A mosaic of interrelated stories exploding with personality, myth, and geo-historical weight, Morning in Serra Mattu is a moving meditation on life in modern Sudan. Arif Gamal seamlessly blends large-scale political realities with the local and the traditional, creating a work at once historically grounded and magically out-of-time.
The son of a career diplomat, Gamal was born in 1949 and raised in Khartoum, Sudan. He left Sudan for France in 1975 to attend graduate school, returning after receiving his doctorate in environmental science. Following the 1989 military coup d’état in Sudan, and with his family under constant government surveillance, Gamal received an invitation to be a Senior Fulbright Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, and has lived in Northern California with his family ever since. Gamal has been a panelist and keynote speaker for many national and international conferences, seminars and workshops, from Nicaragua to Sweden, and in the early ’90s he lobbied in both the House and the Senate for the African Trade Bill.
Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa writes: “Each poem in Morning in Serra Mattu is an epistle of longing and memory.” Dave Eggers calls Morning “one of the greatest works of literature to emerge from Sudan.” And poet Maurice Manning writes: “This is a moving and profound book of poetry because joy—unabashed joy—is at the center of it, almost inexplicably.” Gamal spoke with McSweeney’s Poetry Series editors Dominic Luxford and Jesse Nathan over email in early 2014.
McSWEENEY’S: What was the impetus for Morning in Serra Mattu? How did the book come about?
ARIF GAMAL: Morning has been with me since I can remember. That boy who ran barefoot with goats and sheep on the banks of the Nile is still very much alive in my memory. All that was needed to bring the story(ies) into life was a circumstantial event that made it important to put a “word” to a “memory.” The first events were the deaths of Mahgoub, Fatimarya, Jamal, and lastly the devastating untimely death of Fatimaray’s last son, Said. In brief, these were my grandmother and her three sons. Jamal being my father. All this occurred in a space of less than six months. The family went from one funeral to another, followed by a long and almost continuous wake. I watched as buses full of Nubians came from the North and others came from the East. I understood that we were beholding the death of very unique and important personalities who forged their names in the history of modern Sudan. I needed to write about these four formidable characters.
The need to write about my family was quickly transformed into a quest or a mission. Every word wormed under my skin and gave me an enormous amount of restlessness: the last of the Nubians living over the Nile banks were again under attack and were threatened by displacement due to the building of the Kajabar Dam over the Nile.
I suppose another major reason to write Morning was that I noticed the Nubian heritage was quickly eroding, and like all aboriginal cultures, it was giving way to a new world that seemed to many to be more attractive and enticing—a world that has to be reckoned with. And yet maybe, amongst many others, I thought I would be able to document some of the most wonderful aspects of that displaced culture, in the form of a series of personal stories.
McSWEENEY’S: How has working on this book affected your memory of the experiences described? Was working on the book an attempt to come to terms with past events, or to memorialize them? Something else, or a combination of these?
GAMAL: I am sixty-four years old. I am trying to remember things that are about sixty years old. Some are easy, some are painful, and some are wonderful. The memory of the little boy running along the banks of the Nile, singing and playing games under a full moon, has never left me. It is easier to remember good times as a child—this is easy. It is wonderful to remember the times with my father; though the blues do strike, that comes with the territory. The bad memories are the family feuds, the political conspiracies, and above all the injustice and unfairness of unabashed power. One of my worst memories is of my aunt dipping her tongue in dirt, as she was given the news that the shrouded body outside her door was that of her beloved son. It was a sign that she was a completely devastated woman.
Yes, working on the book was a desperate attempt to come to terms with the past. The past that you try to come to terms with is that of your childhood, family, country, and the combination of all of these. It is a desperate attempt to see how each of the events, during that period of your life, affected you and made you the person you are today.
McSWEENEY’S: With regard to your cousin’s execution as described in the book—was there ever any acknowledgement of the injustice committed? What became of his mother?
GAMAL: The injustice of Magdi’s killing has never been acknowledged.
Every year, from Sudanese all over the world, there is a pouring stream of emotions to observe his horrible killing. His mother, who is very ill today, lived a life of sadness and pain that no one can conceive, except for a parent who has unfairly lost his or her child.
McSWEENEY’S: Where are the former villagers? Were you able to keep in touch with them?
GAMAL: Some died, some moved away, and those who are still there I try to keep in touch with, or at least know someone who knows something about them. It’s been a long time and the distances are great.
McSWEENEY’S: In the Author’s Note you write, “A precedent for Morning in Serra Mattu may be found in the Indian epic poem the Mahabharata. Vyasa narrates that story to the scribe Ganesha … while addressing the narrator as ‘you.’” Can you say more about this? Why was this form important to you?
GAMAL: It is humbling to mention the Mahabharata, but those wonderful stories and their narration adds to their captivating power. I always thought that Vyasa would come handy to me one of these days, and he did in the case of Morning.
I’ve taught African culture for many years, and since the first class, I’ve noticed that I get more attention when I relate a story—a personal one—such as one of the ones that is mentioned in Morning. So I set up all my classes around stories that provide an opening to a cultural or a traditional event. I enjoyed the compliment of a popular class year after year and always the question was, “When are you going to write all of this in a book?”
Soon, I developed the reputation of a “griot.” [A “griot” is a storyteller, praise-singer, poet and/or musician from western Africa, whose performances include tribal histories and genealogies. – Eds.] I liked that, so when the scholar Elizabeth Dubovsky and I started on Morning in 2004, and she agreed to be my first editor, we decided to set up the book as if an African griot were relating a story to his audience. Elizabeth for many years was a Black Lightning student at UC Berkeley, so she liked the idea. I on the other hand liked it because it gave me the ability to describe a range of very personal incidents and emotions, without exposing or adding to my vulnerability. That is why it was and still is important to me.
McSWEENEY’S: Did the poems flow out of you in this order? Did one section or another develop first?
GAMAL: There was no order, one section developed and then another. The leader in the thought was an emotion and a memory.
McSWEENEY’S: How do you see poetry contributing to your work in environmental activism? What is the relationship between the two for you?
GAMAL: I have rarely read a poem that is not environmental in nature. Even if the poems deal with a romantic aspect of our lives, I do think there is an equilibrium between nature and humanity. We do not need to romanticize a village disappearing to floods, but through poetry we are able to inflame the imagination as to the importance of the event. Poetry moves.
McSWEENEY’S: Do you have any recommendations for people interested in becoming more involved in protecting the Nile?
GAMAL: There are so many groups right now working on the Nile and protecting its flow. There are ten countries (the Nile Basin Countries Initiative) that are involved, and there are a range of NGOs working on the issue. I believe International Rivers (with its five continent coordinators, one being at Berkeley) facilitates these involvements. Take care, though, because there are some fund-raising initiatives that are very suspicious and can do more harm than good. But there are many things that we can do. It is a vital aspect of our lives (as citizens of the world) and not only to those who live along the Nile Basin.
I would like to see how people read this book. I would like to know my audience better and if they understand my reach-out to them, then definitely I will write another book expanding on rivers, dams, and displaced population and their culture.
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