Sunrise in the Selfish City

Rania Mamoun – Thirteen Months of Sunrise (Comma Press, 2019)

Nestled between Ethiopia and Egypt, Sudan doesn’t often make the international news. Even the best-informed reader would be forgiven for associating the country only with the ongoing civil war taking place among the warring tribes of its south.

Its capital, however, Khartoum, is divided less by its ethnic tensions than by class. Recently described by The Guardian as “the most selfish city in the world”, Khartoum is run by and for a small Arab elite. The multi-ethnic city they rule over is, by contrast, in a state of perpetual anarchy.

It is into these sweltering streets that Rania Mamoun plunges us in her short story collection Thirteen Months of Sunrise.

Mamoun’s ten stories are short but pack a mighty punch. Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, the book’s prose is concise. We are hit by rapid bursts of images, each of which evokes a clear spirit of place. Smells, reveries and dreams all sit alongside poverty, scrap iron and extremes of human deprivation.

Each story takes us to another corner of Khartoum. In my personal favourite, “Doors”, we are witness to the increasing frustration of an unemployed man whose clean shirt is slowly torn apart, catching on everything it can on his way to a job interview.

His frustrations are recognisable to anyone. We’ve all spilled coffee on our best shirt. That the man lives in a pre-fab shack without running water is secondary to his human frustration. Mamoun’s focus on universal experiences like this are what make her stories so readable, and help us to place ourselves in the shoes of the Sudanese people she depicts.

The shortness of the stories gives them the feel of prose poems. They are no longer than they need to be. The collection itself comes in at under 70 pages. Yet, despite their brevity, these stories carry a lot of weight.

The collection is structured in a loose arc. We open with a friendship between two office workers. One is Eritrean, although the speaker mistakes him for Ethiopian: the Sudanese, we are told, refer to citizens of both countries under the collective label “Assyrian”.

Our Sudanese protagonist reveals themselves to be a lover of all things Assyrian. He wears Assyrian clothes and frequents Assyrian cafes. His Eritrean colleague appreciates this and, after a trip to an Assyrian record shop, hints at the story of his emigration.

That Eritreans still flee to Khartoum, as Ethiopians did a generation ago during their droughts, shows us the relative prosperity and peace of the Sudanese capital city.

By the final story, however, we are exploring the darkest and dirtiest of the city’s slums. In “Stray Steps” the starving speaker travels the poverty-striken streets, trading sexual favours for food and other scraps.

She is relieved only by a friendly dog, in a moment of magical realism that, by pushing the boundaries of believability, ends the collection on an ambiguous note.

Mamoun’s collection is well worth checking out. Anyone interested in the contemporary short story will find in here a series of highly original narratives, each realised with masterful technique. For those interested in the Sudanese setting there is also much here to praise. Less of a tourist guide than a guided tour down the backstreets; you leave feeling you know something of the real Khartoum.

The sun is rising on this exciting writer whose works are finally making it into the English language. It shows no sign of setting any time soon.

– Joe Darlington

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