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Tydskrif vir Letterkunde

On-line version ISSN 2309-9070
Print version ISSN 0041-476X

Tydskr. letterkd. vol.45 n.1 Pretoria Jan. 2008


The dialectics of homeland and identity: Reconstructing Africa in the poetry of Langston Hughes and Mohamed Al-Fayturi



Saddik M. Gohar

Saddik M. Gohar is Associate Professor in the Department of English, United Arab Emirates University, Al-Ain, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. E-mail:




The article investigates the dialectics between homeland and identity in the poetry of the Sudanese poet, Mohamed Al-Fayturi and his literary master, Langston Hughes in order to underline their attitudes toward crucial issues integral to the African and African-American experience such as identity, racism, enslavement and colonisation. The article argues that - in Hughes's early poetry -Africa is depicted as the land of ancient civilisations in order to strengthen African-American feelings of ethnic pride during the Harlem Renaissance. This idealistic image of a pre-slavery, a pre-colonial Africa, argues the paper, disappears from the poetry of Hughes, after the Harlem Renaissance, to be replaced with a more realistic image of Africa under colonisation. The article also demonstrates that unlike Hughes, who attempts to romanticize Africa, Al-Fayturi rejects a romantic confrontation with the roots. Interrogating western colonial narratives about Africa, Al-Fayturi reconstructs pre-colonial African history in order to reveal the tragic consequences of colonisation and slavery upon the psyche of the African people. The article also points out that in their attempts to confront the oppressive powers which aim to erase the identity of their peoples, Hughes and Al-Fayturi explore areas of overlap drama between the turbulent experience of African-Americans and the catastrophic history of black Africans dismantling colonial narratives and erecting their own cultural mythology.

Key words: Slavery, colonisation, racism, identity



Full text available only in PDF format.




1. Al-Fayturi wrote many poetic collections in the post-World War II era dealing with the painful experience of black people in Africa and Diaspora such as Aghani Efriqya ("African Songs", 1955), Ashiq min Efriqya ("Lover from Africa", 1964) and Uthkurini ya Efriqya ("Remember me Africa", 1966) collected in Diwan Al-Fayturi ("The Complete Poetic Works", volume 1, 1979). He also wrote a poetic drama about eighteenth-century slavery in Africa entitled Ahzan Efriqya ("African Sorrows", 1969) collected in Diwan Al-Fayturi ("The Complete Poetic Works", volume 2, 1979).The poet was born in 1930s, in a village called Al-Jiniya, located in western Sudan near the borders with Chad and Libya. His father descended from a Libyan family who escaped to Sudan after the fascist occupation of Libya prior to the First World War. His mother was the daughter of a rich slave trader from a famous Arabian tribe. His grandmother, Zahra, was a black slave who gained her freedom after marrying his grandfather, the Arabian slave trader. During the Second World War, Al-Fayturi's family moved from Sudan to Egypt where they stayed in the city of Alexandria. Living in Alexandria in the 1940s, Al-Fayturi witnessed with pain the humiliation of the black people recruited from Sudan and other African countries and forced to tackle insulting jobs and work as servants for the European soldiers during war. This experience intensifies Al-Fayturi's identity crisis and enhances his ethnic consciousness as black and African. In spite of living in different Arab countries, Al-Fayturi does not consider himself an Arab but a black African poet who is committed to defend the rights of the black people all over the world. As a young poet, Al-Fayturi came under the influence of African-American writers particularly Langston Hughes and Richard Wright in addition to other African and Caribbean scholars and poets. Due to his pioneering works, critics consider Al-Fayturi as the first poet who sings for Africa and black people in Arabic.
Further, Al-Fayturi was influenced by the popular biography of Antara Ibn Shaddad, Al-Absi, the black pre-Islamic folklore hero who lived in tribal Arabia and suffered under slavery. Antara's epic biography which has become part of the Arabic folklore heritage provides a source of inspiration for Al-Fayturi. Revealing sympathy toward Antara as a black revolutionary figure, victimized by slavery, Al-Fayturi emerges as a defender of the black race in Africa and the Arab world. Antara, the black son of a noble tribesman from Arabia and a slave woman, was subjugated to different forms of humiliation including the betrayal of his father who denies his paternity and considers him as a slave living in his household. As a young man, Antara was famous for his poetic talent and war adventures. He was a talented poet who composed famous epics dealing with tribal life. He was also a great warrior who defended his tribe against the invasions of the enemies. Due to his kindness and heroism, Abla, the most beautiful girl of the noble tribe of Abs, fell in love with him in spite of being a black slave. The love story between Antara and Abla created tribal tensions because marriages between slaves and free women were forbidden in pre-Islamic Arabia. Antara's suffering and internal conflict were settled only when he was liberated from slavery. Antara became a free man when his father acknowledged him as his legitimate son expressing his deep regrets for abandoning him as a child and a young man. The reconciliation between son and father paved the way for the marriage of Antara and Abla, his beloved, for whom he wrote his love epics.
The story of Antara raises the issue of the nature of slavery in the Arab world and the Middle East. In this context it is relevant to argue that slavery in the Arab world during the pre-Islamic era was different from slavery in the West or the Americas or elsewhere because slaves were dealt with as servants or housemaids, however they were denied most of their rights including citizenship. Though the tribal system in Arabia offered them some rights given to free people slaves were considered as inferior. Islam attempts to put an end to slavery and many of Prophet Mohamed's close friends were slaves, brought from Africa prior to Islam. However, the argument that Islam eliminates colour racism is a simplification of history. In Muslim communities in the Middle East and Africa, there are two kinds of slavery (white slaves and black slaves) and colour prejudice without caste. Under the Ottoman regime of Mohamed Ali, for example, Mamlukes (white slaves) were used as soldiers to defend the state. In other parts of the Arab world, black slaves were used as domestics and manual labourers. From the 8th century until the 14th century, Arab raiders attacked sub-Saharan Africa kidnapping Africans who were forced to become slaves. Slave markets were famous in different parts of Arabia and in Morocco blacks from West African origin were imported and sold into slavery until the 19th century. The distinctive feature of slavery in the Islamic world is not its racial aspect but its military and administrative nature. Slavery in Arabo-Islamic countries has no Jim Crow laws but undoubtedly it has its own traditions of prejudice and racism. From a historical perspectives it is well-known that racial and colour prejudices were integral to Arabo-Islamic traditions. For example, prisoners of war who were captured in battles between the Muslim people and the invading armies during the early Islamic era were considered as slaves / concubines regardless of their colour and origin. In spite of considering slavery as a religious taboo, and a sacrilegious crime sufficient to get its advocate out of the Islamic doctrine, slavery continued to take different forms in the Arab world particularly in Arabia until the middle of the 20th century.

2. All translations from Arabic prose and poetry are done by the writer unless names of other translators are mentioned in the text and the works cited.

3. Al-Fayturi came under the influence of Langston Hughes and Richard Wright in addition to other black scholars and writers from Africa and the Caribbean. In his comprehensive study, Al-Adab Al-Ifriqiyyi ("African Literature") Ali Shalash (1993) traces the literary dialogues between black African writers and their counterparts in the Diaspora, Abdul Fattah Al-Shatti (2001) specifically explores the impact of Hughes on Al-Fayturi.

4. See Al-Fayturi's (1979a: 5-36) introduction to his Diwan, "On My Poetic Experience". See appendix for the original Arabic texts cited chronologically as they appear in the article.

5. Najuib Saleh emphasizes Al-Fayturi's insistence on writing about the African and African American experience of colonisation and enslavement in Arabic. See Saleh's Mohamed Al-Fayturi wa Al-Maraya Aldairiyya (1984).


Works cited

Al-Fayturi, M. 1979a. Diwan Al-Fayturi ("The Complete Works of Al-Fayturi", Vol. 1). Beirut: Dar Alawda.         [ Links ]

_____. 1979b. Diwan Al-Fayturi ("The Complete Works of Al-Fayturi", Vol. 2). Beirut: Dar Alawda.         [ Links ]

Al-Shatti, Abdul-Fattah. 2001. Shi'r Al-Fayturi: Al-muhtawa wa Al-fan ("The Content and the Art of Al-Fayturi's Poetry"). Cairo: Dar Qebâ         [ Links ].

Barksdale, Richard K. 1977. Langston Hughes: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association.         [ Links ]

Bracey, John H. 1971. Black Nationalism since Garvey. In Nathan I. Huggins (ed.). Key Issues in the Afro-American Experience. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 259-279.         [ Links ]

Cruse, Harold.1968. Rebellion or Revolution? New York: William Morrow.         [ Links ]

DuBois, W. E. B. 19682. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Fawcett.         [ Links ]

_____. 1947. The World and Africa. New York: Viking Press.         [ Links ]

Ellison, Ralph. 1964. Shadow and Act. New York: Random House.         [ Links ]

Erikson, Erik E. 1968. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., Inc.         [ Links ]

Essien-Udom, E. U. 1971. Black Identity in the International Context. In Nathan I. Huggins (ed.). Key Issues in the Afro-American Experience. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 233-258.         [ Links ]

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Goha, Michele. 1999. Al-Shir Al-Arabi Al-Hadith ("Modern Arabic Poetry"). Beirut: Dar Alawda.         [ Links ]

Hubbard, Dolan. 1988. Call and Response: Intertextuality in the Poetry of Langston Hughes and Margaret Walker. The Langston Hughes Review 7: 22-30.         [ Links ]

Hughes, Langston. 1926. The Weary Blues. New York: Knopf.         [ Links ]

_____. 1967. The Panther and the Lash. New York: Knopf.         [ Links ]

_____. 1973. In Faith Berry (ed.). Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writings of Social Protest by Langston Hughes. New York: Lawrence Hill.         [ Links ]

_____. 1974. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage.         [ Links ]

Khouri Monah & Algar, Hamid (ed. & trans.). 1975. An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry. California: University of California.         [ Links ]

King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1969. Chaos or Community? London: Penguin Books.         [ Links ]

Nwoga, Ibe. 1976. The Limitations of Universal Critical Criteria. In Rowland Smith (ed.). Exile and Tradition. Studies in African and Caribbean Literature. London: Longman, 8-30.         [ Links ]

Saleh, Najuib. 1984. MohamedAl-Fayturi wa Almaraya Aldairiyya ("MohamedAl-Fayturi and the Circular Mirrors"). Beirut: Dar Aladab.         [ Links ]

Shalash, Ali. 1993. Al-Adab Al-Ifriqiyyi ("African Literature"). Kuwait: Alam Almârefa.         [ Links ]

Yetiv, Isaac. 1976. Alienation in the Modern Novel of French North Africa Before Independence. In Rowland Smith (ed.). Exile and Tradition: Studies in African and Caribbean Literature. London: Longman, 85-97.         [ Links ]





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