Sudan, a country in Northern Africa, traces its history to pharaonic times. All through its existence, the land through which the Nile river flows, has had many forces staking claim to rule it. In the mid-nineteenth century, Sudan was under Ottoman-Egyptian rule, with the British lending a helping hand in managing the country.
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As expected, the top positions in the administration were held by the colonial powers while the natives were excluded from having any say in how they would be ruled. As ripples of discontent shifted and swayed in the country, Muhammad Ahmad who claimed lineage from the Prophet Muhammad, sensed an opportunity to unite the people of his land.
Using religion as his instrument, he set about bonding the people of his land to form a cohesive force. Declaring himself as the Mahdi, or the promised leader who Muslims believe would appear and rule the world bringing lasting peace, Muhammad Ahmad set about expanding his fan base through direct and indirect means to bring the territories of his country under his power.
Leila Aboulela’s River Spirit is set against this tumultuous time in Sudanese history when the natives, restive at the discriminatory taxes imposed by the colonial powers as well as the invisibilisation of local people in the administration, were looking for opportunities to rise up in revolt. When the Mahdi appeared before them, even those who considered him as false, could not resist the nationalistic spirit raised by the leader.
By the time he finally managed to seize the capital of Khartoum, the city located at the confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile, the people of the country who earlier had to deal with an unjust and corrupt administration now also saw their freedoms snatched and lives violated.
Running parallel to the story of how the people of Sudan rose up to fight the colonial powers, is the story of the immense love that develops between a young girl who is rescued from a violent mob by a young merchant who had come to buy supplies from her father. In an interview, Aboulela mentions that she did not envisage River Spirit as a love story initially. However, the deep bond that springs between the main characters of Akuany and Yaseen acts firmly as the spine lending structure to the narrative.
When the novel begins, Akuany and her baby brother, Bol, are playing by the river as Yaseen keeps watch over them. The sounds of the flowing Nile river, believed to be one of the two rivers of paradise visible on Earth, will go on to be a source of calm and peace for Akuany at times of great difficulty when her life as well as those of the people of Sudan suffer great upheavals. In the book, the Nile River which appears as the White and the Blue Nile, seems to indicate the twin paths forever appearing before the main characters.
To Akuany, the White Nile of her childhood days in southern Sudan with its clear waters symbolises the safety of her parental home. Yaseen, whose familiarity is with the Blue Nile, faces extreme choices at every step of life—whether relating to his relationship with Akuany, his ideologies, his friendships, or his family commitments. Just like how the dark, fertile waters of the Blue Nile feed the land yet cannot keep away the forces constantly arriving to steal from the country, Yaseen’s decisions will go on to impact the people he loves.
The author’s descriptions of the landscape in vivid detail help the reader engage deeply with the unfolding story. Aboulela brings alive the places where Akuany, Yaseen and all the other characters reside or travel. When Akuany arrives in Al-Ubayyid after fleeing her village, she marks the town as one which has a reddish-brown colour. Its mud and straw houses, a brick tower in the centre surrounded by a low government building, markets and soldiers on horses, captures Akuany’s interest.
She’s especially enraptured by the markets with their heaps of green courgettes and red onions, black aubergines, and yellow peppers, sugarcane stacked high, sacks of sesame, senna and tamarind, dusty ostrich feathers and also the beautiful animals that spoke her language. At Al-Ubayyid, Yaseen leaves her with his sister, who promptly goes on to strip Akuany of her identity and renames her Zamzam. And just like that, the shape of Akuany’s life changes forever.
The story is told through multiple perspectives, with voices coming to readers in first, third, and even second-person points of view. Yaseen’s first-person narrative which moves in calm, easy tones becomes increasingly urgent as we witness his dilemma regarding the invitations from the false Mahdi to join the cause. His sense of duty and justice instilled in him through his education at Cairo clashes with his instinct to claim safety for himself and his loved ones.
“…choose life. Keep your faith within your heart even if your tongue is forced to say otherwise. Flee if you can. If you cannot, live in the hope of better circumstances.”
In spite of his instinct for self-preservation, his sense of justice does not allow him to seek relief for himself. For Akuany though, who has seen violence and separation from a young age, self-preservation is almost an involuntary instinct, buried just below the surface of her skin, spurring her to act when danger appears.
What also helps Akuany are the women who surround her. The spirit of sisterhood bonds the women together even when they are competing for the same attention or trying to settle their place in society. Yet, when the claws of patriarchy rear to inflict violence, the kindness of the women comes to the fore in healing one of their own.
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By giving readers the perspectives of the different characters around Yaseen and Akuany, we not only understand their voices and predicaments but also the motivations and compulsions driving their actions. This is especially profound in the voice of Musa, a wayward youth whose family had all but given up on him for his insatiable desire to create trouble.
Musa finds his true calling in spreading the message of the false Mahdi. This now bestows on him the legitimacy to indulge in his favourite hobbies. With great care, Aboulela sketches how people fed up with injustice and corruption can surreptitiously be rallied together through the umbrella of religion.
“It started with a new zikr we could hear at night…it was our own language, familiar and fresh like a newborn among us. It said, wake up, you’ve been asleep…wake up, you’ve been exploited.” Once a following has been established, violence and tyranny then become the staff to entertain as well as pen the flock inside shuttered enclosures where thoughts may be regulated into desired directions.
“They will raise armies, invade and pillage because it is only aggression that will keep their cause alive. Fighting an enemy is always easier than governing human complexity.”
In the midst of all the upheavals, women and children trying to live peaceful lives are denied this right and become loose change for the looters to stake claim. The impact of colonialism and the unbelievable success of the false Mahdi, both of which gave power to people with vastly different ideologies, yet who were united in their determination to exploit the land and people, only made life go from bad to worse for the people of Sudan.
Through the love story of an innocent couple who dreamt of making a life together, Aboulela brings across the story of the people of a nation for whom peace and freedom have always come at a price.
Kochi-based Fehmida Zakeer is the translator of The Dreams Of A Mappila Girl by B.M. Zuhara.