Khartoum, Asharq Al-Awsat—An old saying goes: “Cairo writes, Beirut prints and Khartoum reads.”
The Sudanese are well-known for their love of reading. Khartoum, a primary literature hub in the region, once boasted of its busy bookstores. Here, books were delivered from world-renowned publishing houses and would be in customers’ hands before the ink had even dried.
Due to ever-increasing prices, however, the city has lost its keen appetite for books. After years of war, drought and destitution, they are now an unaffordable luxury, far out-pricing more vital commodities such as bread and medicine.
As a result, publishing houses have chosen to relocate, and Khartoum’s famous bookstores have closed. Those still open are now engaged in a fierce struggle with the US dollar and the country’s declining economy.
So, will the city that boasts of its culture allow itself to become “illiterate”? It seems impossible that a city like Khartoum would accept such a fate.
Mafrosh book fair, held in Eteni Square in the center of Khartoum on the first Tuesday of the month, is a place where people can buy and exchange secondhand books. The market was the brainchild of the Work Cultural Group—an assortment of intellectuals who used to meet regularly at a coffee house in the square because of its cultural significance.
The practice of selling and exchanging secondhand books in the area began in the early 1990s at a shop north of the ancient Khartoum mosque. At the time, many people were happy to continually update their libraries in this way. But the practice slowly died out after more bookshops—especially those established by immigrants—started selling modern works at high prices.
“In 2005 we stopped dealing in used books after the new expensive ones came to the market,” an elderly Sudanese bookseller, Kamal Wada’a, told Asharq Al-Awsat. “The majority of these books are either republications by the Egyptian publishing houses or anthologies, especially the biographies of the big thinkers.”
Wada’a is saddened by these changes to his beloved profession. As the idea of dealing in secondhand books vanished, Sudanese bookshops started to suffer a scarcity of good books. Yet people are always on the lookout for something good to read.
Censorship is also a big issue. Wada’a says that the Sudanese authorities sometimes seize books. Banned books include Sudanese author Abdul-Aziz Baraka Sakin’s The Jungo: Nails of the Earth and Messiah of Darfur, as well as works by Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and Fatema Mernissi.
Rare books such as Awn Al-Sharif Qasim’s Sudanese Encyclopedia of Tribes and Genealogies and Abdullah Al-Tayeb’s Sudanese Puzzles are in high demand.
Wada’a says that the majority of avid readers in Sudan were born in the 1960s and 1970s. He believes the younger generations are uninterested in reading due to the economic situation and the high price of books. However, Wada’a says: “Readers’ interest in reading books has once again been aroused in spite of modern media and the economic situation, and books continue to be sold.”
Al-Qas and Mahfouz Bushra, two visitors to the Mafrosh market, say that the fair is more than just a place to swap books; it is also a gathering place for people to conclude deals, engage in discussions and meet with friends. They say that the market has become an open-air park amid the lack of bookshops, cultural centers and activities.
Bushra says he visits Mafrosh to hunt for rare books that have not been reprinted for 30 or 40 years. This time he was in luck, stumbling across Jurists and the Sultanate in Snar-Brag 1991: A Reading in the History of Islam and Politics in Sudan 1500-1821
Bushra bemoans the state of reading in Sudan: “Unfortunately, reading has become feeble, as most readers have emigrated and fled the country.” He adds: “The number of newcomers to the market is not as large as the number of those who have fled the country.”