Leila Aboulela, author, River Spirit - “I had to wade through propaganda”
The Sudanese novelist on tracing the tensions between Britain and Sudan, Christianity and Islam, and the fight for Sudan’s independence
River Spirit (Saqi Books, UK) is set in late 19th century Sudan, during the turbulent times of the Mahdist wars and the Ottoman rule. How did you decide on this particular historical moment?
I initially wanted to write about a more peaceful time in Sudan’s history, the time of rebuilding and fresh hopes after the British invasion of 1898 which brought an end to the Mahdist state. In 2018, I was awarded a fellowship, at the Rockefeller Centre in Bellagio, Italy, based on a proposal to write such a novel. However, following conversations in Bellagio, in which I was encouraged to tackle a more charged period of history, I changed my focus and went further back in time. Although the Mahdist state was an independent state, free of foreign rule, an island of self-rule in a sea of European and Ottoman imperialism, Mahdism was a reactionary and parochial movement. It was based on a belief in a false Messiah, and it caused the destruction of the capital Khartoum, which was a cosmopolitan and attractive city with a crisscrossing of rivers and trade routes. The rise of the Mahdi, the siege of Khartoum and the assassination of its British Governor Charles Gordon was the thrilling historical story I had grown up with and studied in school and university. By writing about it, I wanted to share it with a contemporary audience and look at it with a fresh perspective.
In the novel, the self-proclaimed Mahdi rises to power and becomes a central figure in Sudan’s fight for independence. Can you discuss the historical and religious significance of the Mahdi in the context of Islamic history, and how his prophesied role as a redeemer of Islam is portrayed in the novel?
The Mahdi is not mentioned in the Qur’an. He is, though, described in great detail in many of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, the Hadith. He is described as the Rightly Guided One, who would, close to the end of Time, bring justice and prosperity after years of earthquakes, tyranny and oppression. The Turkish-Egyptian government, which ruled Sudan in the 19th century, heavily taxed the people, most of whom were impoverished. There was an acute sense of grievance and the idea of the Mahdi as a saviour started to circulate. When a man named Muhammed Ahmed Abdallah made this claim, he was believed because he was pious and charismatic. When he took up arms against the government, his successes were spectacular given his meagre resources. With each successive victory, his followers increased until most of the country was on his side. One of the characters in River Spirit, is Musa, a young soldier and a fervent adherent of the Mahdi. We get to hear his perspective and understand his unshakable belief but then the novel switches to other characters who denounce the Mahdi as an imposter.
How did you approach researching the historical and cultural context of Sudan for this novel? What kind of sources did you consult, and what challenges did you face in recreating the period?
I had to wade through propaganda and even many of the primary texts about the Mahdist period were edited, translated and published by British officials keen to whip up support for a full-scale invasion of Sudan, or afterwards to justify British colonialism! It was not easy at all. It helped that I am bilingual and I could access the original Arabic resources and other Arabic sources that had never been translated. As a novelist, though, I did not want to be uncritically patriotic. Instead, I wanted to dive in and approximate, as closely as possible the perspective of the historical characters themselves.
The novel touches upon themes of family, inheritance, and legacy. How did your personal family history influence your writing of the novel, if at all?
My great grandfather was an immigrant from the south of Egypt, and he was an employee in the colonial government. He was staunchly opposed to the Mahdi in every possible way. When the Mahdi and his army entered Omdurman, my great grandfather dug a pit in his yard and hid his five daughters there because he was afraid they would be raped. This fear and sense of impending chaos was always something that struck me. Although I tried my best in the novel to present a wide spectrum of Sudanese opinions and perspectives, the final sway was towards my family’s position.
Akuany and Yaseen’s relationship is at the heart of the novel, but it is also deeply influenced by larger political and social forces. How did you approach balancing the personal and political aspects of their story?
Writing a love story was not my main focus. I did not think that I was writing a love story but in fact this is what I actually ended up doing! My concern was telling the historical narrative in such a way that each of the characters would pick up the baton of the story and pass it on to the next character. I had to make a decision about which character would be placed to convincingly describe a particular event and of course it had to sound natural and unforced. I did not want to shoehorn a character in a particular place or situation. I spent a lot of time making sure that the story evolved organically or at least gave the impression of doing so. At the same time, I was also keen to be as accurate as possible and not to take liberties with the historical facts.
Akuany’s journey from a child survivor of a village raid to a slave is an emotional one. How was the process of writing about her experiences?
She was the most fictionalized of all the characters and so I enjoyed writing about her. The nucleus for the idea about her came from the Sudan Archives at Durham University, where I found a bill of sale for a woman called Zamzam (the name that Akuany is given when she becomes enslaved). I was shocked by this discovery. I knew that slavery existed in nineteenth century Sudan, but to hold in my hand a bill of sale, with an actual monetary figure and the names of the people involved, was quite startling. I also found a petition detailing the case of an enslaved woman who had escaped with a stolen item of clothing from her mistress. She had gone back to her former master, and it was against him that the petition was raised. I found this situation intriguing and complex enough for me to want to fill in the gaps with fiction. I started researching East African slavery, with the explicit intention of finding out what the texture of life must have been like for someone like Akuany.
The novel grapples with the complexities of power and control, particularly in the context of imperialism and colonialism, politics and religion. How did you approach these themes in a way that isn’t simplistic or reductive?
By telling the truth, by working in as many nuances as I could, I avoided a simplistic portrayal. In fact, it would have been difficult for me to present a simplistic portrayal. I am able to see both sides of the situation and after seeing it, I cannot “unsee”. There are four main characters in River Spirit who are completely different from each other — in addition to Musa, the soldier fighting on the side of the Mahdi, Yaseen is a merchant who then travels to Al Azhar University to study the Qur’an and becomes a jurist; Robert is a Scottish artist working as an engineer, and Akuany, who is enslaved. There are another four supporting characters, three of whom are women, one of them elderly. Each of these different characters tells the story in their own words from their perspectives. Often in the first person, but sometimes in a close third person, which gives the reader access into their interiority.
The novel’s ending raises profound questions about what we believe and what we are willing to sacrifice for our beliefs. What do you think is the significance of this ending and what do you hope readers will take away from it?
It is always difficult to predict how readers respond to a text. What they take from it also depends on what they need and how they initially approached the novel. In the ending, although the characters are sacrificing and paying a huge prize, they are winning the things that they truly loved whether it is social position, career success, love or the freedom to practise their faith.
Your novels have been praised for their rich and nuanced depictions of Islamic spirituality and political life. How do your personal experiences and background influence your writing?
I believe that writers write about what fascinates them. I am fascinated by the challenges that Muslims face especially when such challenges are in direct opposition to their values and faith. Western literature is Christian-centric, what new stories could be told if Muslim experience is the focus? What new ways of thinking and knowing could Muslims bring to an understanding of the world? How resilient, how flexible, how accommodating could Islam be in new situations and futures? And if, by definition, such characters are seeking and relying on divine help, how can an author incorporate that in a work of fiction without resorting to miraculous events or deux ex machina. I moved from Sudan to Britain over 30 years ago and the focus of my personal energies has been about living as a practising Muslim and bringing up my children as Muslims in a non-Muslim, non-religious environment. I am grateful that this has been possible. In my fiction, I am attracted to situations that are more dramatic and dangerous than mine; characters who face much greater trials.
Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing by Women Writers. She tweets at @shireenquadri