A Line in the River: Khartoum, City of Memory

Jamal Mahjoub. Bloomsbury, $30 (416p) ISBN 978-1-4088-8546-8
An Sudanese exile returns in search of his country’s unifying identity in this sprawling memoir. Novelist Mahjoub’s family fled the Sudanese capital of Khartoum in 1989 when Omar al-Bashir’s Islamist regime took power; Mahjoub was 23 when he left and returned regularly from 2008 through 2012, as the country deteriorated. He finds the city in an oil-fueled economic boom, swollen with migrants, foreigners, and new construction, but steeped in anomie and seething under authoritarian rule. Mahjoub’s vivid, novelistic reportage takes in paralyzed beggars panhandling beside luxury cars, Kafkaesque bureaucracies, an editor cringing as an affable censor redlines his newspaper, a friend recalling an episode of torture, and the ubiquitous glare of TV sets airing American shows and Bollywood spectacles within the dilapidated Muslim city “like aquariums blinking with brightly colored, exotic species.” He contrasts these scenes with boyhood memories of a more convivial, cosmopolitan time (boat outings and watching movies at now-shuttered cinemas), weaving in a colorful but disjointed survey of Sudan’s history from 19th-century battles between Muslims and British imperialists to the convoluted contemporary tribal and sectarian wars in southern Sudan and Darfur. Mahjoub’s case for a Sudanese national identity that transcends ethno-cultural animosities is unconvincing; and while there’s a Naipaulian incisiveness to his portrait of Khartoum, the town feels too malaise-stricken and soulless to hold much interest. (May)
Reviewed on: 03/12/2018
Release date: 05/15/2018
Genre: Nonfiction
Book - 978-1-4088-8547-5
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