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

My Daughters Are My Writings

Old Capital Museum Senate Chambers — Friday, Feb. 15 at 4:30 p.m.

The cast of ‘My Daughters are My Writings’ rehearses. — Elly Hofmaier

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 will present 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. The event is free, and a reception will follow.

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.”

The reading and lecture were enabled by Arts Share through the Office of Outreach and Engagement at the UI, which connects creative talents in the performing arts programs with communities in Iowa — including, in this case, another department at UI. Horton said she was “really pumped” to work with Arts Share. The process of directing the show, she said, has taught her to “trust [herself and her] instincts” thanks to a safe space created by a “brilliant cast.”

“These ladies also live within me,” Horton said of the characters portrayed in the show. “Their strength can be found in all of us, if we dig deep enough. They live within all of us.”

Mazahir Salih, the first Sudanese-American woman to be elected to office, will introduce Howard. Howard is looking forward to the event and hopes both that “people will get an idea of the possibilities of Islam and particularly the role that Islam plays in the lives of spiritual women” and that “this may continue the many positive conversations I have had about Islam in America as well.”

Chisaka said the researchers are “excited as historians that our work is used to discuss critical issues relating to gender and equality, and this proves that the methods of research we use as historians continue to be relevant today.”

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“These women fought a fight that we are still fighting,” Horton said. “The work isn’t done but we can and will get there if we work together.”

Fortunately, the chance to see history living among us is free and open to the public on Friday afternoon. Contemporary history, performed by a brilliant cast and concluding with a knowledgeable talk, will shed light on one of the often overlooked gems of Iowa City.