Interview With The Critic, Novelist Dr. Salah Sir Al-Khatim

Interview With The Critic, Novelist Dr. Salah Sir Al-Khatim


** The critic may be likened to an aircraft while the authors and poets are like birds.


** Poetry, still is, domineering in the cultural arena.


** Eisa al-Hilu has left his personal prints on the entire creative genres


** Author Ameer Taj Assir is one of the most important novelists at present.


** None of al-Tayeb Salih two awards was able to achieve the added value required


KHARTOUM (Sudanow) - Though, Dr. Salah Sir al-Khatim is a judge at the Khartoum Appellate Court, yet the writing of novels, stories and literary criticism constitutes his human project. He began by writing poetry and later he moved on to the writing of prose..

Dr. Salah has already published three novels "the sands oh Fatima", "the eyes of the crocodiles" and "the maiden of River Nile". As regards literary criticism he has authored "the magical springs and the delights of imagination in the works of Ameer Taj Assir" and "the neighing of the leaves, a tour through the works of Eisa al-Hilu" and the ingenuity of the depiction in words, in the art of the very short story".

He was interviewed by Sudanow on his experience and issues relating to the current cultural situation .


Q: -- Why do you write in the first place, and why is this wide variation in your writing?

A: -- ln fact, this is a very difficult question to answer, it is a question which I personally often ask myself, it is a question where I pause for quite a time when answering it. To me, each time, there is a different answer to it, and each time, the answer comes both defective and deficient. Many times, I feel the urge to write, and when I do write, I write like a young child who is remolding his play objects with a pencil or with a sand mound or a piece of mud or clay or even a color box and a white paper. Writing is an intense expression of the concomitant urgency to divulge that which hidden deep inside you and the accompanying fear of uttering it. It is an overloaded expression of our passions in order to communicate with and to understand our surroundings, thus it's a passion beyond satiety. The multiplicity in one's genres of writing is a critical option before the writer, more than anything else. Yet, I am highly allured by the enterprise of criticism, for I’ve realized only too well the craving that prompts the writer to carry out his enterprise to its intended finales before launching the end product for an unknown reader, and to envisage the impact this intellectual product may have on others. Criticism, on the other hand, is the mirror that reflects, the response, the echo and the interaction between the imaginative and the recipient. Every reader is a critic in their own right, yet the converse is not true, though each has his own creative outcome. Sometimes I find myself carried along by the novel's roaring seas.

Two of Dr. Salah's novels

After all, it seems, there is no true freedom of choice. Rather, the creative writer is spellbound. Personally, I move between different genres as a person who moves from one room in his house to the other and where each room has its own distinctive odor, memory and fragrance.

Q: -- You write criticisms, but sometimes you also assume the role of a play writer as is the case with your novel "Crocodile Eyes". Is it an attempt to apply the critic's methodology on the creative work or are you genuinely interested in novel writing?!

A: -- No... Writing a novel is definitely a different enterprise to the critical undertaking; albeit, by necessity, it involves critical applications and liberty. However, it is an entirely different issue. When I begin to write a novel, I try to rid myself of the critic inside me and to free myself of his authoritative mentality. I give myself up to the characters and events and to that infinite wealth where you cruise the skies without wings and dive very deep therein with no prior knowledge of swimming. Both the poet and the novelist fly freely, whereas the critic is weighed down by a whole lot of restrictions. The critic may be likened to an aircraft while the authors and poets are like birds, in fact I'm incapable of listing all the differences there are, between the two enterprises.

Honestly, here my interest in criticism was greatly triggered by the experiences of some Sudanese novelists and intellectuals and critics such as Jamāl 'Abd al Malik (Ibn Khuldoun) and the critic Eisa al-Hilu. They have both suffered from the absence of criticism in the literary arena, at their time, so they took it upon themselves to fill up this void in both fields. They acted like a selfless candle. They chose to burn themselves down in order to illuminate the narrative path for other members of the whole creative clan. They did that, at the expense of their own literal productivity, but by doing so, they have rendered a great service to the Sudanese literature.

Q: -- In your opinion, why is poetry writing receding these days?

A: -- In my view, poetry - that shining light - is not receding by any means. The absence of iconic poetical voices like Mahmoud Darwish (Palestine), Nazar Gabbani (Syria), al Faitouri (Sudan), Amal Dangal, Şalah 'Abd al Şabour (Egypt), Abdul Wahab al Bayati, Badr Shakir al Sayab (Iraq) and others had dealt a devastating blow to the mastery and predominance of poetry. However, the writing of poetry has taken on the cultural stage throughout the past years, since the sixties of the last century. This situation gave the impression that poetry's cultural grip was weakening but this was rather an illusory impression. A compelling evidence to this is found in the poetic profound presence which is characteristic of numerous examples of contemporary writings. There are new powerful voices which are present in more than one Arab country. What is absent, however, is the great cultural forums that used to feature and bring to light poetry and poets. Poetry is very alive and kicking, it breathes from beneath the ashes and glitters under the dirt, exactly like gold. Poetry is undefeated by the lack of a platform or by the harsh political and cultural reality. Poetry, is still there, it walks the streets, though it is of strange face but not a strange tongue.

Dr. Salah with the reporter

Q: -- The present day Sudanese stories contesting the competitions are subject to severe criticism, why?

A: -- This is merely a subjective criticism which hardly goes beyond the pulpits' verbal entity. The published works of serious criticism, on the other hand, are very few, barely existing and not at par with the creative works of the Sudanese story writers. They - the critics - talk derisively about a storytelling boom in reference to the multitude of published works but no one can find that cordial zest to read any of these boom products laid on the shelves and pavements or to write in favor of or against them. What is happening in Sudan is sad. A writer is only cheered if they gain appreciation abroad. That, of course, is very painful, but then things are not that so gloomy. Contesting for the best sort of works, so long as the applicant for the enterprise is the writer himself, is something neither to be applauded nor disparaged. However, the responsibility rests with the culture behind the competitions and how they are being organized. A bad contest produces bad texts and pale winners soon slip into oblivion. In contrast, the quality contests are well organized. The worst of competitions are those which are based on the self-recommendation by the writer to his or her work. Literary contests are not the sort of interviews where a novelist or a storyteller is made to ascend a fake throne.

Q: -- How do you view the Arab novelist platforms (Katara, Najib Mahfouz Award, al Poker, al Țayib Şalih Awards)?

A: -- In my opinion some of the best of these forums, till now, are Katāra and al Poker. Katāra Award for the Arabic Story, has in its first season (2015) presented five distinctive novelist voices, led by Ameer Taj al Sir with his novel "366", then the Egyptian writer Ibrahim 'Abd al Majid for his novel "Adagio", then "Jariya" by Munira Suwar, "Dawamat al Rahil" by Nasira al Sa'dun and finally "Mamalakat al Firashat" by Wasini Laaraj. This season has also introduced five other writers in the category of the unpublished works. Other talents were brought to light in the forum's second season. I believe it is an invaluable addition to the panorama of the Arabic literature. Al Poker Award, on the other hand, may claim the credit for advancing some talented writers, be them winners or just contestants. That being said, this forum is lagging behind in its catching up with the pace of creative productivity. It suffers from the same ailments as the other Arab forums. The two awards of al Tayib Salih, I believe, have a number of points on the upward side such as the stable annual activity, to say the least. Nevertheless, none of them was able to achieve the added value required or to yield a set of traditions acceptable to the literary circles. They have failed to initiate a dialogue about the two experiences or to put them to assessment. Rather, the way remained blocked in the face of the updating and evaluation. Najib Mahfuz Award competetion, again, features a different face characteristic of the publishers' control on the show. It is appreciable that works are recommended and nominated by a party other than the author him or herself, but the publishers always have their own agenda.

Some of Dr. Salah's studies


Q: -- Where can we detect the 'Arab Spring" in the story boom that portrays a young rebellious current?

A: -- And where does this ostensible Arabic Spring exist?! In her book "al Hafida al Amrikiya" - The American Granddaughter -, the Iraqi writer In'am Kaja has delved splendidly on this issue. The story explores the exchanged identity and the alienated identity in a world that is falling apart. This is a novel that describes the real Arab Spring, not its mere slogans.

Q: --Why did you choose the two storytellers Amir Taj al Sir and Eisa al Hilu in particular, for your primary critical work?

A: -- The truth of the matter is, my project is meant to encompass most, if not all, the Sudanese creative narrative writers. That been said, the option to give preference to the projects of Amir Taj al Sir and Eisa al Hilu was prompted by a number of factors. As for Eisa al Hilu – this iconic intellectual novelist who inspired a multitude of writers and critics – it is very difficult for anyone writing about the narrative art in Sudan to ignore. In his extensive experience of more than fifty years, al Hilu has written stories, novels, critiques and regular uninterrupted journalism. This man who has left his personal prints on the entire creative genre for half a century, has found none to write about his own works and his ingenious experience. My choice of him was a modest attempt to address this issue. Amir Taj al Sir is a Sudanese saga about the generation of the late eighties of the twentieth century, I mean in the way of literary writing as his first work "Karmakul" saw the light towards the end of the eighties. From there, he went on with his unrestrained creative yield that has, eventually, won him the zenith of storytelling productivity in Sudan. The distinguished quality of his works did not only secure him the top place among Sudanese writers, but made him one of the most highly rated Arab storytellers of today. Amir Taj al Sir has a rich high-value experience and the story of a strong inventive will that has skyrocketed him to the top of the mountain. His, is an experience to reckon with. Currently underway, are two books about the experiments of 'Abd al 'Aziz Baraka Sakin and Mansour al Suwayim, both of whom are important talents in the Sudanese narrative realm.


Q: -- What have you to say about the literary vision of the two writers Amir Taj al Sir and Eisa al Hilu?

A: -- Eisa al Hilu and Amir Taj al Sir, both writers share an interest in the reciprocal relationship between the characters' internal world and that of their intensely oppressive external world. Their protagonists are ordinary people but their inner worlds are amazingly rich and they exhibit unlimited endurance. The writer is not to be seen, he's hidden between the lines and his existence is absolutely unfelt. The narration, however is fast, free of slouch and with extraneous details. There is an air of sarcasm too.

In his early works, Amir was adopting a sort of poetic narrative but he soon deserted that in favor of a strict fictional language free from the poetic whim. Eisa al Hilu remained loyal to an ontological style which infected his vocabulary itself and this is clearly discernable in his fictional perspective.

Q: -- Apparently, these two writers are at variance in their fictional principles. On what basis did you choose them both?

A: -- There doesn't exist any discord here. It is only that the different factors which have influenced each writer and the different time through which each of them has lived, are responsible for the existence of this impression. In my personal opinion Amir Taj al Sir continues to keep the same distance from his characters, while al Hilu appears to be, in a way, sentimentally entangled with those characters. I am not sure what this really means, but it is what appears to me when I approach their texts.    

Q:-- Was writing about the works of Faţima al Sanusi driven by her being a pioneer in the field of the very short story, or is it because of your interest in this genre in particular, you yourself being one of its writers?

A: -- Fațima al Sanusi is a pioneer writer of the very short story in the Arab world. She is also the single forerunner of this modern form of writing in Sudan during the early eighties of the last century. It is worth mentioning here that the emergence of the very short story is associated with Natalie Sarot book written and translated in the last seventies. My interest in Fatima was induced by her position in the forefront and because her prose didn't receive the acclaim it really deserves. Initially it was to put the texts together, a mission taken up by those who were advocates of the very short stories. I myself, was part of this enterprise for which I can neither claim antecedence nor monopoly. Having said that, I became the first to conduct the critical approach to the texts and analyze them to verify their authenticity as one kind of very short stories and confirm Faţima's leadership in this field. This effort appears in my recently published book about the art of the very short story. In the end, it is the critic's task to publicize the Sudanese literature and its symbols.

Q: -- Who, of the Sudanese and Arab writers, attract your attention today?

A: -- Amir Taj al Sir' Mansour al Suwayim,'Abd al Aziz Baraka Sakin, Hammour Ziada, Layla Abual Ila and Ann al Safi. At the level of the Arab world, are Ibrahim Nasr Allah and the Kuwaiti Sa'ud al San'usi.




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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