Thanks to Raphael Cormack I came to understand yesterday that Merowe bookshop in downtown Khartoum has been forced by dire finances to permanently close its doors. My list of habitual places to visit is down by one. Over the past years, I have observed how the Khartoum I knew is withering away. Death and dispersion across the globe has taken away mentors, comrades and friends, and the wear and tear of time is burying places. Merowe bookshop is particularly dear to me. This I suppose is an obituary of a bookshop.
A passion for books in Khartoum of the 1990s was a difficult instinct to satisfy. Politically, books other than the yellow paged hardcovers of Islamic figh were shunned, and in trade terms what was a book when people could not get enough bread. I recall foraging through the collections of used books on sale in Omdurman’s market along the walls of the main post office for readable and affordable texts and returning home with a copy of Heikal’s journalistic books or some random Egyptian novel after tiring cycles of bargaining. It was in one of those foraging rounds that I discovered Sudan’s most prominent Marxist historian, the late Mohamed Saeed al-Gaddal. I later came to know Gaddal in person and benefit from his pedagogy. It was thanks to Gaddal’s works on the Mahdiyya that I came to appreciate some elements of the operations of Sudanese political economy. Merowe bookshop was the place to find Gaddal’s masterpieces. The bookshop was organised around the principle of chaotic timescale and a distinction between Sudanese authors, Egyptian authors and translations from foreign languages. To find a certain book you had to diligently search for it through the stacks and piles. Whether a title was available was a relevant question to only recent acquisitions.
As we entered the 2000s the situation improved somewhat judging by the number of employees and increasing new prints. Merowe bookshop was the place to find a rarity like a collection of the poems of Haj al-Mahi, the passionate 19 century madih (praise writer) of the prophet Mohamed. Haj al-Mahi was born around 1789 in al-Kassinger close to Kareema and died in the same village around 1871. His poems, when read in their full length, provide an impressive record of social life in northern riverain Sudan in his time and age, including the devastation brought by capitalist penetration onto an ancient way of life. Artistically, Haj al-Mahi is a largely ignored pioneer of Sudanese music. His elaborate tunes are yet to be captured in their musical elegance but are thankfully perpetuated by generation after generation of Awlad Haj al-Mahi, in the rule a trio of performers from his bloodline who have managed to keep this noble tradition alive and well. The continuity is baffling when contrasted with the convulsions that have ravaged al-Kassinger, Kareema and Sudan since.
As a schoolboy it was in Merowe bookshop that my father bought me children’s books from the series Al-Maktaba al-Khadraa (the green library), creative Arabic translations of fables from around the world by an Algerian publisher. The collection as far as I can remember totalled 63 titles. The trip was a favourite because it involved crossing the bridge from Omdurman to Khartoum, the city proper, and more often than not included a trip to the zoo or to the national museum. From those times I recall a children’s book by a Sudanese author who managed to turn the history of the Napatan (25th) Kushite dynasty into fabulously inspiring adventures. The book begins with a blitzkrieg account of King Piankhi’s campaign to conquer Egypt and the restitution of the worship of Amun. The description of King Taharqa (reigned from 690 to 664 BC) crossing the Nile on his black horse at the lead of a Kushite army as he advanced to meet the Assyrian aggressors at the historic battle of Eltekeh still fills me with awe. The black and white illustrations of the book were no less impressive. Merowe bookshop was where we found this gem. Taharqa died in Thebes and was buried in Nuri, a pharaoh. It took my father a lot of explaining to reconcile in my mind this depiction of a ‘good’ pharaoh with the ‘evil’ pharaoh of Moses in the Quranic tale. At that time I simply concluded that Sudanese pharaohs were good and Egyptian ones evil. I spent hours trying to recreate these battle scenes with clay and thus saved my working mother, a school teacher, precious time where I needed next to no attention, all thanks to Merowe bookshop. I was however unsatisfied with my colours, since ash was simply not enough to turn the black of clay into white and thus give me the halab Egyptians I needed to defeat with my Kushite heroes.
Another memorable title from Merowe bookshop was Ali al-Mak’s translations of selected short stories and poems of African-American authors. A solid Omdurmanian, Ali al-Mak died in 1992 in New Mexico. As a child I recall resisting sleep at all costs to be able to listen to his voice on late night television programmes while pretending to be long asleep hidden under my covers. His deep stable hypnotising voice and outstanding storytelling skills were a lesson in the dialectic of form and content. I am since convinced that the most profound insights are lost when transmitted in poor form. I struggled with the issue terribly when reading Arabic translations of Lenin, obviously hastily fashioned and poorly edited by the mostly Syrian and Lebanese Arabic translators of the Soviet era publishing house Mir. To find Lenin you had to forage through the used books on display on the back wall of Khartoum’s Grand Mosque. My first was ‘The State and Revolution’, a haunting read despite the unsatisfactory translation.
In Merowe bookshop of the late 1990s I stumbled upon an Arabic translation of Bayart’s ‘The State in Africa: the Politics of the Belly’ published by the Cairene Third World Press. I asked the owners of Merowe bookshop whether they had any more books from the same publisher, and they kindly complied with my special request. At an extra price they supplied me with translations of Badie’s ‘The Imported State’, Latouche’s ‘The Westernisation of the World’, Bourdieu’s ‘Sociology in Question’ and Burqat’s ‘The Islamic Movement in North Africa’. It was in a dusty corner of Merowe bookshop that I found an entertainingly sharp rarity, a copy of Ali al-Mak and Salah Ahmed Ibrahim’s 1958 collection of short stories: ‘The Petty Bourgeoisie’. Thank you Merowe bookshop for giving me an education.