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Secret reading in Khartoum

In Sudan, the state security apparatus has adopted a new habit: confiscating and banning books. Authors and rights activists are rightly outraged, but this is helping the growth of a new reading culture in Khartoum.

Reem Abbas
22 October 2012

When Fathi Al-Daw, a Sudanese journalist and writer published a book about the state security apparatus and how it has operated over the past few years, the security apparatus quickly confiscated copies of the book from bookstores in Khartoum, turning it into a much-sought after book, with a badly photocopied version selling at $10. 

After Al-Daw's book, travelers who arrived in Khartoum with books found themselves put through a much more rigorous airport security. Many reported confiscations of books, especially travellers coming from Cairo, where a large number of Sudanese authors are published. 

A few weeks ago, a doctor returning from Cairo was stopped at the airport and a very early work of politics by Al-Daw was confiscated from the luggage of a university professor who refused to leave the airport until the confiscated books were returned to him. He organized a sit-in and encouraged his students to join him, which they did. The security apparatus feared that the students would turn the sit-in into a highly organised protest. 

Abd Al-Aziz Baraka Sakin, a well-known Sudanese novelist, caused ructions last week when his books were three days late arriving at Khartoum's book fair. Sakin threatened to begin a hunger strike before the books were brought over from Cairo to the book fair.

His books only lasted a few hours at the book fair before the security officers confiscated all copies saying that they had to read them before they could go into circulation. Then, they said, they would return them.

In total 15 books were confiscated from the book fair, causing many young readers and intellectuals to boycott visiting the book fair.

In a matter of minutes, the social media broke the news of these latest confiscations and a whole crowd of youngsters started asking where they could get their hands on the confiscated books as an act of defiance against a surveillance state where freedoms and civil liberties and now creativity are shackled. 

Trading secret books is somewhat similar to organizing a protest in Sudan. Code words are used, the planning takes places only through trusted sources, and personal security becomes important. 

A young woman keeps Sakin's books, which are now officially banned, in boxes in the back of her car. She tells me that the "marijuana", is selling fast.

In Sudan, they used to say that Cairo writes, Beirut prints and Khartoum reads, but in recent years, the reading circle has shrunk to politicians and the creative community. Now with the growth of a politically-aware younger generation, the ongoing censorship campaign is endowing books with their long-lost status all over again. 

On social media, the blogs of writers were tweeted, retweeted and shared and novels written by Sakin and other banned authors have been circulated as pdf files by one of the largest Sudanese online lists. 

Meanwhile, its not too bad that security officers will get the chance to read the banned books. Who knows – they might find their personal stories between those covers which Sakin dedicates to "a class with slaughtered hopes and dreams". 

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Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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