Review and Q&A: Leila Abouleila’s ‘River Spirit’ – Rewriting the Footnotes of Sudanese Colonial History

AiW note: AiW editor Ellen Addis reviews Leila Aboulela’s novel, River Spirit (Saqi Books), a historical fiction narrative which takes place in 1880s Sudan and tracks the rise of the Mahdist Revolution. Accompanying the review today is Ellen’s Q&A with the Aboulela, which expands upon the novel’s connections between Aboulela’s two homes, Sudan and Scotland, the research process for River Spirit, and what Aboulela is currently reading…

Breathless. And with a woman. That is how Leila Aboulela’s seventh novel begins. In late 19th century Sudan, a woman runs through the night with a warning of an ambush for Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, the self-proclaimed Mahdi, or ‘the Guided One’, of Islam.

The story of this woman, Rabiha, running through the night, has seldom even had the mention of being a footnote in the history of the Mahdist Wars (1881-1899). Until now. Aboulela’s gripping River Spirit transports the footnotes and asides from this late 19th century Mahdist Revolution into a fictionalised narrative of Sudanese colonial history. Filling the gaps and omissions through creative imagining, Aboulela centralises women in her novel and bolsters their experiences as integral and self-standing, even while they are still often dismissed, made invisible, their images and selfhood stolen.

River Spirit traces the rise of the Mahdi from a small following to its spread throughout Sudan – as Aboulela’s narrative has it, “the Mahdi has coalesced the nation’s sense of injustice.” To offer the briefest of background information to this complex military, and highly strategic economic and political conflict Aboulela depicts, the Mahdist War took place between Mahdist Sudanese followers of Ahmad bin Abd Allah and the forces of the Khedivate of Egypt. Joined later by British forces – and expanding in scale to include the Italian Empire, the Congo Free State and the Ethiopian Empire, ranging across Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda – the wars resulted in the nominally joint-rule condominium state of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan from 1899-1956, during which Britain had de facto control over the Sudan, a rule that ended with Sudan’s independence.

The Mahdi in the novel is the “promised,” he “who would pull them all out of their misery, who would bring justice and peace to the world after it had been filled with tyranny.” Claiming to have been directly mandated by the Prophet Muhammad in a dream, he is pious and stern, popular with Sudanese who are resentful of the Egyptian colonial system after the violent beginning of the reign, their suffering under the high taxes of the Ottoman rule, and the willingness to appoint non-Muslims, such as the British Christian Charles Gordon (who makes an appearance in River Spirit too), to powerful positions in Sudan. However, Aboulela tracks the Mahdists’ crossing of boundaries as their religious zeal turns into violence against the Ottoman-Egyptian administration, and later the British.

The breathless pacing of River Spirit’s opening continues through the novel’s seven different narrators. Representing Aboulela’s richly woven cast of characters, these voices range from completely fictional, to lightly fictionalised, to those more closely based on real people with reported historical roles. Of the fictional characters, we hear from Yaseen, a merchant from Khartoum who studies the Qur’an at the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo — “so that I can tell the real from the fake” — whose studies become useful when the Mahdi emerges. There is Robert, a Scottish boat engineer, who, with hopes of being an acclaimed orientalist painter in Britain, returns to painting when he arrives in Khartoum. Here, the diaries of Charles Gordon, the British Governor-General of Sudan, inspired Aboulela, and she uses a combative second person immersive perspective for Robert’s narrative perspective. Aboulela’s imaginings also run to the lives of peripheral characters, like Rabiha, the messenger running through the night; and Musa, the Mahdist who turns, going against the Mahdi’s orders with a shocking assassination, leading to devastating consequences for the fate of Yaseen’s hometown.

Aboulela treats the varying perspectives with compassion, and they often merge with one another, mingling lives and offering contradictory viewpoints on the same situation. But if there is one character that encapsulates the ‘river spirit’ of the title and could be said to be the novel’s protagonist, it is Akuany. We meet her as a child when her home Malakal is targeted by a slave raid, and Yaseen, her late father’s trader, rescues her and her brother, Bol. At the centre of River Spirit is the love story between Akuany and Yaseen, a story repeatedly cut short by the separations and violence caused by the war and the slave trade. Continually, Akuany is sold and bought until freedom becomes completely alien to her and her sense of self begins to diminish, as her identity is transposed onto her by her status as an object, her name changed to ‘Zamzam’, for example, by her first Turkish captors.

The violence of this selling, and Akuany’s status as property from the moment her father dies, brutally killed in a a slave raid, is reflected in Aboulela’s sharp and minimal prose in the novel’s moments of trauma. When the young Akuany sees her father’s dead body, the narrative switches as something cuts in: it does not linger on the violence, but states it as a fact. And it is Akuany’s interactions with other women in the novel that provide hope outside of her captive life. The perspectives of Fatimah, Yaseen’s mother, who continues her trading kohl in secret in her old age in a rebellion for independence, and Salha, Yaseen’s wife and mother to their child (“my son is everything, but I have always loved reading and writing”), both show the possibility of women having autonomous lives.

The meeting of the Blue Nile and the White Nile at Khartoum, Sudan. Photographed by David Degner.

Here, the titular centrality of water and of the River Spirit comes forward. For Akuany, the river – whether it is the White Nile of her childhood, or the Blue Nile which converges at Khartoum – is this freedom. “The river was her language,” begins her narrative. The Nile transports, connects, feeds, and cleanses; for Akuany, “it was more, the spirit of who she was.” The river winds through the novel brilliantly to unify the characters, linking the various towns and cities of the action, to place its intimacies and epic scale in nineteenth-century Sudan.

In River Spirit, Aboulela also explores the connection between her home of Scotland and her homeland of Sudan through Robert’s perspective — as mentioned, a character inspired by the Aboulela diaries of Charles Gordon, the British Governor-General of Sudan — and his relationship with Akuany. Robert buys Akuany from the Mahdists in Khartoum intending for her to be used as his painterly subject for his Orientalist masterpieces, as he hopes them to be. He attempts to control her, tying the resistant Akuany to a chair (“Keep still, girl. Dinnae get up. Nae slumping, nae keening”), to capture her image and make it still and knowable:

He wanted them to feel what he was feeling now, to know what it was like to be here in this place, the exact atmosphere, how wild it was and sweetly exotic. All the effort to render it on canvas, desperate to pin it down, enclose it in three dimensions, kill it and through skill and colour bring it back to life.

Words of domination and ownership prevail in Robert’s narration. In his paintings, Akuany is a mute, still subject, her image and selfhood reduced and enclosed within a portrait which is sent home to Britain to be sold and represent Sudan. Akuany’s narration about Robert’s portraits vividly illustrate her feelings of entrapment in this sitting, likening the paintings to “paralysing her on canvas.” 

River Spirit approaches history with creativity, and asks the questions: who can tell the story? And how can or should this story be told? The varying perspectives and the ways they contradict each other propose a multifarious solution, where history is told by those who have been written over, and fact and fiction drift together. On seeing Robert’s portrait of herself, the process of which she experiences as “clawing off layers of herself and pasting them on paper,” Akuany takes a knife and slashes it. Destroying what Robert saw as his masterpiece, Akuany reclaims her image and denies Robert’s mission to exhibit Sudan for colonial interest.

Aboulela offers us a recapitulation of this power of representation and fixity, with a difference, when, years later, Robert’s daughter Christina searches through his paintings and finds Akuany’s damaged portrait. She recognises the sitter’s “utter disdain, unspeakable insolence” and throws it into the fire, justifying her action by claiming that the portrait “deserved violence.” While both Akuany and Christina destroy the portrait to protect themselves and their womanhood, Aboulela skillfully shows the competing reasons for the destruction. Akuany ruins the portrait to protect her selfhood and claim independence, however, Christina’s burning the portrait comes out of a distrust of the sitter who is not the docile subject she expects, vividly demonstrating a misplaced loyalty to a system that also dominates her and determines her thinking. 

While the multiple narrative perspectives of River Spirit depict the many complex positions involved in the Mahdists’ War with sensitivity and narrative inventiveness, I wished to stay with Akuany, even to have the whole novel told to me through her singular voice. Akuany’s pining for the river, “the timeless companion, the one that ran without effort, gave without needing,” seeps through the novel and ties the epic story together. When we depart from Akuany, it seems that some of that spirit is lost. As the reader, I felt like Akuany herself when she is separated from the river, unmoored and striving for flow. Perhaps this distance is intended to produce in us this longing for the text that is similar to Akuany’s own for the Nile, for when we return to her voice, the effortless narrative is like swimming in the water once more.

Turning to the novel’s acknowledgements, Aboulela informs us that the character of Akuany was “found” in the Sudan Archive of Durham University in a bill of sale and a petition for a runaway slave girl. Lifting Akuany from historical material, Aboulela fills the footnotes of history and war, where women have been cast as minor characters, accompaniments, and shadowy background figures, bringing them instead into the main body of the text, allowing them to stand in for the very spirit of the novel, a River Spirit. Like the White Nile and the Blue Nile merge at a confluence near Khartoum, the novel joins fact and fiction, both in the author’s research and writing, and in the events of the Mahdist War. Aboulela crucially causes us to question the truth of historical narratives, to look back at the accounts and paintings we are left with. River Spirit examines the overdetermined power plays and dominances in history and underwrites them in their multiple sides and stories. At the end, we are left with two questions: what is the real story? And can we reimagine it?

Q&A with Leila Aboulela, author of River Spirit.

Ellen Addis: Scotland and its historical link to Sudan features quite remarkably, and, perhaps for some readers, unexpectedly in River Spirit through the various characters and storylines. Could you explain why you chose to connect Scotland and Sudan in one way through a Scottish Orientalist painter? And are there any particular orientalist painters that influenced the character of Robert?  

Leila Aboulela

Leila Aboulela: I have now lived almost equally in both Sudan and Scotland and no longer see them as worlds apart. I wanted in River Spirit to bring them together and explore their shared history. A disproportionate number of Scots played a part in Britain’s colonial administration. Those the Sudanese called Ingeleez and I, studying history at school, thought of as English were in fact Scottish! Robert’s character was inspired by the Scottish artist David Roberts whose lithographs of Egypt were widely popular. None of the orientalist painters, to my knowledge, went as far south as Sudan – so that was fictional. I guess I chose an artist because, as a writer, it was easier to understand his way of thinking and his ambitions.

I am fascinated by the character of Akuany/Zamzam and your creation of her from a bill of sale in the Sudan Archive at Durham University. How did you go about researching River Spirit, where did you go and what were you specifically looking for? 

In addition to the bill of sale, I also found in the Sudan Archives at Durham a petition detailing the case of an enslaved woman named Zamzam who had escaped with a stolen item of clothing from her mistress. She had gone back to her former master, and it was against him that the petition was raised. This story intrigued me and told me something about the woman’s character and she began to seem real to me. Because I am bilingual, I was not limited to British sources for my research – many of which were imperialistic in tone. I spent considerable time with Arabic primary texts and these were very illuminating in terms of how ordinary people lived and how they experienced these historical events. 

River Spirit tells the story of the Mahdist wars from seven different perspectives. Why were the multiple viewpoints important for you? Was there a character that you enjoyed writing the most? 

The different characters are passing the baton of the historical story to each other. Each character picks up the narration from their perspective and then the narrative moves on. The Mahdist wars were controversial and divisive and so I wanted to reflect these differences through a large cast who held different positions. I enjoyed writing all the characters but perhaps the character of Yaseen was the one I felt closest to. He is a hero with an endearing lack of self-consciousness. Every kind act and every strong position he takes is because he cannot bring himself to do otherwise. He does not think of himself as a hero, nor does he expect praise or reward. I admire him for that. 

The novel ends through a letter written to Akuany from Salha. Why did you choose to end this way, with a distance from (what I would perceive to be) our protagonist, Akuany? 

This is a good point, which also challenged me. I tried to end with Akuany and explored various options to do so but none of them were successful. The problem was that Akuany had left the area where all the historical action was taking place. The reader needed to be in Omdurman to end the book with the British invasion and it was Salha who was in Omdurman. A priority for me was that the momentum continues, and the narrative remains tight up until the last word, without slacking. I did not want to compromise on that.  

 If you could recommend any historical fiction novel other than your own, what would it be? 

Segu by Maryse Conde. This is glorious storytelling with complex characters and unpredictable plots; it sprawls over generations and countries. Set in 18th and 19th century West Africa, the novel details how African traditional life was caught at the crossroads between Islam and Christianity both bringing inevitable changes. It is one of the best novels I have ever read in my life. 

What are you reading at the moment?  

I am reading Letters to a Writer of Colour edited by Deepa Anappara and Taymour Soomro. This is a collection of essays about the experience and craft of writing from a non-white perspective. One of the entries is a conversation between myself and Nadifa Mohamed on writing violence. I am enjoying the other entries, hearing the perspectives of younger writers navigating their way through a system which is much more welcoming of diversity than when I first started out, but also has its own challenges. 

Ellen Addis is currently studying for her PhD at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Her project is a collaborative doctoral award with Hay Festival researching literary festivals and how people experience literature collectively today.

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  1. River Spirit by Leila Aboulela – Word by Word

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