Memories from my undergraduate degree at the University of Khartoum back in Sudan remain vivid: attending lectures, working at the Science Students Association, having tea at Siyama’s place, passing affectionate couples on Nile Street, and enjoying heated political debates on the main street’s discussion corners. In every little memory of every single scene, I would hear a song, recognize a poem or see a phrase by Mahjoub Sharif, the nation’s poet. Sadly, he died aged 66 two weeks ago, after a long illness, as reported by BBC Arabic, Al Jazeera Arabic, Al Arabiya and many other media channels.
As an influential character in Sudanese history, Mahjoub found his way to people’s hearts by making his poetry part of everyone’s daily life and rhythm. In his poems, he would describe scenes of working mothers preparing breakfast for their children before heading off to work, of builders lining bricks for a new house, of teachers using chalk on blackboards, of friends catching up over a tea break, and of lovers beneath trees whispering their hopes for a new life.
Mahjoub was known for his leftist beliefs and strong sense of human rights. He survived difficult conditions, especially after the Islamists took power in 1989 and attacks on the arts and secular cultural reached their climax. The thirteen years he spent in jail under different dictators did not cause his cheerful spirit to fade. Instead, he painted Sudan’s struggles in a colourful light and paved the way to a brighter future. He wrote and popularised national songs and was a key figure in reviving political poetry.
Many of his poems were sung by well-known Sudanese singers, such as Mustafa Sid Ahmed and Mohamed Wardi and popular bands such as Igd Algalad, and became virtual anthems for the civil rights movement in Sudan. He also reached a wider regional and international audience with his simple but powerful messages. Egyptian singer Mohamed Mounir sang his famous Al Shaab Habibi w Shiryani (The Nation Is My Love and My Blood), which became a regional hit in 2001. He also toured around Europe, performing at big events in the UK and the Netherlands among others.
Mahjoub was known for his positive outlook and belief in a better Sudan. He co-founded a charity called Rud al Jameel (Give Back), which helps marginalised individuals in need of jobs and equipment. Due to his background as a primary school teacher and insight into working with younger generations, children were his focus. He published a collection of poems in a book called The Children and the Soldiers in 1986 and initiated Nafag (The Path), a programme which inspires and empowers children through the arts. He also worked closely with many associations in Sudan including student unions and cultural centres such as that of Abdel Kareem Mergani.
Despite the country’s loss, it is evident that Mahjoub Sharif has not left us but is still in the hearts of everyone who has ever known him. We are privileged to have witnessed the era in which he was so instrumental and influential in so many ways. He changed mind-sets and redefined possibilities, looking at prisons and imagining hospitals; exiles, colleges; bullets, singing birds; and bringing out the hope in every hug, every pencil and every cup of tea. Mahjoub Sharif is certainly not someone for whom to shed tears, but rather someone to be proud of and celebrate.
Born Are the Beautiful Children
Born are the beautiful children, hour by hour
with brightest eyes,
and loving hearts you have bestowed upon
fatherland, they will come,
for bullets aren't the seeds of life.
(Translation from the HRW/Africa report Bullets Aren’t the Seeds of Life: the Detention of Mahjoub Sherif, Poet and Teacher)