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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My first ever vocal performance was singing "Rebel Rebel" inside a wardrobe

Inspirational artists don’t inspire the brave (they’re fine already): they inspire the timid. That's what David Bowie did for me.

I couldn’t write anything the day David Bowie died. Like many people in music, I was asked for a tribute, but despite being a huge fan, I felt unable to strike the right tone. A glance at Twitter showed me how upset people were, and in that immediate aftermath of shock and dismay what was needed was cathartic and expressive writing. Some people took umbrage at the declamatory grieving, but to me it felt appropriate and I never much mind other people saying things I’m too shy or inhibited to say.

The outpouring of love and affection reminded me how personally we respond to artists, how they speak to us and for us. Pop music has its greatest effect on us when we’re young, when our clay is soft and pliable, and we take its imprint and carry it for ever. The songs we hear while our hearts are still wide open to the world make such an impression that it seems reasonable to me that we care more strongly about the people who sang them than, say, casual acquaintances we make later. So we can mourn a singer we never met more than someone we actually knew.

But one thing I thought wasn’t stressed enough in all the tributes and obituaries was simply that none of Bowie’s groundbreaking work with image/gender/sexuality, would have had as much impact without the phenomenal tunes he wrote, which ensured that his records were played to a mainstream audience. Like anyone my age, I came to Bowie not through an underground record shop, or reading about him in the NME, but by hearing him on Radio 1 and seeing him on Top of the Pops. He embedded himself in my consciousness primarily as a pop artist, a writer of songs so packed full of hooks, you were caught on first listen. I loved my brother’s Ziggy Stardust album because it was strange and yet familiar and I could sing along with all of it.

If you’d never heard Bowie, many of the descriptions might make you think that his work was arch, cool and detached. But he was part of the pre-ironic period of pop, not afraid of sincerity, especially in his singing. It surprises me when he is talked about as a kind of alien, because although he often seemed heroic, and immortal, he clearly had a sense of humour, and a family, and by all accounts was witty and charming and friendly to people. A proper human being, in other words.

Through all the tributes and memories, what became clear was that everyone had some recollection that encapsulated his meaning for them. My little story is one I have told before, in Bedsit Disco Queen, of the day when I was rehearsing in someone’s bedroom with my first band, Stern Bops. I was the rhythm guitarist, and that day our singer didn’t turn up, so the boys in the band asked if I could sing. I wasn’t sure – I’d never really tried, certainly not in front of anyone – and so I replied that I would have a go but not if they were all looking at me. Instead, I’d get inside the wardrobe and sing from there. Which is precisely what I did, and once inside the stuffy darkness, out of sight but clutching my microphone, I sang David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”. It was my first ever vocal performance.

How hilarious, you might think, how pitiful even, to sing an anthem to rebelliousness while hiding in a closet. How could you take all the defiance and pride of that song and undermine it with fear? But the more I think about it, the more I realise that this is exactly how inspirational artists work, and why we need them. They don’t inspire the brave (they’re fine already): they inspire the timid.

And you don’t copy people you’re inspired by. Quite often you can’t; you wouldn’t know where to start. You can only stare, open-mouthed in wonder. And yet still something happens, you hear a voice telling you something, a tiny little spark is lit. And you treasure that spark, and add it to others that you’re finding elsewhere, gathering them around you like a protective halo. Until you have just enough courage to take that song you love to dance to and sing those words you love to sing. Even from inside a wardrobe.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle