdurman. “As a mini-Sudan in itself it had brought together all sorts of artists from different regions, and it deeply affected my need to bring all the diversity that I grew up in into my work”. Significantly, Al-Raddi has looked at how translation can be used to meaningfully engage with this Sudanese plurality. In 2006, he set up his own project gathering writers in Arabic from northern Sudan and writers in English from the south (a linguistic divide since British rule) to translate each other’s work – a dialogue that grew out of the official ending of the Second Sudanese civil war and the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. “I wanted to demonstrate how creative translation can ease political conflicts to enable people to coexist more peacefully”. This process has been made all the more difficult in having to navigate the widening political breach between the two territories, with South Sudan seceding last year. Al-Raddi is sure that culture has a role to play in mediating in this conflict: “The basis of the political tension between the Northern and Southern Sudanese stems from cultural roots. Indeed any political conflict in Sudan has a cultural basis”, Al-Raddi argues. “The government refuses to see Sudan’s melting-pot diversity and the difficulties in imposing a single culture”. 
 
For Al-Raddi, his translation project has always set its sights beyond Sudan’s political turmoil. One thing that I notice from talking to Al-Raddi is his reluctance to force his artistic outlook into a purely utilitarian role. Saddiq is clear that he is not a “political poet” – his poetry only gains its charge of dangerous evocation through political circumstance. “Of course it is simplistic to draw a North-South, Arabic-English Sudanese divide,” he observes. “The project was always about more than the split and rather about exploring Sudanese diversity”. In this sense, Al-Raddi has embarked on a perpetual project, as he turns to the 300 or so other languages of his country: “Sudan is one of the richest countries linguistically. English and Arabic are media languages, supported institutionally, but local languages have not found the same backing”, Al-Raddi points out, “Perhaps one way of potentially breaching the gap between English and Arabic would be to support these local languages. Building a small 500-word Nubian-Arabic dictionary would be a step in an interesting direction."
 
Since 1989, the massive migration of Sudanese intellectuals and artists has left a gaping hole in Sudan’s cultural arena. When Al-Raddi returns to the country, he will continue to focus on searching for and nurturing a new generation of artists, struggling with Sudan’s rapid changes, uncertain future and the oppression of creativity. Al-Raddi is intimately connected with this new generation of politically active artists. A group of young Sudanese poets have already organised a reading of Al-Raddi's poetry to protest his sacking from Al-Sudani. “There is no institution that sponsors these talents unless you speak the voice of the government. My personal mandate is to provide a platform for this new, unknown generation of poets, writers, actors and singers.”
 
“You show them the secret of the day
and they do the rest
they leave until sunrise
clasping your gifts in their hands”
From "Horizon" by Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi (Translated by Sarah Maguire and Sabry Hafez for The Poetry Translation Centre)
 
Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi is the Petrie Museum's Poet in Residence (Photo: Travis Elborough)

En Liang Khong is an arts writer and cellist.

Follow on twitter @en_khong

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.