Review – A Line in the River: Khartoum, City of Memory by Jamal Mahjoub
Home does strange things to us. There’s an entire sub-genre of autobiographical writing to attest to that. But for Jamal Mahjoub, a novelist whose life has been nothing if not international, home is less than fixed, and therefore difficult to pin down, let alone document.
Mahjoub writes of his intentions for A Line in the River, his book about Khartoum. It is an engaging mix of genres, taking in travelogue, memoir, literary non-fiction. He sees the book as culmination of previous work. It is not straight reportage, he is keen to stress – the emotive nature of his writing, tempered with the experiences of his youth, tinge all he sees in Khartoum, the city which was once his home.
It is a book dominated by civil war and the crises affecting Sudan today and yesterday. But they do not oppress. While Mahjoub does not give a recitation of the country’s travails, he outlines them in journalistic passages of description which he sprinkles lightly across his narrative.
The novelist’s manner is in evidence. Mahjoub sights Khartoum from the air and considers it ‘a glittering tray of precious stones strewn across a sheet of obsidian’. This is just right – description that is metaphorical but real, unpretentious.
And since much of the book describes the reality of the city, with its gridlocked streets and crumbling facades, a little writing from above elevates in more ways than one.
When walking the streets, Mahjoub writes of experiencing the city and its memories, attached to a past life which ‘seems now like a dream I had almost forgotten’.
But he has not forgotten much.
Midway thought the book, Mahjoub looks at the development of modern cities – from cities consecrated as graveyards to our ancestors, to the globalised world’s mass settlements and towering steel monuments to modernity.
Compared to these purposes, Khartoum is ‘an invention, a convenience, an outpost at a bend in the river’. But this does not deny even an accidental city meaning. And the author returns, to realise how many memories – personal and impersonal, lived and historic – rush to greet the author when he walks the city’s streets.
Mahjoub describes his parents with clear eyes but evident affection. This light touch is carried over into his investigation of the laments of his surviving relatives in Khartoum.
They lament that the proper arrangements were not made after the death of author’s parents, that the old customs of the city are not being upheld. What could have been dull and pedantic complaints tell instead of the state of the city itself.
Mahjoub writes that he came back because of Darfur; but in experiencing Khartoum again, he found himself at least a little consumed by the city itself, turning to face it, absorbed by it – with the author ending up failing to focus on anything else.
Many narratives also run in parallel. Early on, the Khartoum of the modern day and the story of British involvement in Sudan in the nineteenth century contend with each other. Mahjoub centres this latter narrative, at least originally, on two generals: Gordan and Kitchener. He paints a portrait of the fanatical, enigmatic Gordon, whose ‘spirit lingered over the ruins like a hallowed memory’ after his death.
But Khartoum is not all imperial history. Mahjoub examines the combination of the brisk pace of commerce and the constructed modernity of the elites, which some see to be a product of the elites emulating the British, and now the dictates of globalised business culture. This contrasts with aspects of the country’s history which are forgotten or minimised out of embarrassment. He describes empty museums with gamely enthusiastic but ignorant guides.
An interview with an unwilling lawyer instead suffices to explain the country’s lawlessness, especially in Darfur. Murderers are freed in attacks on prisons; rapists are clearly identified but go unpunished; those who accuse others of thievery are simply killed by the accused to spare the trial.
Mahjoub gamely criticises the Darfur campaign in the West – he calls it a ‘civilizing mission’, casts gentle scorn at everything from sentimental YouTube montages of news coverage to the crisp white shirt of Bernard Henri-Levy, the French celebrity philosopher who made Darfur a focus of his global campaigning.
Amid all this violence, the author realises, after detailing the political and martial struggles of modern Sudan, that his peaceful Khartoum childhood was a ‘brief hiatus’, part of a series of conflicts over identity as much as anything else – identity asserted, fought for, and demanded.
This gives rise to a deep sense of history and time, with Sudan’s pre-colonial history itself understudied and unexamined, its component identities confected, its museums empty.
The author writes of encountering stopped clocks everywhere. Mahjoub makes valid points about the emotionalism inherent in history, and his emotions are oddly focused through the prism of a scattered and critical late-night viewing of the 2002 film The Four Feathers, which the author muses on while flipping channels.
Mahjoub’s interviews introduce vignettes not just of colour, but of essential experience.
He attends an illicit salsa class with others, who, under strict government rule, risk punishment in doing so. They do so simply to avoid boredom. Avoiding boredom is essential to life in Khartoum, it seems.
Mahjoub visits libraries where, in youth, he read pulp and cinemas where he watched trash – all to avoid the boredom of ‘dead afternoons’. The former, he concludes, did him more good.
This is a book about history and memory as much as it is about modern Sudan. But the modern state interjects itself into the narrative with insistence. Mahjoub is at a newspaper office when the censor, not overly brutal but professional dominating, comes to call.
In that sense, this confirms some of what he writes about his childhood: that the peace and serenity he remembers was a brief island in time, if it existed at all as he remembers it.
But through the people he meets and the memories he uncovers, Mahjoub documents the value in those he encounters as well as the city he traverses, and that’s enough to make the reader a more than a touch optimistic about the future.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.