Debating Ideas aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It offers debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
In 2019, foreign media could not stop talking about the uprising in Sudan, the flourishing art that fuelled resistance and what was perceived as the sudden momentum that shook the Islamic regime, referred to more popularly as Inqaz (salvation), toppling its de facto head, Omar Al Bashir.
When anthropologist Ruba El Melik and researcher/journalist Reem Abbas came together later in 2019 to birth the idea of this book, the political agreement that split power between the military and civilian powers was being celebrated as historical. Despite loud criticism from revolutionaries, the agreement’s implementation was underway, not without challenges, but perhaps the shape and form of resistance was different, as it tried to grapple with the forced reality of the agreement.
In the lull of that moment, Ruba El Melik and Reem Abbas were concerned about the whitewashing of the artistic and political resistance scene in Sudan by foreign media, and the impeding historical omissions that the complex history was at risk of. Collaborating with Andariya, a digital media, research and cross-cultural enterprise with headquarters in Sudan and Uganda, a grant was secured to begin researching how the Inqaz regime’s war on artistic principles transformed the arts and culture movement in Sudan between 1989 and 2019.
The book describes in great detail how the effects of the Inqaz regime’s tools of political Islam and authoritarianism wielded immense oppression that constricted arts, artists and infrastructures physically and psychologically. Through 10 chapters divided into the themes Gender, Conflict and Governance, Religion and Institutions, the book explores the extent to which the Inqaz regime went to ensure artists and cultural actors – and their supporters – lost their lives in every sense of the word. Through a careful examination of the lives of known figures, readers learn more about careers that were once flourishing but were forcefully ended, how life works were destroyed, and how art-sympathetic communities and the supporting political opposition were suppressed in tandem.
In the Gender chapter, the book demonstrates how the Public Order law marginalised women singers, disapproving their music and their appearances in music, theatre and cinema – once flourishing areas of the arts and culture sector. An overlooked aspect of the law is how it influenced Sudan’s cultural diversity by being biased to Northern music and restricting everything else as “folk”, thus discriminating against music, languages and performances that were seen as non-Arab and thus un-Islamic.
In the deeply disturbing theme “Institutions”, readers are taken on a whirlwind journey of fraught campus wars at universities waged by the Islamist regime’s student bodies and the notorious National Intelligence and Security Service. The thorny issue of accountability – raised during the revolution and in modern turbulent times towards democracy – arises in this section. The book illustrates how under Inqaz the country never truly flourished economically, rendering everyone and all systems in survival mode. Under the influence of personal gain driven by survival mode, many of the enactors of oppression were themselves suppressed, thus a national exercise towards accountability demands that we consider the limitations of autonomy under conditions of dictatorship.
In the two chapters comprising the more complex theme of Memory, the authors detail how the violent extents of oppression were successful in erasing “Sudan’s collective memory” by “maiming the archive” – the artistic, cultural and social outputs, expressions and identities of generations of artists and cultural actors. “By tracing the fallen regime’s purposeful targeting of collective memory via archival destruction, religious counter-narratives and state sponsored propaganda”, readers are shown how national identity, community values and social ideologies were manipulated over 30 years. Upon their arrival to power through a coup d’état in 1989, the Sudanese Islamist regime shut down the national theatre, closed all cinemas, banned love songs on public channels, discontinued magazines and confiscated books. Artists found themselves arrested on morality and decency charges and within a year, art institutions were shut down. By terminating the entire infrastructure that artists depend on to survive and thrive, authorities sought to control the art produced. The Memory theme ponders what the Sudanese “archive” would have looked like if it was allowed to age and be preserved in perpetuity or granted temporal value, barring the tides of history.
Spanning five states – Khartoum, Blue Nile, Sennar, North Darfur and Al-Jazeera – El Melik and Abbas’ work argues that offering a reproduction of artists’ collective memory regarding the early years of Inqaz, while constructing an overarching narrative that reveals the thought, theory and principle which shaped artistic resistance from 1989 until today, can lead to the (un)doing of resistance of the war on art in Sudan’s contemporary history. What the book seeks to establish are the vast consequences of the Inqaz regime’s methodologies of control and how they brutally shaped the cultural outlook on art and its production in Sudan. It also affirms that the resistance that faced the brutal violence and oppression for 30 years is what drove the 2018/19 revolution and gave it solid grounds of communities, shared experiences and common modalities to resist in new ways to reach its current critical mass. What is perhaps the most beautiful and haunting aspect of the book is the breathtaking tapestry of grit and resistance demonstrated in the personal stories of those interviewed and studied for the production of the book.
Although the Inqaz dictatorship was brutal in the more visible political and economic arenas, the book demonstrates in great details and nuance the various ways the regime manipulated Sudan’s history, society, creative expression and outputs, and native talent through brutal tactics, practices and long-lasting programmes.
The challenge today is to begin to construct the recovery plan for the arts and culture sectors, all while going through a tumultuous and unpredictable political upheaval on the road to democracy. Urgently, we must create a more conducive environment for arts and culture (and their actors, assets and spaces), establish and enact liberal, diversity-minded and inclusive cultural policies and de-tangle the laws to regulate the sector rather than pin it for assault.
On a deeper level, Sudanese people need to re-think their identity, their place in the world and how to connect internally and externally after 30 years of the Civilisation Project which led to a serious regression in societal cohesion, loss of sound and shared values, and lack of representative documentation of our lives.
*Register here to attend the virtual book launch held in collaboration with SOAS on 13th February 2023.