Located at the confluence of the White and Blue Niles is Khartoum, Sudan’s capital and the center of author Jamal Mahjoub’s new book, A Line in the River: Khartoum, City of Memory. Mahjoub, a half Sudanese, half English author of seven novels, spent his formative years in Khartoum, fleeing with his family at a young age when a coup brought a severe Islamist regime to power. Nearly 20 years later he returns to write “A Line in the River,” encountering people, places, and memories he left behind.
“A Line in the River” is more than just a travelogue: It is a nuanced exploration of a country’s troubled history of colonialism, religion, and politics, translated through the author’s personal story as he questions his sense of belonging and of place. Mahjoub’s lyricism captures the country’s shifting identity and diversity to paint a moving portrait of a vibrant country stunted by transgression and ethnic division.
The author’s use of detail melds with a delicate, expressive voice that is both detached from and embedded within the country he grew up in. He tells the troubled story of Khartoum, and of Sudan, from both a Western and African perspective which adds a layer of accessibility to his memoir.
In 1956, Sudan gained independence from the British and was believed to face a bright future. Instead, it wilted into civil war and violence, eventually culminating in the 1989 coup which forced Mahjoub and his family to flee. According to the author, Sudan is characterized by a common notion that the North is inhabited by Muslims, and the South by Christians. This perceived divide and subsequent segregation between religious groups is what Mahjoub believes has prevented the country from achieving nationhood. “It is not a country of blacks so much as many shades of grey...the common notion...assumes that faith has geographic and racial limitations. It reinforces notions of ethnic division,” Mahjoub writes, later suggesting that the path toward progress and social harmony is through the acceptance of diversity.
Mahjoub details how the Sudanese have struggled to accept themselves and to feel pride for their history. A dusty museum in the city holds few mementos of Sudan’s past, and is described as a “mausoleum” and a “tomb” for what the country might have been. Mahjoub explains how the country’s inability to recognize itself is due to an orientalist view that the British administration projected onto Sudan, which was eventually passed onto the Sudanese themselves. The author frequently expresses bouts of impatience and sadness at the state of inertia in his country, which he believes is facing extinction. “The sense of extinction is palpable. The Sudanese aspired to become modern, to be accepted as members of the civilized world. To do so, they adopted Western clothes and manners. How is a country to make sense of itself when it refused to recognize its own people.”
The author’s struggle to understand his sense of place and belonging is the most riveting part of the book. It is a theme which shapes the entirety of the memoir, and it is subtly interwoven within the author’s analysis of his birth place.
By trying to define himself through understanding his city, Mahjoub shocks himself by experiencing a sense of longing to reconcile the idea of himself with Sudan. “After so many years abroad, making a life for myself among strangers, learning to accept alienation as a part of who I am ... here was something that had cut through all of that, leaving me exposed and vulnerable, and longing to reconnect with the world I had ignored for too long.” Mahjoub's struggle to identify himself underscores the difficulties of trying to define something as slippery and as intangible as identity. It is a poignant and intimate window into the author’s mind, and into the minds of many Sudanese who feel similarly disconnected from Khartoum, from Sudan, and from Africa.
“A Line in the River,” is an intimate portrayal of a city that is little more than a blip on the map for many. While Sudan is a country embroiled in layers of complexity which played – and continue to play – an influential role in shaping the country’s social fabric, Mahjoub manages to sift through that noise to deliver a wistful exploration of what Khartoum was, what it is now, and what it could have been.