Spirit of a nation

Leila Aboulela’s historical novel of nineteenth century Sudan tells the story of one of Africa’s first successful, anticolonial uprisings.

Eugène Delacroix, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, 1834, oil on canvas, 180 × 229 cm (Musée du Louvre). Photo credit Steven Zucker via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The relationship between art and history as one with the capacity to beget violence, both representational and actual, might seem far-fetched. Yet, when confronted with evidence such as Eugène Delacroix’s The Women of Algiers in their Apartmenta painting now synonymous with Orientalism and (French) colonialismthe connection is undeniable. Long celebrated for rendering a pretty picture of sensuality and opulence of the “other” in a vivid color palette, Delacroix’s work demonstrates the power of perspective, or more specifically, of historical representation.

Leila Aboulela’s latest novel River Spirit fittingly employs Orientalist paintings as means to grapple with 19th-century Sudan’s history of colonialism. Placing her work in conversation with Delacroix’s work, Aboulela explores a similar scene of a colonial encounter between an African woman and a European painter. Only this time, the subject of the painting and the novel’s protagonist, Akuany, is an agential figure who refuses to be captured in a painting according to its artist’s whims. Her Scottish enslaver, Robert, an aspiring painter, seeks to further his career and turn Akuany into the next Women of Algiers.

The oft-commented sensuality in Delacroix’s painting, especially his rendition of women, takes on an overtly exploitative and humiliating tone in Aboulela’s novel, as protagonist Akuany’s naked body is forcibly set on display for voyeuristic consumption for the potential European viewer. Here, Aboulela stages a historical intervention by removing the curtain on the colonial violence that Orientalist representations, including Delacroix’s work, occluded. In highlighting Akuany’s abuse and dehumanization in the painting process, Aboulela widens the perspective on the overt violence obscured in the representations of history from the colonizer’s paintbrush. Aboulela’s anticolonial and feminist critique is evident in Akuany’s vitriolic rejection of Robert’s painting, which she views as a fake and “anemic” representation deserving of her violence. Akuany’s rejection of Robert’s work is also, by extension, a rejection of the false and objectifying colonial narrative. The tensions around the creation and afterlife of Akuany’s painting highlight the power of perspective and storytelling. Aboulela especially underscores the need to examine historical truths through a multifaceted lens paying keen attention to various subject positions and motivations.

River Spirit’s rich historical engagement and narrative complexity are informed by Aboulela’s commitment to resist indicating any one perspective as representative of a singular narrative. The multiple perspectives of seven intersecting, narrating voices aptly populate River Spirit, each of them rendering visible the impact of Sudan’s Mahdist Revolution (1881-1898) on their life. The novel invites readers to consider its protagonist Akuany’s multiple displacements, which, to some extent, parallel 19th-century Sudan’s political turbulence. The young Akuany and her brother Bol are orphaned and displaced during a raid on their village in Malakal. The traveling merchant Yaseen vows to care for them but proves to be a tenuous connection, unable to protect Akuany from being traded and sold. Akuany’s various oppressors, including a Turkish General’s wife, a Mahdist fighter, and finally, a European enslaver, parallel Sudan’s struggles under the Turco-Egyptian rule, the Mahdist takeover, and eventual British colonialism.

At the center of the unfolding political drama is the historical figure of “The Expected Mahdi,” whom Aboulela notes is mentioned in Prophet Muhammad’s Hadiths, though not in the Quran. The Mahdi is a messianic figure of justice and religious revival, but in the novel he is a charming, albeit dangerously divisive figure who considers any challenge to his authoritarian leadership as inherently blasphemous and un-Islamic. Aboulela’s choice to withhold the Mahdi’s narratorial consciousness despite being a critical figure in the novel decenters the narrative, emphasizing instead the voices of the people caught up in this moment. Though the Mahdi’s aims are to liberate Sudan and establish an independent Islamic state, political and religious leaders view the Mahdi as an impostor.

As a Quranic scholar from the prestigious Al-Azhar University, Yaseen views the Mahdi’s dictatorial approach as a threat to the rich cultural and theological diversity of the four schools of Islamic law. For Yaseen, the Mahdi’s rise means an independent Sudan, albeit under a false leader, which he cannot accept. Conversely, he views Sudan’s bondage under the Ottoman Empire as an “injustice [which] causes the kind of damage that perpetuates itself.” Though Yaseen is unable to reconcile himself either to the Mahdi’s leadership or to the Turco-Egyptian foreign rule, the proletariat hails the Mahdi as a liberatory figure whose rise to power is informed by Sudan’s significant socio-historical and political tensions, including the East Coast slave trade and the Ottoman empire’s oppressive taxes. Aboulela contrasts the Mahdi’s divisionary figure with the British General Gordon as a political foil. The only character written in the second voice, Aboulela uses Gordon’s perspective to make visible not only his individual racism and misogyny but also the legacy of British colonial violence in the empire, of which he is a celebrated representative in the novel.

River Spirit’s political tenor is inseparable from Akuany’s journey as she acutely struggles to find a home and belonging after her initial forced displacement from Malakal. Despite her many trials, she remains an agential and resistant figure who defies all attempts to subjugate her regardless of the political alliances of her oppressors. Perhaps it is fitting then that Aboulela resists offering readers a direct access to Akuany’s consciousness, a marked contrast with the other first-person voices in the novel or even Gordon’s disoriented second-person narration. An orphan girl, Akuany’s fate is significantly different from that of her younger brother, Bol, who finds himself in the cherished position of an adopted male heir. Akuany, however, is exploited and traded, treated as an amusement for her Turkish captor and a muse turned enemy by her European enslaver. The Mahdist Revolution, though signaling independence for Sudan from Ottoman rule, posits the threat of yet another displacement and further possibilities of gendered violence for Akuany.

Aboulela offers a rich exploration of women’s interior life and their solidarities across class and gender struggles amidst the political upheaval. Though displaced, Akuany finds a family amongst other enslaved Sudanese women, namely Hadjia and Hibra, at the Turkish General’s house. They respectively act as mother and younger aunty, guiding Akuany from her transition from girlhood into womanhood. Their relationship is marked by the intimacy of caring for each other and celebrating together. In a particularly evocative scene underscoring Akuany’s belonging within her newfound family, Aboulela writes, “When a wave of ululations rose from the women and reached her, she found herself joining in. She had never been able to do that before. In every wedding and every party, the zaghrouta had evaded her. Now, it released the relief she felt, was born from genuine joy.” Their shared struggles and celebrations are informed by the vulnerability they experience as single women outside of the patriarchal family system.

In addition to exploring the richness of feminist solidarity cemented through class alliance between Akuany and her adopted family, River Spirit also intervenes in the representational amnesia around women’s roles in history. Aboulela states that despite playing a pivotal role during this revolution, “women are merely footnotes in the historical records.” River Spirit represents women as political actors, of which the historical figure of Rabiha is but one example. Defining women’s contributions during the Mahdist Revolution, Aboulela comments that:

women accompanied the army. They cooked, nursed and set up market stalls every step of the way. They also played a part in espionage, gathering data and passing it on—this inspired the role played by Yaseen’s mother in the novel. I was also excited to discover that the Mahdi had sent a woman ambassador to the Khartoum palace.

Aboulela’s nuanced portrayal of women’s political consciousness is evident through Salha’s vital commentary on the violent and authoritative Mahdist takeover. In spite of experiencing hardships from the political turmoil, including being separated from her husband Yaseen, Salha holds a decidedly nuanced anticolonial sentiment: “We are an independent country. That is the result of all the bloodshed. I might have mixed feelings about the methods used to achieve this, but one can never defend foreign occupation. Independence is natural and just.” Salha’s anticolonial politics are critical of the realities of revolutions, which are seldom divorced from political corruption, personal greed, and the leaders’ hunger for power.

Aboulela’s narrative, in keeping with the spirit of multiperspectivity, includes voices from the empire also, particularly that of Robert’s daughter, Christina. Having grown up in Europe all her life, her understanding of Sudan and especially the British involvement in Sudan is literally informed by Robert’s paintbrush. However, she understands the rhetorical power of narratorial perspective upon discovering her father’s original painting of Gordon’s Last Days. Here, Aboulela again engages with the historical perspective of a European artist, particularly that of George William Joy’s General Gordon’s Last Stand. Robert’s paintbrush depicts two versions of Gordon’s last days, of which the idealized painting becomes a catalyst in stirring up British nationalism and justifying the invasion of Sudan fourteen years later in the 1898 Battle of Omdurman. The hidden painting, a more accurate depiction of Gordon’s Last Days, literally puts Gordon’s figure in a larger historical perspective, thereby decentering Europe.

Further underscoring the ideological and literal violence of the colonial perspective, Aboulela also returns to Akuany’s damaged painting, which Christina finds amongst Robert’s belongings. In a turn of poetic justice, Christina destroys the painting, which, unbeknownst to her, was the very work Robert once considered his masterpiece. However, Christina’s actions are motivated differently from Akuany’s since Akuany rejects a falsifying colonial narrative, whereas Christina rejects historical evidence of an African woman’s resistance to European othering. Like the hidden version of General Gordon’s painting that decenters Europe, Akuany’s painting challenges Orientalist notions of passivity and objectification.

Lastly, River Spirit, akin to its protagonist Akuany, evades easy categorizations by resisting being pinned down by other characters or the reader. Aboulela, in African Arguments, states that: Mainstream history has been written by the colonizer. This is their truth. It is time for us to tell ours. When Africans write history, we are not necessarily saying something about the world today. Much of the motivation comes from wanting to tell our side of the story.

Indeed, River Spirit tells the under-explored story of one of Africa’s first successful, anticolonial uprisings in 19th-century Sudan. The novel’s numerous entanglements underscore the larger historical overtures of imperialism and colonialism, clashing ideologies of politics and religion, pulled along the undercurrent of Akuany’s struggles to belong to and be with Yaseen. River Spirit uses art to paint a complicated historical picture that places the paintbrush in the hands of Sudan’s people.

Further Reading