Interviews form basis of new play about the legacy of Sudan in Iowa City

On Friday, Feb. 15 from 4:30-6 p.m. in the Senate Chambers of the Old Capital Museum, the African Studies Program and the Office of Outreach and Engagement at the University of Iowa presented My Daughters Are My Writings, a new play based on oral histories of seven Iowa City residents from Sudan compiled by two UI graduate students, followed by a talk by Steve Howard, a scholar visiting from Ohio University (Athens), about Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, a Sudanese Muslim social reformer whose work initiated the Republican Brotherhood before and after Sudan’s independence from Britain.

The play is a truly interdisciplinary affair: Written by UI alum Margot Connolly, based on excerpts from Howard’s book and interviews by graduate students from the history department, it is directed by UI theater graduate student Britny Horton, who acts in the play alongside three fellow graduate students.

Taha is best known for the Second Message of Islam, which distinguishes the verses in the Koran revealed in Medina (the basis of Sharia law) from those initially revealed in Mecca. The latter, from Taha’s perspective, would provide the basis of an ideal religion based on freedom and equality — including the equality of men and women.

The group initially refrained from political interactions, but its membership surged with the addition of women and intellectuals and became increasingly active in the 1980s to deter the strict application of Sharia law in Sudan. Once Taha was executed for apostasy, the group was banned in Sudan and thus only publicly exists in exile.

One of the larger communities-in-exile is closer than many know. James Giblin, UI professor of history, said that Howard’s book initially introduced him to the presence of the Republican Brothers. “I knew that Taha had been executed by the government of Sudan in 1985. What I didn’t know is that, as the community afterwards scattered into exile, Iowa City became one of its centers, said Giblin. “And at that point, I realized that some of the remarkable young Sudanese students whom I’ve been teaching here at the UI are the children of the Republicans-in-exile.”

This fact was also unknown to the graduate students whose interviews provide the foundation for the play. According to Decent Ndongwe, one of the two students whose interviews frame the production, they originally had no “knowledge of the Sudanese Republican brotherhood or the presence of some of the founding members here in Iowa City.”

Ndongwe’s colleague Nyari Chisaka was interested in “the immense respect they have for women and their understanding of the world” (including an emphasis on equality and religious tolerance), as well as learning about Taha: “a great thinker who fought against many political and social injustices in the 19th century and so celebrating him and his legacy is worthwhile.” Chisaka added that, “People need to know more about the Republican Movement” in part because “Taha has even been likened to Mahatma Gandi and other great leaders.”

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