Monday 27 February 2017

License to marry: who cares?

Mohamed Mahjoub, a member of the leadership council of the opposition National Consensus Forces (NCF) alliance, spoke dismissively of the proposal forwarded by the Popular Congress Party (PCP) regarding reform of the requirements for marriage. The issue which has proven to be the most hotly contested among the proposals that came out of President Bashir’s national dialogue process, was described by Mahjoub as a diversion from the ‘serious’ business of public freedoms. The comment is a sorry demonstration of politics missing its point. 
The PCP put forward a series of proposals which it said were drafted by the late Hassan al-Turabi and dubbed ‘the freedoms document’. One of Turabi’s points affirms the freedom of “men and women to marry by consensual contract directly between them or through agency”. The Salafi establishment in Sudan was aghast. Turabi’s apparently benign formulation essentially proposed abolition of the requirement for a male guardian over a woman to consummate marriage. Another Turabist line that proved similarly contentious granted “every human being the right of choosing the views he wishes to subscribe to by way of religious belief or doctrine, besides the right to practice any worship rituals, celebrate religious festivities and establish places of worship. Nobody shall be coerced to believe in a certain religion or creed, and none shall be prevented from engaging in debate according to his belief and opinion”. In this typically convoluted formulation the sheikh was attempting to strike the apostasy charge and related provisions off the law book. 
The religious establishment immediately recognised what was coming its way. The Islamic Jurisprudence Academy, a semi-governmental body of Islamic scholars, announced its opposition to the proposals. Members of the council said the proposals constitute a legal permission of apostasy and will only lead to discord and conflict. The council issued a formal fatwa saying the proposals were in contradiction with sharia and are effectively in the realm of haram. The Wahhabi Ansar al-Sunna said the same stressing that the requirement for a guardian over a woman in marriage actually preserves the dignity of women. Ismail Osman al-Mahi, the leader of the group, said the permissive proposals would “open the door wide for shiite proselytisation, atheism and the establishment of temples in the country”. Star preachers from the Salafi bloc announced from their mosque pulpits a campaign against Turabi’s document. Abd al-Hai Yusif raged against the proposals. “They want to amend what the Prophet’s traditions have approved”. Of course, he was particularly venomous when it came to marriage. “They want to amend and change and blasphemy as they please and they want the imams to remain silent”. The Salafi preacher ignored Muslim etiquette and directed his anger at the dead Turabi. “These proposals were made by some who have since died and are in the grave. Some parties want to force the ideas of the dead on the community of Muslims, blasphemous ideas born out of fraud, distortion, acceptance of some holy dictates and the dismissal of others.”
Turabi is no longer around to respond. He usually did not anyway to such verbal aggression. Abd al-Hai Yusif, educated in the dogmas of Wahhabism, is incensed by Turabi’s creole approach to sharia. Whatever Turabi’s specific motivations for putting forward what he definitely knew would be threatening proposals, the sheikh is proving the capacity to rattle things from the grave while Mohamed Mahjoub and his likes rejoice in the exercise of futility. For the past ten years or so of his life, Turabi went to great lengths to rework his understanding of liberties in the private and public spheres from an Islamic perspective. Following his own sunna in ignoring details that do not exactly fit his standpoint on any particular issue, Turabi did not deliver a cogent ‘theological’ argument to back his proposals. From the viewpoint of Abd al-Hai and his associates they are nevertheless dangerous, in the first instance because they emanate from within the Islamic rank and not from the barricades of the defeated secular intelligentsia. Turabi’s strand of ‘Islamic’ feminism is a more a political initiative than a body of thought through postulates. 
In keeping with his legal training, Turabi’s approach to emancipation has always been a legal one, and his current proposal on the reform of the 'marriage contract' as he preferred to say is his posthumous contribution to the issue. What the late sheikh threw at the religious establishment is an attempt at reversing by letter of law centuries of patriarchal oversight over women’s choices. The Islamic Jurisprudence Academy did not frontally challenge Turabi’s theological innovation but chose instead to argue that his proposal contravenes “sharia-supported established custom in Sudan”. Even Abd al-Hai, the self-proclaimed puritan, could not but surrender to some of Turabi’s logic. He argued that sharia already conditions marriage with a woman’s consent. “The law and the Prophet’s Sunna both determine that no (marriage) contract is valid without consent,” he told worshippers in Khartoum’s Jabra last Friday. Turabi’s proposal of course, al least formally, takes the patriarchal cap off that consent. Mohamed Mahjoub and the NCF politicians in their haste could not grasp the ‘revolutionary’ element in Turabi’s posthumous poke at rijal al-Din (men of religion). I fear that they probably agree with the conservative position of their fellow rijal from the religious establishment on this one issue and would not be exactly happy if their womenfolk, bareheaded or in a hijab, suddenly had the right to marry themselves off to the next lover without recourse to patriarchal license. 

Sunday 26 February 2017

Merowe bookshop - an obituary

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. 

Monday 13 February 2017

Abd al-Majid Bob has died

Another Sudanese communist of calibre and friend passed away this Friday, Abd al-Majid Bob. Losses abound and friends are few. Rest in peace ya Majid.

Creative Commons Licence
This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.