Sudanese Writer Abdul Aziz Baraka Sakin Fears for His Life
Regime in Khartoum Continues the War Against Ideas
In Sudan a state-sponsored war on freedom of expression, creativity and culture is at its worse. In early December 2012, the Sudanese writer and novelist Abdul Aziz Barka Sakin had a conversation with GIRIFNA (while on a book tour in Vienna) detailing a history of persecution by the Sudanese government that targeted him and confiscated his books since 2005. In the conversation below Baraka Sakin speaks about the events that led to the confiscation of 3,500 copies of his books during the last Khartoum International Book Fair, in October 2012. He calls this attack, from the National Security and Intelligence Services (NISS), against him and his work “a massive war”; and adds that he does not feel safe returning to Sudan.
GIRIFNA: when did this harassment from the State toward you start?
Baraka Sakin: I returned from Egypt in 1992 and worked as a secondary school teacher. During my second year on the job, the government forced me to retire. I applied for another job and worked with the taxation bureau. Then I was asked to work for the national defence forces (al difa’a al sha’bi), but I refused. And as a result, once again, I was subjected to forced retirement (lil salih al’am).
In 1993, I was detained for 15 days on fabricated charges that I was part of a group that was planning a protest. I was thrown in a ghost house in Khashm al Girba, next to an isolated railway area. The following year, I was again detained for a short period. During that time I stopped working because every time I found work I was released lil salih al’am. So I started doing marginal jobs, like bricklaying and other physical work.
The government started harassing me again in 2005. The Ministry of Culture had printed for me a book called On the Sidewalks (Ala Hamish al Arsifa). But soon after they confiscated the book; and said that it was against their “project”. This happened despite the book being rated, by a committee hired by the State, as the best collection of short stories published in 2005. They burnt the book and did not give me any royalties or dues. This was my first book to be confiscated.
GIRIFNA: your book The Jungo: Nails of the Earth (al Jango Masameer al Ard), won a national literary prize, and yet it was later banned. Can you tell us how and why this happened?
Baraka Sakin: In 2010 Sudanese government confiscated The Jungo: Nails of the Earth (al Jango Masameer al Ard). Even though the book had won the Al Tayeb Salih literary award, the Ministry of Culture issued a statement saying that the book was banned because it was against article 15 (of the Musanafat law). The danger in their statement is that article 15 says that a book is against norms and traditions, or against religion, and/or against policies of the State. This can lead extremists to issue fatwas against writers or to attack them violently. All copies of al Jango Masameer al Ard were confiscated at that time, and I did not receive any monetary rewards from it.
GIRIFNA: How are these confiscations impacting you as a writer; and have you taken any legal actions to protest this and/or ask for compensation?
Baraka Sakin: By banning the book they also opened the door for a black market in my books, where the book was photocopied and sold illegally. The government might have been part of this black market, because this is a loss for the publisher and for myself. And it also ruins the book, as the government sometimes adds fake content to the book to damage it; and then releases this new content on digital platforms like Facebook.
This is a breach to my freedom of expression as well as a distortion of my views and opinions. It is their way to destroy the literary credibility of writers and their reputation.
In 2010 I filed a formal legal complaint against the State. It was an administrative complaint and my lawyer was Kamal al Gizouli. We went through a long legal process. Each time we get close to a verdict the judge would suddenly declare that, “this is not my specialty”. We would bring witnesses and put a lot of resources into the legal process, and after six to seven months the judge would say it’s not his specialization, and there would be no ruling; this went on for a while.
We are now standing at the steps of the constitutional court, but I feel that there is no need to even try because the judicial system is not independent.
GIRIFNA: What other challenges are you facing? You were the only author whose books were confiscated at the Khartoum International Book Fair last October. What was the background to that incident?
Baraka Sakin: In 2012 I printed books in Egypt, because in Sudan I tried to get permission a few times to print my books, but I was denied a permit and not allowed a national ISBN number (raqam ida’a watani). I’m banned from getting an ISBN number, for all my books, so as to prevent me from putting my books in the National Archives, or in any institutions or entities that safeguard my copyrights.
As a result I was obliged to print in Egypt. I printed about seven of my books. The publisher is Hisham Abu al Makarim (Awraq Publishing house)–a former University classmate. This cost the two of us all of our resources.
Prior to the Khartoum Book Fair the publisher sent a list with the names of the books he wanted to participate with in the Book Fair. This included seven of my books. This is the formal procedure, and the government of Sudan saw this list and they did not object.
The Book Fair was scheduled for October 6, 2012. On October 4, all the publishing houses were supposed to receive their books to start displaying. By then, all 160 publishing houses received their books, except for us. All of my books were not received by my publisher although other books did arrive. The National Security and Intelligence Services (NISS) held 21 boxes, which contained my books, at the airport.
They promised us that my books will arrive the following day. Two days later the books had not arrived, and I announced in the national newspapers that if they don’t deliver them I will go on a hunger strike inside the premise of the Writers Union. When the government read this in the papers they released the books for three hours.
For those few hours, people were standing in lines, and some were registering their names to ensure they get copies. A huge number of people from all age groups were gathered and waiting when an employee from the NISS came to ask what is happening. He asked us to stop selling the books and said that nothing can be distributed before they take the books to read them and assess them. Only then will NISS decide if they will permit me to distribute and sell them or not.
We explained to him that the list of books was sent a while back, and there was no objection and that he can take a sample of one book from each novel. But he insisted to take all the books. I took him aside in a violent manner to try to convince him. We gave him six books, and we managed to distribute about one box of books.
He then went and called three other NISS agents, who took me to their offices and held me for about three hours. They asked me why I was stopping their colleague from doing his job. I was interrogated by a security agent in charge of the book fair called Ali Mannu. And he was telling me that I’m obstructing the NISS from doing their work.
I stressed that the books are mine and that they can’t take them all, but can take one of each. Ali Mannu insisted that, “this is work”, and that they have instructions from higher up. And that there is an entity bigger than him that gave instructions that Baraka Sakin should not sell any of his books in the book fair or elsewhere; otherwise he will be subjected to “formal procedures”.
I returned to the book fair after that. NISS started sending to me young thugs to harass me. They were trying to pick a fight with me and I had to ignore them.
The second thing was my car. I was working with a World Bank-funded project. I had the work car, and I had locked it and parked it outside the book fair (next to the police station). I came back to find the car open, and a lot of documents missing from it. I then drove the car and left, and by the time I arrived to the main road the car was about to turn over. I felt that the car was moving strangely, so I stopped to check and saw that the screws of the wheels were undone.
When I returned to Damazeen after the end of the book fair, I was told that the following books were confiscated and banned: The Jungo Nails of the Earth (al jongo Masameer al Ard); A Woman from Cambo Kadis (imra’a min Camo Kadis); Darfur’s Christ (Masih Darfur); The Memory of the Khandarees (Zakiratul Khandarees); and On the Sidewalks (Ala Hamish al Arsifa).
I have written about 13 books, and I got the al Tayib Salih literary award. However, not a single cultural or literary institution in Sudan raised its voice to protest what happened to me. Not the Writers Union, not the Literary Union, not the Novel’s Club, not the Writers Coalition. Not one institution in Sudan issued even a simple statement. This is a massive war from NISS.
When I arrived to Damazine, after the Khartoum Book Fair, NISS summoned me, and they interrogated me about the books. They asked when I wrote them, and what I do for a living. They were trying to threaten me. Damazine is not secure at all.
I’m the manager of a World Bank-funded project (called the Community Development Fund) in Damazine and Kurmuk. A while back I wrote to my managers explaining the threats from NISS, and that I fear for my security. I recently wrote them again asking for vacation. I had 55 days. They only authorized me to take one month. If I don’t go back by Dec. 20, I’m considered absent from my job and they can fire me.
I don’t know what to do or where to go? I’m in Vienna right now for a book signing, but have no idea what to do.
GIRIFNA: What’s your family situation like back home? How is your absence impacting your family? Do you have children?
Baraka Sakin: I have two boys. I’m their only guardian. But I also support a very big family, including my sister who has five girls and a boy. My kids are staying with my sister, since their mother passed away a few years ago. I remarried, but I’m divorced now.
I’m the backbone of all my family. To my kids, I’m their father, mother, grandmother and everything.
My job was my only source of income. And NISS confiscated about 3,500 books (7 books, 500 copies of each book). This cost me and the publisher about USD 10,000. We managed to get some books out, but not much.