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Hamid Dirar (1940-2023)

Hamid Dirar, author of The Indigenous Fermented Foods of the Sudan, died at his home in Omdurman on 23 April 2023. His memoir, The Amulet, was published by City of Words last year to wide acclaim. Our condolences to Dr Dirar’s widow and to their children at this perilous time for Sudan.

Go to school? Or join a militia?

In a review in Sudan Studies, Joanna Oyediran writes about Liz Hodgkin’s “insightful and entertaining” Letters from Isohe – a perspicacious account, she says, of “a heroic effort to keep a secondary school functioning in a country where getting anything done is a headache.”

“Hodgkin has privileged access, as a teacher, to young people’s thoughts about their society,” writes Oyediran. “In their debates, plays, and written work there is a focus on community violence and the authoritarian tendencies of their elders.” In his diary, one student records such an incident: “when people refuse to come to a meeting, the Chief of Isohe sends police to collect people in the village to come for meeting by force.”

“Isohe may be physically isolated,” writes Oyediran, ”but it is vulnerable to broader regional dynamics.” Hodgkin shows the impact of the plummetting value of the South Sudan Pound following a shutdown in oil production: school administrators, teachers and students adapt remarkably to running a school with barely any resources.

“Domestic violence, forced marriages and sexual exploitation of female students, are prevalent,” writes Oyediran. These include the practice of giving girl-children as compensation in legal settlements. Hodgkin “does not over-romanticize life in this beautiful village in the mountains. Time and again, she returns to the violence. Corporal punishment… fights between students… an incident involving a student and a teacher… fighting between members of different ethnic groups, armed robbery, cattle-raiding…. And elsewhere in South Sudan [this is in 2017], a full-blown civil war.”

“Isohe and its two schools constitute a place of refuge and hope,” concludes Oyediran. “When Liz Hodgkin returns six years later she discovers that the secondary school is three times the size. When civil war came to Equatoria, some young people chose education at St. Augustine’s over joining the militias.”

Barefoot in the forests of Sudan

Hamid Dirar’s The Amulet is reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement of 18 November by Robert Irwin, novelist and scholar of the Arab world. “The book is a mesmerising account of a childhood that was simultaneously paradisal and hellish,” writes Irwin. “Young Hamid was a barefoot nomad of the forests who rarely rode on camels or horses. He hunted on foot. He collected grasses and roots for meals. He learnt how to make waterwheels. He shepherded sheep and goats… In The Amulet he chronicles his passage from his early life to the determined and learned adult who writes so compellingly about what it was like to be a wild boy.” 

Nomads in eastern Sudan|© Christine Osborne Pictures/Alamy

“The popular and unproblematic image of nomads.” Irwin writes, ”is of tribes, such as those of the Arabs, Berbers or Mongols, who are united by blood and who either invade settled pastoral territory or follow a regular seasonal transhumant migration.” The Sudan of Hamid Dirar’s childhood, he explains, is more complicated: “Hamid’s background includes ‘ancestral strands from the Mahas people of Nubia, from the Jaaliyin of Shendi, and from the Shukriya of the Butana – and, by nurture, from the Hadendowa branch of the Beja people of Eastern Sudan’. ” In this milieu, writes Irwin, “it took a complex kind of human algebra based on knowledge of tribal ancestry, intermarriage, adoption and achievement to determine an individual’s status.”

The review invokes Hamid Dirar’s account of nights in the nomadic encampments of his childhood. It was “a time when the old world was most present, when a group of youths might gather by the light of a wood fire and watch a religious elder reading the ground for signs of the unknown. Beyond them womenfolk would be watching, bare-breasted in the Hadendowa manner.” Hamid’s youth may have been paradisal in some respects, Irwin concludes, but it was a cruel paradise: “He does not spare the reader dispassionate accounts of circumcisions with stone knives, fights to the death, attacks by crocodiles and a wide range of strange and unpleasant diseases.”

“This was how I came into the world, the son both of a living man, and of a ghost

Hamid Dirar (pictured c.1970) is author of the classic The Indigenous Fermented Foods of the Sudan (1993). He was born a nomadic camel-keeper, son of a wandering religious teacher, in Eastern Sudan. The Amulet is an absorbing account of his boyhood and youth that transports the reader to his ancestral homeland in Nubia – the land of rocks – and to the Butana, the great grass plain along the Ethiopian border where he grew to manhood. The modern world remains a distant prospect–until the day Hamid’s life and the politics of Sudan are transformed by the military coup of 1964. 

Described by the critically-acclaimed novelist Nuruddin Farah as “a memoir of rare beauty”, by the Sudanese political commentator Magdi el Gizouli as “spellbinding” and by the scholar Robert Irwin, in the Times Literary Supplement as “mesmerising“, The Amulet is a coming-of-age memoir that delights all those who read it.   

Download a summary here, with extracts from the book.

323 pages. Map. Genealogy. Glossary. Gazetteer. 

ISBN 978-1-9160783-1-4  

PaperbackUK £9.99 | US $12.99 | UAE AED 67.35| Eurozone € 12

Kindle UK £4.99 | US $5.99| Eurozone € 5.99

Published by City of Words; available worldwide from Amazon and Amazon Global

Neuromantics discuss Letters from Isohe

Neuromantics is a long-running podcast, hosted by the neuroscientist Sophie Scott and the writer and composer Will Eaves. Their conversations range across language, gesture, and other modes of communication in the arts and sciences. The current episode features a lively discussion of Liz Hodgkin’s Letters from Isohe. With their characteristic wit and sublimity, Will and Sophie locate the book in the long tradition of public letter-writing and witness-bearing.

An extract from their conversation: “The book memorably evokes the challenges of life in this beautiful but remote community. Food supplies falter, girls are forced into marriage, teachers’ salaries disappear, people die: but the village schools survive…. Hodgkin’s dispatches are responsive and informal; they bring us close, as only letters can, to the moment of witness…. that feeling of responsiveness has something to do with handwriting itself…..” 

You can listen to the Neuromantics podcast here or here

“Send us to school!”

The summer 2022 issue of the Brixton Review includes a two-page review of Letters from Isohe. In his review, “Send Us To School”, Will Eaves writes “Letters from Isohe is a frank and often stirring book: the strong element of reportage is intelligently close-quartered, so that small-scale triumphs and disappointments must stand in for the bigger problems of infrastructure in a contested state. At other times, the experience of reading it is unsettling, and immediate in a different, more personal way, as though one found oneself suddenly in receipt of bad news, holding a torn envelope, not knowing what to do… Most of these pieces were first published on the website of the Rift Valley Institute, and some editing has taken place, but they feel like real letters, which identify their recipients and compel them – us – to a distracted silence.”

Copies of the excellent Brixton Review are free – if you can find them. But it may be easier to subscribe.

In Hokkaido, chronicles of fire and stone

Out of Our Hands – now available in Japan and worldwide – is a unique account of the craftsmen and craftswomen who live and work in Hokkaido, many of them far from urban centres, in the volcanic landscapes of Japan’s wildest island. Here, Willie Jones writes, earthquakes are regular events. “Sudden fire is a familiar sight, and volcanic eruptions still drive residents from their homes.” This landscape, he notes, is reflected in the work of local artists. One of his subjects, a ceramicist, Masayoshi Sakata (pictured above left), makes pots as black as basalt, as grey as steel: “some have thick smears of glaze running down their sides; some look like a house that burned down.” 

Download summary and extracts from the book.

Willie Jones (pictured above right) was born in Hereford, England, in 1931, and has taught at Hokkaido University and Sapporo University. He is the author of numerous essays on language, and memoirs of his life in England and Japan. In Out of Our Hands– drawing on fifteen years of journeys and conversations – he brings to life a world of sword-smiths, potters, painters, glass-blowers, weavers, dyers, etchers and wood-carvers, describing with lyrical precision their lifelong dedication, and submission to the materials they work with – testimony to the power of arrested fire and awakened stone.

169 pages. 14 illustrations. Map. 
ISBN 978-1-9160783-3-8
Paperback UK £7.99 | US $9.99 | Japan ¥ 1200 | Eurozone € £8.99
Kindle UK £4.99 | US $6.99 | Japan ¥ 700 | Eurozone € 5.99
Published by City of Words; available worldwide from Amazon and AmazonGlobal

Liz Hodgkin at large

Letters from Isohe has been a success from the day it appeared – selling hundreds of copies within weeks of publication. Liz Hodgkin’s clear-sighted and humorous account of life at St Augustine’s School, in the mountains of South Sudan – described as “magical” by Miriam Margolyes – touches a chord with all who read it. Lauded in South Sudan and worldwide, the book reverberates with the voices of teachers, school-students, mothers, rain-makers, nuns and priests reflecting on everyday concerns – elopements, pregnancies, hunger, guns, cattle raids – and their future in a fractured nation. 

There’s an interview with Liz about her life and work on Radio Tamazuj and a transcript of the interview. And her latest dispatch on education in South Sudan, “Is it Worth Fighting for What Is Good?” is here.  You can support St Augustine’s School – where Liz was a teacher – via Opportunity Through Education (UK registered charity 1179046). 

Download a summary and extracts from the book

ISBN 978-1-9160783-2-1.

Paperback UK £7.99 | US $9.99| Eurozone € 8.99

Kindle UK £4.99 | US $6.99| Eurozone € 5.99

Published by City of Words; available worldwide from Amazon and Amazon Global

111 pages. 14 illustrations. Map. 

The last pop-up bookshop of summer

During the alarmingly sunny weather in London our weekend second-hand bookstall raised £200 sterling for City of Words. The books were a bargain at 50p, or three for a pound (some customers paid in euros). The stall stayed open round the clock, untended, a book night-market. The books were sold on trust; none were stolen. Those that remained unsold have now been passed on to the Oxfam bookshops in Notting Hill and Ealing to be sold for the benefit of other causes, doubtless at higher prices.