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Ibrahim El-Salahi Pain Relief at The Saatchi Gallery, London

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This stunning visual tribute to Malikah Ad-Dar Mohammad (1920 -1969) and her novel, variously translated as “The Great Emptiness/ Hollowness or The Wide Void/ Vacuum” (Alfaraagh al’ariiD,1970/2) is shown here by kind permission of Assim Jubara, of Iqoona;

This ground-breaking writer depicted working women through the lens of social realism for the first time in Sudanese literature. Drawing on episodes from her own life, and written in a fluid, accessible style marrying classical and everyday Arabic, she challenged conventions and is recognized as the first woman novelist in Sudan. Her work has resonated across the Arab world. Many of the issues she explored in her portrayal of 1950s Sudan are still powerfully and universally relevant today.

Trailblazer Malikah ad-Dar – Her Life and Work

Setting the Scene – A Trailblazing Vision

Above, Malikah ad-Dar Mohammad, photograph reproduced in Sisters under the Sun, The Story of Sudanese Women, Marjorie Hall and Bakhita Amin Ismail, Longman, 1981.

Writing in the late 1940s -1950s, Malikah Ad-Dar (whose name is often transcribed as Malikah al Dar) dares us to imagine a society where women are allowed free expression of their intellectual, spiritual and emotional vision. A society made complete by incorporating the female perspectives shut out of the public and family discourse of her time. By allowing women to exercise agency, society as a whole and women themselves would enjoy restored equilibrium. (Source, Dr. Fatima Saalim, left, in her Sudania 24 TV analysis, embedded below). The dramatic tension informing Malikah ad-Dar’s work arises, in part, from the dissonance or separateness between men and women’s visions and spheres of influence as women strive to come to terms with fractured social and psychological realities.

Woven through and framing her novel are references to the “great void”of its title. The existential void faced by women when doors are closed to them.

“The ground still lay beneath her feet as she leaned against the thick wall. She was overwhelmed by a sense of deadly isolation and an urge to weep – rather to scream and scream and for her screams to fill the earth – but she couldn’t….the world turned black around her…

“ ……and her soul is broken and her heart is wounded and the void ever widening.”

Above, a rough translation of the closing lines of the novel. Muna, the heroine, unable to move, is overcome in the street by a dizzying anger and despair. Malikah ad-Dar confronted head-on the psychological crisis facing women denied creative and intellectual outlets; “the educated woman who is financially independent and yet still cannot escape the strictures of the community in which she lives and the traditional role in which she is cast”. The woman consigned to a “vacuum of idleness, lethargy and ignorance.”

Sisters Under the Sun, p112-3.

Below, some of the first female school teachers,1946.

My thanks to Muna Zaki for her invaluable help in translating the quotations referenced in this blog.

Through her female characters, Malikah ad-Dar questioned the acceptability of gender-based violence, explored the impact of polygamy and portrayed the emotional desolation of women denied the right to choose their husbands. A passionate educator by vocation, she saw the visceral sadness of women refused the opportunity to pursue their education. Her novel and short stories reflect a world where men were absent or unable to provide for their families, and stepping into this void, women could – and were compelled to – exercise a level of economic responsibility and autonomy that men were ill-equipped morally or pragmatically to challenge. She was also acutely aware of the differing standards by which men and women’s conduct were measured. “Jealous male guardianship of female honour and the extent to which transgression of the moral code justified revenge” inform the plot of her short story, The Village Doctor/ Sage. (Sisters Under the Sun). Left, cover of The Great Emptiness / Void, published in the early 1970s.

This blogpost brings together ideas and research undertaken by Sudanese critics. None of the work below is my own. Rather, I hope to make accessible to non-Arabic readers aspects of the work and life of this remarkable writer as expressed by Sudanese researchers. Sources in Arabic are provided at the end of this post. Any errors in interpretation are mine alone.

“Sayyid gave his word as a man that if Sarah joined the institute or any school after today, he would walk away from this house and cut off all ties to this city, and who are you that we should sacrifice him just to please you? All of you put together aren’t worth one of his nail clippings”

Above, Muna’s pleas to allow her cousin, Sarah, to fulfill her hard-earned dream of enrolling at a teaching institute in the face of her brother’s brutal prohibition, fall on deaf ears. Sarah is later overwhelmed by the sadness brought on by this void in her intellectual life.

This is a cultural post for Women’s Education Partnership. 

See At a Glance for more about our work.

Trailblazer Malikah ad-Dar Her Life and Work

Malikah ad-Dar – Her Life; The Urge to Teach

Malikah ad-Dar was born in the Al-Qobba neighborhood of El-Obeid, in 1920. Her father is described as an enlightened man who encouraged his daughter in her studies and teaching ambitions. Her mother was from Omdurman and when Malikah ad-Dar was very young, the family were forced to leave El-Obeid for Omdurman. This upheaval and other autobiographical details are echoed in the life of her self-aware heroine, Muna, a teacher and “ a cultured woman of independent thought”, often interpreted as Malikah ad-Dar’s role model for Sudanese women. At the age of five or six, Malikah began attending Sheikh Ismail’s Quranic school, “having overcome family opposition to the idea” due to the presence of boys there. In the early 1930s, she enrolled in the Girls’ Teacher Training College in Omdurman, graduating in 1934 and eventually going on to become Headmistress of the Girls’ Primary School in El-Obeid. Malikah ad-Dar worked as a teacher in Kassala, Singa, Dilling and Omdurman Central School. In 1960 she was appointed an inspector for education in Kordofan.

The pre-independence Sudan of the 1950s was one of great cultural change. Girls’ education was opening up, in part, as Sudanese critics have recognized, as a result of colonial efforts to ensure poor girls could attend school. Access to newspapers and foreign, as well as Sudanese, literature was widening – despite often harsh censorship by the colonial powers. The desire for independence from Britain was gathering force. Malikah ad-Dar was one of a new generation of independent-minded educated women for whom teaching was increasingly socially acceptable as a profession. Perhaps it was inevitable then that she should choose women who had or were striving to become teachers, as central dramatic foils in her work. Women teachers were to play a central role in Sudanese political and societal change as women began to win both professional and voting status. In 1953, women secondary school graduates were included in the colonial “graduates’ constituency” vote, introduced as part of a three-year transition period to independence.

Below, plate reproduced from Where God laughed, The Sudan Today by Anthony Mann, Museum Press Limited, 1954. Plate 11, facing page 32.

Malikah ad-Dar went on to cofound El-Obeid Women’s Charitable Society, campaigned energetically against FGM and ritual scarification and was a member of both The SWU (Sudanese Women’s Union) and the Teachers’ Union. Following the 1964 revolution, women would gain the right to vote at 18 and to stand for election at 30. This period would also see equal pay, maternity leave and end to monthly contracts for married women.

Below, Muna’s mother’s response to her daughter appeals for support after she is harshly beaten by her cousin, Sayyid, after discovering that his sister Sarah had fallen in love with a friend.“ He attacked her and slapped her on the temple, slapping her again and again until she fell to the ground, whereupon he left her to turn to his sisters, striking them with his hands and feet…….”

The scented notes and shiny gifts that some men set as traps for giddy, thoughtless girls are what lead them to a cruel and dishonorable end, and you don’t have the protection your cousin enjoys. Where is your father? And where is your brother?

Malikah ad-Dar was known to play the piano well, as well as the recorder. She sang and composed songs and poetry, immersing herself early on in Arabic literature. She taught herself English through correspondence and exchanges with visiting English teachers. She read widely and in 1947 won Sudanese Radio first prize for short story writing. In addition to her short stories, Malikah ad-Dar wrote articles in the Kordofan press. Sadly, the writer did not live to see the publication – two decades after writing it – of The Great Emptiness / The Wide Void, as she died suddenly of a heart attack in 1969. Upon her death, a new girls’ elementary school in El-Obeid was established in her name.

AlJadiid Journal, Daughter of the Nile, Issue 48, dedicated to Sudanese female and feminist writers.

Malikah ad-Dar – Her Work

From Muna, the heroine of her novel, forced to move to Omdurman when her father leaves to seek work in present-day Chad, and where, in the absence of her father, she falls under the authority of her grandfather, uncle and cousins, to her cousin Sarah, denied the chance to become a teacher, to her uncle’s wife, rejected for her failure to conceive – Ad-Dar’s women reflect the experiences and dilemmas of women as they glimpse the possibility of new social destinies while sensing how the boundaries of their worlds are curtailed. Men’s spheres of movement and action, by contrast, whether in attending literary forums or searching for a spouse remain unquestioned. A key motif is the belief that women should be free to choose their husbands. Muna’s profound despair at the close of the novel derives, in part, from her inability to do so. Ad-Dar’s educated heroines find themselves rebuked by matriarchs determined to uphold the status quo but who are nevertheless portrayed with compassion, their personal sacrifices keenly acknowledged. At the same time, Ad-Dar’s women chafe against bowing to the authority of a boy “who did not exceed his seventeenth spring, whose every movement showed severity and vanity, always striving to show firmness” . Women who must quietly bear the knowledge that they are, as in Muna’s case, better informed in how to conduct ritual ablutions than their male guardians.

Below, Muna is compelled by her father to accept her cousin in marriage, despite her objections that he is “almost a brother” and that she cannot endure his behaviour”.

“ There is no more to be said. The matter is concluded and we all accept him. There is no man who knows your worth or who will preserve your rights like your cousin Sayyid.”

Malikah ad-Dar’s cast of female protagonists serve to exemplify differing approaches to the social issues facing her contemporaries but her compelling and fluid narration, coupled with dynamic interaction between very different personalities, cause the reader to engage with her characters as individuals, not just as ciphers. Indeed the novel was dramatized for radio shortly after publication. Her literary style, described as embracing the classical, historical, pastoral and romantic, is above all informed by the descriptive and sometimes didactic clarity of a teacher and as such has been both praised and criticized. The scholarly and classical language of Arabic literature and the Quranic school of her childhood is coupled with features unusual at the time, such as the use of flashbacks, epistolatory devices, and changes in narrative voice and time shifts. Her use of Classical Arabic, rather than Sudanese dialect, has been criticized for lacking authenticity when applied to the real life dialogue of her protagonists, failing to reflect social differences between her speakers, and she has been accused of an overly romantic style peppered with excessively idyllic descriptions of the Sudanese countryside. (The Development of Contemporary Literature in Sudan Eiman El-Nour). Some see the writer very much as expressing the sensitivities and awareness of the city dweller. Others have focused on the sense of rural / urban displacement suffered by Muna when she moves from the country to Omdurman and the clash of rural / urban values. Some emphasize the formative influences of the vibrant cultural interchange existing in the trading hub which was the El-Obeid of her childhood and what Muna sees as the discordant reality of life in Omdurman.

While expert judgements may differ on her literary style, her message still rings true today and translation of her work would be profoundly enriching for many non-Arabic readers.

Other Sources and Video Linksامرأة-وواقع-جديدانحول-ملكة-الدار-محمد-عبد-الله/

See too AlJadiid Journal, Daughter of the Nile, Issue 48.

This is a cultural post for Women’s Education Partnership.

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