By: Abdulkhalig Elsir
Last month the Sudanese people lost an eminent poet and public figure after a long battle with illness. Mahjoub Shareef got the’ consensus’ from the Sudanese from all walks of life as the people’s poet. Since his poem found its way to the public in the early seventies of the last century. Since then on, a strong intimate relationship between him and the masses have taken place.
Shareef’s poem has strong political tone, but that is not surprising if we knew he was a devout Marxists and a member of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) until he died. Ironically, while politics in a country like Sudan divide people than anything else, Sharif seems the only one got to break the norm, so far. The unconditioned love and respect he used to receive from people despite his political colour is phenomenal.
His simple and direct poem made of Vernacular of ordinary people as well as his focus on political, social and economic injustice gave him the edge of being a ‘true’ representative of them. But the decisive factor of the overwhelming love by the people his humbleness, integrity, honesty and courageous life he lived. In a country like Sudan where elitism and corruption are plague, turning down entice of celebrity and elitism is very rare. During his wretched life, he got everything that could turned him rich, famous and elite, not just by the regimes who always tried that, but also by ordinary people who love him. Voluntarily, he decided to take their side until the last moment of his life.
Shareef was a primary school teacher. But the discontinuity of his career due to his political activism gave his life instability and hardship. He had a very poor and wretched life. He always tried to remind those who try to help him that the majority if people live a worse situation than him. He knew the road to prisons as a political opponent since his first emergence as a promising songwriter in the early seventies. Also, the succession of military regimes in Sudan made him a prominent ‘customer’ to prisons.
He never stops dreaming of for better tomorrow. His poem devoted to inspire people to believe in themselves. He encouraged them to fight for their rights and don’t accept injustice or make it a norm.
We will built the country we always dream about
An inclusive and a huge one with no doubt
A bird in the place of bullet
Hovering around a fountain
…A hospital in place of a prison
In another poem, he insisted that empowering women and recognizing ethnic minorities, is the only way for a stable and sustainable country.
Marry teaches us
Aisha reminds us
That every weapon should be turned it to a trowel
In one of his famous poem aow fa intazir (or… you will see), he berated police and security apparatus for being used by the tyrant regimes to kill and torture the innocent people. Reminding them being used as a tool to serve their agendas is a deadly mistake.
You are not the soldiers of God
Your are not the soldiers of the country
But in fact you are their soldiers
And some of their properties
Their triggers and their protectors
But you are not going to be one of them
…and you are not going to be like them
Or to eat their food
Or to dress the way they do
……………. Have you ever seen them flood the street in the early morning?
Or came out dirty from afternoon shifts? Or with tired eyes after night shifts?
Have they ever invited you to visit them?
Have they ever visited you? No, they will not.
So why you do that?
I know they trained you to crush, burn and kill with no mercy,
….But you have to remember how many dictators flee and left someone like you
Alone with fear of revenge.
Remember that or…you will see.
But his masterpiece and the mother of his all poem is (To my Mum Mariam). It is a very long and touchy message to his mum after she visited him in an infamous remote prison located in the western Sudan called Shala’a. It was aftermath of a failed coup carried out by a military faction of the SCP against Nimerie regime in July 1971. The act unleashed Nimerie’s outrage. He carried a very heavy-handed crackdown on the SCP members. Its leaders were executed in brief trials. The country prisons filled with its members indefinitely. Shareef was one of those, and he was sent to this remote and notorious prison. The atmosphere then was very frightening. The regime media ran a hostile propaganda and turned the SCP members as a public enemy, traitors of God and the nation. This tactics of the reputation-tarnishing, freaked out the prisoners’ families. It is very obvious it was one of the regime’s psychological tactics to push families to play a role in facilitating a way-out for their sons from the political arena.
I remember those days very well. It happened that, my father has been through this ordeal couple of times. Between the years of 1975 to 1978 he was in and out of Al-Damar prison – a prison in a small town near our town, Atbara. I was almost 10 years old. I used to go with my late aunt Noura, one of older sisters of my father, to visit him at the end of every month. My aunt and the other members of the family were not happy with his involving in politics. Once we arrive there and catch up with my father, she starts her whinging straight away ‘; “Elsir my brother, when are you going to leave these things and look after your family as anyone else? My father is a short-tempered person by nature, but in this situation he cannot afford to spoil such precious moments he given to catch up with his family. He tries his best to play down her criticism by putting a kiss on her forehead while playing with me and asking about our life and my younger brother. Once that happened, she started to laugh while saying, no hope, I know you are not going to change.
In this atmosphere came the visit of Shareef’s mother to convince him to abandon politics and come back home safe. It was not clear if she came for this purpose. But the implicit dialogue the poem based on suggests this point.
My dear mum Mariam
You full of love and kindness
How many mums do I have, no one but you
….I neither disobedient son nor a thief or a traitor.
I miss you so much but I’ve no regret
The soldier hurdling between me and you
He won’t get what he want
He is the loser
Shareef then went to tell her about his ultimate love and how he kept remembering her bedtime stories in the prison’s lonesome nights. He told her how those memories brushed away any feeling of fear or intimidation, and how he became more persistent and resilient. He reminded her about his mates who went straight away to the gallows rather than dobbing in their comrades.
You do not know what Wad Alzain had done?
They asked him; where is the hide of your mates?
Tell us and we will grantee your safety
He never shown a crack or broking down
He went to his death determinedly
To My Mum Mariam, went viral after it leaked from the prison. The way people received it was unprecedented. Its flow, intense rhyme and magical internal rhythm make it easier for memorising and chanting. It was moving and touchy. It showed a great deal of what is happening in prisons and how the politicians treated. It turned them to heroes at the eyes of the public rather than enemies as the regime’s propaganda wished. Political prisoners through generations embraced it as their bible. They stem from it their courage and persistence.
Belonging to people and inspiring them to solve their problems is Shareef’s life project. This project does not only confined to poem, but it went deeply whereas practicality worked to bond his relationship with ordinary people in their day-to-day life. To do that, he came out with a social initiative called (NAFFAJ). The word itself has no English equivalent. It is a small door located in the wall that divided two houses’ backyards. It is a mutual decision neighbours used to take in the old suburbs of Omdurman city. This voluntary decision usually takes place when neighbours after a long time of coexistence got the feeling that they are now one big family. Hence, they do not need to come through the main door as “strangers.” In their new reformation to their ‘new family,’ the two neighbours sharing solidarity and maintain their privacy and back up each other like any blood-related family. This Naffaj or small door is a symbolic gesture of how people can be closer to the extent that their belongingness is beyond neighbourhood.
Shareef picked up the concept and make the name a rhetoric to revive the faded meanings of altruism, compassion and solidarity that Naffaj used to give. As one who has no faith of the government institutions like the majority Sudanese people, he believed bringing back the old positive values of pre-modern Sudan is the only effective way to tackle the misery of poor people in shanty suburbs surrounding greater Khartoum. The initiative encouraged and urged people to engage interactively in a cooperation of donation and also physical help if it needed during disastrous times, by exploiting the various skills of people, especially the youths for community services.
Rud Aljameel (giving back), is another initiative by shareef. It is a social organization its main concern is to bring homeless children to community and helps them to start a new life. The organization collaborated with many NGOs to provide shelter and literacy classes. It also helps them to explore their potentials and to promote the talented among them to be recognized by the community. It was open for everyone to share and contribute, especially the young people. The enthusiasm and passion people shown is incredible. The children have shown a great response, as well. Their painting, theatre plays, poems, story writings have a continuing exhibitions and festivals throughout the year.
The ongoing harassment by authorities was part of Shareef’s life. Depriving him of getting a job was a norm. Nevertheless, he never showed any quitting or surrender. He never lost hope of better tomorrow for him and his people. Despite the appalling situation he lived in, he did not stop writing poems of hope and inspiration. In June, 1989 another episode of the authoritarian regime came to rife the misery of the Sudanese people. This time it took the form of Islamic ideology backed up by the military. A random arrest, torturing, killing and job firing by the virtue of ‘public interest’ was the main features of its rule. Freedom and people wellbeing reduced to almost zero.
Shareef had his portion of appalling moments. He was arrested and sacked from his job, at the time when he was a bit old and suffering from a long-time disease in his respiratory system. Intentionally, he been prevented from getting his medication, the act that deteriorated his health condition until the rest of his life.
His integrity, altruism and devoting his poem to ordinary people, gave him an overwhelming popularity. In turn, this popularity made him a ‘symbolic capital’ and a battleground of intellectuals, elites and political rivals at the same time! It may sound strange, but in a divided country like Sudan, polarization, ethnic tension, dismissiveness and exclusion are way of life. As I said, amazingly, Shareef rose above all these social diseases and became the beat of the masses’ heart or a ‘beat of the street’ according to the Sudanese expression.
The rivalry of who have the right to claim the ‘ownership’ of Shareef was dominant. The government, this time, used a different approach, the carrot instead of the stick. It started to send him, directly or through agents sometimes, valuable gifts came in the form of cars and money. But politely and firmly he turned them down. The ‘national’ elites tried their best to lure him joining their club with no success.
One of those attempt, a controversial article by a well-known Islamist writer, Osman Mergani, calls for a ‘nationalization’ of Shareef, arguing that Mahjoub is bigger than to belong to any minor group, Hence, he should be ‘owned’ by the all Sudanese people. Dr. Hassan Musa, a Sudanese-French critic and international-recognized painter, finds the call for Shareef’s nationalization under the pretext of nationalism, is a dodgy one. He asked sarcastically; what kind of nationalism that doesn’t include the communists?
Dr. Abdullahi A. Ibrahim, An Ex- communist, a prominent anthropologist and political writer, praised Musa’s point of view while he was lashing out on Osman. Dr. Ibrahim argued “What it missed from those who call for the nationalization of Mahjoub Shareef, wasn’t the ‘danger’ of him been a communist, but he was a Sudanese nationalist beyond no doubt. Hence, any attempt of an impulsive nationalization in order of depriving him of from being a communist is just a hollow conclusion…. And the most annoying part of this call its disrespect to Shareef voluntarily existential choice.”
Shareef contracted pneumonia from prison. The illness affected his life great deal, especially in the last 10 years. He never gets cured, and the disease was the main reason of his death. Although his death was a big shock, but it was also a strong statement of unconditioned love and message of inclusiveness. Hundreds of thousands from all walks of life turned to accompany him to his last destination. They walked for almost six miles, the distance from his home to the cemetery, in a symbolic gesture, demonstrated his ability in mobilizing people even when he is dead. Until the end, his integrity did not hinder. He made a clear will that no one of the government officials should attend his funeral.
Shareef will always be remembered as one of those ‘last respected men’ in the country its elites cannot help indulging in corruption, favouritism and opportunism. A person devoted his life and poem to make a difference. He left a legacy of tenth of poems devoted to his people and his country that once described it as his main love, as well as, millions of young people inspired and influenced by his ethics and goodness and who are willing to hold his banner through the same direction.
Note: I’ve done a rough translation to some verses of his poems for the highlighting purpose. However, this translation lagging so behind from the poetic structure of the original ones. It lacks rhyme, rhythm and internal music of the original poems.