Fri. Dec 1st, 2023


Award-winning Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela has retold the story of a British army general killed by the troops of the Mahdi – a religious leader in Sudan in the late 19th Century – in her new novel, River Spirit.

The book gives a Sudanese view of Gordon of Khartoum, whose story has travelled around the world in history books and Hollywood films – but almost always with a British outlook, glorifying him as a colonial-era hero.

General Charles Gordon died defending Khartoum in 1885 following a siege by Sudanese forces.

Aboulela says the 1966 film Khartoum, starring Charlton Heston as Gen Gordon and Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi, was full of inaccuracies.

“The only accurate thing was the weapons apparently… It wasn’t even filmed in Khartoum,” she told the BBC’s Newsday programme.

“So I wanted to retell the story and make it from a Sudanese point of view and how they saw events unfolding.”

The story of Gen Gordon is also one of the foundational stories for Sudan as nation, the novelist says.

For much of the 19th Century it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire and then in the early to mid 20th Century it was under joint British-Egyptian rule, before becoming independent in 1956.

“What the Mahdi did – it brought the Sudanese together almost for the first time. They felt united against the foreigner, whether they were Egyptians, Ottomans or British,” she said.

Her novel also puts women at the heart of the story, looking at their roles from nurses and vendors to cooks and spies.

“They are mentioned as footnotes in history or not mentioned at all – but they were part of the army… they were very much playing an active part and it was interesting to explore that.”

By Joy

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