By Magdi El Gizouli
April 3, 2014 - Mahjoub Sharif had his way with words. Throughout decades of poetic passion he managed to refashion the colloquial Arabic of the Sudanese town and chant it back at its speakers enriched with emancipatory themes. Mahjoub wrote poems for freedom, crisp, pregnant with music, witty, agitating, but always didactic. He proverbially breathed poems, till his very last breath at his Omdurman home on Wednesday 2 April at the age of sixty six. Thousands accompanied the ‘poet of the people’ as he was known to his last resting place in a mass act of baraka that not even the most pious of sheikhs can claim.
A school teacher by training, this secular prophet spoke truth to power in a creative language that readily transformed into powerful memes, and as a consequence landed him habitually in the detention cells of Sudan’s military rulers. He was incarcerated repeatedly during the reign of Jaafar Nimayri and then under Omer al-Bashir. It would be no exaggeration to say that the long spells of jail in Cooper prison set the stage for the lung ailment that ended his life. Like scores of Communist Party members he was dismissed from government employment during the extensive purges of the civil service in the 1990s. No prison however could blunt the sharp blade of Mahjoub’s poetry. His joyful compositions cut through the fallacious fat of official propaganda to bare the bone of daily existence as experienced by the nas, the toiling women and men who came out to honour him on Wednesday.
Beyond exposing power’s sins, Mahjoub had the extraordinary capacity to imagine another future in feather-light lines, suitable even for the playful entertainment of children. He nursed dreams of emancipation on behalf of the country and its people. What sounded hollow and barren in the tedious declarations of Sudan’s politicians, Mahjoub could articulate in immediately accessible promises of a tomorrow waiting to be made. He had the will to dream, so much so that Sudan’s chattering opposition occasionally employed his words as an ersatz for action. Mahjoub Sharif wrote and Mohamed Wardi sang; the perfect duo produced songs that became over time part of the politically erotic repertoire of opposition congregation whenever opportunity allowed. High on these valiant chants many overlooked their subversive root: the taxing commitment of an exemplary counter-effendi. That said, Mahjoub survives not in the gushes of individual eulogy but in the indecipherable hum of the masses that carried him to his grave. His legacy is indeed talking out the mind of the collective.
The author is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He publishes regular opinion articles and analyses at his blog Still Sudan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org