Lyrics Alley was inspired by the life of the poet Hassan Awad Aboulela. It is a work of fiction, filled with imaginary characters and situations and not intended as an accurate biography. My father often spoke to me about his cousin Hassan, who passed away before I was born. Hassan Awad was six years older than my father and my father looked up to him. My father was intent on following Hassan’s footsteps. He would also, like Hassan, leave Umdurman to attend Victoria College, the British boarding school in Alexandria, considered at the time to be the Eton of the Middle East. In the future they both aspired towards a university degree in Britain and then to return to join the family business and work side by side. By all accounts Hassan was an outstanding student in Victoria making his mark in academics as well as in sports. A golden future lay ahead of him. British Colonial rule was coming to an end. The Sudan was a country with huge potential, the family business was prospering and poised for the younger educated generation to modernize it and carry it forward into a new Independent Sudan.
Yet on Hassan’s last day at Victoria College, a trip to the beach with his school-mates changed the course of his life. My father was not with him on that day. His elder brother Saad was. Saad was closer to Hassan in age and his best- friend. When my father related the story of the accident to me, it was from my Uncle Saad’s point of view. I pictured the beach at Sidi Bishr, I pictured the English soldiers who pulled Hassan out of the water. I pictured my Uncle Saad saying casually, “Come on Hassan, get up!”
It could have been a fatal accident but instead Hassan was left a quadriplegic. No Cambridge University after all, no joining the family business, no marriage. The crash of that dream traumatized my father, who was at the impressionable age of thirteen. My father went on to graduate from Victoria College and travelled to study at Trinity College, Dublin. Hassan Awad stayed in Umdurman and my father kept in close touch with him, following his news and visiting him regularly whenever he returned to Umdurman.
Writing Lyrics Alley was triggered by my aunt Hajjah Rahma Aboulela (Hassan’s sister) reciting to me Hassan’s very first poem- Travel is the Cause. I was captivated by the line In you Egypt are the causes of my injury. And in Sudan my burden and solace. It was good, it was strong. Here was a writer addressing another writer across the passage of time. Hassan’s words won me over. I completely believed in him. Also, the Egypt/Sudan dichotomy ruffled my Sudanese-Egyptian identity. And this was how the character Nabilah entered into the novel. She not only represented the era of Anglo-Egyptian rule but reflected my own double heritage.
The 1950s was a fascinating and pivotal time in Sudanese history. With British rule coming to an end, the Sudan was at a cross-roads. Sudan was not technically part of the British Empire nor was it administered by the Colonial Office. This was because it was an Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. When Britain invaded Sudan, it did so alongside Egypt and relations between Sudan and Egypt have long been fraught. I became interested in this era, because my mother is Egyptian and I myself emigrated to Britain. Therefore, the three countries that made up my identity- Sudan, Egypt and Britain- were all coming together in this particular setup.
In Sudan, Hassan Awad Aboulela’s name will always be linked to the popular singers Ahmed Al Mustapha and Sayyid Khalifa. Hassan wrote the lyrics for many of Ahmed al Mustapha’s songs and three hugely successful songs by Sayyid Khalifa. These poems were put to music and sung by the two singers. Hassan Awad’s very first poem Safari (Travel is the Cause) was sung by Ahmed Al Mustapha, who is regarded as the pioneer of modern Sudanese music. Many others songs followed including the even more popular Ayam wa Layali( Days and Nights), Al Zahr Fah, the dance hit Qurbu Yuhanin, Gharam Qalbein, Jafeit Ma Bint (You’ve Cooled and Gone) and Rahmak ya Malak(Have Mercy, Angel) which Ahmad Al Mustapha performed with the singer Sabah in an Egyptian film. Sayyid Khalifa sang Hassan Awad’s Ya Salaam, Ya Salaam as well as his two last poems, Amal (Hope) and Asrab Al Hisan (Flocks of Beauty) both of which were more literary and sophisticated than his early works. The lyrics were written in classical Arabic and reflect a more mature, skilful poet composing at the height of his abilities. The popularity of Hassan Awad’s lyrics endured with later-day singers bringing out their own versions of the songs. Notably both Yassir Tamtam and recently, Nancy Agag recorded Hope.
I might have discovered Hassan Awad’s poems late in my life but I am one of a few. In the words of Salah Elbasha, writing on the tenth anniversary of Ahmad Al Mustapha’s death whom he described as the pillar and godfather of Sudanese music, “There is a specific song (Travel Is the Cause) whose words, almost the whole population of Sudan know by heart. It has a sad story behind it….”
In fictionalizing Hassan’s progress as a poet I was regrettably, unable to pay tribute to Sakina Muhammad Kheir. She was the one who, as a young girl, wrote down Hassan’s words and edited his poems. Instead in the novel she is represented by the youth Zaki as I felt that the novel already had enough female characters and I did not want to dim the character of Soraya. Sakina Muhammad Kheir was one of Sudan’s pioneering women of education. When she completed her education in Umdurman, she returned to her home town of Sinja where she set up a girls’ school and joined the local council. After her death, the school was named in her honour.
In writing Lyrics Alley I kept company with my father’s youth, his times and his love for his brothers, sisters and cousins. It was an emotionally loaded journey which needed an intellectual angle. The character of Badr, the Egyptian teacher, was the cool, comforting, rational voice which set me up and kept me buoyant. Inspired by the Arabic tutors my brother and I had as children growing up in Khartoum, Badr was in many ways, the most modern of the characters. He projected to our day and age. And writing about him brought out the best in me. As I progressed in the writing, Badr became the spine to the whole novel.
Click here to watch a clip of Ahmed Al-Mutapha and Sabah singing Rahmak Ya Malaak Have Mercy Angel, lyrics by Hassan Awad Aboulela
Click here to listen to Ahmed Al- Mutapha singing the popular dance song, Qurbu Yuhanin, lyrics by Hassan Awad Aboulela
Click here to watch a video clip of Muntasir Sayed Khalifa in concert singing his late father’s hit Asrab Al Husaan (Flocks of Beauty), lyrics by Hassan Awad Aboulela.