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  Femi Osofisan
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  Chuma Nwokolo


Kesala Town and Mountain, Sudan

Kesala Town and Mountain,


The Arabization of Sudan

Dr. Mohammed Jalal A. Hashim is a Sudanese writer and lecturer at Khartoum University. This article is excerpted from an unpublished manuscript. On 15th June, 2007, Jalal was arrested by security forces in Sudan for protesting the building of the Kajbar Dam which will drown historic sites as well as some 30 Nubian villages. Please click here and support us and Amnesty International in calling for his freedom today.


The Scramble for Arab Genealogies
With the weakening of the Christian kingdoms, between the 14th and 16th centuries, new Islamic and Arabized kinglets began appearing and eventually succeeded in replacing the old regime [Yusuf Fadl, 1973; Shibeika, 1991]. The first was the Kunuz (Bani al-Kanz) kingdom around Asuan area in present-day Egyptian Nubia, to be followed a little later by the Rabi?a-Beja Islamic kinglet of Hajar. In the late 15th century the Islamic kinglet of Tegali (Togole) in the Nuba Mountains came into existence. A century later the Ottoman Sultan Selim the Second made a thrust deep in Nubia in the aftermath of which appeared the Northern Nubian Islamic kinglets of the Kushshaf, Mah$as, and Argo. Two centuries later the Fur kingdom of Keira was established upon the fall of the Tunjur kinglet. But the most important was the Funj Sultanate which came into existence in the early 16th century and which succeeded in spreading its influence over most of these kinglets. In fact the unification of such kinglets along with many other tribal shaykhdoms is what has constituted the State in ancient and present-day Sudan.

The Funj Sultanate came into existence with slavery looming in the background and with the black colour fully stigmatized by being synonymous to ‘slave’. By the turn of the 15th century, Soba, the capital of the last Christian kingdom of Allodia, fell at the hands of the Arabized Nubians (known in Sudan as the Arabs) led by ?Abdu Allah Jamma? al-Girenati (‘Jamma?’, an adjective literally meaning the ‘gatherer’ for unifying the divided Arabs (?Arab al-Gawasma); ‘Girenati’, a diminutive adjective literally meaning ‘of the horns’ in reference to the royal horned headgear as was the case in the Christian Kingdoms). Immediately after the fall of Soba, a black African people called the Funj appeared led by ?Amara Dungus. He achieved a treaty with the Arabs after defeating them following which the Funj Sultanate was established. As the founders were mostly blacks, it was also called “al-Salt,ana al-Zarqa’”, i.e. the ‘Black Sultanate’. As it came in response to the growing influence of the Islamo-Arabized Sudanese it explicitly showed an Arab and Islamic orientation. The new formations of Arabized tribes began claiming Arab descent supported with traditionally authenticated genealogies. The transformation from African identity to Arab identity is reflected in the ideological cliché of dropping the ‘matrilineal system’, where descent through the mother’s lineage is only recognized, and adopting the ‘patrilineal system’, where descent through the father’s lineage is only considered. The small family units compensated for their vulnerability by claiming the noble ‘sharif’ descent, i.e. descendants of Prophet Muhammad. Eventually they would be enabled by this claimed descent to appropriate both wealth and power, something the immediate descendants were not ordained to have while Prophet Muhammad was still alive. To be on an equal footing with these tribes in matters pertaining to power and authority, the black Funj also claimed an Umayyad descent. Scholars in Arabic and Islamic sciences from other parts of the Islamic world were encouraged to settle in the Sudan.

The Paradox of the Black Arab who is Anti-Black
Thenceforward the Arabized Africans of middle Sudan will pose as non-black Arabs. Intermarriage with light-skinned people would be consciously sought as a process of cleansing blood from blackness. A long process of identity change has begun; in order to have access to power and to be at least accepted as free humans, African people tended to drop both their identities and languages and replace them with Arabic language and Arab identity. The first step in playing that game is to overtly deplore the blacks and dub them as slaves while being themselves black. A new ideological awareness of race and colour came into being. The shades of the colour of blackness were perceived as authentic racial differentiations [cf. Deng, 1995]. A Sudanese-bound criterion for racial colour was formed by which the light black was seen as an Arab, wad ?Arab and wad balad, i.e. white or at least non-black. The jet-black Sudanese was seen as an African, i.e. slave (?abd). The shades of blackness go as follows, starting from jet-black (aswad), black (azrag, literally blue), brownish-black (akhdar, literally green), light-brownish (gamh%i, i.e. wheat-coloured), then dark-white, which is considered as ‘properly’ white. This last sub-category is paradoxically stigmatized more than the jet-black. Then a host of derogatory terms was generated in the culture and colloquial Arabic of Middle Sudan, which dehumanized the black Africans, such as farikh, gargur, etc. In this context the properly white or light-coloured, as mentioned above, are also discredited. They are given the derogatory name of ‘h%alab’ i.e. gypsy. A Sudanese Arab proverb says that ‘the slaves, i.e. black people, are second class, but the h$alab are third class’.

Stigma vs. Prestigma
It is in these folk racial attitudes that the seeds of a Sudanese ideology of Arab-oriented domination over Africans was sown. It works through the mechanism of categorization, using:
      (1) the stigma of slavery, which condemns blackness and people of African identity to the margins or bottom of society and the cultural hierarchy, forcing them to dwell at the periphery of Sudanese national life, and
      (2) the prestigma (coined by the present writer from prestige to serve as a countering term to stigma) of the so-called free, non-black and Arabs, to entrench them in the power, affluence and influence centers of Sudan. This racial ideology, in its drive to achieve self-actualization, underlines a process of alienation and domination, creating a category of black African people who do not recognize themselves as black Africans. While posing to be whites, they do not hold proper white people in high esteem. They tend savagely to dominate the Africans by enslaving and stigmatizing them, and then they largely indulge themselves in the process of arabization to be more like the Arabs with whom they identify.

This ideology of alienation has prevailed for the last five centuries up to the moment. It has been consolidated by successive political regimes – whether under the Turco-Egyptian or Egyptian-British or national rule. It finds its roots in the vice of slavery. No wonder slavery was once again in full swing by the late 20th century as a result of an extreme intensification of arabization, or the process of prestigmatic Islamo-Arabism, by the State. By sublimating the Arab as their model through this erroneous and confused concept of race, the Arabized people of Sudan have made themselves permanent second-class Arabs. The consequences of this do not only affect them, but also their whole country, now split up between Arabism and Africanism. It has never dawned on them that speaking a language does not necessarily equate becoming of the nationality bearing that language. In fact the so-called Arabs in Sudan comprise different peoples with different cultures but one language: they are Arabophone. The Sudanese people are Arabophone Africans just as there are Francophone and Anglophone Africans.

A Belated Self-Discovery?
The weak fabric of this colour concept was torn into tatters when Sudanese prestigma or arabization came in contact with the Arabs Proper in the mid 1970s, when they worked as expatriates in the rich petroleum countries of Arabia. There, at the historical milieu of this racial bigotry, they were regarded as nothing more than black Africans, i.e. slaves. It caused a turmoil that triggered a slow process of self-discovery as a result of which the ideology of domination was eventually weakened. By the mid 1990s the image of the rebel leader of SPLM/SPLA, John Garang, who is a jet-black African from Southern Sudan was much more acceptable to a great number of the Arabized Sudanese as the real leader of the whole movement of the political opposition to the Islamic regime of Khartoum. The military weight of SPLM/SPLA would have never mattered in making that acceptance possible if the ideology of domination was still intact.

Although roughly situated in the middle of the country if considered in terms of urbanization, the Sudanese economic centre is neither restricted to geography nor to ethnicity. Rather it is a centre with its own culture that comprises both power and wealth. Making Islamo-Arabism its main ideology, the centre poses as representing the interests of the Arabized people of middle Sudan, a notion erroneously believed by many sectors. People from the periphery are continually encouraged and tempted to join the centre by renouncing their African cultures and languages, in order to become Arabized. This complex process is made to look like a natural cultural interaction that takes place out of the necessity of leaving one’s home village and coming to live in a town dominated by Arabs. The cultural relegation of the periphery eventually ends up as developmental relegation. Within the Arabized people of middle Sudan itself there are different circular castes. As the centre is basically made up of Arabized Africans, an Arab proper would not merit any prestige. This is how the purely Arab tribe of Rashayda has become marginalized to the extent of taking to arms against the centre. The Sudanese power centre is very complex. In essence it is not only racial nor cultural nor geographical, not merely about Islamic nor Arabic origins and associations, but really about elitism, existing as an elitist centre of power and wealth, which makes use of all available sectarian clichés to determine and entrench status and privilege among the people of Middle Sudan. Its depiction as Islamo-Arabist is merely a reference to its core ideological bearing or leaning.

This centre of power and wealth does indeed processes itself through the cultural agenda of Islam and Arabism. This ploy has lured many with power and wealth to identify with Islam and Arabism, and then implicating them in the oppression or subjugation of those who remain black and African.. Usually the spearheads used by the Centre to maintain its hierarchy of privileges and denials are people who originally belong to the margin, but subsequently chose with their own free will to alienate themselves from their people in order to appropriate wealth and power. The Arabized people of Sudan are in fact also victims of the country’s racial processing though they are deluded to believe themselves winners. This is because the basis of their imagined centralization are embedded in the permanent marginalization of the Arabized Sudanese by Arabs proper.

However, where the process of prestigmatization is cultural, the process of stigmatization is racial. Swung upon this paradoxical axis, the ideology of domination is characterized by high maneuverability. If the charge is that some particular Sudanese people are anti-African or pro-Arab, the case of the Rashayda and other pastoral nomads such as the Baggara can be brought forward. On the other hand the evidence of anti-Arab prejudice in the Sudanese centre can present a sufficiently strong counterweight to the more prevalent accusations of anti African oppression. For five centuries, this confused and confusing game, which is based on deception and alienation, has been played. It has had its indigenous contributory factors as well as its foreign factors, such as the Turco-Egyptian rule and British-Egyptian colonial rule.

The “Melting Pot” Perspective
There remains the opportunity for a discourse on unity. As different ethnic groups from the periphery are being culturally reproduced in the centre, the mesh of these is being hailed as the real Sudan. Hence we now have the concept of the “Melting Pot” as the basis of discourses on national unity. The process of a centred assimilation of cultural and racial differences at the periphery seems to be gaining approval, but being based originally on the processes of stigmatization vs. prestigmatization it will always fall short of achieving integral unity right at the moment when the assimilation is deemed complete. The jet-blacks of Sudan who have been completely assimilated in the Islamo-Arab culture and religion are not only being racially discriminated against, but are still stuck with the stigma of slavery and consequently being dehumanized. This is so because the whole process is built on contradiction and paradox. Where the process of prestigma would draw the people toward Islam and a pro-Arab culture, the process of stigmatization continues to dismiss them on racial grounds. One can acquire a new culture in a relatively short time, but one can hardly change skin colour. So, blackness is always taken as a stigmatic clue to slavery. It is very usual to hear a dark-skinned Sudanese assuring others that there are also family members who are light-skinned.

The Degree of Stigma
The more black and African you are, then, the more stigmatized you become. Essential African features become part of this process of stigmatization – thick lips, broad nose, and fuzzy short hair. Other factors are blackness of colour, having an African language, and, lastly, being a non-Muslim. The most stigmatized are those who combine the three factors of physical features, cultural traits and a non-Islamic religious faith, like the majority of Southerners. The Africans of Nuba Mountains and Ingassana come immediately after the Southerners. Then come the peoples of Western Sudan regardless of their different tribal affiliations, and of whom the most stigmatized people are those who are originally from either Central or Western Bilad al-Sudan, like the Fulani and Hausa etc. Then comes the Beja people of Eastern Sudan who, although light-skinned, have their own non-Arabic language and are very poorly educated and can hardly speak either standard or colloquial Arabic fluently, and they are Bedouins, leading a life that is - according to the unjust evaluation of the center - very backward at its best. Higher up in the process than the Beja are the Nubians in Northern Sudan who are the least stigmatized for one main reason. These people of Middle Sudan, generally speaking, are nothing but Arabized Nubians, with some survival of Christian customs still manifested in their cultures. Nothing is wrong with the Nubians of the North except their twisted tongue, that is, their language, which clearly betrays their African origin. In fact all the people under the stigma have their non-Arabic languages, or rut$ana, their ‘vernacular’ (an equally infamous, colonial derogatory term). In Arabic the word rut$ana means the language of the birds, and this indicates just how far Arab dehumanization of the Sudanese people has gone. Some people of the Mahas of middle Sudan, who are the last of the Nubians to be completely Arabized, now vehemently deny to have ever been of any rut$ana. They claim to be of Aws and Khazraj, two antagonistically neighbouring tribes in ancient Arabia. The fact is that only 100 years ago Maha elders used to speak an African tongue, a rut$ana.

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