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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge