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Rewriting Sudan in Leila Aboulela’s Novel ‘River Spirit’

River Spirit is a recent historical novel by the award-winning Scottish-Sudanese novelist Leila Aboulela published by Saqi Books. River Spirit is Aboulela´s sixth novel and it explores the physical, emotional, and spiritual devastation wrought by slavery, multiple layers of colonialism and religious division in 19th-century Sudan. 

River Spirit marks a significant milestone as the inaugural Sudanese work in English, actively responding to and interacting with English literary and historical portrayals of the “Mahdist Uprising” (1881-1899). These narratives predominantly painted Sudan through the singular perspective of the Mahdi and his followers, neglecting the complex and diverse identity of Sudanese leaders and their local culture. These influential English works played a pivotal role in shaping Western (specifically British) public opinion, ultimately influencing campaigns to occupy Sudan in 1899. Noteworthy examples among these British works are Rudolf Sultan Pasha’s autobiography The Sword and the Fire and the British film The Four Feathers.

The events of River Spirit begin in 1877, narrating the story of the young girl Akuany. After her father’s death and the invasion of her village, a merchant from Khartoum named Yassin takes care of her and her younger brother, Bol. Yassin entrusts Akuany and her brother to his sister, Halima, after deciding to leave his father´s trade and set off in a journey to Egypt to study at Al-Azhar.

However, Yassin’s sister quickly sells Akuany to the wife of the Turkish governor, Nazli. This marks the start of Akuany’s long journey of enslavement and humiliation in the house of the Turkish governor and later with a Scottish painter, Robert, until she eventually returns to live with Yassin, who is hiding from the persecution of the Mahdi and his followers after refusing to acknowledge him.


Modernity, Religion and the Sudanese Identity

river spiritThe novel is narrated in twenty-seven chapters, each from a fictional character’s perspective. The characters’ diverse voices reflect Sudanese people’s divisions and intersected loyalties, even within the same family, over the foreign rulers in Sudan, genuine Islamic values, and the identity of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi ibn Abdullah (1843-1885). Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi was a charismatic Sudanese preacher who declared himself the “expected Mahdi” mentioned in the Prophet’s sayings to establish justice in the Muslim nation after Muslim rulers diverted from “true” ethical Islam. 

River Spirit explores the Madhi’s uprising through the lives of Musa, Rabiha, Nafisa, and the Yaseen family, providing a broader perspective on the socio-economic context. It goes beyond the political narrative, revealing how the movement attracted both less educated, believing followers and marginalized Sudanese individuals seeking validation and an ethical interpretation of Islam, distinct from corrupt leadership. 

The novel depicts the Mahdi’s identity as a holy figure and model of spiritual justice and rectitude with charisma and social conscience for his followers. Musa, a footsoldier in the Mahdi’s army, says, “The Mahdi wanted us united as brothers, our bonds warmer than those of tribe or kin” (84). With followers’ sacrifices and faith in al-Mahdi’s project, al-Mahdi and his followers were able to defeat the fortified cities and Turkish and English garrisons despite the primitiveness of his military strategies in a period not exceeding four years.

Furthermore, River Spirit presents contrasting perspectives on the Mahdi, portraying him as both a righteous figure and an extremist, seen through the characters of Yaseen and his educated wife (Salha). The conflict against the corrupt Turkish governor led to a division among Muslim Sudanese, aligning themselves either with the Mahdi or against him. Aboulela’s narrative skillfully illustrates the complexity of these dynamics, showing how the Mahdi’s rule aimed to protect villages from Ottoman rule while also erasing the country’s diverse beliefs and practices. As civil war broke out, dissenters faced punishments similar to the Ottomans’, despite Islamic doctrine prohibiting the enslavement of fellow Muslims. Those opposing the Mahdi were labeled as infidels, justifying their mistreatment.  In a similar situation to this when ordinary people fleeing extremists, “Refugees filled up Al-Ubayyid. They came with stories of tortured villages, stolen livestock, and youth running off to join the uprising” (111).


River Spirit writes back to Western colonial writing  

By tracing the story of Akuany / Zamzam, Aboulela depicts the heroine’s journey towards civilization different than the claimed universal civilization in Western mainstream literary works on modernity and civilization.  Unlike Western texts that depict the transformation and social psychological maturity of the heroine/hero from “backwardness” and “barbaric Islam” to civilized Christianity or secular values, Akuany transforms from a simple, ignorant village girl into a young woman who follows just Islamic teachings under the guidance of the pious, educated “Yaseen” and his family. Akuany learns “how to wear slippers, how to speak Arabic, how she must never shave her head…she learnt how to fast Ramadan for the first time. The azan started to sound normal, so did the cannon fired at Eid” (23).

However, River Spirit‘s portrayal does not subscribe to a simplistic dichotomy of a righteous Islamic culture juxtaposed against an unjust non-Islamic Western culture. Aboulela skillfully unveils the intricate layers of discriminatory customs and beliefs deeply entrenched within Arab and Sudanese cultures, impeding the genuine emergence of these cultural identities.

The protagonist, Akuany or Zamzam, confronts a disconcerting reality where she is compelled to model for the ship’s engineer and an ambitious Scottish artist named “Robert.” Robert’s aspiration to create a painting of a Sudanese woman caters to the European fascination with the enigmatic East and its women, a creation meant to secure advantages and acclaim within Western society.

Simultaneously, Akuany grapples with her position in Arab and Muslim society, where she occupies a lower social standing than the “Yaseen sisters.” Her inferior status is not solely attributed to her orphaned state but is profoundly influenced by her dark skin color, which symbolizes her perceived subordination and validates her enslaved condition. Northern Sudanese women “were dark Brown and she was dark black, because she was circumcised and she (Akuany) was not” (23).

Furthermore, River Spirit delves into the debate on the effectiveness of the abolition of slavery in Muslim societies. Despite the abolition of slavery in Sudan in 1862, the novel raises the problem of circumventing the laws, even among those who supported their application, whether they were Muslims or Europeans. The big market was Khartum, gateway to the East African slave trade, the unfaltering        demand in metropoles of Cairo and Constantinople. Even though the  trade was  officially  outlawed, it  continued  to  flourish…Were not the  European  keen  on  abolishing slavery? The former governer, Gordon, and his laws were remembered. The times they were enforced and the times they were overlooked (150-153).

Overall, the narrative represents a relatively uncommon historical documentation providing an authentic Sudanese perspective on the slave trade, with a specific emphasis on the experiences of enslaved women. It assumes a tertiary narrative structure that moves beyond the binary portrayal of Muslim Sudanese as cruel and regressive, while contrasting Westerners as exemplifying civility and equity. This multifaceted approach offers a more intricate and nuanced understanding of the historical milieu. Within this vein, the amalgamation of historical memory and imaginative reconstructions plays a pivotal role in comprehending the unrecorded aspects of the inner lives of colonized Sudanese individuals. This process contributes significantly to the revelation of an alternative truth, notably absent within prevailing colonial and postcolonial historical narratives.

Amany Abdelrazek-Alsiefy
Amany Abdelrazek-Alsiefy
Dr. Amany Abdelrazek-Alsiefy is a writer and lecturer at the Zentrum für Transdisziplinäre Geschlechterstudien at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany. She holds a Master's degree in English Literature and a Doctorate in English Literature and Language, both earned from German universities. Her academic pursuits encompass a broad spectrum of fields, including gender studies, postcolonial literature, secularization, and fashion theories. With a substantial portfolio of publications in Arabic, English, and German, she is the author of 'Modern Egyptian Women, Fashion, and Faith: Discourses and Representations' (2023).

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