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

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“Tonight they came and forced the river back. Like sentries, all night, as one they stood, defying the river with their rakes and spades.”

From the song “a’jbounii al-layla jou”

Above, views of Tuti Island, lying at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, Khartoum. The song, “a’jbounii al-layla jou”, sung throughout Sudan, is a tribute to the heroism of its islanders. Title photo, still from the Aljazeera documentary series, The Story of a Song; A’jbnoonii al-layla. Below, tranquil waters of the Nile at Khartoum flowing under the Khartoum-Tuti suspension bridge. Learn more about the bridge in https://www.bbc.com/news/10121573

In 1946, Sudan was devastated by flooding. Nile waters reached a record 17.26 metres, a grim milestone tragically passed last year when Sudan was once again ravaged by extreme flooding. Seventy-five years ago, the men and women of Tuti Island, defying government instructions to evacuate, “stood fast and rushed to build barricades to keep the angry river at bay”. The song “a’jbounii al-layla jou”, is roughly translated as “it made me so proud, the night they came”, and celebrates the courage of all those who laboured against the elements to save their island. Below, building sandbanks and levees in 1946.

See too The Sad Memories of Nile Floods, http://sudanow-magazine.net

This week’s post hopes to bring the power of this song and its remarkable story to non-Sudanese Arabic readers. The 12-minute Aljazeera documentary featuring the song and embedded below, forms the core of this blogpost.

I hope that after reading the piece, you will enjoy the song, even if you don’t speak Sudanese Arabic. I provide a working translation of the song lyrics and a commentary on each scene. The documentary, subtitled in standard Arabic, is visually stunning and opens to the strains of the song. It is a story of heroism and the power of women’s voices. For analysis of the Sudanese Arabic; https://sudanesearabicdocumentariestranscriptionsandtranslations.wordpress.com/2021/04/11/the-story-of-a-song/

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

http://www.womenseducationpartnership.org

See Latest News and At a Glance for more about our work.

See more on the impact of the Nile in Sudanese life and marriage customs in The River of Life. Sudan is facing grave environmental challenges and every year flooding is becoming more unpredictable and more severe. Read about last year’s floods in Sudan Floods Update. In Heat and Dust discover how water literacy can help women protect their families. Last year, several of our supported elementary schools were severely damaged by flooding. You can read about our rebuilding project in Community Empowerment in Action.

Tonight They Came and Forced the River Back

This Island is Much Loved, My son; Key Moments from the Documentary

It Made me So Proud, the Night They Came; Song Lyrics

This Island is Much Loved, My Son – Key Moments from the Documentary

Above, welcome shade and refreshment on Tuti Island, 2017.

Watch the video in full below

https://doc.aljazeera.net/تقارير/عجبوني-الليلة-تراجع-أيها-الطوفان-ففي-ق/

Key Moments (in chronological order)

Walking among the island’s verdant fields and orchards, a father tells his son how precious the island is to him and to all those blessed to live there. Born on the island, he explains that he has lived all his life there and to him and all the islanders, it is most “beloved”. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise he feels the need to pass on to his son the epic story of the 1946 floods.

The elders describe how Tuti was nearly engulfed, trapped between the violent waters of both the Blue and White Nile. Rushing from their homes, men raced to build mud barricades and sandbanks along the shores. Some were to lose their lives in the attempt. What endured, though, was the pride in knowing that everybody pulled together, “rolled up their sleeves” and worked as one. Their heroism and solidarity is still talked of throughout Sudan, they claim.

As the men toiled to contain the waters, they were inspired and urged on by the women of the island singing a’jbounii al-layla jou. Its lyrics had a profound impact on the islanders. One of them – a young man called Hassan, the narrator recalls, began to beat the drums while others raised their arms and hands to the beat of the music to encourage their comrades in their work. Hearing the song, “they felt no weariness.”

The musicians aboard the riverboat explain that Sudanese music is a marriage of western, Arabic and Sudanese popular musical styles and instruments. The Sudanese drums, or daloukah, the rabaabah, the Sudanese lyre are all central to songs sung to encourage and motivate.

A’jbnoonii al-layla took on a life of its own over the years as singers added and embellished verses but it was Hamid al-RayH, left, who made the song famous. In his version, there are two rhythms; a slower pace alternating with faster passages to express the pride felt for the men who held back the mighty river. Such was its popularity, the song came to be sung in celebration of any special occasions.

The final scene focuses on the uncertainty surrounding the authorship of the song, with different women, such as Su’ad Othman, cited. The narrator takes his son to the family of ‘Aisha, to hear their story. Aisha, who died in 2009, they believe, was the first to sing the song and that she had given permission to Hamdi al-RayH to use the song for free. He was “supposed to record them in her name” but never did.

Sudanese women have a long history reciting poetry and songs to inspire and galvanize their communities, sometime serving the cause of peace or solidarity and sometimes calling for war and warrior valour. I explore this more in coming posts.

It Made me So Proud, the Night They Came; Song Lyrics

Below, I paraphrase the lyrics, hoping to capture their feeling and power. My sincere thanks to Muna Zaki for all her guidance and input in preparing this piece. See a detailed breakdown of the lyrics in https://sudanesearabicdocumentariestranscriptionsandtranslations.wordpress.com/2021/04/11/the-story-of-a-song/ .

Above, the opening lines of the song. Roughly interpreted, the song begins by praising the islanders; how proud/ how pleased they made me, the sons of the island. How thoughts of them delighted me. All night they stood as one unbroken column as, with shovels they made the levees to hold back the waters. Not for us to be evacuated by lorry! This line refers to the islanders’ refusal to be taken to safety and is echoed later in the song. Newspapers reported that, faced with the islanders’ refusal to be evacuated, the colonial authorities were forced to airdrop supplies. How proud they made me, the night they came and held back the waters (as if with concrete).

How the sons – like knights, took off their suits and shirts and stopped the river in its tracks from Shaawish to Birgaan, (names of local places). The lyrics differ slightly at this point in the video, with the elders explaining that the song refers to the month, Kharasaan, when Nile waters are at their highest, and the men equalling them in their efforts to shore up the banks. How they made me proud, the night they came and held back the Nile. The cries and shouts among the river grasses as they left – our brothers of the best isle of virtue and valor.

Above, the song gently chides the authorities’ calls to evacuate, contrasting it with the courage of the islanders, saying when the call came, not for us to be airlifted away. How they made me proud, the night they came, and held back the Nile. How they made me proud, the sons of the best and most virtuous land, when they flew, like hawks, to man the levees. They held back the waters row by row. Not for us to be taken away by steamer! For our glory and pride is greater than any other tribes can vanquish, al-Arbaab, our grandfather! Oh child, take heed, our goodness shines as light.

Below, last year’s severe flooding hits Khartoum.

Watch the video in full below

Tuti scenes below.

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