Comma Press’ city books collection has been quietly expanding into something uniquely fascinating. The collection takes some of the best writing in short story form representative of a country and more specifically, its city, and gathers it together in this series, of which The Book of Khartoum is the most recent offering.
We have had The Book of Gaza, The Book of Rio, and The Book of Tokyo. They have shown us what it feels like to be stricken by the nihilism-inducing vastness of the Japanese capital, how things look from the Rio bridge when you have a gun to your head, why it is better to drown in your chador in the Sea of Gaza than go back to the beach. Now it’s Khartoum’s turn.
I won’t lie and say that at first reading I didn’t struggle. When I had read the whole collection I sat back and wondered at my own ignorance. Then I realised that therein lieth the point of these books. We in Europe lead such cosseted lives. Our existence on this favoured part of the planet is as carefree as a maybug that lives out its day in the sunshine and dies without knowing any different. Sure, we keep our finger on the world pulse; we read articles, watch the News at Ten, or whatever, but we don’t actually know what it feels like to live in a place where war happens every day of the week, and there never seems to be an end to it. Welcome to Khartoum.
Like all of these city collections, the short stories have a cohesive quality to them, each one a compliment to the other in its own way, each one the brush stroke of a larger picture. There is a humorous quality to many of them, all of them in fact, although it sets a snarl onto your lips rather than a smile. And as you snarl you get the point. The colonial history of Khartoum, and no doubt the Sudan too on a larger scale, is testimony to the total ineptness of colonial rule and the continued obtuseness of politicians, who seem to think that when we dip our mucky finger into the complex pie of another country’s history, it will somehow come out clean.
Well, as the writers of Khartoum clearly indicate, it doesn’t. In the first story of the collection, “The Tank” by Ahmed Al-Malik, a man buys a tank instead of a car and frightens his neighbours. Shouldn’t they be used to it by now? The narrator seems to suggest they should be, after all these are people who have seen just about everyone’s tank roll past, even the UN’s. Alas no. One by one they line up to placate the owner of the tank. And then there is the man who bought the tank in the first place; he ‘didn’t want to come across as a dupe who’d buy anything that’s put in front of him’ so he checks the tank over well before he buys it. The final snarl comes at the end when, after terrorising the neighbourhood and gaining concessions left and right for a peace the complacent tank driver cannot bring, he is pulled up by a bobby. This part was the worst. The allusion was painfully evident. It reminded me of getting an MOT in suburban Britain. Naturally, as any colonial law enforcer worth his salt would do, the British-style bobby checks the lights and the signals and the registration papers and sends the tank on its merry way. ‘Carry on, Sir’. No comment.
But surely the hardest story to swallow has to be, “It’s Not Important, You’re From There”, by Arthur Gabriel Yak, a young writer and journalist from South Sudan. This story recounts what it feels like to be a ‘dirty refugee’, as the narrator describes himself. Suffice to say that this one is compulsory reading for today’s world. There are other brilliant writers too that feature in this collection. Mamoun Eltlib gives us an allegory of life in Khartoum in “The Passage”. ‘I saw priests gathering to conspire against themselves, convening at the night’s end with daggers’, and ‘I saw men and women arriving with dry nibs to dip in fresh, warm blood, before rushing to darker corners to start their writing’. Did I forget to mention that Khartoum has also been a city of persecution and dictatorship? Sorry for the omission.
Any Cop?: This is not bedtime reading; there is a painful beauty to this collection but anger too for a past that can’t be changed. It isn’t without its message of hope, but you have to look hard between the lines to find it.