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Systems of Governance

Trajectories of the Sudanese Gulf

By Michael Vasquez


The journal that the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) published in Beirut, Hiwar, was immediately controversial. Founded in 1962 by a Palestinian Christian modernist poet and translator of TS Eliot — a somewhat perverse figure named Tawfiq Sayigh. Sayigh published many of his poems in his journal, including “A Few Questions I Posed to the Unicorn”, which has been called the strangest poem in Arabic literature. In 1963 Hiwar published a short story by the radical feminist writer Layla Baalbaki called “A Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon”.  She released a short story collection by the same title later that year, which led to her being arraigned for obscenity and offense to public morals. Which is also to say that Hiwar was the sort of magazine that would purposely court that sort of controversy. And it wasn’t just controversy for its own sake — if you look at Baalbaki, who in the wake of that encounter with the state stopped writing, she’s definitely another elliptical figure that is worth recovering.  In 1966, the magazine published Tayib Salih’s Season of Migration to the North in its entirety. It’s an incredible book. Edward Said called it one of the six pivotal novels in the Arabic language. It’s the story of a Sudanese intellectual, Mustafa Said, who goes to London, becomes a professor at the London School of Economics, sleeps his way through various well-meaning white girls in London, leaving a trail of suicides behind him. To seduce women he plays up the Oriental savage fantasy — appeals to everyone’s basest nature. Finally he meets someone who “gets him” and then, he murders her. Hiwar was the sort of place that would publish the book because a tenth of the novel is a conversation between seventy-something elders from the village about sex which is led by an eighty-something woman, who had divorced several husbands for their sexual inadequacy.  

CCF which published all these magazines was actually being bankrolled by the CIA. They purported to be engaged in promoting cultural freedom which had an agenda, obviously, but this was not known. And when the story came out, many of the journals — though not all — collapsed within a few months or years, and the editors faced personal and professional catastrophe. The editor of Transition was thrown in jail and Tawfiq Sayigh was hounded out of Beirut. He died in 1971 at the age of 47 — but in some ways, I think that the relationship between Sayigh and Salih was very important; and it’s the absence of that relationship which helps explain the diminution of Salih’s interest in publishing new work.


After World War II the idea was that there was going to be a cultural Cold War and that it was going to be fought between the non-communist left and the — there was no right; the right was discredited by fascism — so the war was actually between the lefts…. So talking about hidden hinges and pivots in history 1966 was an incredibly important year in the Cold War — in the cultural cold war in particular. 1966 was more important than ’68. 1968 is more cinematic and happens in Europe, but 1966 was Nkrumah’s overthrow and the two coups and the outbreak of mass violence in Nigeria, one could add the state of emergency in Uganda. I was the year that The Battle of Algiers was released, a really seminal film. And the Tricontinental Conference in Havana set a new tone and established Cuba as one of the leading intellectual lights across the non-aligned world — marking the moment of the shift from non-alignment to socialist resistance. And a publication called Tricontinental which was very influential was door-dropped on college campuses across the Third World. There was really something new that happened in Cuba which Tricontential was the finest expression of. Inside it had a kind of solidarity of the month club poster produced by designers who had been part of the film unit in Algiers. But the Solidarity with Palestine poster remains the most iconic for me. Every one of the solidarity posters involved some folkloric image and a gun.  These images represent a real break with the sort of Socialist Realistic aesthetic of the previous years. And this sort of aesthetic also ended up being influential in Lebanon, in Beirut, not long after.

Trajectories of the Sudanese Gulf

Tayeb Salih (left) and Ibrahim El-Salahi (right) at the Sudanese Embassy in London. Early 1971. (Courtesy of Ibrahim El-Salahi)

There is lot of concern about how to narrate the history of the Gulf and the Sudanese. The sort of soft power of the Sudanese and their role in quietly and in some ways invisibly administering the state at the crucial moment of its first independent articulation — is very little talked about. This also came out in a conversation with Sheika Hoor from Sharjah, she was like; “Actually, you know, all of my dad’s advisors are Sudanese.” And when I began speaking to other people, they were like, “Oh yeah, I’ve always wondered what was up with these Sudanese figures who seem to be mysteriously high placed but there’s no story about them”.  Following up on that I realized that Ibrahim Salahi and Tayib Salih both lived in Doha in the 1970s and they were both employed by the Ministry of Information and Culture. In fact, Tayeb Salih was the minister of culture at one point.

The demand for Sudanese migrants in the Gulf actually was a reflection of the University of Khartoum and many other schools in Sudan which were incredible. There were some of the best in the region, by which I mean the whole of the Middle East and North Africa. So there was very good, specialized knowledge — so doctors, lawyers, and teachers from Sudan were very much in demand across the Gulf.

Ibrahim El-Salahi

Ibrahim El-Salahi had a show at the Tate Modern in 2013. It was an amazing retrospective — it also had vitrines filled with the material culture by which his work entered into the international art world. He came into the art world in the early 1960s, and he came through various publications. This is one of the elliptical things that I am interested in, the apparatus of culture, which is: publications, prints, exhibitions, networks, relationships, and people— things that, without which, famous books or artworks or shows, would not exist. For example in this show – “A Visionary Modernist” was the title – you see Black Orpheus, the first major literary magazine in Africa, founded in the late 1950s. This is where Ibrahim Salahi gets his first appearance and is profiled by the editor in chief. Actually, his first show is in Ibadan, at the Mbari Club, organized by the editor of Black Orpheus.  

Cultural Freedom

If any of you are involved with non-profits or have received money from a foundation, you know that the way foundations work is that they give you money for a specific purpose. And you have to then spend a lot of time accounting for how you spent the money such that it goes back to their specific purpose — and sometimes you have to invent things that you might not have wanted to do in the first place, to get the money — whereas the CCF and in particular its grantmaking body, the Farfield Foundation would give you money and you could spend it on anything you wanted. I mean — they didn’t give you a ton — it was more like, I want to send a writer from South Africa to East Africa to write a story — and Farfield would give you money. Or Black Orpheus, which starts out on its own and then at a certain point its editor, Ulli Beier, is like — I want to pay my writers. Because I’ve never been able to do that, we don’t have money. And he got a budget to start paying the writers. So it’s — basically, for me, I actually do think it’s naive. So when I realized that the same people who were going to CCF events were going to Afro-Asian meetings — Ngugi wa Thiongo or James Ngugi as he was known at the time: his first novel is published because he wins a story prize at the first-ever conference of African writers on African soil in Kampala in 1962. He then wins the Lotus Prize from the Afro-Asian Writer’s Bureau in Cairo — and they reprint that same short story, which was originally published in Transition, in Lotus, the Afro-Asian literary journal. And Ngugi is someone who definitely disavows the former — where there are other people who, in a certain perverse version of non-alignment, took money from whoever would give it to them. Because it’s actually hard to make things. At the time, the sort of Cold War international state system meant that there were two competing international endowments for the arts. And because there were many lives that were destroyed by the story of CIA funding — Tawfiq Saytigh did not survive this story; Rajat Neogy, who founded Transition, was broken by this story. There are casualties all over. And my work on this is actually designed to tell a kind of group biography of the editors of these journals.

muzmin_coverresizedThis article features in a special, Arabic-only edition of the Chronic, published in June 2015 as “Muzmin”. The issue, which examines the division of “North” and “sub-Saharan” Africa and Ali Mazrui’s concept of “Afrabia”, was designed in collaboration with Studio Safar (Beirut) and presented at the 12th edition of Sharjah Biennial.

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