The African Library: The Jungo: Stakes of the earth by Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin

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Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin: The Jungo: Stakes of the earth (2015)

Sakin plunges the reader in among the Jungo at the start by referring to them as a group of people who have well-known habits characterising them, such as “wear[ing] new shirts with filthy collars” and “jeans with large pockets” held up by “fake leather belts” and leaving their hair uncombed till it becomes thick and matted and full of pollen

First published (in Arabic) in 2009, this novel is its author’s most famous work, and it has won several major awards as a key example of contemporary Arabic literature. Despite this, it is (like all his other writings) a banned work in northern Sudan, Sakin’s country of birth. The banning decree, in fact, came soon after The Jungo won the Arab sphere’s most prestigious literary prize in 2011. Sakin’s books had already been “interdicted” since 2009 in his native country – a glaring example of the prophet not being honoured by his own land’s officials, while his books are so popular and admired that, secretly, Sudanese people read and circulate copies of the texts. Abdel Baraka Sakin was born and raised in Kassala, eastern Sudan, which is close to the Eritrean border, but his family origins lie in Darfur in western Sudan. Sakin obtained a business science degree at an Egyptian University, but has been employed in a range of occupations – manual worker, secondary school teacher, consultant for UNICEF in Darfur and employee in an international NGO for the rights of children. Sakin left Sudan after the final banning of his writings, in 2012, and at present resides in Austria. Sakin’s publications include, besides his 11 novels to date, four short story collections. One of his short stories won a BBC prize for Short Stories from the Arab World, while a French version of The Jungo was awarded the Arab Literature Prize for French Translations. The English translation is by Adil Babikir.

English readers like me tend to find the subtitle of the translated text puzzling. It is likely to have been derived from a saying (“Source unknown”) cited as the first of the novel’s two epigraphs. Its meaning seems to be something similar to (the biblical?) “salt of the earth”, but perhaps intensified to indicate those without whom the world would lose its “measurements” or its solid reliability – but I admit to speculation in suggesting this. The novel’s second epigraph is a quotation from Mahatma Gandhi, relating to eventual victory after being initially disregarded, then ridiculed, then opposed, before eventual triumph – likely referring to the Indian leader’s famous “soul force” doctrine. Sadly, Sudan’s decried “Islamist military regime” (as described on the back flap, and similarly on page ix of the foreword by Kamal Elzigouli, former head of the Sudanese Writers Union and himself a poet as well as a lawyer and a human rights activist) succeeded in ejecting Sakin from Sudan. The narrative of The Jungo is not a tale of victory, either, but an extremely interesting one, and the people known by this name do remain unbowed despite hardship. The identity marked by the name The Jungo is, of course, itself unknown and a “strange” term to anyone not from the region. This may be why Elzigouli in the foreword explains that they are “a marginalized population of seasonal workers (mostly male) from western Sudan” (ix). Since hardly any of them ever make it back to their region of origin, they can be described as internal migrants, although – being somewhat nomadic and following work opportunities around the eastern areas, as well as being unable to acquire land of their own – they do not and cannot settle here. They are members of the world’s (and the continent’s) enormous “precariat”, ie those who live in a permanent state of precarity. The novel is remarkable in bringing together the author’s literary sophistication and the rough-and-ready workers, whose lives are a permanent, nevertheless cheerful struggle against huge odds and ugly discrimination. By taking “marginalized” and disdained people and putting them squarely at the heroic centre of his narrative, Sakin may be said to achieve a sort of literary inversion of actuality. That he does so without changing the harsh conditions of life among the Jungo and many examples of “unseemly” conduct among them, makes the sophisticated narrative all the more remarkable.

Sakin plunges the reader in among the Jungo at the start by referring to them as a group of people who have well-known habits characterising them, such as “wear[ing] new shirts with filthy collars” and “jeans with large pockets” held up by “fake leather belts” and leaving their hair uncombed till it becomes thick and matted and full of pollen (1). Only on the next page is this surprising familiarity made explicable, when we learn that the author is using a frame device – the narrator and his friend have arrived “somewhere we’d never been before” (2), as they have frequently done. They then set out to learn about the people living in the place where they have paused. The two men are well-off drifters who, having both been retrenched five years previously when the Sudanese state decided to cut down on the numbers of public servants it employed, decided to travel around some lesser known regions. The friend is from a wealthy family and need never work, but he needs a companion on his travels. The narrator is not rich, but he does have the funds paid out upon forced early “retirement” and he has no dependents, while his friend covers most of their travel costs.

At a coffee house, where the friend observes that the town seems inhabited only by rather rough men, a “good-looking young man” (2) breaks into their conversation and urges them to visit “the Mother’s House” – Gatha Addai, in the local language (Tigrinya) – presumably because they’ll see some women there. The young man introduces himself; he is Wad (meaning “the son of”) Ammoona – the latter being his mother’s name rather than (as is more usual) his father’s. We learn later that his actual father is unknown, though his mother claims vaguely that he was a man from Yemen. In his stylish grooming, Wad Ammoona stands out in this community. He is sociable and chatty, soon finding out that the two friends are from Qedaref, a city not very far away, and informing them that he was raised in its jail, where his mother had been imprisoned. The narrator initially keeps to himself the information that, coincidentally, both his father and his friend’s father had been employees (jailers) at the very same institution. The next chapter, too, starts in an apparently artless and initially confusing way, with the narrative voice saying:

This is the sum of the accounts I collected from several narrators, including my darling Alam Gishi, the Mother, Mukhtar Ali, al-Safyah, and Wad Ammoona himself (direct accounts as well as quotes from his memoirs), with some editing, interpretation, rectification – and sometimes distortion – of Wad Ammoona’s anecdotes from prison. (5)

The above bewildering information can be clarified from what one learns after reading much further on: that “my darling Alam Gishi” is a local “working girl” who will be the love of the narrator’s life and later on his wife; that “the Mother” runs a boarding house for passing travellers (usually men) that serves meals and other offerings such as paid-for sex with the women employed by her; that Mukhtar Ali is an old man who becomes the narrator’s friend and advisor; that al-Safyah is a female Jungo, or Jungojoraya, a formidable woman about whom many legends are spread, and who can work to bring in the sesame harvest along with the men; and that Wad Ammoona will, long after leaving this community, end up as a powerful government minister who will have his “memoirs” published in book form. The narrator’s tale – in effect, Sakin’s novel – can be read as a corrective rival narrative to Wad Ammoona’s supposed “memoirs”, to which, as a fictional device, the reader of course has no access. The characters named in the above extract are more or less the most significant ones in The Jungo as a whole.

As if carrying straight on from the last reference in the same citation, the story plunges straight into one of Wad Ammoona’s anecdotes, spoken as if from the midst of his revived memory when he, as a boy, “decided that, from that day on, he would no longer clean dishes” – as if the reader would know which day that was. Washing dishes was what Wad Ammoona did as a boy living in the jail with the uncertain status of an inhabitant who was not a prisoner. He was partly bullied to wash dishes (by the prison’s fat cook, whose job it was), but did it also in order to earn a few coins. However, this cook was a paedophile, so “that day” may be the day when the latter tried to press the (very pretty) boy into sexual compliance – when he (according to his anecdote) proceeded to act on his mother’s clear instructions, and bit off a large piece of the penis that had been pushed into his mouth, at which the cook naturally let out a bellow of pain fit to wake the dead. This anecdote can give readers an example of the kind of explicit, often bawdy stories found in the conversations of this community, who are earth-bound, body-conscious people who all know one another’s “secrets” or the rumours around what they are supposed to have done. Wad Ammoona, in particular, is a great purveyor of rumour and loves gossip. Unattached as he is, and ingratiating himself by being helpful in all kinds of ways (though he is sometimes generous without seeking gain), he is a major informant to the novel’s narrator.

The narrative reverts to the original perspective, as Zeinab (the narrator, whose name occurs only once, early on in the text) sits enjoying a meal and a hookah smoke in the Mother’s House. The woman who attends to him sings the praises of Wad Ammoona, who is helping her, smilingly and smoothly, to serve her customer. She brags that he was “brought up with us right here” (20), in the same establishment, explaining that he came there after he had left the jail, as a teenager. Zeinab has requested the massage to help him recuperate from his exhausting trip to al-Hillah (the town on which the narrative is centred); the woman with him is expertly massaging his back. He admires her, describing her as “beautiful and enigmatic, her face concealing joy and sorrow, or revealing both at the same time” (21). Then she tells Zeinab she is returning home to her husband and children, but asks whether he wants “a girl to sleep with”, and, to his own surprise, he replies that he does. At once, she recommends Alam Gishi, predicting (presciently) that Zeinab will like her. Zeinab is sexually inexperienced – a “condition” from which Alam Gishi will soon (though not on the night for which he books her services) release him. He hears from Addai (the Mother) that they earlier had to eject his friend from the establishment, since he had been creating an unpleasant ruckus, extreme even by local standards. Immediately, he loyally goes in search of him, guided by Addai. As they walk along in the gathering dusk, practically everyone they encounter gives Addai a friendly greeting. “She said joyfully, ‘Life’s a game that ends in a grave’” (23). Further on, they encounter al-Safyah, holding a small bag and followed by two men carrying similar bags. The Mother immediately deduces that “the Jungo descended on al-Hillah today” (25). The bags they carry, she informs Zeinab, are known as their googo. And al-Safyah is the most famous of the Jungojora (plural for Jungos), and is known across the entire eastern region of Sudan. Addai even makes the claim that it is al-Safyah’s ancestors whose grandfathers (and the djinn, mischievous spirits in whose existence many Muslims believe) first lived in the region. Zeinab grows increasingly anxious about his friend, but Addai just strides on and calmly continues chatting, clearly unworried. Then they hear the friend’s loud voice, still quarrelling and shouting. The friend has had sex with a prostitute; she demands payment, with five local men supporting her case, while the friend insists that he won’t pay a penny, as this would “only reduce the intimate, blessed, and wonderfully human encounter [he has] just had with the beautiful creature sitting there … into an act of prostitution” and make “vice” of a deed full of “virtue” (26). He is, of course, very drunk. The woman herself loudly denounces what she terms the friend’s “damned communist talk” – a to-and-fro argument that started two hours earlier. Giving up on this silly mess, Zeinab tells Addai that he wants to go back “to sleep” while she remains to sort out the quarrel. He has paid a lot of money to the woman who massaged him for the opportunity of having Alam Gishi sleep with him, and when he gets back to the Mother’s House, she is there, having waited for him all this time.

Instead of describing the nature of this encounter, the narrative shifts, unannounced, to a totally different scene – presumably occurring the following day. “We”, unidentified for almost 20 lines, turns out to be a reference to Zeinab and his friend encountering al-Safyah “bargaining with a seller over a dress” (29) at the souk (a bazaar). In his usual lofty style, the friend pronounces that he wishes to talk to this “great woman”, since “the simple, neglected creatures living on the margins are troves of amazing secrets [and, since] Allah always stores His divine wisdom in such people [he] want[s] that wisdom” (29). Zeinab sarcastically echoes what he calls his friend’s “jargon”, asking, “So you see her as a life project?” That the friend is a type of “armchair revolutionary” unaware of how selfish and condescending his attitude is, in contrast with Zeinab’s, is shown when he pompously states that if he could get to know about all of al-Safyah’s “dreams, expectations, frustrations” in order to “learn how she thinks”, it would be “a true addition” to his “experiences”! (30). Al-Safyah, for whom he professes such respect and admiration, is, in other words, to him just another woman he can use. This time, he is willing to spend a little of his abundant money on the woman he exploits, since he, in an apparently spontaneous fit of generosity, offers to pay for the dress she wants to buy. In addition, accompanying her further, he offers her the payment for the dried fish, cooked vegetables, beans, dried meat, sheep intestines and so forth that she is purchasing – “food for five poor workers”, as she tells the friend, gratefully thanking him. The Jungo are shortly returning to the sesame fields to work as harvesters for the owners, she tells them. When the friend confides to Zeinab that he wants to go with them and is “even prepared to join them at work [to learn] how they live” at first hand, Zeinab bursts out into derisive laughter. In his view, candidly expressed, his friend “is just a petit bourgeois embroiled in contradictions, vanity, and fancy dreams, trying to spend his idle time somewhere that would provide him with excitement, pleasures, and thrills” (30). “No way,” in his view, will his friend be able to do the back-breaking work by which the Jungo earn a living. The final confirmation of the vulgarity of the rich friend’s thinking concerning al-Safyah, whom he supposedly reveres, is his whispered remark to Zeinab, as she departs: “You know, boy? This woman al-Safyah is wildly sexy, like a hot bitch” (33).

Without the least indication of a change in scene, the narrative shifts into the hut where, the previous evening, Zeinab (after checking on his friend with Addai) returned to join Alam Gishi, the woman who had been recommended to him by his masseuse. With them is the perpetually attentive Wad Ammoona, with whom (it seems) both Alam Gishi and Zeinab wish to chat – maybe to smooth over initial awkwardness between two people who are unacquainted with each other. Alam Gishi is on top of the enormous bed in the hut, reclining on a big pillow with Zeinab, with their legs intertwined. She “occasionally clawed the sole of my foot with her toenail”, states Zeinab, “kindling a wild lust in me” (35). This kind of light foreplay is followed by a sudden, spontaneous gesture of courtesy towards an honoured guest, as Alam Gishi suddenly jumps up to brew coffee – an elaborate small ritual – and Zeinab insists that Wad Ammoona, who is regaling the two of them with anecdotes about his boyhood life in the prison, should stay to share at least the first round of coffee, known as the bikriyah, before leaving them. Zeinab is pretty much a virgin, though (it seems) he is at least in his late forties, as he refers to a nymphomaniac woman who initiated him into sex when he was barely into his teens “thirty-five years ago” (39). He is full of appreciation for the elegance of the room, the beautifully embroidered bed coverings and the lovely Alam Gishi: “with her smooth tan skin and her long slender legs that revealed traces of henna, Alam Gishi looked stunning. On one foot, she had a henna tattoo that looked like a cross or maybe a rose … it was clearly fresh, and it was beautiful” (38). Luckily, she seems instinctively to have grasped Zeinab’s shyness and his sexual anxiety due to his inexperience, “for she did everything alone, from putting on the condom all the way through to the ‘urination’ [ie ejaculation, for when the lustful local woman had coaxed him into teenage sex all those years ago, she had called it this to ‘explain’], which she wildly sucked from deep within me with indescribable lust” (39), as Zeinab describes his experience with Alam Gishi.

Again, there is a jump into what appears to be a gathering to discuss local “characters”, good and bad, led by a kind of local patriarch, something like a “retired” Jungo, who describes how he has had a serious bout of ill-health after collapsing as they were harvesting the sesame seed crops. The old man’s name is Mukhtar Ali, and, in the course of time, he becomes a type of mentor to Zeinab. On the occasion of the gathering, he tells them that he asked the foreign labour recruiter to take him to his sister’s house in al-Hillah, but she had to leave town soon thereafter. Bitterly, he states that the recruiter (or jallabi) never came back to check on his health; it was al-Safyah – “a slender black gazelle, agile as a bee” – who cared for him and vowed to punish the recruiter for his callousness. A couple of men in the gathering want to change the tone of the discussion from al-Safyah’s strength of body and character to her supposed sexual prowess – “they say [she] is an incredible sex machine” (44–45) – and Zeinab’s friend (who throughout the narrative remains nameless – perhaps a sign of scorn on Zeinab’s part, or is it a protective gesture?) soon shows himself to belong to the cohort of the vulgarians and sexists. When al-Safyah (apparently the only woman present) tells the gathered group “captivating stories about what the place [al-Hillah] had been like dozens of years ago” (44), when the land was still overrun with wild animals, and how it was her grandmother who established the settlement, the friend interrupts her by asking: “Tell us about your affair with Wad Fur” (45). He has no interest in her historical knowledge, only able to see her as the proverbial “sex object”. Zeinab is immediately on edge about such rude tactlessness and unsurprised as the dignified woman rises to her feet and, without a word to anyone, leaves the gathering.

Zeinab summons Wad Ammoona, who immediately understands that he wishes to leave the group and instead go visit his elderly friend, Mukhtar Ali, at his home. Zeinab asks the old man when he came to al-Hillah, and is told that it was over 40 years ago. He earned well in those days, but spent his money recklessly on booze and women in an endless succession, and even now is not likely to quit this kind of life. Like most Jungojorai, he tells Zeinab, he will not return to his original home or family in western Sudan, since Jungo consider it shameful to go back if they cannot arrive with many lavish gifts for the womenfolk in their family. When unable to continue working, they retire to the so-called “death tree” (47) in a nearby village, surviving initially on hand-outs from friends, till age, weakness or sickness takes them. He has no family left, in any case: “our village in Darfur was wiped out by government shelling” (48). But, he adds, he has enjoyed the life he has led and has no regrets. And when he recovers, he’ll go on working for a while. When Zeinab goes to check on his friend at the Mother’s House the next morning, he is told with relish by Wad Ammoona that he has spent the night with al-Safyah, who “showed [him] the stars in broad daylight” (a local saying, meaning something like “she sexually exhausted him”). Gossip is rife, with Wad Ammoona as usual at its centre.

“Al-Hillah was currently witnessing brisk development, and everyone was optimistic and enthusiastic,” Zeinab reports. “Girls composed lyrics in praise of teachers, local councilmen, policemen, telecommunication engineers, and even the workers at the gas station on Hamdayeit road” (58). These quietly inserted sentences are actually portentous; the changes they mark are of a kind that will eventually be better understood, in a wider context of their ramifications, also with considerably less enthusiasm. Al-Hillah has been there for a long time, initially as a way station for pilgrims on their way to Mecca from “Nigeria, the Niger, and Cameroon” and for “transitory travellers bound for Ethiopia, Eritrea, or the South” (59). All of these travellers stayed at Habouba al-Safyah’s guesthouse. The hostelry was run by a series of women who all took the name al-Safyah, the most famous of them probably the one who was there in (presumably) 1835, since 1910 seems too recent because there is a pinpointing reference to the “year of the comet” (60) as the year when this same Habouba’s grandfather arrived there, after escaping from a prison run by Italians, with an iron helmet clamped around his head, near death, to be released and saved by his family. This kind of story is told at the friendly gatherings in this town, for (states Zeinab) “no one could be called a stranger in al-Hillah”. He describes a spontaneous meeting of locals and newcomers, filled with chatting and laughter and soon also with music and dancing. Everyone present imbibes and claps hands to the songs and the dance performances, singing along spontaneously in the chorus parts of the songs, which Zeinab and his friend learn on the spot. Such conviviality sounds most enjoyable. Rumours start doing the rounds that Zeinab and Alam Gishi are soon getting married. Zeinab had a magnificent and long night in bed with her, but emphasises that he has not seen, spoken to or been with her since. He states that, having never been in that state, “love is something that I never thought about.” But he describes Alam Gishi most appreciatively as “a tall woman with a soft, golden complexion – you could almost call it reddish. She had two wide Abyssinian eyes surrounded by dark circles that lent them the unique charm associated with the [Ethiopian] inhabitants of rainy mountains and highlands” (65). When she comes to visit Zeinab (who is staying with his old friend, Mukhtar Ali, whom he has just helped to have a bath), indicating that she is somewhat surprised and slightly peeved that the younger man has not come to visit her a second time, his response reveals that his interest in her is far from superficial. Although she declares that having sex with clients at the Mother’s House is just “business” to her, Zeinab asks her “to quit her work as a night girl with Addai and work [instead] as a cook in the residential complex of the new telecommunications company” (66). She departs, it seems, and the next chapter has Zeinab’s friend recounting at length and in detail what occurred (he claims) during his night with al-Safyah. First, it seems, she told him her own version of the much discussed night she had spent long ago with a man called Wad Fur, which was supposedly the first time she had sex. They went to the top of a hill for privacy, but, she told the friend, Wad Fur suddenly pulled away from her and ran off just as she was about to have her climax. So, the friend decided that he needed to come to al-Safyah’s aid, sexually speaking, and that this would be “a great deed, noble and exceptional” (71). They proceeded to undress and initiate sex, but (as he began to touch her, the friend claims) “almost instantly, her body was covered in [black, thick] hair … like a donkey’s … her canine teeth protruded, and she started to utter a coarse sound … and then she attacked [him, the friend says] like a hungry lion … [would] a wounded helpless prey.” All this, after he has initially “swor[n]” that she had “turned into a hyena” (72). To top off this tall tale – where the friend’s own coarse nature is what is most evident – he supposedly then, in his desperation and panic to get away from this melodramatically “animalised woman”, managed to do so through either a closed, locked window or door, or a wall. He was supposedly too scared and can’t recall the details of his “escape”. His “evidence” (of al-Safyah’s “attack”) is some scratches on his back and buttocks.

The next development in al-Hillah is the announcement of how the bank that is to be constructed and opened there will operate. Enticing promises are made that this bank will operate on Islamic (“Sharia-compliant”, 85) principles, and rumours are circulated that even smaller businesses would be able to obtain loans. The local council grants the bank’s owners all kinds of assistance and free supplies, eager for the town’s economic “progress”. Sitting in a restaurant, Zeinab and his friend hear the noise of a wedding celebration and are given the information that the bride is the daughter of one Abrahait al-Felashawi, and that those (like the bride’s father) who are from Felasha “are Jews … the ones Gaafar Nimeiry sold to Israel” (alluding to the controversial 1984 airlift of thousands of Ethiopian or “black” Jews from Sudan to Israel). Despite the assurance of the woman Aziza that the man, Abrahait, is a Muslim who attends Friday prayers at the mosque, the friend is now intrigued and insists that he wants to (and has the right to) investigate at once whether Abrahait al-Felashawi is or isn’t Jewish. Doubtful of his friend’s brash behaviour, Zeinab (referring to an embarrassing event when the friend angered Mother Mariam Kudi, the pastor at the local church, in a discussion about the merits of different religions) initially refuses to accompany him. Predictably, the friend’s tactless questioning of Abrahait’s religious orientation angers and insults this committed and highly dignified Muslim man – and this questioning happens at the celebration of the wedding of his daughter in his own well-run home, into which they had been courteously welcomed despite being complete strangers to the family. As Zeinab earlier told his friend, of whom he is increasingly critical, though remaining loyal, “the problem lay in how he expressed himself, not in his intentions” (89).

Wad Ammoona sets up a “wedding night” scenario for Zeinab and Alam Gishi, involving all the rituals for beautifying both “bride” and “groom” and making them more alluring to each other, setting the scene with appropriate music, sweet perfumes, delicate dishes and fine drinks as well as luxurious bedding and secure privacy for the couple, before discreetly withdrawing. He creates the setting for what Zeinab will afterwards describe as “the most beautiful night of [his] life”, praising Alam Gishi as “incredible” (98). She is settling into her new job doing cooking and housekeeping for the workers at the telecommunications company. Although she earns less, initially, than she did as a “night girl” in Addai’s (the Mother’s) House, Alam Gishi soon remedies that. Enterprising by nature, she adds the washing of the employees’ clothes to her tasks and further extends her income sources by selling Ethiopian garments, music cassettes and leather belts from that region, as well as Italian shoes exported there and alcoholic beverages, condoms, Viagra supplies and other legal drugs. She also expertly organises and hosts a party for the same group of customers. Zeinab grows jealous, and when he insultingly shows this, he and Alam Gishi have their first (and perhaps only) fight, which might have been violent if not for others’ intervention (Wad Ammoona especially seems always to be hovering nearby), but now both are certain of the other’s love. When Alam Gishi not long afterwards tells Zeinab that she would like to have a child with him, a little girl, the idea fills him with delight and he tells her that in that case, he’d like to marry her, to which she responds with the words: “Of course you will” (112). She tells him that she was previously married to a Jungojorai smuggler called Mousa Harba Harba, with whom she had two beautiful daughters, who are now about 15 and 13 and living with her ex-husband’s family in a nearby town. He divorced her when she demanded that he should earn some money, after which he placed their daughters in his rich father’s custody and went off with the smugglers. Yet he kept visiting her and demanding sex and threatening her with murder should she take another man, even though he was himself living with another (divorced) woman at that time. She likes Zeinab, she tells him, because he is different from the men of this region; he is “sensitive”.

Perhaps because he recalls Alam Gishi’s taunt to her first husband expressing her contempt for an idle man, or maybe because he is getting bored without an occupation, Zeinab decides to follow the example of some local men in buying fallow land, clearing it of trees and burning the wood in ovens to make charcoal – a lucrative “crop”. He has enough money left from his social insurance pay to allow him to embark on this venture. After Alam Gishi, the next person in the al-Hillah community to take up employment with one of the new businesses that have come as modernity or “development” is making its presence felt is Wad Ammoona, who gets a job as so-called “office boy at the bank”. It is Alam Gishi who recommends him as “neat, cheerful and sober” (121) – rare qualities among local men! A group of the Jungojorai come to Zeinab for advice on a plan that they have hit upon: to apply to the bank for a loan that will allow them to buy a stretch of arable land as well as “a good branded tractor fitted with a plough” (123). The group is led by Abrahait, with whom Zeinab and his friend had the unpleasant encounter regarding his supposed Jewishness. Now, all is forgiven and Abrahait presents Zeinab with a bottle of superb cognac as a gift. The advice Zeinab gives is that the bank will in all likelihood require a “feasibility study” – this is something with which he should be able to assist them, so they leave him to it. He does not tell the delegation that he thinks their application is unlikely to succeed, but divulges this privately to Alam Gishi. Before the visit to the bank, another matter takes up the community’s attention – a reversion to the seemingly endless enquiries into the nature of al-Safyah’s sexuality. In fact, there is “something like a seminar” (127) at a local woman’s home at which various “witnesses” present different kinds of sensational “testimony”, of which the consensus seems to be that al-Safyah has both male and female sexual organs. The woman herself is incensed at Zeinab wasting time attending the discussion when he should be compiling the feasibility study, telling him: “You’d better do something useful and leave the gossip and chitchat to sluts, sodomites, and pimps,” implying (he says) that he fits into all three categories, especially the last one (130).

The morning of the Jungojorai delegation’s visit to the bank arrives. Wad Ammoona describes the bank’s architectural glories to the group – Western-style staircases, air fresheners and electric water coolers – very aware, presumably (when he lets them into the reception hall), that “they were now the dirtiest things in that place” (130), even though the Jungojorai had “done their best to make themselves presentable” for the forthcoming meeting with the bank manager. When they are at last allowed into the “spacious office that smelled of money” (132), they notice that two policemen are now present – summoned, no doubt, by the nervous manager in case of riotous behaviour from poor and (it would be assumed) “uncivilised” people. After listening to Zeinab’s presentation of the group’s request for a bank loan, during which the manager shows more interest in al-Safyah’s sexiness, he responds (of course) with a few vague promises, not replying to al-Safyah’s blunt question whether the bank will give the loan or not. Walking out, knowing they’ve not achieved anything, the group chats about using magical means to “influence” the outcome in their favour. But Fekki Ali, their usual resort in such matters, won’t manage, despite his elaborate methods of concocting a spell. The glum mood is alleviated by the good news that Alam Gishi is pregnant. Zeinab returns to his farm, where he lives (largely off the land, supplemented with bought supplies) in the company of two strong and reliable workers – Jungojorai with farming skills. Zeinab now states openly what readers would have sensed already, that he has “decided to be one of the Jungojorai” and “to integrate … fully into the community” (138). As an employer, he even “made it clear from the very beginning” that the income from the charcoal they produce through their back-breaking efforts will be shared “equally”. Many other Jungo are now gathering in al-Hillah, as “the agricultural season was about to begin across the entire East” (139). Aware that rich landowners are granted large bank loans and acquire huge swathes of land, the Jungo wonder openly why they, the actual farmers with years of experience and known skills, are not granted loans.

From small-scale merchants, the Jungo learn that they, too, were not given loans; the bank “wanted them to work under the large-scale farmers so that the latter could pay back the bank’s loans”. This is the beginning of the migrant labourers’ disillusionment. The Jungo decide to demonstrate outside the bank (non-violently) to demand only a single modest loan to allow acquisition of “one farm, one tractor” as an experiment to give them a chance to prove that there will be a good return on the money. But, objects the manager, he cannot negotiate a contract with such a diffuse or “anonymous group” with no official standing and with no proper collateral – their 20 residential plots in the town plus Zeinab’s one small farm are insufficient as “financial guarantee” to the bank, and a loan to the group would “violate the bank’s policies” (140). The group (“some 300 people”) re-congregates in the Mother’s backyard, unable to agree on how to proceed beyond the impasse. If they go on a strike and refuse field work, they’ll starve; a suggestion to rob the bank gets the response that no one wants to go to jail or kill policemen, who are also members of their community. Zeinab’s friend comes up with the novel suggestion that they should “fight them with shit” (142), like Gandhi and his followers did to get the British out of India. The plan gradually gains support, and the next morning “the employers” find their residential compound, and also the bank, blocked with piles of excrement. Summoning police to arrest the offenders gets the response that it would be impossible to tie the stinking evidence to any particular offender, and that public defecation is not classified as a crime. “Deep down, they sided with the Jungo, as the bank was known to be associated with a particular political group that they were not part of” (142). After the bank manager and five officials leave for the nearby bigger town (Qedaref), the Jungo extend the “shit invasion” into all the bank’s facilities and offices. When the management team returns a week later, accompanied by riot police in a truck, the attempt to wash off the shit with pressurised water hoses merely spreads it around. The riot police stay on for a full month while the barrage of excrement is maintained by the locals. While his two employee-partners return to the farm to work, Zeinab remains in al-Hillah to keep the pregnant Alam Gishi company. Since the bank cannot function, Wad Ammoona (who went away to avoid the “shit situation”) has at this time resumed work at the Mother’s House. The reason for his industriousness, she says, is that he wants to save up money to get Azza – the woman who took him in as a boy and sent him to school, and whom a grateful Wad Ammoona describes as “brave, generous, and humane” (145) – out of jail. She landed there when her nasty, rich brothers, who considered her coffee shop and small restaurant denigratory to their family’s standing, conspired to assault Wad Ammoona. Defending him, she maimed one attacker and killed another, and was sentenced to jail.

The next development, as class tensions increase in the community, is that a small group of Jungo have set themselves up as bandits in a forest on the route between the towns of this region and are robbing the passing traffic. They are considered armed and dangerous, and there are even rumours of a Jungo “revolt” (147). Mukhtar Ali, one of Zeinab’s employees, is known to be the group’s leader, so he himself falls under suspicion because of this. With only one worker left at his farm, he has to return there, but after a few months he gets an urgent summons to go and see to a “sick” Alam Gishi, so he rushes back. When he arrives, she appears calm and sits having coffee with Wad Ammoona, but when the latter tactfully leaves them to talk in private, she “started speaking in an unusually aggressive tone”, informing him that she had a miscarriage two days earlier. She also informs him fiercely that “everything is finished between [them]” (151) and that they must part ways. Zeinab’s attempts to comfort and reassure her are to no avail. Addai is asked to intercede for him, but there is merely a temporary softening on Alam Gishi’s part. Zeinab is bewildered, but greatly concerned for her. He fears to leave her alone and, like many members of the community, begins to believe his beloved wife “insane” (153). After 50 days, he is compelled to return to the farm. Barely a month later, he is again summoned by her; she is apparently pregnant again, but (startlingly) determined to return to her ex-husband in the town of Hamdayeit, she tells him, “to reunite with the father of her two daughters” (154), with whom she has already made the necessary arrangements; if Zeinab refuses to divorce her, she will simply go ahead without his permission. When he protests that she is pregnant, she says “indifferently” that she will send the baby to him after it is delivered. None of the attempted intercessions succeed in making a dent in Alam Gishi’s determination. Zeinab is as flabbergasted as he is devastated; she is the love of his life.

In a desperate attempt to make sense of and resolve the situation, Zeinab decides to travel to Hamdayeit to speak to Alam Gishi’s former husband, taking Wad Ammoona with him as a person of immense worldly knowledge and sophistication. They set off by bus, with Wad Ammoona – in a confessional moment – informing Zeinab that his friend once interrogated him, demanding that Wad Ammoona divulge whether he was “a woman or a man”, since everyone in al-Hillah was puzzled by his ambiguous sexuality. Wad Ammoona responded as follows (he reveals to Zeinab): “I am neither a woman nor a man. I perform the functions of both men and women. So I am both a man and a woman,” Wad Ammoona said, trying to tease him (Zeinab’s friend). “I am a wixi, midway between a boy and a chicksy,” he added, echoing how a friend in Qedaref used to describe him (156).

The next moment, the bus comes to an abrupt halt. All male passengers are ordered to disembark with their bags by the brigands, who put a huge log across the road. Despite their masks, they are all recognised as Jungojorai, but the passengers know they need to pretend not to recognise them, and meekly give up their money. The robbers announce that they are not bandits, but men “who want to reclaim [their] rights … by force” and are “no longer prepared to work like slaves” (157). The men (who have demanded inter alia a particular wealthy merchant’s money from the bus driver, concerning which they must have been supplied with prior information) carry Kalashnikovs, so they are not playing games. An event like this, added to the supposed “disappearance” of a government patrol sent to capture them, adds to the rumours about a growing “Jungo revolt”. Meanwhile, Wad Ammoona leads Zeinab to the home where Alam Gishi’s daughters live with their paternal grandfather. The girls give them a courteous welcome, and their father informs the astonished Zeinab that Alam Gishi left him (with the girls), too, in exactly the same way she is about to leave him; then, too, Alam Gishi fiercely demanded a divorce, and eventually, upon advice, he gave in. Zeinab should, for his own survival, do the same, the man tells him; the baby she is expecting will be sent to him. Alam Gishi, he says, might soon demand another divorce from him and hence become “available” to Zeinab again. “Insane as it sounded, his logic managed to win me over” (159), Zeinab comments. The community in al-Hillah kindly arranges a kind of “compensatory” supper party for him on the evening of Alam Gishi’s sudden departure; it is an unexpectedly jolly event, but Zeinab is not inclined to seek sexual comfort. Still, he remains aware of the town’s fondness for gossip concerning erotic matters and describes how a long-married woman discovered from a group chat with friends that she had never experienced an orgasm. This discussion, says Zeinab, was “fresh, simple and heated”, and he provides examples of how the women tried to convey to their deprived friend what sexual climax feels like, for instance: “it feels a bit like numbness, a bit like drowsiness, a bit like a dream. It’s something you never want to end, but it goes away suddenly” (166–167). Once again, Zeinab’s friend declared himself the saviour who was prepared to help out a sex-starved woman. He boasts that he succeeded with merely a kiss, but no one knows exactly what occurred; in any case, the woman concerned appears contented.

In Sudan, where (according to Zeinab) “the central government … had been at war with its citizens since independence” and is known for their wild accusations against all kinds of opposition (including foreign) forces, people know that it’s cover-up babble and that the state – fully aware that the “uprising” involves no one but the Jungo – is going to handle the “revolt” cunningly, not deploying excessive force. Al-Hillah people wake up one morning to the sound of military marches and then discover the stinking, swollen corpses of two well-known local men strung up in the main square – a dire warning to insurrectionists. And the gruesome deterrent works, Zeinab indicates, since “all of [them] sank into a deep dark well” (181–182) of gloom and despair. Still, Zeinab’s thoughts remain concentrated on his longing for Alam Gishi, even though an attractive local woman is doing her best to “replace” her, for in his heart and mind she is irreplaceable. One night, the Jungo group of forest fighters (led, still, by Zeinab’s former farming partner) secretly visit him. Laughing about the game they staged, they return the money they took from him when they hijacked the bus. For the present, the men inform him, they are on their way to Eritrea in a temporary, strategic retreat from their war with the bankers and with the government forces. Kindly, they try to comfort him for the loss of Alam Gishi, but when one of them labels her a “slut”, Zeinab fiercely defends her, loyally declaring: “[A] man who couldn’t live with his woman’s few vices was depriving himself of her numerous virtues” (190). Zeinab’s friend returns from his travels and, regarding the Jungos’ “guerrilla warfare”, declares that actions need to be guided by “political theory and social analysis”; typically, “he volunteered to lead the theorization effort”, asking to be taken to the men’s hideout. Meantime, the Jungojorai who have remained in al-Hillah as agricultural workers suffer a terrible blow when land-owning bank employees start using mechanical harvesters – machines replacing men and depriving them all of survival income. Moreover, chemicals are to be used to destroy weeds, and Chinese machines will uproot trees and clear land. “The Jungo felt coldness and bitterness in their souls” (204), observes Zeinab; a way of life is ending as authoritarian control intensifies in the town, and “in the throes of a cruel rebirth” the “fever of money” (205) takes over. Not long afterwards, a devastating fire (was it deliberately set?) destroys swathes of crops ready for harvesting – another awful blow. The military forces are closing in on the Jungo; those who remain in al-Hillah have to flee and make their way as speedily as possible to the Ethiopian border. Most of them make it, but (sadly) Addai, the old fighter (and their leader,) is “lost” on the way – presumably attacked for her savings in gold, and killed. The rest of them manage to reach a refugee camp. In this context of sad defeat, exile and loss, a great joy comes to Zeinab: Alam Gishi returns to him with their baby son, and together the three of them eventually get to America, where they make a new life and have two more sons. But to honour the memory of the Jungo, whom he never forgets, Zeinab writes his first novel (the one we have been reading?) about these remarkable men and women, in commemoration.

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