A native son returns to Khartoum, a tumultuous city in a rapidly changing region.
Mahjoub (Nubian Indigo, 2006, etc.), the author of a detective series under the pen name Parker Bilal, fled Sudan with his family in 1989, when a military coup installed an Islamist regime. Twenty years later, having lost contact with many of his friends and family members, he returned to his homeland with pointed questions: “Who was I without this place that I had written about for so long?” Though now something of an outsider, he delivers a book of impressions and experiences that, though a touch overlong, stands up well next to books of similar spirit by Eric Newby and Jan Morris. A highlight comes when Mahjoub returns to his boyhood home, which might have commanded a small fortune in the Sudan of a boom that quickly ended with the splitting off of South Sudan in 2011: “In the wake of secession,” he writes, “the capital is sinking once more into lethargy,” and if the house is now but rubble, it evokes Proustian memories of hours sprawled on couches and chairs absorbing book after book in a household that valued writing and learning. Though his impressions are sometimes glancing, Mahjoub writes powerfully of personal history and the history of the larger city and nation alike. As he notes, he is wary of the category “exile,” although indeed his parents were forced to leave Khartoum on pain of death and were never quite at home in Cairo, where the family ended up. Still, he writes affectingly, when he lived in Khartoum, he knew where he was and had some sense of meaning and being, whereas “from the moment I left, it seems to me, I have been explaining myself, one way or another.”
A beguiling, thoughtful book about a place that few people know well but that seems eminently inviting in the author’s hands.