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

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.