A Mouth Full of Salt: Unveiling truths and tragedies in Sudanese society

A Mouth Full of Salt: Unveiling truths and tragedies in Sudanese society
Book Club: Named after a Sudanese proverb, 'A Mouth Full of Salt' tackles themes of racism, gender-based violence, and oppressive traditions found across Sudan.
7 min read
22 May, 2024

A Mouth Full of Salt is the debut novel by Sudanese public health physician and writer Reem Gaafar.

It won the 2023 Island Prize, marking the first time a Sudanese author has received this prize.

In their press release, the prize judges praised the novel for being "stylistically simple, insightful, and elegant, sharing truths like all the best fiction." Indeed, Gaafar reveals many truths in her debut.

The novel opens in 1989 with the news of a missing — and presumably drowned — young boy, Mohamed Hamid Kheir Alseed, which throws the residents of an unnamed village near the Sudanese city of Karima into complete disarray.

While the search for Mohamed is ongoing, every mature camel in the village dies of an unknown illness, the date gardens catch fire, and a young girl dies mysteriously while preparing for her wedding.

The villagers can no longer ignore this abnormality, and only one thing can be responsible: witchcraft. Coincidentally, there have been rumours of a strange old black woman residing in the hills who curses everyone she crosses paths with.

Fatima, the main narrator, is a 14-year-old girl awaiting the results of her final year exam. Unlike other girls in the village, she has no interest in marriage. Her exam results will determine whether her dream of moving to Khartoum will come true.

From the highest hill in the village, Fatima offers readers a comprehensive view of the village on the Nile's bank, including its people, gardens, and daily life. She reflects on the aftermath of the 1988 floods that devastated Sudan, revealing that the village is no stranger to unforeseen tragedies and has not fully recovered from past ones.


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Through Fatima, readers meet other characters, including her parents, Mohamed Al Tahir and Habiba; her cousin and betrothed, Sadig; the Kheir Alseeds (Hamid Hassan Al Kheir, Hajja Allagiya, Hayata, Hafsa, Om Salama, Sulafa, and Sara); and Nyamakeem, the mysterious old black woman.

Over 40 years earlier, Nyamakeem, the daughter of a Chollo chief from the South, arrived in the village with her husband, Hassan Kheir Alseed, and their young son, Kheir Alseed. Facing greater disapproval from the Alseeds than from her own family, the young family moved to Khartoum with heavy hearts and near-empty pockets.

The story alternates between the late 1980s, early 1940s (when Sudan was under British/Egyptian colonial rule), and the period following independence, weaving in political references to provide context for village life.

Gaafar highlights significant issues such as racism and anti-Blackness both pre- and post-colonialism.

Under British-Egyptian rule, the South of Sudan was isolated in a "divide-and-rule" policy, exacerbating existing divisions from the history of slavery and the North's proximity to Egypt. This left the South underdeveloped and further marginalized.

Nyamakeem's shock at encountering anti-Blackness in the North is evident, having previously been seen as a beautiful, educated young woman in her Southern village. In her now home in the North, her skin colour annuls many of her traits.

Besides racism and anti-Blackness, Gaafar also explores themes of gender and class hierarchy.

When Nyamakeem and her family return to the village, she gradually becomes the "mysterious old Black woman," blamed for natural disasters and unexplained events. This reflects a timeless tendency to blame women, especially dark-skinned women, for such occurrences, even when the historical misdeeds of men are well known. 

Islam plays a significant role in the novel. Hassan’s family reject his marriage to Nyamakeem, claiming their lineage is pure and goes back to the Prophet Mohamed.

In the novel, Hassan is told, “We are Arabs, Ashraaf. Our lineage is pure and untainted and goes all the way back to the Prophet Mohamed, peace be upon him.”

The hypocrisy is further shown when the faith used to justify their racial bigotry does not protect the Kheir Alseeds from greed and moral decay, ultimately causing the women to suffer the most.

"The novel adeptly exposes the racism and anti-Blackness in Sudanese society, both pre- and post-colonialism. Despite these painful themes, Gaafar celebrates the beauty of the diverse cultures in Sudan"

Gaafar also examines domestic violence through Sulafa, Hamid’s wife, who is abused by her husband and his family for bearing only one son, Mohamed. Sulafa’s story of longing for children echoes themes from Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀'s Stay With Me, underscoring the universality of many human experiences.

Gaafar's writing is indeed "stylishly simple," building the pace and plot of the novel with care. She allows readers to become curious about the villagers and their secrets before revealing them.

Alongside these challenging themes explored, Gaafar does not forget to celebrate the beauty of the diverse cultures in Sudan.

Gaafar highlights the remarkable height of the South Sudanese characters, paying homage to their distinction as some of the tallest individuals globally.

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In another scene featuring Sadig and his cousin, Abass, both men take turns reading the Quran and harmoniously correct each other while on their trading journeys. The Sudanese are renowned for their exceptional Quran recitation skills.

Amidst the looming possibility of Mohamed's drowning, the narrative offers insights into the traditions observed by villages along the Nile, such as burying drowned bodies in shallow graves near the river without washing or shrouding them. As one character reflects, "the Nile attracted, ensnared, and buried all at once; it took as much as it gave them."

Another cultural practice highlighted in the novel is reciting Al-Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Quran, when paying respects to the relatives of the deceased.

In the novel, three characters stand out despite their limited direct presence: Mohamed Hamid Kheir Alseed, Khalid (Fatima’s brother), and Kheir Alseed. They radiate gentleness and compassion, bringing joy to their loved ones and those they encounter.

Gaafar purposefully crafted these characters as gentle reminders of a famous West African Yorùbá proverb: "Out of the black pot comes a particular type of food called ‘Eko’, which is white in nature."

While their fathers, including Mohamed Hamid Kheir Alseed, have flaws that cause pain to those around them, these offspring shine so brightly that their warmth is evident even to the reader through the pages of the novel.

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Gaafar's storytelling is most intriguing in its dance between spiritual/karmic and scientific/logical explanations for the village's successive tragedies.

When Habiba, Fatima’s mother, unravels the truth of a 30-year-old incident once relegated to village gossip, she remarks to her companion, “Allah has punished you enough, only He punished all of us [alongside you].”

Her statement hints at her family—and, to some extent, the wider village—sharing in the repercussions of the incident, despite their innocence. However, a later exchange between Fatima and Sadig suggests that even if the broader community isn’t directly responsible, there is a shared awareness and absence of shock regarding the events.

This insight is profound because it emphasizes the responsibility of community members to condemn and oppose injustice in all circumstances, regardless of whether it directly affects them or not. This is particularly crucial when individuals within their communities are involved in perpetuating it.

"As Sudan grapples with an ongoing conflict spanning over a year, it's crucial for readers to engage with and amplify the Sudanese experience through reading"

Conversely, Gaafar hints at a more scientific or logical explanation for several events in A Mouth Full of Salt, ranging from an ill-dumped cigarette or lantern, to water poisoning through insecticide use, to Rhesus factor incompatibility. Readers will appreciate this duality because it highlights how multiple, seemingly contradictory perspectives can coexist.

A Mouth Full of Salt skillfully recounts the nuanced history of two countries that were divided long before they had any say in the matter. Gaafar approaches this narrative with compassion, confronting uncomfortable truths head-on.

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As Sudan grapples with an ongoing conflict spanning over a year, it's crucial for readers to engage with and amplify the Sudanese experience through reading.

Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer focusing on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London.

Follow her on X: @allthingsaeesha