Reflecting on Sudan’s Contemporary Blogosphere–with Omnia Shawkat
Listen to the full interview here:
Omnia Shawkat is a young Sudanese and global citizen. She’s an avid commentator on Sudanese current affairs; and is interested in learning and sharing an intergenerational perspective of Sudanese culture. During 2012 and 2013 Omnia did an on-the-ground exploration of the Sudanese cultural scene that was then complemented by a survey of Sudanese blogs to study whether the richness of Sudan’s cultural diversity was justly reflected online. In this interview she tells us about her findings.
sawtna.net: You have been doing a survey of active Sudanese bloggers in 2013, what general trends do you see in terms of topics and themes that are addressed (i.e., social, cultural, religious, political etc..)?
Omnia: I found there is a lot of poetry and political analysis. In both we see that the identity matter is reflected in all the writings no matter what the topic is. The themes are usually about belonging [as] there is a lot of diaspora writing from all parts of the world. But even Sudanese who are blogging [from Sudan] are writing about their own belonging and their own culture.
sawtna.net: How big or small is the Sudanese blogosphere, and are the majority blogging from inside Sudan or outside?
Almost half are in Sudan and half are outside Sudan. So far I have come across 33 or 34 blogs that are either political or poetic, or creative writing and short stories. A lot of them are people reflecting on topics that are of relevance to them, with the topic of Sudanese culture in the backdrop.
sawtna.net: In terms of the on-the-ground cultural scene, can you tell us a bit about what’s happening and the kind of activities as well as the restrictions? Also, is that cultural scene justly reflected online?
Omnia: There are a lot of perspectives on that, so let us take it step by step. First there is a scene that is targeting the senior audience. It attracts Sudanese and non-Sudanese and it is mostly for the older generation. That [scene] is more about songs and fine art, but it’s also about social issues, and they tend to have fundraisers associated with that. It’s been going on for years at the Rashid Diab Arts Center for example – it is the most frequent one. The audience you see there is quite diverse. You see all types of people but they are mostly from the older generation.
The younger generation have a more restricted medium to work with because they don’t have the same type of sponsorship or the diplomatic relations that someone like Dr. Rashid Diab has. Their events tend to have a more secretive veil. The networking that happens to advertise their events is very small. You won’t find posters for their events on bridges and universities and places like that. It would be within a certain network, let’s say a facebook page or a mailing list. The audience is vibrant. It’s Sudanese who have been in Sudan all their lives as well as Sudanese who have lived outside of Sudan, and it’s a nice mix of Sudanese from one generation. They are mostly tech savvy, which is how they get to know about these events. One of these examples would be Nas with Notepads and before that open mic events.
The third scene that I saw was more of an international scene. It is diplomats or expats who have cultural events or openings at art galleries. It attracts Sudanese who have access to that scene. But it’s a reflection of Sudanese culture through their eyes/perspective.
In terms of restrictions there are definitely a lot of restrictions, especially for the youth scene, but also for Dr. Rashid Diab. I interned for him for a while, and I remember sitting at the office and seeing that they had a lot of issues with permits, especially now compared to 2010. The permits are a bit more restricted now and they have to go through the security offices. Fundraising has also been a problem.
But the youthful scene is a lot more restricted. They are always worried about raids and infiltration by [State security] agents who can shut down an event on the spot (which happened with open mic events). This is an aspect that they have learned to adapt to from their open mic experience. The events have become a lot more secretive and exclusive. So there are ways that people are adapting, but it is restricting the movement and restricting the audience. It made culture become more “zoned” – so you have zones and “hot spots” where culture is and other places where you can’t find that access. I don’t know about other States [outside Khartoum] unfortunately, but I know that Port Sudan, for example, has a big cultural festival.
We have a big music industry. If you turn on the Sudan television or any of the other networks you’ll find that there’s always singing. Whether it’s religious singing, or Madeeh, or normal folklore singing, and all kinds of music. But we don’t have an industry per se. You’d find private parties would hire a singer, but we don’t have festivals. You don’t hear about Sudanese singers making it regionally or internationally. There are people like Mosno; and Nile, who is based in Dubai. But they made it on their own, and there’s no movement in Sudan that can propel them further. The ones that make it in Sudan, like Taha Suliman, are very popular but there’s not that much of a scene outside of the weddings and the shows that he does. There’s a few of these concerts, like Igd Algalad and such, which you can find posters for publicly and they appeal to a wider audience. But they have been around for decades, that’s why people know them and love them and they go to them.
sawtna.net: In a country where freedom of expression and association are under attack, is the Sudanese blogsphere coalescing into a safe haven for communities of interest? In other words is it allowing discussion on topics that are off limits otherwise? Is it allowing communities of interest to form online?
Omnia: Absolutely. Not only are people allowed to talk about politics, which is something that they might not have the ability to speak of in a public setting, but Sudanese outside of Sudan and Sudanese inside Sudan are finally meeting to talk about shared interest. Also internet penetration in Sudan is high especially for mobile phones, so you have Facebook and Twitter. People are on these devices, connected to other people talking about topics of interest.
But I also think that because we don’t have a big publishing industry, poets for example (they don’t have topics that they can’t address publicly) have created names for themselves online, and if they try to publish their work offline it would be very difficult because there are a lot of restrictions on publishing houses and there are not a lot of funds going to that industry. So they navigated through this challenge and found an online haven that can provide for them; and they could have a network to publicize their work. They can grow and even form interest groups where they give each other coaching lessons or creative writing lessons and workshops, which is actually happening.
sawtna.net: Can you give us examples of these platforms and such writers?
Omnia: NubianQ has a blog (NubianQ.com) and she is a brilliant writer. She is a short story writer but also writes poetry. You’ve got someone like Jogs of a Pen (@Shahdinator on twitter), which is a brilliant poetry blog that has been there for years and has beautiful pieces. But also on on Twitter for example, the “Jogs of a Pen” author with another author/blogger called Halloya (@Hallaloyaa on twitter), they often go into freestyling battles with each other by writing [poetry] lines to each other. Some of these people online I see at offline events, like with the Nas with Notepads events, where I see some of the people online share their poetry with a very exclusive [crowd]. But at least it’s there for people who don’t see it online.
sawtna.net: Are Sudanese bloggers mostly anonymous or not? Do they feel safe to express themselves online? Are there advantages to anonymous blogging in a unfree country like Sudan? Are there disadvantages?
Omnia: It’s interesting because I would think political writers would go anonymously, and creative writers would not. But it’s actually the opposite; it’s creative writers who are anonymous. And you have political writers, like Maha Elsanosi whose blog is Mimzology.blogspot.com; you have Reem Shawkat whose blog is Wholeheartedly Sudaniya. You have “Sudanese Thinker” who is out now (he has been anonymous for some time) whose name is Amir Ahmad Nasr. You have someone like Yasir Dahawy….There’s a huge generational gap in terms of expression. We are a very oral society. People are talking about politics at every social event, but not a lot people sit down and write their thoughts in a logical sequence; and share their thoughts in printed form.
There is a huge crack down on printed media [by the State]. And young people don’t feel that interested in print media, because those who read print media are not our generation. So the youth are trying to compensate for that gap [online]; and they are doing it bravely without having to do it anonymously.
sawtna.net: What have some of the prominent bloggers achieved?
Omnia: Mimzology and Wholeheartedly Sudaniya, won blogger awards consecutively in 2011 and 2012; and Amir Ahmed Nasr published a book recently. Bloggers are pretty supportive of each other and publicize each others work. They are finding grounds to connect without having to ever meet. And they are forming networks online and offline. It’s difficult to generalize, but it seems like a very buzzing scene.
sawtna.net: Finally how do you respond to those who say, “why do I need a blog in the age of Facebook and twitter”?
Omnia: A lot of people on Facebook and twitter have random thoughts that are they are constantly injecting to their timelines or statuses. The blog is an eloquent form of writing; you have to put your thoughts in a logical sequence. It’s also a documentation of your thoughts. Blogs can be archived, they can be used for research; and they can be shared with a wider audience [more] than a status update that stays on the timeline for 50 seconds or a minute.
There is a huge audience that you can tap into in topics such as: art, identity, contemporary politics and social history. This tech savvy generation is utilizing different platforms. So you don’t need a blog, unless you find that your thoughts need to be put in a blog. Otherwise you can thrive on twitter, but, I really think that the archiving of documented thoughts is the appeal of a blog.