In September 1975, Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi, wrongfully accused of involvement in an anti-government coup, was held without trial for six months in Khartoum’s Kober Prison. During a period of house arrest that followed his release, he produced the Prison Notebook, a small but powerful sketchbook that blends poetry, prayers, and masterful pen-and-ink drawings to offer a moving document of his thoughts and emotions during his time behind bars. El-Salahi’s memoir serves as an extraordinary record of self-reflection, but also as an important historical document. The artist says of this deeply personal work, “I started to record it so as not to forget. Not only for me but for anyone who is innocent and has been imprisoned under false pretenses. Just to remember what can happen.”
For this commission, we invited acclaimed Sudanese short story writer Stella Gaitano to use El-Salahi’s Prison Notebook as a source of inspiration in creating an original, fictional narrative that reflected on the present day. She chose to focus on the 2018–19 Sudan Uprising, which culminated in the removal of dictator Omar al-Bashir after a 30-year presidency, restoring Sudan to a civil democracy. Gaitano’s story draws parallels between these two periods of civil unrest—and between the power of El-Salahi’s self-archiving during his imprisonment and the use of social media in recent youth-led revolutions.
I would call El-Salahi’s small book a simple text, but one that is at the same time incredibly profound in its connotations and meanings. Those sharp letters that intersect with the drawings declare that man is always free, no matter how many miserable wretches try to lock up his body in confined spaces. This was the case with the hero of my story, who locks himself up on the uppermost floor of a building, hiding from the authorities.
Through his creative, artistic nature, man can always push himself further to merge his soul with the cosmos, leaving behind the iron bars, the doors, and the locked rooms, despite their power.
Inspiration comes through the duality of despair and hope. The prisoner’s despair and weakness in the face of the jailer’s strength and arrogance is deep, but he never loses hope.
The of the executioner’s ignorance and the artist’s awareness are so great that the artist pities the jailer, who is unaware that he too is a victim, and so the artist describes him as an imprisoned jailer. Prison has many visual associations: high fences, impenetrable doors, crisscrossing iron bars. But the Prison Notebook also contains a drawing of a massive bird that continuously appears as an inevitable destiny, possibly symbolizing freedom and flight.
El-Salahi’s small book sends a clear message about how creators and intellectuals can contribute to revolutions of liberation. It shows how they can sharpen their tools to invent peaceful resistance using the pen, the paintbrush, the camera, and the violin.
Of course they are surrounded on all sides by weapons, they are threatened with death, arrest, and unjust laws, and are treated with suspicion, but they never stop calling for judicious democratic governments and constitutions that respect human and civil rights.
Thank you, Ibrahim El-Salahi, our spiritual educator, for the power of inspiration that has linked all the Sudanese revolutions through all the ages. The executioners all share the same ideology, and the same prisons take in honorable people. The same bullets kill our sons. The revolutionaries are the same as well, but each time they are born differently. They never stop calling for freedom and dignity for the people, for all of humanity. All of this ends with the greatest peaceful revolution in recent times.
Thank you, our heroic Sudanese people.
Ibrahim El-Salahi. Untitled from Prison Notebook. 1976
Ibrahim El-Salahi. Untitled from Prison Notebook. 1976
The Rally of the Sixth of April
This was no normal morning…. The air was heavy with a confounding silence. It was a situation that could be described as a lying in wait, as a cautious staring between predator and prey, each waiting for the right moment to leap. Hussam was busy finding the right nooks to shoot the perfect photo. He stood behind a small window in a cramped room on the sixth floor of a building in the Souk Arabi district. Carefully, he began to adjust his equipment, training his camera over the heart of Khartoum, which was now abuzz with heightened security. The arrests began at 10 am, just over three hours before the start of the march. Many citizens were forced to leave the city center: to prevent gatherings, police and masked security men began to beat and disperse the people.
Hussam took the first photo, shooting his camera like a sniper. In one of them, a man was arrested before he could even take a sip from the cup that the girl selling coffee on the street had put in front of him. Her things were kicked around and scattered everywhere, and she too was forced to leave. Another photo: Three young women were taken by force and thrown into an unmarked car without a license plate, which proceeded to take them to an unknown location; some sticks were raised in the air, hovering; others rained down on the people’s backs.
“Now we’ve begun, yes, these are the previews of the million-man march. Let the world see how our jailers tremble,” Hussam said as he pressed the “post” button on a page called “Marches Without Borders.” He added the comment, “The arrest of a young man and three young women, right now, in the Souk Arabi district.’ It wasn’t long before the news spread, firming up the resolve of the revolutionaries.
Hussam was in his early twenties, with sharp features and large eyes glistening with intelligence and rebellion. He had declared his rejection of many of the family laws, which he now called “trifles,” because they restricted his personal freedom. His clothes disgusted his father: the T-shirts; the pants that hung loosely around his waist but narrowed near his ankles; the thick hair, which took so much time and effort to take on a neglectful look, and which now stood on his head like desiccated coral reefs, or as if cruel dry winds had blown through it.
His mother was prone to bouts of rage, which he warded off by bowing his head and listening to long lectures about the ill effects of staring too long at his phone and spending most of the night typing on his keyboard. But he remained in his private world, which was completely confined to the revolution, and which had become his only passion. He liked to whisper to himself: “This revolution is full of lofty, noble promises.” The interesting thing about what he was doing is that he wasn’t being directed by any side or accountable to any person.
He was simply doing what he knew how to do well, for the good of the revolution: taking pictures from various locations, photos that inspired enthusiasm, like the picture of that revolutionary woman who picked up a tear-gas grenade and put it back in its launcher. Photos that provoked anger, like the one of several masked agents whipping a child. Photos that triggered both pain and anger, like the one of a martyr falling, covered in blood. Photos that caused disgust, like the one of security personnel raiding homes—utterly disrespecting the people’s sanctuaries—to look for revolutionaries. Photos that brought smiles, like that of a little girl carried on someone’s shoulders, yelling “Down with the regime of killers!” Photos that made people laugh, like that of cars crashing into each other, and the security men inside escaping from them. And inspiring photos, like the one of a prisoner’s fingers making a victory sign through one of the ventilation holes in a police van.
This is how Hussam found his way to working for the success of the revolution, by fueling people’s emotions with his images. Every photo he took filled him with ecstasy for days. He was known only by his nickname—“Sudanese Rebel”—but he saw himself in everyone’s eyes. He was never arrested, but he went to prison dozens of times with the other detainees. The police never raided his home, but his dignity was insulted with every house they entered. He was never shot, but he died every day with each martyr.
And so fear left his heart, because he experienced the euphoria of salvation. He was no longer afraid of the police or the masked security men. He celebrated every time he returned home safely with all his equipment and smartphones. He no longer feared his mother collapsing if she heard the news of his arrest or his death: “All mothers must be equal in pain, all people must be equal in humiliation, and everyone must be equal in fear so that we can cross without hesitation to broader horizons,” he said to himself.
Hussam had the feeling of wearing clothes that were too small for him, that no longer fit his rebellious nature. The clothes were torn on all sides, allowing the cold air to penetrate his body; it made him feel like someone preparing to fly. He cast off the burden of hiding the effects of his movements and erasing the evidence of his participation in all the demonstrations and marches called for by the Sudanese Professionals Association—demonstrations that always emphasized a commitment to peace. He no longer turned away from his mother's hawk-like gaze, which confirmed that she had seized some evidence in his room: scraps of paper with revolutionary poetry or the dates of upcoming demonstrations on them, some very modern phone and recording equipment, cameras of various types and sizes, light sports shoes and backpacks, jeans, bandages and masks and vinegar to ward off the effects of tear gas, cans of spray paint, and the smell of burnt tires coming off of his body.
He ignored the harsh criticism the rest of the family leveled at him: sometimes they tried to stir up fear by saying the protests would lead to chaos; sometimes they downplayed them, describing them as the rashness of youth; and sometimes they tried to find a soft spot, saying he would be the death of his mother or father, that one of them would certainly have a heart attack. He knew he had to resist not only the arrogance of the military in the street but also the pressure from family members at home. He took precautions to avoid being arrested, which would only satisfy the regime and worry his family, and so he kept his work secret.
Ibrahim El-Salahi. Untitled from Prison Notebook. 1976
The morning of the sixth of April arrived after much exhaustion and many late nights. The revolutionary actions were multiplying and becoming more organized and well-planned. Clandestine activities increased through multiple WhatsApp and Facebook groups. Hussam stopped dwelling in his memories and went back to watching, like a hawk, ready for any event that might occur, especially the promised one, at 1:30. He felt the crowd close in around him, though he was alone on the upper floor—a strange energy filled the air, connecting people. His breath grew quicker while he stared out the window, counting down the last seconds, and so did his heartbeat. Then a trilling of voices broke out, like a sword cleaving through the suffocating air to signal the start of the demonstration. The zealous crowd lit up, and a young man standing on a car cried out: “Freedom, peace, justice! The people choose revolution!”
A crowd filled the wide square, though just a moment earlier everyone was pretending that they had come here for some other reason. The booming voices shattered the silence in the streets. The cries rose up and began to whirl like a hurricane, passing through doors and windows, piercing walls, climbing up buildings, and storming rooms and offices, to enter the pores and flow with the blood until they settled in the heart, precisely in the heart.
Tears poured from Hussam’s eyes behind the camera lens, and in a whisper he said: “What courage, what courage.”
He began posting the photos and videos on Facebook, online channels, and many WhatsApp groups. Sometimes he looked through the lens, and sometimes with his bare eyes, cheering with the crowd, overcome with enthusiasm and zeal: “Freedom, peace, justice! The people choose revolution!”
The riot police began beating arresting people, firing bullets and tear gas. The whole crowd knelt down on one knee, clapping and waving towards the sky, determined looks on their faces, chanting, “Peaceful, we are peaceful, peaceful.” Hussam chanted, too, following their lead: “Peaceful, we are peaceful, peaceful.” But this provoked the security forces, who closed in on the protesters. They responded with stun grenades, bullets fired by snipers, arrests, beatings, serious injuries. In a moment, the rebels were dispersed, retreating in small groups in all directions. Hussam’s heart dropped in his chest. “God, do not let this day fail.” And he held his gaunt face in his hands, the frustration beginning to take over.
But then more shouts reached his ears. These were louder, more forceful. He stepped back behind his camera again. Police cars and security forces surrounded the people, paralyzing them, like a wave crashing over a powerless village. The guns fell silent, in surprise, and the people’s deafening cries took over: “Freedom, peace, justice! The people choose revolution!”
Hussam began to jump and shout with joy. And then they all joined in, the people, the buildings, the trees, the cats and dogs, the streets, the bridges, the two Niles, the asphalt, the soil, the martyrs and victims, the injured, they all shouted as one: “Freedom, peace, justice! The people choose revolution!”
Through his lens, Hussam could see how the crowd poured towards the Army General Command—the march’s predetermined path—to deliver a communiqué demanding the immediate handover of power to the people. He watched the security forces surrender to that tremendous wave of people, which filled the streets and overflowed into alleyways. The people held their heads up high, and their eyes saw nothing but the Army General Command—their target. They marched on in solidarity, side-by-side, hand in hand, their souls united. When the Command finally came into view, they began running toward it. A car stopped in the middle of the main street, and after turning off the engine a beautiful young woman got out, blocking the police vehicles’ route. Others followed her example, and soon people’s cars were stopping in the streets, as if this had been planned ahead of time. The young woman pulled a Sudanese flag from under the driver's seat and waved it in the air, crying, “Down… Down.” Then she was flying over the crowd towards the Command center.
Sudanese people came out from everywhere: from their homes and places of work, down from the sky and up from the earth, out of the jungles, rivers, deserts, caves, and mountains; and even the martyrs were there, waves upon waves of them, walking lightly, without shadows, with smiles painted on their beautiful faces. And all of them were heading towards the Command center.
Hussam put his equipment in the backpack and walked down the stairs lightly. He was protected by the swelling crowd. He found that fear had died in the streets, that humiliation had been crushed under the people’s feet, that death was standing meekly by the guns: the gunmen were gradually dwarfed by the crowd, shrinking in their boots.
Hussam was taking pictures without hiding or taking shelter in a building—freedom was so beautiful, breaking chains was so beautiful. He felt bigger, more significant, as did the rest of the rebels and revolutionaries. He was taking pictures of the crowd as it crossed over bridges, passed through villages and whole states and cities, and headed toward the Command center.
In front of the Army General Command center, the crowd shouted, demanding for the social fabric to be restored: “You arrogant racist, the whole country is Darfur!” The crowd cried out, seeking the lost southern half of the country: “You racist, you executioner, where has the South gone?” The martyrs’ brothers and friends cried out: “The martyr’s blood is my blood. The martyr’s mother is my mother.” And all of them, for the sake of non-violence, cried out: “You can kill ten, you can kill a hundred, but our revolution will still be peaceful.”
Hussam was thirsty, hungry, and beginning to feel faint. But then he heard his mother’s voice calling him. She was waving a small flag, as if she wanted to erase the memory of all those miserable days. She was carrying a basket loaded with food and bottles of water. Hussam’s father discreetly wiped away tears of pride while flashing the victory sign. Hussam pointed his camera at them to take the final picture of a great but exhausting day. Everyone was getting ready for the sit-in that had just been announced.
Translation by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, Salah Mohamed El Hassan Osman, and Abed Haddad
Ibrahim El-Salahi’s Prison Notebook is currently on view at MoMA.