NOT TO BE MISSED
"Rayé de la carte: Chantier du barrage de Mérowé sur la 4e cataracte du Nil Nord Soudan", a novel by Martine MERLIN-DHAINE
Paris: L'Harmattan, 2013. (190p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Inaugurated in 2009, the gigantic Merowe Dam built on the River Nile has been dogged by controversy from the very beginnings of its construction. Martine Merlin-Dhaine's novel Rayé de la carte [Erased from the map] is a tale of resistance and dispossession, located at the intersection of historicity and literary imagination. It evokes the devastating consequences of such a large hydro-electric plant on the environment, the local population and the rich archaeological remains left by countless generations who had settled the place over many millennia.
Work on the Merowe Dam is almost completed when archaeologist Sara Clémenti is invited by her colleague Hans Hofmann to join in a final effort to save as many relics of the Ancient Kingdom of Kush as possible. A large number of archaeological sites, dating back to the flourishing civilisation that gave Ancient Egypt some of its Pharaohs, are about to disappear under water; so too whole villages, and the livelihood of many thousands of families forcibly evacuated from their homes, groves and gardens.
Sara is well aware of the situation, but neither the impending archaeological tragedy, nor the human disaster looming large are in her mind when she agrees to fly to Sudan: She owes a favour to Hofmann and feels she cannot let him down. As she lands in Khartoum, she is determined to return home as soon has possible. But as it panned out, her eagerness to leave the site at the earliest opportunity is soon replaced by a strong urge to stay. Seduced by the oasis on the bank of the Nile and the soft lines of the ochry village hidden in the grove as she reaches Marowe, after many hours on the road, the idea of leaving professional trivia behind enters her mind: here, she thinks, is a place where she could "believe in something liberating and bigger than herself " (p.24). The aura of the region, the plight of the local population, and the imminent disappearance of long-lost secrets buried in the red sand have touched her soul.
As a "real" archaeologists of the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project said: "The region of the Fourth Cataract, prior to the threat posed by the construction of the new dam, had been very little studied and was one of the least known reaches of the Nile valley from an archaeological perspective. In this arid zone, human settlement in most periods of the past has been focussed on the river and hence the construction of the dam, and the resulting 170km-long reservoir will cause immense damage to the archaeological heritage of the region". And a Special UN envoy sent to Sudan at the time added that thousands of people were relocated in circumstances that left many without food or shelter.
One may wonder if the alarm bells rung by these witnesses to the tragedy, and others, led Merlin-Dhaine to write her novel. But in choosing fiction to testify to an under-documented and ill-reported ecological and human disaster, she is challenging conventional reporting of historical "truth". Historical novels are by definition fictive prose narratives, but they also purport to be historical: that is to say, true. Thus historian Brigitte Krulic's conundrum: "How can one reconcile the requirements of fiction with facts? How can one hide the "seams" binding together the plot carried by imaginary characters, and the arsenal of documentary support used to underpin the seriousness and good faith of the historical novelist? From this point of view, she adds, the historical novel [is stuck between] two contradictory claims: reliable documentation and the empathetic imagination that fills in the gaps and creates the illusion of a miraculous access to the past".
The long and cumbersome title of the novel somewhat emphasises this contradiction: Rayé de la carte: Chantier du barrage de Mérowé sur la 4e cataracte du Nil Nord Soudan is more akin to an academic essay than a novel. But while the editorial paratext encourages readers to think that the emphasis will be on "historical facts", the first few pages of the novel reveal that won't be the case. The fictionnal narrator, Lou Davis Hirsh, who is taking charge of the narration, resolutely places the book on the side of literary imagination. One may thus argue that Merlin-Dhaine's take on the events surrounding the dam's construction is not a "true record" of what happened in Sudan at the time. But isn't it? In filling the gaps left wide open by government red-tape, misreporting and far-ranging expurgations of "historical evidence", this novel comes to the rescue of "historical truth", and makes one understand better some of the origins of the violence that is destroying the country.
Merlin-Dhaine's characters are fictional, but their preoccupations are very "real". They capture "historical truth" beyond the facts. They tell the tale of people moved by idiosyncratic agendas, but unified in a losing battle against government ruthlessness, harsh living conditions and the impending flooding of archaeological sites of outstanding universal value: Hofmann's interest in the site is of professional rather humanistic nature; the PhD student who has been working with him for almost two years is captivated by fieldwork on a site about to be lost for ever; and Sara is in search of truth in a minefield of false promises, injustices and irreparable damage caused to both people and the environment. Literary characters they all are, but they are also kindred spirits of "real" individuals inhabiting the "real world" and sharing their interests and concerns.
Sara's deliberate flouting of the compartmentalised existence of the diverse groups living on the site provides a grim appraisal of the situation and a good insight into the financial and socio-cultural issues at stake. Foreign companies are calling the shots, profit prevails over common good, the press is muzzled and ordinary people are paying the price of a project of pharaonic proportions, one dictated by economic pursuits rather than a betterment of people's living conditions. Thus, not surprisingly, almost everyone involved in the venture ends up at the losing end of the scheme: first, the Manassirs and other local communities forcibly evicted; but also uprooted Chinese workers involved in the construction of the dam, Sudanese loathing the project, and even officials and mercenaries handsomely payed to break resistance at all cost, but severely punished when they fail to stamp out dissent. The physical elimination of Mouloud Al-Rachid on trumped-up charges rather than for the real crimes he committed when he was head of operations, is a case in point.
It is through Sara's socialising that readers discover both the villains and the unsung heroes, the inner thoughts of the people drawn together by the project and their haphazard associations. Reality becomes fiction as the author gives free rein to her narrator to think up what might have happened in the secrecy of the groves and villages: a close relationship between Yang, a lone Chinese worker, and Ahmed, a young Manassir activist, for example; or the sabotaging of the dam by this unlikely pair. Such episodes stem from the author's fancy, but irrespective of their equivocal nature, Ahmed well illustrates the plight of the 60.000 plus villagers evicted from their home, desperate and often ready to take the law into their own hands in the face of "violations of civil and political rights including the shooting of unarmed demonstrators, arbitrary arrests and repressive measures against the media by the Sudanese Government as it responded to local protests about the project".
Similarly, Sara's eventual decision to join the Manassirs' armed resistance and to remain in Sudan after her co-workers have been escorted out of the country by Government forces is somewhat unlikely. But her strong desire to stay in the country and to offer her professional expertise to a people robbed of their past and condemned to an uncertain future, epitomises an unwavering belief in the right of the local populations to their history, their heritage and, in the case of the Manassirs, an acknowledgment of the importance of the ill-understood Meoritic language: a language left behind by their ancestors thousands of years ago, when they invented writing and gave the world one of the earliest cursive and hieroglyphic representation of "Ankh", the key of life.
Journalist Lou David Hirsh never existed and the articles she retrieves from her fictitious archives belong only to the narrative, yet the contents of these articles reveal some real issues confronting Sudan today as a consequence of the construction of the dam: tens of thousands of displaced persons are still awaiting compensation for the loss of their houses, gardens and groves that sustained them for millennia on the fertile banks of the Nile; no one will ever know how many significant archaeological sites have been lost to water; and the Sudanese people are still longing for peace and prosperity.
1. "Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project: Amri to Kirbekan Survey". http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/research_projects/all_current_projects/merowe_dam_project.aspx. [Sighted 20 February 2014]. See also: Bernadette Arnaud. "Soudan: des projets de barrages sur le Nil menacent des sites archéologiques". "Sciences et avenir". 3 octobre 2012. http://www.sciencesetavenir.fr/decryptage/20120814.OBS9604/soudan-des-projets-de-barrages-sur-le-nil-menacent-des-sites-archeologiques.html. [Sighted 22 February 2014].
2. "UN rights expert urges suspension to dam projects". "UN News Center with breaking news from the UN News Service in northern Sudan". 28 August 2007. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=23617&Cr=sudan&Cr10 [Sighted 22 February 2014]. Also: Nicholas Hildyard. "Neutral? Against What? Bystanders and Human Rights Abuses: The case of Merowe Dam". "Sudan Studies", no 37, April 2008. [PdF copy sighted on the web 14 October 2013].
3. Brigitte Krulic. Interview suivant l'article de Patrick Boucheron "Ce que la littérature comprend de l'histoire". 15 juin 2011. http://www.scienceshumaines.com/ce-que-la-litterature-comprend-de-l-histoire_fr_25809.html [Sighted 22 February 2014].
4. "UN rights expert urges suspension ...
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities