Above, screenshot from Moniem Ibrahim’s dramatization of the Sudanese poem, Uncle Abdur-Raheem, with Anglo-Sudanese reciter, Duha Bilal
This post is dedicated to the Sudanese film maker and innovator of Sudanese theatre, Moniem Ibrahim, who was kind enough to talk to me about the inspiration for his dramatization of The Tragedy of Uncle Abdur-Raheem.
Detail from work by young Sudanese artist, Reem, personal collection. Scroll down to the end of this post to see complete work.
“My omniscient, bountiful Lord,” / he intoned, summing up his dawn prayers / in hums and whispers ….. Bowing his head, / worries tumbled down – sticky and dense, / Looking up, / it was a barren sky, / save for a thin streak of clouds / and some shy distant stars. It was summer time.”
Above, the opening lines from Uncle Abdur-Raheem, by popular Sudanese dialect poet Mohammad El-Hassan Salim “Himmaid”, (1956-2012), translated by Adil Babikir, in Modern Sudanese Poetry, An Anthology
See too Modern Sudanese Poetry – Arablit
From Uncle Abdur-Raheem, translated by Adil Babikir. Photo, Jebel Aulia, Khartoum.
Moniem Ibrahim and The Tragedy of Uncle Abdur-Raheem
…… “an intense visual language that expresses care and understanding of humanity”; Moniem Ibrahim, on the ethos of the ground-breaking Shoaf Drama Group he directed in the late 90’s. Watch the short video below on the Group’s mission to bring Sudanese theatre out of the cultural margins and to embrace equality through experimentation.
“Holding onto your pains so you can see”- Shoaf Theatre
IT: Moniem, thank you for your kindness and for taking the time to talk to me. Poetry has exerted a powerful pull in your work as film maker and dramatist. The first work of the Shoaf theatre school you directed was a dramatization based on the Sudanese poem Yankee Curse by Mohammad El Gadal. (See more in Emergence of Singularities)
What inspires you about the interplay of poetry and drama as a filmmaker?
MI: In theatre, I have always wanted to reduce dependency on speech and concentrate on visual action instead. I have always been eager to present plays with intense visual significance and I found that Sudanese poetry is very rich in this regard.
During the eighties and nineties I worked as an experimental theatre practitioner through many institutes in Khartoum and later for the Shoaf Drama Group. Back then, I dramatized a lot of poems and texts as theatrical performances as well as one poem for radio and all these works were in Sudanese Northern Arabic dialect.
The bicycles of bread and ice sellers in Khartoum – Sudanese workers whose dignity Himmaid celebrated in his poetry.
IT: You have dedicated so much of your artistic focus to Sudanese cinema and theatre. Why did you choose Mohammad El-Hassan Salim “Himmaid”’s Abdur-Raheem to dramatize in English?
MI: Actually, like all my generation, it’s the socio-political messages in Himmaid’s poems that made me a fan of his work. But there’s also all the dramatic elements – moves, gestures and inner conflicts…. And multiple voices that gives the possibility to create intriguing dialogue.
Barbers outside the Comboni Institute, Khartoum
I became passionate about Uncle Abdur-Raheem – the English version – for many reasons. I was drawn by its narrative style and there’s a dramatic energy I’d describe as lurking in the poem. What happens in the poem echoes real life; something that could happen to any one of your relatives. And don’t forget it already exists in the Sudanese collective imagination thanks to Mustafa Sidahmed’s musical version with all the emotional power of his melody and oud accompaniment. (See Uncle Abdur-Raheem to hear Sidahmed’s plangent song version.)
I wanted to raise awareness amongst the younger generations of the Sudanese diaspora too; bring the testimonies of the oppressed of Sudan alive to them and by doing this hopefully help them forge ties with their parents’ homeland. And I wanted non Sudanese to taste some of our local poetry.
MI: Duha herself is the one who inspired me to work on this piece when her father, Sidahmed Bilal, introduced her – with her passion for the translated version of Uncle Abdur Raheem. She was just eleven at that time. I immediately got involved and asked her if she could tell people the story in dramatized form and she replied, “Of course, Uncle Moniem! I had to wait for about four years before I was able to make the video-art installation that came out last year.
Below, the word “justice” , together with “peace” and “republic” seen on the wall of a Khartoum street November 2019
In your sorrow, / Uncle Abdur-Raheem, / there are others no less unfortunate, / living in rented dwelling. / No land, no palm trees of their own. / And others who can’t afford even a burrow, / trading their muscle strength and sweat for a scanty living. / The sun-scorched, / city workers, / porters, / sailors, / cane cutters, / cotton pickers, / rope hawkers, / bakers: fused by oven flames / and a blazing weather. What a life! / for the debt-ridden, / like a cart horse, / working daylong, for pennies…..
Uncle Abdur Raheem, translated by Adil Babikir
Seller of wickerwork on the dual carriageway, Khartoum
“Governments out, to oblivion. / Governments in, over us they reign – / with fairy tales an illusion, / fallacies and game, / being their sacred constitution, the graveyards ruling us in the Prophet’s name.” Uncle Abdur-Raheem
Paintings (left) of the newly appointed president Hamdok next to that of Numieri hanging in Mek Nimr Street, Khartoum, together with those (right) of four years ago. See Uncle Abdur-Raheem for more on the poem’s socio-political themes.
Street scene in central Khartoum
IT: Can you tell non Sudanese readers a little about the poet and why the poem resonates so deeply among the Sudanese?
MI: Himmaid was so deep rooted in Sudanese subcultures, He became the voice of the oppressed; labourers, farmers, city workers, marginalized groups and ethnic minorities. He was a humanist and a supporter of social justice. Adil Babikir, the translator of the poem recognized its power to speak to different generations, echoing as it does the frustration of the poor.
Tuktuk driver in Imtidad, Khartoum
IT: What would you like non Sudanese audiences to take away from the experience? What possible preconceptions and stereotypes they might have would you invite them to question? What other works by Sudanese poets would you like non Sudanese to be able to access and appreciate?
Khartoum, late afternoon by the Atbara railway tracks, with sugarcane seller’s tray in the foreground
MI: I wanted to invite the spectators to appreciate the imagery in Sudanese poetry by creating their own images. In contrary to my past experiences, this video consisted of very little objective visual synonyms or their equivalent. So the visual framework was pared back to a minimum – to enrich the imagination of the spectators.
Selling dreams on Qasr el Nil Street, Khartoum
MI: Sudanese poetry is very rich and a number of poems have been already translated into English, for example I picked up “Uncle Abdu Raheem” from Adil Babekir’s anthology. It includes thirty-five of some of Sudan’s most renowned poets and I would really recommend it and encourage anyone who is interested in Sudanese poetry and culture to read it.
Street scene, early morning in Khartoum
IT: You are also a professional dialect coach – what were the directing challenges involved in achieving the lyrical rhythms and flows of the English recital which are so compelling?
MI: That was the real challenge! But I was betting on Duha, who was born and raised in the UK, but at the same time has the typical character of someone who also lives her Sudanese culture every day. I was betting on her perception of the original text plus the song. She didn’t let me down! I did have some technical issues though because I was using old sound sources, but with the help of my sound designer, I managed to overcome the problems.
IT: Can you tell us a little about Duha Bilal, the actor – reciter?
MI: Duha is now sixteen years old and she studies in London and she is taking drama as one of her main subjects. She is doing brilliantly. I had the chance to follow some of her performances at her school. She is a really promising and talented British-Sudanese actress.
IT: Finally, could you tell us a little about what you’re working on now?
MI: I’ve just finished and released my first music video. The story began when I first heard an experimental sound track composed by my friend Erik Moore. Erik was interested in finding a Sudanese vocal to accompany the original sound track; I immediately thought of my friend Mo Shabaka, who was also impressed by the track when he heard it. Erik and Mo collaborated and gave us a striking alternative re-mix.
Watch Moniem’s video here:
MI: I’m also planning to dramatize two other pieces by Himmaid, – one is “Nadus”, a poem from mid-eighties, the other is “Tashesh”, which had been suggested by Himmaid himself when I met him for the first time in 2006. Tasheesh is an elegy on the late brilliant musician Mustafa Sidahmed. I hope to finish both soon.
Lorry passengers and sugarcane seller
IT: I know many will now be looking forward to seeing these works and wish you every success. And once again, thank you for giving this blog your time.
Work by young Sudanese artist, Reem. From Mojo Gallery, Khartoum Mojo Gallery, Khartoum FaceBook
Our literacy centre in Dar asSalaam, Khartoum
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Youngsters peer in on our literacy circle in Jebel Aulia. Many here have no running water or electricity and can’t afford to send their daughters to school.