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‘Your beating and your torture does not frighten me’

Meet the Sudanese artists and writers risking their lives to fight the government

Girifna, the name of a nonviolent youth resistance movement in Sudan, means “we are fed up”. It’s an accurate descriptor of the populist protests Sudan has seen in recent years. The most recent protests, which occurred at the end of September, have been the largest yet and were met with the most brutal crackdown. When thousands took to the streets after the government raised fuel hikes (again), over two hundred protesters were shot and killed by security forces. In the following days, over 800 activists, doctors and journalists were detained.

As Rawa, a Sudanese activist says, it's not just about the fuel hikes: “For 24 years this government ruled the country with an iron fist. There is growing corruption, failed institutions, and war everywhere. The people have had enough." And this is exactly what Bashir Hamid wanted to express in his latest art campaign called Girifita ("I am fed up"): the individual anger of Sudanese citizens.

His art pieces linger with an intentional simplicity, but the creative process is long and meticulous."People send their photos, I then scale and print the photos out on computer paper,” Hamid explains. “I then use a portable light box to trace the general features of the subject with pencil.” 

“I then rescan the pencil drawing onto the computer, adjust the contrast and levels, erase smudges and errors digitally, and drop it in a Photoshop template that includes the Arabic text,” he continues. “I export two files: a full resolution for print and to post on Facebook, and a compressed email version for easy sharing."                       

Each stroke reveals a line of frustration in the protester's facial expression. Bashir says the mass protests in September were “a boiling point”.

“Once the situation started reaching economic hardship, it started hitting everyone at home,” he says. “Every single citizen has been able to feel the effects of this government and hardships that they're putting on the people."

Like a call-and-response, protests in recent years have broken out whenever fuel costs have risen. Some journalists try to relate this to the Arab Spring, claiming that it’s finally crawled down South. But many Sudanese protesters quickly reject this association. As Bashir says, "I don't necessarily think it relates to the Arab Spring. I think it has more to do with Sudan's situation specifically and the global market." With Sudan's massive debt, The IMF has continued to push the government to remove fuel subsidies and put forth austerity measures - ignoring the fact that each time the government does, civil unrest follows.

On September 24, the price of gasoline, cooking gas, and wheat nearly doubled. Writer and novelist, Rania Mamoun, was in Khartoum's big market, awaiting the expected protests. Amongst her, "students and craft owners rallied varying cries. The demonstration soon grew large in number" as "the lift on fuel subsidies had exhausted the shoulders of already exhausted citizens". They outran security forces and dodged into nearby buildings to avoid intense tear gas.

Later that night, when Rania joined protests near her home, she was arrested with her brother and sister by security forces. Recounting the abuse she experienced while detained, she says she and her siblings were "beaten like flies," dragged on the ground, sexually assaulted and threatened with rape. When Rania was released, she wrote about the incident. Her essay, like an extricate web, pieces together her detainment and abuse with the current policies of Sudan's government and the history of the regime. Her ending revealed a clear path.

"When you’re beaten to a pulp, your dignity is assaulted, your safety compromised, your freedom stolen, there is only one way forward – to continue what others initiated,” she writes. “There is no return, we can only go ahead, and that’s what they do not know. Your beating and your torture does not frighten me nor break me. It will not force me to retreat, but rather strengthens me and inspires me. You ask me: Are you not afraid? And I say: I’ve become stronger."

Rania’s detainment is, unfortunately, common. Sudanese writers, artists, and activists are often detained and imprisoned for their views and criticisms - including 800 that were arrested and detained at unknown locations after the protests in September. Freedom of expression is quelled through the banning of books, seizure of publications, and firing of cartoonists and journalists. 

Despite the government attempting to silence dissent, Rania sees a growing culture of resistance in Sudan. She says one can "often find people in Sudan discussing political issues in public vehicles, and labor offices, markets, and communities within neighborhoods and social events… Even though they sometimes lack vehicles of expression."

Youth-led resistance movements in Sudan such as Girifna, Sudan Change Now and Abena have been growing steadily for a decade and are now gaining speed. For Bashir, resistance is a familiar way of life that spans generations. As a kid, he has memories of soldiers in trucks sitting outside his house, not for protection, but to watch for signs of dissent and make sure no meetings were occurring in his home. 

His father, Mohamed Beshir Hamid, a political science professor at the University of Khartoum, "was on the front lines of the protests to overthrow Al-Numayri". He regularly wrote columns and drew political cartoons when he was part of the resistance movement in Sudan (and still does). Bashir left Sudan with his family at age thirteen when the consequence of his father’s resistance forced them to flee the country.

after the Molotov cocktail is thrown, art can be the vehicle that destroys the state's propaganda

As Rania and Bashir resist, they both see art as an uncompromising aspect to the revolution. For Rania, writing is "her only space for freedom" and she refuses to surrender it. Bashir questions how successful a revolution can be without art. History shows revolutions can get messy - and can quickly shift power from one extreme to another, but "art can be a balancing act that expresses political opposition, cultural opposition and show the range of thought".

Both Rania's and Bashir's art actively question their political and cultural surroundings. Rania sees a system where "the riches of some are at the expense of many others (leading) to the majority of Sudanese people living in poverty and destitution". This destitution is further exacerbated by "abhorrent racism fueled by the government". In her writing, she speaks out for the marginalized, the oppressed and the poor, challenging the racist and classist perceptions promoted by the government.

Bashir also acknowledges the state has used racism and ethnic differences to maintain power. The historical divide and conquer tactic that was used during western colonization in African countries and elsewhere. As it happened with the South and Darfur, when people resist against the government they will be portrayed as the 'other', "as if they are another people, as if that was 'them' and they (are) not Sudanese," says Bashir. So naturally, when protests sprung up in September, the government portrayed the protesters "as street kids, as the thugs out on the street and associated that with people that don't have families and people with darker skin".

Bashir is afraid it may have worked with the people who stayed home. But after the Molotov cocktail is thrown, art can be the vehicle that destroys the state's propaganda. With Girifta, he actively challenges the racist tactics of the government. His main intention: to express the range of Sudan’s diversity. He says, "Sudan is one of the most diverse countries culturally and racially in Africa and I wanted to highlight: we're all Sudanese, we're all one people and we're all fed up."

Interview translation by Yacine Assoudani