Sudanese Poetry in the 20th Century

By: Aisha Braima

KHARTOUM (SUDANOW) The author, Dr. Mahammad al-Wathig, in the introduction, says the aim of his book was never to write a lexicon of Sudan’s 20th Century poets but the main idea was a probe of different stages of Sudanese poetry during that period .
The late Dr. al-Wathig was a creative poet , literary critic and a professor of Arabic and literature at the University of Khartoum . had chosen 30 poets to represent that period. He said his criterion for selecting the poetry and its composers as a subject of his book was that: (1)The poetry should be in print form(2)The poet should be well versed in poetry writing.
The author divided the Sudanese poetry into four phases:

The First Phase (1500-1821): That is the period of the Funj Islamic State. The establishment of that state had opened doors for the flow of Sufi(mystic) theology and preachers together with the flow of Moslem Sharia’a (law) scholars. That period also saw the immigration of Sudanese students to study Islamic sharia’a at al-Azhar University in Cairo. At this phase Sudanese colloquial Arabic spread throughout many parts of Sudan. Poets used a combination of colloquial and classical Arabic in their verse.
The Second Phase ((1821-1983): This was the phase of Turkish rule of Sudan. That period had seen the immigration of Egyptian judges and teachers of Arabic to Sudan, particularly after the bloody campaign of the Dafterdar in revenge for the killing in Shendi of Ismail Pasha , son of Egypt’s ruler Mohammad Ali Pasha. That period also saw the immigration of many Sudanese students to study in Egypt’s schools and colleges and also the advent of European Christian missionaries and European ways of life. In this period the Sudanese vernacular reached its technical height as we can see in the progress of the “dobait” poetry among the Ja’aliyyin, the Shukriyya, the Jumoiyya and the Bataheen tribes. At that time the Butana plain around Khartoum became the centre of this king of poetry.. The dobait, maintains the author, had reformulated the artistic and aesthetic sense of Sudanese in harmony with the religious sentiment instilled in the public by the Funj State’s Sufism.
The Third Phase (1883-1900): That was the period of the Mahdist rule. At that phase Sudanese opted for ascetical ways of life and the country was nearly isolated from the outside world. The period of Mahdi’s successor, al-Kalifa Abdullahi al-Ta’ayshi, saw the struggle for power between al-Khalifa Abdullahi and the tribes of Northern Sudan and the spread of famine. The conflict had led the Mahdist State to lose many of its leaders, supporters, poets and thinkers, and, consequently, the state became easy prey for the British and Egyptian conquerors in 1900.
But the Mahdist State had seen the progress of classical Arabic and its poetry. Poets of the Mahdiyya wrote outstanding verse in praise of the Mahdi , his revolt and his victorious battles against the Turks. Those poets had possessed all the technicalities of poetry. Among those artful poets the names of al-Zahra, Abdlghani al-Salawi, Abdalla Omar al-Banna , Mohammad Tahir al- Majthoub loom large. Conversely, some prominent poets like leader of the Sammani Sufi order Mohammad Shareef Nur-al-Dayim had opposed and criticized the Mahdi .
The Fourth Phase (1900-1956):wathig2

This was the period in which Sudan was ruled by Britain and Egypt in what was known as the condominium rule. Here Khartoum regained its position as the capital of Sudan and the country saw the progress of civilian education by the establishment of the Gordon Memorial College and also saw the growth of several towns around the country. This had speeded up the building of Sudan’s modern state.
This phase also saw the formation of secret societies like the Alliwa’a al-Abyad (The White Banner)that set the scene for the 1924 military uprising under the leadership of Ali Abdullatif and a group of other army officers. Newspapers published by Sudanese also came into being, such as Hadarat al-Sudan (Sudan Civilization) newspaper and al-Fajr (The Dawn) magazine.
The dissemination of European culture was paralleled with the deepening of Islamic culture and the domination of classical Arabic and the retreat of popular poetry that uses the vernacular , with the exception of what was written by patriotic poet Khalil Farah and the songs of Mohammad Ahmad Saroar. Dobait voice became even fainter with the exception of some verses by an unknown Butana poet and some Western Sudanese ‘Jarrari’ songs.
Classical Arabic poetry had revolved around the themes of Islam and Arabism in the verses of both political camps: Those who favored complete independence and those advocated unity with Egypt.
The Fifth Phase (1956-2000): Sudan, like many other countries, had seen a lot of developments at the beginning of this phase. Similarly, it has seen the advent of new ideologies like Marxism and Islamism that inspired military coups and civil wars. This was reflected in literature, poetry in particular. We saw new schools of thought and literature such as surrealism, existentialism, structuralism..etc.. To the author, these were no more than superficial masquerades under which lay a purely Sudanese frame of mind. That frame of mind was in reality a reflection of Sudan’s Sufi setting that continued to develop since the Funj State, whose sense of beauty rested in the Butana culture.
The author stresses that what differentiates this poet from that poet is his roots: Rural or urban. But all of them belong to a one consciousness: That of the Butana and the Funj. (The Funj with its Sufi isolationism and preoccupation with the Almighty and the Butana with its artistic and aesthetic sense). The Funj (or Sinnar) had formed the Sudanese poet’s religious feeling, whereas the Butana had formed his aesthetic feeling and, then, his artistic sense.
Many of the 20th Century poets had fled the city to the countryside in search of calm. Top of these was Mahammad Saeed al-Abbasi, who toured the plains of Darfur and Kurdufan on camelback. Similarly did Ahmad Omar al-Banna.
Under the subtitle ‘’ Khartoum and the Fervor”, the author enlists a number of 20th Century poets: Mohammad Saeed al-Abbasi, Abdalla Abdulrahman, Tawfiq Salih Jibreel, Ahmad Mohammad Salih, Yousif Mustafa al-Tinai, Mohammad Ahmad Mahjoub anf al-Tijani Yousif Bashir. His account includes poets’ names and dates of birth. Those poets had grown up under the British rule .
The author had also accounted for a poet who was born during the Mahdiyya era and continued to live during the British rule. That was Sheikh of the Sammaniyya Sufi order Ghareeballa Abu Salih (1846-1936). Sheikh Ghareeballa had a printed collection of poetry he called “Rashafat al-Mudam (a sip of liquor). Almudam in the Sufi culture means a drink in heaven which Allah gives his dutiful servants.
The poem of that era usually begins with an address to the moon (praising its beauty), then a reference to the noble deeds of The Prophet Mohammad and his companions, then a description of the state of affairs of Moslems (as compared with that of the Europeans), urges Moslems to rise and adhere to the tenets of Islam, pursue knowledge and then proceeds with the intended topic. This sort of poetry was shunned by Mohammad Saeed al-Abbasi, al-Tijani Yousif Bashir, the poets of al-Fajr magazine and the socialists.
Under the subtitle ‘’Unity of the Nile Valley’’ the author picked up poet Abdalla Abdulrahman as one of the advocates of unity with Egypt. On the first page of his collection, entitled alfajr alsadiq (The True Dawn) , we find a picture of King Farouq in a show of loyalty to the Egyptian monarch and as a sign of faith in the Unity of Sudan and Egypt. Nearly most of the introductions of Sudanese poetry collections at that time were written by Egyptians, a sign of the mounting bonds between Sudanese and Egyptians.
The author considers Mahammad Saeed al-Abbasai (1880-1963), a leading poet in Sudan, like his contemporary al-Tijani Yousif Bashir.
Abbasi was the son of a religious leader Mohammad Shareef Nuraldayim who criticized al-Mahdi’s revolt. And when the Britons conquered Sudan, they wanted to reward him for that position by sending his son to study warfare in Egypt. After two years Abbasi quit the military academy and returned to Sudan, thus letting down the Britons, who eventually forgot about him and he forgot about them.
But al-Abbasi’s stay in Egypt developed in him a strong feeling towards Egypt. He, accordingly, became a pioneer of the call for unity with Egypt. He, however, did not join any of the unionist parties. Further, he had a disliking for politicians, in particular the advocates of Sudan’s independence, whom he called puppets of the Britons and messengers of discord between Sudan and Egypt.
The author considers al-Tijani Yousif Bashir as a sole rival of al-Abbasi among the poets of that time. But there is a difference between them: While al-Abbasi was the poet of the village, al-Tijani was the poet of the city. Both of them had loved Egypt. Al-Tijani was an advocate of modern poetry while al-Abbasi was traditional.
Al-Tijani was first discovered by Egyptian literary critics. He was known in Egypt first.
Al-Tijani was so infatuated with Khartoum that, according to the author, unveiled its beauty to him. But very soon Tijani found himself isolated from Khartoum elite who made life difficult for him and forced him to withdraw to the memories of his childhood and to his own self. He developed certain scruples, particularly about religion, a matter that led to his dismissal from the religious institute. Tijani was accused by critic and poet Mohammad Mohammed Ali as an obscure poet.
In his account about Ahmad Mohammad Salih (1898-1973), the author says this poet had outmatched all his predecessors with his respect to his mastery of English, a matter that qualified him to be known as ‘’the Englishman.’’ However, his poetry did not reflect any foreign culture. He was traditional just like al-Abbasi and Abdalla Abdulrahman.
Ahmad Mohammad Salih was far more versed in Arabic than many of the Sudanese and Middle Eastern poets, according to the author. He also had an awareness about the calamities of World War Two and composed poetry about the French occupation of Syria and the Italian war in Eritrea. The poet was an advocate of Sudan’s independence and had written excellent poetry in praise of Abdulrahman al-Mahdi , leader of the Ansar Sect , who devised the motto” the Sudan is for the Sudanese.’’ The poet, however, did not expressly call for Sudan’s independence in his poetry.
About former Prime Minister Mohammad Ahmad Mahjoub, the author said, like the other outstanding poets of al-Fajr magazine, Mahjoub had no passion for political poetry, though he later on became a professional politician, opposition leader and Prime Minister.
Mahjoub and most of al-Fajr writers and poets were the fruit of British education and had had strong bonds with the Europeans. But Islam and Arabism were always the guiding elements in his writing. It could be said that the culture of al-Fajr writers was Egyptian and Egyptian thinker Abbas Mahmood al-Aqqad was their source of inspiration. The influence of the Egyptian culture was more obvious in Mahjoub’s verses than in the verse of advocates of unity with Egypt.
Mahjoub was pre-occupied with beauty both material and moral. This type of poetry was the main characteristic of his collections. Mahjoub’s poetry was really akin to the poetry of Alsham (Syria and Lebanon).
The year 1920 (and after) saw the birth of a new batch of poets who became a poetic landmark of the 4th and 5th decades of the 20th Century. The list includes Abdulnabi Abdulgadir Mursal, Muneer Salih Abdulgadir, Idris Jamma’ and Abdalla al-tayyeb . They were followed after a short while (1927) by al-Hadi Adam. This group had often described its predecessors as imitators. Mohammad al-Mahdi Majthoub goes further to describe even al-Fajr writers as ‘’ the second generation of imitators’’.
This new generation, unlike its predecessors, was not occupied with politics. What was common among them was a rebellion against their antecedents. They scorned their policies, their political parties, their sectarian ideas and in some cases they could go off limits to scorn the independence of the country. Satirical verse was rife among them ,contrary to the case with their predecessors. The flag bearers in this trend were Tawfiq Salih Jibreel and Mohammad al-Mahdi Majthoub. Majthoub’s poem”Where to” is enough proof of this boredom with the state of affairs after independence.
This generation was discontented and dismayed with government jobs. Idris Jamma’ withdrew from the society, became mentally unstable and continued to find solace in remembering his days in Egypt. Abdulnabi Mursal, Mohammad Mohammad Ali and al-Hadi Adam had also exercised some sort of withdrawal and kept good memories about Egypt. Al-Hadi Adam can always be remembered by this poem “ Tomorrow I see you”’ which was sung by the icon of Egyptian singing the late Um-Kalthoum.
The author said Abdalla al-Tayyeb was a friend of Majthoub , Mohammad Mohammad Ali and Muneer Salih Abdulgadir and was, similarly, upset by post independence politics. But he withdrew to a world of his own: The world of books. That led him to become an outstanding scholar of Arabic who can be compared with Egyptian linguists Taha Hussain and Mohamood Mohammad Shakir , his fellow scholars in the Cairo-based Arabic Academy. Later on al-Tayyeb was accorded King Faisal’s Prize for his book ‘’ A guide to understanding Arabic poetry”, in a well attended ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He also dug deep into English and wrote some books in that language. Al-Tayyeb’s verse was diverse in its topics. He wrote about Africa, Europe and countless other countries. London, in particular, occupied a considerable space in his collection “Echoes of the Nile’’. He was among the first African writers to ring the alarm bells about racial discrimination and the oppression of blacks after he had tasted this by himself. Salah Ahmad Ibrahim followed al-tayyeb’s footsteps in this regard.
In most of his verse, al-Tayyeb seeks consolation in the Prophet Mohammad. His last collection was purely sufist.
Al-Tayyeb and his relative Majthoub developed unmatched intimacy with the Butana and shunned city life , unlike their contemporaries Muneer Salih and Tawfiq Salih Jibreel, who enjoyed city life.
From the post-independence generation, the author picked Mohieddin Faris , Jayli Abdulrahman, Taj al-Sir al-Hassan , Salah Ahmad Ibrahim, Mustafa Sanad and Mohammad Abdulhai , though the latter was born early in the 4th decade of the Century.
Poets of this era had, first, described their antecedents as imitators. Then they turned to modern poetry. And then they violated the criteria of modern poetry. The following generation accused them of being imitators.
The author said Salah Ahmad Ibrahim , Jayli Abdulrahman and Taj al-Sir al-Hassan were described as the poets of progressive (socialist) thought, ‘’that was before the theories they propagated came down’’. Poets of this category did not adhere to the usual techniques of poetry. Taj al-Sir al-Hassan’s poem “Atbara” could be an example of this. Al-Hassan later on deserted this type of poetry and returned to Western Sudan where beautiful nature was mixed with ‘’the theory’’, a matter that invigorated his poetry. His fellow Jayli Abdulrahman moved to his home village of Abri and then to Cairo. Jayli’s poem ‘’city streets’’ means the streets of Cairo, not Khartoum. Cairo or Khartoum there is no problem, because the defects of the city are always the same for these pioneers of socialism in Sudan. Jayli’s poem “I crave for you Abri” is very touching for the reader.
Jayli and al-Hassan had studied Arabic in Egypt. So did Mohieddin Faris who represents a wide current that befriended the socialists although they were not part of them.
Salah Ahmad Ibrahim’s poetry had transcended Sudan boundaries. His verses speak of a high sense toward beauty that cannot be chained by any theory or limitations. This had led him into an early and well expected fall out with the communist party. His poem “Joda”, which he composed following the suffocation to death of scores of farmers in Joda prison, reflects his natural sympathy with the poor. His poetry ranges from sentiment to the appreciation of absolute beauty. Sometimes his poetry reflects a deep culture that finds its roots in Europe and sometimes in the heritage of Islam. His poem ‘’Maria’’ that flows out from a fountain of feelings and absolute beauty had won great fame.
His last collection ‘’ We and Death’’ springs up from the deep roots of Islam and Arabic. Introduction of that collection was written by Abdalla al-Tayyeb.
The author then speaks about what he calls ’’ Blank Verse Poetry” , in reference to poetry that does not abide by the rules of poetry. He said this type of poetry had allowed the poem a wider ‘’freedom of movement’’, but had caused all poems to become look alike and topics to be repetitive. This had caused the poem to lose its local and national characteristics and to become part of a contemporary current in which one cannot distinguish one poet from the other and where a poem can be attributed to any poet if its real composer is not known beforehand. He singled out Nazik al-Mlayka , al-Sayyab. Al-Bayyati and Salah Ahmad Ibrahim from this category , saying that each of these four poets has his own character. But he said the ’’flaccid poets ‘’ handle several topics in one poem and that the poem is shrouded in obscurity and internal associations.
The author had described Mustafa Sanad as unique, but sometimes runs after strange images .This can be seen in his poem’’ The Stamps’ Intonations ‘’.
The author describes Mohammad Abdulhai as a clever and widely cultivated critic. Abdulhai had joined the association trend and added deep obscurity to it, an obscurity he acquired from the British poet Eliot whom he emulated in his poem ‘’The Return to Sinnar’’ where he hunts for strange images.
Under the subtitle ’’Future promises’’, the author cites Khalid Fathalrahman and Rawda al-Haj as indicators for modern poetry that seeks internationalism, a matter that may be a departure from localism and nationalism that characterized the poetry of al-Abbasi , al-Tijani and Salah.
Rawda al-Haj is a unique phenomenon in women’s poetry of modern times. Rawda al-Haj’s poetry had seen a departure from the usual female poetry that opts for eulogies, patriotism and social events. She had rebelled against all that and delved into a poetry which, daringly, expresses her emotions as a woman. But she did not rebel against men!


Sudanow is the longest serving English speaking magazine in the Sudan. It is chartarized by its high quality professional journalism, focusing on political, social, economic, cultural and sport developments in the Sudan. Sudanow provides in depth analysis of these developments by academia, highly ...


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