/ 23 June 2010

Underground in Khartoum

Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, was in a bit of a Catch-22 situation this month. His Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, invited him to an African Union summit to be held in Kampala next month. Most heads of state will be there. The catch for al-Bashir is that Museveni is compelled, by international law, to arrest him when he touches down on Ugandan soil. The Sudanese president has an arrest warrant hanging over his head, issued by the International Criminal Court, for alleged crimes committed by his government in Darfur.

If he decides not to travel, al-Bashir might consider spending some time sifting through one of the largest underground book collections I have ever stumbled on.

Under the streets of Khartoum, not far from the Presidential Palace, is a collection of books, primarily in English and Arabic, collected over the decades by a family of Sudanese book lovers.

Despite having worked in numerous Arabic-speaking countries, my proficiency in Arabic is beyond embarrassing. Setting out on a Book Safari in Khartoum, finding books is not the problem — finding books in English, however, is a challenge.

Much of the city is a construction site. Oil money is behind new roads, hotels and office buildings. But Khartoum is still, for the most part, a dusty North African city, with outdoor markets being the most important places for buying all things that can be had for an exchange of coins — books included.

After searching through a pile of school books at the umpteenth informal bookshop-on-a-pavement I had found, a chance glance at a sign mounted on a light standard pointed me in the direction of the Marawi Bookshop on Parliament Avenue.

Fahmi Iskander Fahmi runs the place, following in the footsteps of his father, who opened the shop in the 1960s.

I don’t know whether it was because Fahmi was bored or because I appeared to share his love for the printed word, but he came up to me while I was browsing, tapped me on the shoulder and said: “I see you like books. I’d like to show you something.”

For me this is the sort of offer that cannot be refused, so off I went with him out of the shop, down the street and into a dark alcove ending at a rusty grey metal door. Through the door and down a ramp was an underground warehouse, extending below the street and in it were stacks of books, piles, shelves, pallets and boxes covering an area about the size of a football field.

More than half of the books were of the sort one would expect to find in a primary or secondary school — not surprising as Fahmi senior was apparently known as the educator of Sudan, a man who believed that empowering people through knowledge was their key to freedom.

Fahmi junior told me that I was looking at more than a million titles.

I was looking for one title in particular — Season of Migration to the North — quite possibly, for foreigners, the best-known novel by a Sudanese author, al-Tayyib Salih. They didn’t have it.

Fahmi suggested The Translator by Leila Aboulela. It’s a love story about a young Sudanese widow, Sammar, who lives in Scotland where she translates documents and conducts research at a local university.

About halfway through the book, Sammar boards a train to London to board a flight to Khartoum to, among other things, return to her estranged son. The time it takes to travel by train from Aberdeen to London is probably more than even a relatively slow reader would need to reach the end of this gentle story. It’s a sort of Sudanese Mills & Boon that no Sudanese woman would be embarrassed to read while sitting on a bench overlooking the Nile. One reviewer has even called The Translator the first halaal novel written in English.

I realise that last comment doesn’t necessarily make The Translator sound like a page-turner, but it is. Aboulela skilfully writes in a manner that doesn’t alienate readers and covers a subject in which culture and religion clash.

One of these days I’ll pick up her second novel, Minaret. One of these days I’ll go back to Marawi Bookshop and ask Fahmi if he’s managed to get a copy of al-Tayyib Salih’s book. If he hasn’t, I’ll accept whatever he recommends — with confidence.

Book Safari recounts David L Smith’s adventures in Africa on the trail of books and unusual bookshops. The Translator, Leila Aboulela’s first novel, is published by Polygon and is easy to find in South Africa, selling for about R120 in most bookshops or online