Sudan’s Hawa: the banat come of age
By Magdi El Gizouli
Hawa Jah al-Rasool, better known as Hawa al-Tagtaga, passed away on 10 December in Khartoum. Born around 1924 in northern Kordofan Hawa moved to the capital at the tender age of 14 years to begin the career of a popular performer and entertainer. Over the years, she became an icon of Sudanese womanhood and popular culture. Hawa made the Sudanese happy. She immortalized the key figures of the Sudanese anti-colonial movement in the simple ‘open access’ lyrics and tunes of the nas (common people), and earned a living from the dual function of dance instructor and singer at the weddings of the effendiya and the merchant class.
Brides in the riverain heartland of Sudan were expected until very recently to perform established dance solos where the bridegroom takes only a marginal role to the examining eyes of female family members, friends and neighbours. Hawa and her team instructed brides in this domestic art and delivered the song and music associated with it. Sudan’s powerful, rich and influential sought Hawa’s services as a matter of prestige and she answered their generosity with the gratitude of the word. With her wealth of creativity and charisma Hawa was a performing spin doctor, capable of defining a gentleman’s reputation with the playful words of her memetic lyrics.
Senior Ashigga politicians like Ismail al-Azhari, Sudan’s first post-independence prime minister, and the ‘handsome’ Mubarak Zaroug, foreign secretary in Azhari’s 1956 cabinet, benefitted greatly from Hawa’s propaganda as did Hassan Bashir Nasr, minister of defence and minister of presidential affairs under General Ibrahim Abboud. The two generals, Abboud and Nasr, expelled Hawa’s favourite politicians, Azhari and Zarouq, to imprisonment in a remote station on the Sudanese-Ugandan border where they shared the company of Abd al-Khalig Mahjoub, al-Tijani al-Tayeb and other long-term political detainees of the military regime. The colours of the flag that Hawa dressed in on the day of Sudan’s independence, blue, yellow and green horizontal stripes from top to bottom, did not survive the treacheries of Sudanese politics. The revolutionary regime of Jaafar Nimayri replaced it with the pan-Arab red, white and black tricolour in 1970. The army officers broke Hawa’s heart again when they incarcerated Azhari, the President this time, upon snatching power in May 1969. Azhari fell ill in prison and died shortly after his transfer to hospital in August of the same year.
In recent years, Hawa was transformed into a classic. As veterans of the Graduate Congress passed away she became the face of the annual celebration, hosted on TV shows to commemorate the occasion and asked to speak of its champions. She was decorated by President Bashir and appeared on TV dressed in the colours of the vintage flag in support of the war effort when South Sudan took over Heglig in April this year.
More important than the political utilization of her fame though is the moral and cultural legitimacy she bestowed on younger generations of Sudanese women singers who follow her tradition. The ‘girls’, dubbed by one famous TV show as ‘Hawa’s daughters’, became a popular feature of Sudanese TV stations, particularly in Ramadan. In their dazzling tobs and immaculate make up they swing the box with a display of femininity that truly gets the sheikhs going. One commentator in al-Intibaha said the ‘girls’ were the reason behind Sudan’s economic troubles. Allah decided to punish the Sudanese for acquiescing to such mockery and even enjoying it, he wrote. A group of Salafi clerics visited Insaf Medani, the Hawa incarnate crowned as the contemporary ‘queen of the daloka’, at her home in Khartoum North advising her to stop haram singing and dedicate her talent to the recitation of halal hymns. She reportedly responded with the amazing shrug of wonder that only women are capable of. Hanan Bulubulu, the Sudanese bombshell of the 1980s, was emboldened by the newfound recognition and vied for the chairmanship of the General Sudanese Union for Music Professions, the association of Sudanese singers. Her contenders included music professors with little in the way of a singing career to support their bid. As expected, she lost the vote but managed to fuel a heated debate that lasted for weeks on the ‘arts’ pages of the Sudanese press. What is at stake ultimately was the rift between popular culture and its subterranean sources and the authority of the establishment. Women like Hawa, Insaf and Hanan are the baraka of a good cause. Veterans of the Workers Welfare Association, the nucleus of the Sudanese trade union movement, recount with love and pride the names of Sabila Fadul and others, women of Hawa’s character. Sabila donated 15 pounds to the Association during the heroic thirty three days strike of the railway workers in March-April 1948, as can be read in a surviving register, heated her set of dalokas and together with a team of female apprentices accompanied the protest marches of the railway workers, drumming the way open for her ‘boys’.
The author is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He publishes regular opinion articles and analyses at his blog Still Sudan. He can be reached at email@example.com