Last Thursday, after nearly 10 years of continuous operation, the Sudanese Writers Union was served with a slip of paper that effectively shut it down.
The letter came via the country’s Ministry of Culture and claims that the union has been conducting activities that “are against the constitution of the Writers Union and against the law for cultural groups in Sudan,” says Mamoun Eltlib, a Sudanese poet, journalist, and cultural activist.
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This comes just four weeks after the country’s parliament approved constitutional amendments that give sweeping new powers to the president and National Security Forces.
This is not, however, the first time National Security has accused the Writers Union of politicking. Two years ago, when Eltlib was the union’s executive director, the group organised an event “at the border of politics”. They brought in educators and lawyers to talk about the nation’s constitution. The next day, they were visited by National Security. “They asked us to do no more political events,” he said.
Shutting down civil society groups
But in the last several weeks, Eltlib says, the Writers Union has focused all its energy on receiving acclaimed Moroccan poet Mohammed Bennis, who gave readings and talks on post-modernism and Arabic poetry.
Eltlib doesn’t think any recent action triggered this shutdown. Instead, National Security is changing the way it operates. Previously, they needed a reason to punish or close down civil-society groups.
“But now, they don’t even need a reason,” he said.
The Writers Union isn’t the only organisation that has been affected. The feminist organisation Salma, which runs events and publishes a magazine, has also been shut down.
And Mafroush, a monthly book fair held in Khartoum’s Etienne Square, has been at least temporarily shuttered. Previously, permission from the culture ministry was enough to keep Mafroush open. But last month, the owners of adjacent buildings grew nervous. Now, to keep Mafroush going, building owners want to see permission from National Security.
The book fair, which started three years ago, has been widely credited with enlivening the Sudanese arts and cultural scene. It’s held on the first Tuesday of the month – part of the organisers’ studious avoidance of politics. Although Fridays might be more convenient, that day has become associated with anti-government protests.
Fighting the government
The book fair has worked hard to stay apolitical.
Three months ago, Eltlib said, a group of students came to Mafroush and “started to shout loudly against the government”. Organisers went over and stopped them. That’s because Mafroush “is a very important thing. It’s not something you want to fight the government with. It’s something that people need”.
When Omar al-Bashir came to power in 1989, the union was one of the first organisations he banned, and writers were expelled from their historic building.
Translator and academic Max Schmookler wrote that Mafroush has been an important space because while bookstores in Khartoum “seem to trade predominantly in state sanctioned texts … Mafroush roams the boundaries of the permissible”.
Between 1,500 and 2,000 people would come to Mafroush each first Tuesday, Eltlib said, and there would be books, musical performances, poetry readings, and featured painters.
Eltlib doesn’t think the shutdowns will reach out into the world of magazines or other literary publications. “They don’t want gatherings, that’s all. They don’t want the people to meet.”
He linked this to the elections coming to Sudan in April, saying the government fears a boycott. Indeed, the country’s National Consensus Forces, an alliance of opposition parties, has already announced that they will launch an election boycott campaign.
But even after elections pass, Eltlib doesn’t see the Writers Union being allowed to operate. The union initially opened in 1986, during the brief Sadiq al-Mahdi coalition government.
When Omar al-Bashir came to power in 1989, the union was one of the first organisations he banned, and writers were expelled from their historic building. The union was relaunched in 2005, after a peace treaty was signed between north and south Sudan. Then, civil space seemed to open up again.
Since that time, Eltlib said, the Writers Union has been one of the main platforms for cultural organising in Sudan. “They have an office and buildings, space for events, music, literature, books, many things.”
The Sudanese Writers Union has also worked to bring together people from different sects and ethnicities. In 2007, the union won an award from the Prince Claus Foundation for working “through culture to promote dialogue and seek solutions to conflicts.”
But now, Eltlib said: “I think everything is over. I really think this is the end of it. It’s just like when you close down the weak things, the things that don’t have guns and they don’t even threaten you. That means that you are so scared.”
Yet somehow, during our Friday-night Skype conversation, Eltlib remained optimistic.
“I’m really happy because already we have a lot of new readers … young students who love Mafroush, and for three years they’ve been reading. So they will find a way. I’m sure.”
M Lynx Qualey writes about Arabic literature and literary translation for a number of publications. She blogs daily at www.arablit.org.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.