“There’s either democracy or there’s civil war,” a friend told me the other evening, as we sipped coffee at a cafe on the Nile. Later that night, an artist I was interviewing said, “I’m afraid. I think there’s going to be a (war) crime here in Khartoum, there’s so many militias.” Khartoum, at the crossroads of the Sudanese revolution, has, for the moment, a celebratory feeling. But behind the scenes, the city is rife with political tensions and hidden power struggles. There are hundreds if not thousands of military trucks with machine guns mounted on the back and baskets full of RPGs, roaming the streets of this supposedly peaceful revolution.
Until four weeks ago, if you said anything negative about the Sudanese government or made a piece of art that challenged President Omar al-Bashir’s administration, you would quickly find yourself in jail for sedition and on the secret police’s black list. Even as a foreigner, when I worked in Sudan, I was afraid I would end up on that list and either be detained by the police or refused reentry into Sudan on future visits. I’d come here in the past to work as a journalist, but this time, I’d mostly come just to witness the revolution.
President Bashir, who took office in 1989, ran Sudan like a combination of “The Hunger Games” and “1984” — isolating provinces, strictly controlling the flow of information and using bombing campaigns to ruthlessly quell any opposition. While many people longed for a different Sudan, an open Sudan, a place where people could do and say as they pleased and not live in constant fear, overthrowing a government that had strangled the media and constantly spread false news and rumors proved elusive despite several attempts in the past 30 years.
In April, after months of protests, Bashir stepped down and a new era of freedom and uncertainty began. The protesters, represented by a group called the Sudanese Professionals Association, are sparring with the military council that currently controls the country. The SPA wants a civilian interim government and the military, of course, wants their generals to remain in power. This uncomfortable impasse has resulted in a stalemate between the two groups, in which the military keeps threatening to break up protesters who are camping out in a 10-block area in front of military headquarters and the protesters threaten to shut down more streets and arteries in downtown Khartoum.
The first time I entered the sit-in, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer ecstatic chaos of the place. Sounds came from everywhere — people chanting, playing music, banging a ceaseless tattoo on one of the bridges that crossed above the street. There were signs, flags, paintings, posters, performance artists carrying a cage with a map of Sudan trapped inside; there were even face-painting stations where you could get the Sudanese flag or a Mexican skull face. It was more like Burning Man than any protest I’d ever been too. The Sudanese, after so many years of repression, were elated at their newfound freedom and reveling in the joy of being united in their cause.
It was impossible not to feel a bit optimistic. I had seen what Sudan had been like before. This was so wonderful and hopeful and new. My first night, I went to the library camp, the reggae area and the artists’ headquarters. I counted 23 murals that night and more the next day. I’m not a journalist anymore, I’m an artist, and I wanted to spend time with these artists and talk to them about the art they are making and its role in the revolution. There was undeniably great work being made and it had become part of the sort of brand identity for this revolution.
I asked painter and muralist Galal Yousif what he thought the role of art was in the uprising and he said, “There wouldn’t be a revolution without art.” I wanted to believe in this idea but wasn’t convinced. As I watched what was happening in Khartoum unfold, the looming threat of all of those guns and RPGs felt like the real determiner of what would happen here. I’d heard rumors that inside the military, there was massive factional infighting, some supporting the protesters and some against them. If those two groups separated and faced off against one another, Sudan’s peaceful revolution would suddenly become a bloody civil war like the one in Libya. How could art stand against that kind of aggression?
In a secret part of the sit-in, where five or six teenage boys usually guard the entrance, there’s an area where young artists are attempting to produce the longest banner ever made. When I first heard that was what they were trying to do, the exuberant absurdity of attempting to do such a thing in the midst of a major political crisis made me laugh. The banner, which is 3 kilometers long, has hundreds of different meter-wide paintings on the theme of freedom and revolution. Day and night, artists have been working in shifts to complete it. They plan to hang it along Nile Street, the main road that leads to the sit-in area, when it’s completed. As fun as the idea was, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would achieve besides a place in the “Guinness Book of World Records.”
Starting around 11 p.m. most nights, there’s a reggae concert that’s more of a huge jam session than an actual show. A crowd gathers and ladies selling coffee and tea set up stands to sell non-alcoholic drinks. Sudan has been under Islamic law for 30 years and, while things have become more relaxed in the past month, alcohol is still illegal and only powerfully strong and sometimes toxic moonshine is readily available. Most of the young people running this revolution don’t drink and the concert’s main intoxicant is a feeling of freedom. Of course, it’s fun to sit in the middle of closed streets listening to people singing Bob Marley ballads, but is it enough to save a revolution from violence?
These are the questions that have been haunting me since I arrived. Can unarmed protesters actually use nonviolence to achieve change or is this just another deluded myth perpetuated by a military industrial complex that grows fatter with each new war? Is art enough? Or is this moment I’m witnessing just the prelude to Sudan becoming the next Egypt or Syria?
Last Thursday night, I stayed up until 4 a.m. with some artists, helping them paint a new mural inside a school classroom. While the school is closed for the revolution, the room has become the artists’ library area and there are piles of books on art, development and civil society available for protesters to read. Outside in the courtyard, next to the banner painting area, a group of young people sang along as a boy played a lute. I don’t want something this beautiful to fail. I want to believe that it’s possible for peace and art to win.
When we left the sit-in, we had to walk across a bridge over the Nile that the protesters have barricaded and kept closed for more than a month. On the other side, there were 15 of the now-ubiquitous machine gun trucks lining the road. The soldiers manning them were mostly sleeping or playing on their phones and barely took notice of us as we passed by. It occurred to me then that the real role of art in this, and in any revolution, is to win the hearts and minds of the men who have the guns. If artists, writers and musicians can craft a vision that makes these soldiers feel included, they may be able to stop this rebellion from becoming another bloody one and prove that unarmed protesters can beat the monster that is modern warfare.
The revolution took a violent turn Monday when one of the militias opened fire on protesters again, killing eight people and wounding 100. But the outrage and indignation of the people and many of the soldiers, in love with their “New Sudan,” seems to have stopped the shootings for now. It’s still too soon to guess what will happen next, and maybe it’s just that their enthusiasm has infected me, but I think they might do what they set out to do, and — with only their murals, songs and banners — create a picture of what Sudan could be that’s so compelling even the army doesn’t want to destroy it.
Ajax Axe is a multi-disciplinary artist and writer based in Aspen. Her recent work has included the solo exhibition “Palace of the Beast” at Skye Gallery and the opera “Crude Capital,” which premiered in Brooklyn in February.