At the Venice International Film Festival this month, audiences will be introduced to the works of Hammour Ziada, Sudan’s most famous living writer, adapted to the silver screen.
It is the story of a boy, born in a Sudanese village, and his reaction to the prophecy he will die at age 20.
The inclusion of the Sudanese tale comes as the African nation struggles to turn the page on the decades-long rule of strongman Omar al-Bashir. Ziada himself fled oppressive conditions in Bashir’s Sudan, taking refuge in Cairo, where Asia Times sat down with him for an interview.
Ziada was born in Sudan’s northern Dabba region on the Nile, and many of his novels take place in remote villages where life has not changed much in the last hundred years.
Ziada finally had the chance to visit his home country in the throes of revolution after the toppling of Bashir in April. The celebratory mood was broken just days after his departure, when security forces massacred protesters staging a peaceful sit-in on June 3.
Sherif Abdel Samad: Your novel The Longing of the Dervish, which won the Naguib Mahfouz Prize in 2014, starts with an apocalyptical portrayal of Khartoum at the end of the Mahdist War. Your horrific description of bloated bodies floating in the Nile brought to mind the gruesome videos, filmed by activists after the dispersal of the sit-in by Sudan’s military and security forces. Had you ever envisaged that these horrific scenes that you lengthily described could become a present reality?
Hammour Ziada: It did not come as a shock to me, what the security forces did to the protesters in Khartoum. There were no videos documenting the Egyptian-British invasion of Omdurman in 1898. On the contrary, there were many documenting the massacre of June 3. In my eyes, both armies were invaders, who demonstrated utmost brutality and chauvinistic force.
The [Sudanese] Rapid Support Forces showed typical behavior of psychopathic gangs, who employ even rape to squash down dissent. It is what invaders do.
Samad: You left Sudan in 2009 for security reasons. Were you threatened at that time?
Ziada: Back then I wrote articles on culture for various newspapers in Khartoum. Yet in October 2009 the Council for Journalism and Print suspended me for allegedly writing articles and stories that incited indecent behavior and corrupted society. There was talk of a potential court case being filed against me. Yet what really made me fear for my life was an assassination attempt that happened a month later.
I had clashed with a local Salafist group because they issued a statement against the Sudanese Communist Party, branding them as infidels. I published a condemnation on a blog site called Sudanese Online. It was a big issue at that time. I found out that they had plagiarized their statement on communists from an Islamist, called Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, who was Osama bin Laden’s mentor. Many people used my article to ridicule them.
A few days later unknown men stormed my mother’s house at night and set it on fire. My mother and I quickly left the house unharmed. We managed to extinguish the fire before the house was destroyed. We called the police, but they did not cooperate and treated us poorly. That was when I decided to leave.
Samad: You were denied a visa to the UK for a fellowship earlier this year. Why is that?
Ziada: I had received a scholarship by Durham University and Banipal literary magazine. Yet the embassy clerk who worked on my application rejected it and wrote, he was not convinced I would leave the UK after my scholarship ended. I felt his stance was unjustified and strange, even a bit funny. Why would I not leave when my scholarship ended? Actually after this incident I was invited to another cultural festival in the UK. I applied and received the visa and returned after nine days when the festival ended.
Samad: In your newest novel The Drowning (2019), which was published this year in Arabic, you choose another historic moment: the 1969 coup d’état of Gaafar Nimeiry, who overthrew the civilian government and remained in power until a popular uprising removed him from office in 1985.
Your protagonists, who seem far and detached from the events in Khartoum, briefly touch on the coup, but do not really seem to care. One character says: If the army provides us with fuel, we will opt for them.
Ziada: Authoritarian regimes in the Third World made civilians believe that they should not become involved with politics.
Some of the characters are only concerned with their basic needs. They would condone whoever can fulfill their needs, regardless of whether he is an army officer, a communist, or a Sufi. For them, politics is evil. They cannot grasp that one can become a political leader through elections or that a different political faction wants to compete with a ruling party.
Dictators taught us that whoever wants to share power is bad and that they are willing to offer their services to the people, as long as they shun them.
Samad: You are very much involved with the Sudanese revolution. Are you not afraid that you might get too usurped by politics and neglect literature? The two most successful Arabic writers, Naguib Mahfouz and Tayeb Salih, were not too much involved with politics.
Ziada: [Turkish writer] Elif Shafak was recently asked the same question. Her response was that if you come from this region, you are naturally occupied with politics. You have to be.
Salih was not all too preoccupied with politics, but he took political stances. Like in 1956 when he resigned from the BBC because he objected to their coverage of the Suez Crisis. There was also an op-ed which he wrote many years ago on Islamists, which has been haunting the Bashir regime ever since. Particularly the last sentence in his article: “From where did these people come from?” he wondered, referring to Bashir and his followers. Because they were so different from us moderate Sudanese.
I really envy those writers who can cut themselves off from politics. I cannot. Particularly when it comes to freedom of expression. This is a very personal matter to me, as a writer. It is an existential need for me to say what I think and feel.
Samad: One of your stories was adapted by a Sudanese film director. The film will be shown at the 76th Venice International Film Festival this August?
Ziada: A while ago, Sudanese film director Amjad Abu Alala, who is a friend of mine, approached me and told me that he wanted to adapt a story I wrote years ago into a film. It was about a Sudanese boy, born in a simple Sudanese village, and a prophecy that foresees his death when he turns 20. The idea is about how humans deal with their fate.
When Abu Alala told me about his project, I agreed without any reservations … But I did not want to get involved. I believe the scenario has to remain in the hands of the director. It is his vision.
Samad: You refer to magic realism in The Longing of the Dervish to describe the belief system of the village. Unlike many Arabic writers, you also favor relatively short and minimalist sentences. Can you tell us more about your writing style?
Ziada: Yes. Sentences in Arabic tend to be rather long. But I favor the short ones. I am affected by the short Koranic verses that I love, particularly the small ones, which contain short sentences, filled with wisdom.
In my first novel El Kong  I wrote on the return of the dead to their homes. Many people, especially in the village, believe for example that three days after someone died, he could come back. This is why, many families reposition their belongings and furniture in their house, so that the deceased person feels estranged when he comes back and essentially leaves. Yet most people would feel ashamed to talk about this, even though they believe it.
The Sudanese people live in magic realism every day.
The Longing of the Dervish won the Naguib Mahfouz Prize in 2014 and was nominated for the 2015 Arabic Booker Prize. Ziada’s writings were adapted by Sudanese director Amjad Abu Alala for his film You Will Die at 20, which will be shown at the Venice Film International Festival, which runs from August 28 to September 7.