Category Archives: Sudan

Sudan’s Lost Generation

Over greasy McDonald’s French fries and soda, a meal we could never have shared in his native Sudan due to international sanctions, I sit down with Nabeel Mohamed to hear the story of his descent into fanaticism, and his escape out of it. “See, I was tolerant, then I became fanatic, and now I’m tolerant again,” he says in measured tones as we eat lunch at the Voice of America office where he works. His story is not an action-packed thriller of terrorist networks and grandiose plots to change the world order, but a story of insidious forms of extremism that emerge from intellectual repression and social restriction.

Gentle-mannered and quick to laugh, Mohamed, 23, always has a book tucked under his arm as he moves through his temporary home of Washington, DC. Currently, he is reading a history of Eastern Europe, simply because he realized that he knew nothing about that part of the world. Mohamed carries on Sudan’s history of a vibrant intellectual life with his love of books. At a reading in Sudan in the 1960s, the late Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani paid homage to this tradition with the saying: “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Khartoum reads.”

However, the generations who have come of age under the 24-year-long rule of autocratic President Omar al-Bashir, like Mohamed, are the “lost generations.” Their exposure to the outside world has been limited due to conscious self-restriction and circumstances resulting from growing up amid censorship; an onslaught of government propaganda; religious and social close-mindedness; and sanctions by the international community. Those who have struggled to find and keep Sudan’s intellectual tradition alive have done so out of sheer determination in the face of social and political obstacles.

“My father and his generation used to read all sorts of books – foreign ideologies, stories, all sorts of things. I don’t know if it’s from the government, but the west has been characterized in our minds as bad and evil – that they want us to abandon our culture, our religion, so we’re not even open to reading their books. Even the ones translated into Arabic, we put labels on that author – he’s a communist, he doesn’t believe in God, or he’s an agent, so why would we read that,” Mohamed says.

While much of Sudan, including Mohamed’s own family, follows a more mystical form of Islam, Sufism, Mohamed grew to follow an ultraorthodox version of Islam thorough the Salafist group, Ansar as-Sunnah, or “followers of the Prophet Mohammad,” during his teenage years in Khartoum. The group is known for its commitment to preserving the “authentic” ways of the Prophet, relying only on the religion’s doctrinal foundations: the Quran and hadith, or teachings of the Prophet.

Mohamed’s involvement with Ansar as-Sunnah was a drastic departure from his childhood life. He was born in the border town of Wau, a major trading post between northern and southern Sudan, where his extended family was made up of both Christians and Muslims. While he attended a Quranic school from the age of three onwards, he also sometimes attended church with his relatives.

In 1998, the civil war, which had been raging since 1982 between southern rebels and the northern government, came to Wau displacing the imaginary creatures of Mohamed’s childhood stories with dead bodies. The onset of government and rebel fighting in Wau sparked a campaign of indiscriminate violence by the government against the southerner population, many of whom had sided with the rebels.

Growing up, Mohamed avidly watched the ruling regime’s television shows of the epic heroism of northerner martyrs against the unruly, rebellious southerners, but the northern-southern divisions were more ambiguous in Mohamed’s own life. His father is a northerner, and his mother a southerner from Wau. While his paternal uncle left Wau to join the war on the government side, his father helped save a southern schoolteacher from possible death at the hands of the army. As the onslaught on Wau worsened, the family eventually fled to Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, which remained untouched by the fighting.

Early within the regime’s grasp, Khartoum had willingly caved to the Islamization and Arabization policies of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), which was intent on building an Islamic state. Unlike the NCP, which fused religion and politics, Ansar as-Sunnah often shied away from politics. Instead, they were committed to gradual systemic reform through education and proselytizing. Entering his teenage years, Mohamed attended the Ansar as-Sunnah mosque at the invitation of a neighbor. The more he started paying attention to the preachers there, the more fanatic he became.

He started to view his father’s Sufi religious beliefs as wrong; he refused to greet female relatives with a handshake; speaking to women outside of the family was unthinkable; and Christians became categorized as “non-believers,” instead of family. Drawn to their fierce devotion and tradition of religious knowledge, Mohamed came to refuse everything outside of Ansar as-Sunnah’s narrow paradigm. His mentor at the mosque often spoke about the vitality of educating the people to eventually build a nation, and Mohamed became determined to fortify himself with the knowledge to defend his beliefs.

Insatiably curious, he mastered formal and Quranic Arabic, which differs significantly from spoken Arabic dialects. Mohamed learned that even speaking English, which was haphazardly taught as a second language in schools, was against Islam, since it was believed that knowing a foreign language might taint the purity of one’s Arabic.

However, as he entered his late teen years, a childhood best friend and competitor had started to study English and was excelling beyond Mohamed’s rudimentary grammar school knowledge. Egged on by his best friend, Mohamed, too, began attending English classes.

When pushed about why he pursued English, he simply responds, “I felt the need.”

At the mosque, Mohamed’s best friend, who loved to practice, would push him to converse in English. “We caused a big scene the first time, people were very curious, people would come around and keep staring. But he didn’t care, and with time I learned not to care,” Mohamed recalls.

Starting to learn English unleashed a torrent of irreconcilable confusions for Mohamed. Contrary to the idea that learning English caused demise, he realized, “It’s just a language. People communicate ideas with it, what’s wrong with that?” On the one hand, Mohamed felt plagued that he was doing something wrong by learning English, especially as it was starting to undercut his religious beliefs. On the other hand, he could not understand how he could be dismissive of something he knew nothing about.

Initially, Mohamed was condescending when he read through his English-language coursework, which focused significantly on the western lifestyle. “At first I would think I know for sure that our lifestyle is better, that they don’t know what they’re doing. But I started to be challenged when I would be struck by a statement or have an epiphany, and something would make sense, but it’s not supposed to make sense, but it does.”

Reflectively he adds, “It was thought provoking for me. I started thinking and thinking. People are free, they travel, they do this and that. We’re not free. We’re not even free to express ourselves. Intellectually we weren’t free. Socially we weren’t free. Growing up, I had always wondered about the existence of God, and I always feared that deep down inside, I was a nonbeliever. But shaitan, the devil, was always to be blamed for sowing the seeds of doubt.”

Pursuing his study of English, Mohamed became involved in an English language book club and open microphone nights at the German Goethe Institute. There were few places for Mohamed to feel he could discuss and think freely without a filter for social and political reasons. Khartoum’s youth have almost no cultural gathering places, and those that do exist are on the National Intelligence’s radar as possible hubs of political dissent.

All of these gatherings and discussions challenged Mohamed’s thinking far beyond what his religious books had taught him. He describes the transformation from “fanatic to tolerant again” as gradual. An event he would react to in real time could provoke weeks of contemplation. “When I thought about my life, I realized how unfulfilled I was, how closed off, and how there was an entire world that I pretended I didn’t care about, and without being conscious of it, I started slipping out of it,” he adds.

Mohamed now finds himself in the bureaucratic center of the Western world where is he is on a fellowship dedicated to a year of building non-profit leadership skills. Although the freedoms and opportunities of D.C. are coveted, Mohamed finds it difficult to not be preoccupied with recent events in Sudan.

On September 22, President Bashir mandated the removal of fuel subsidies, a measure supported by the International Monetary Fund as part of its austerity plan for Sudan. The cutting of subsidies has caused the prices of fuel and food to almost double, and an already beleaguered population from the worsening economic hardship has taken to the streets in the latest round of anti-government demonstrations.

Far from Khartoum’s dusty, broad avenues, Mohamed works to verify the death tolls in the anti-government protests rocking the streets in Khartoum. Amnesty International has reported more than 200 killed and 800 arrested since the protests started on September 23, but the actual numbers are believed to be higher.

The protests are a continuation of previous demonstrations, which erupted in January 2011 as the Arab Spring swept through the region, and then later during the “Sudanese Summer” of 2012. The root frustration for many, including Mohamed, is with the ruling Islamist regime of the NCP, which took power in 1989 after overthrowing a democratically elected transitional government. Marginalization, war, growing inequality, and a sophisticated brutality have marked the regime’s decades-long rule.

“It’s weird,” Mohamed says, “to be covering the protests. I struggle to stay professional and not get carried away. It’s one thing to watch on the news, Egypt or Syria, but when it’s happening to your people, and you’re making sure that your younger brother wasn’t out, you feel the weight of it.”

When asked if he will go back to Sudan, Mohamed, goes quiet for a minute, “I might not be able to live comfortably in Sudan, or with the mentality in Sudan. It’s just the way people are. Having to repress yourself, your thoughts, your views, is just not something I can live with.” His family, who he speaks with regularly, still does not know fully about his reformed views out of his desire to maintain a harmonious relationship. While they are relatively open in their religious views, Mohamed’s growing distance, if not altogether departure, from religion, may not be taken well.

As we click through pictures of bloodied-bodied protestors on Flickr, Mohamed expresses hope, if not belief, that just maybe, these protests might lead to something different. “After these protests, I want to be part of rebuilding Sudan, regardless of whether or not they’re successful. If Bashir goes, then it’s more important. If he doesn’t, then we’ll keep doing what we’ve always been doing.”

Due in part to his frustration with Sudan’s politicians, and in part to his training under Ansar as-Sunnah, he prefers an unassuming, subversive form of rebellion.

“For me that means becoming a teacher, to have a chance to give students what I didn’t have in many ways. Through education, you’re giving them the tools to see for themselves.”

A shorter version of this article was originally published by Al-Monitor on October 24, 2013. 


The Passing of a Sudanese Icon

A few years ago, while still relatively new to Khartoum, I arrived three hours late to a Mahmoud Abdel Aziz concert. Sudan’s iconic music performer had yet to take the stage. Annoyed that their beloved singer had not arrived, a tipsy, agitated crowd threw lawn chairs and shattered soda bottles amid chants demanding his appearance. In a country where crackdowns by the morality police are feared, Abdel Aziz’s concert was a rare gathering of loyal fans and an artistic, Bohemian underground that enjoys aragi, a homemade liquor, and marijuana.

On 17 January 2013, Abdel Aziz, or the “Whale” of Sudanese music as he was known, passed away in an Amman hospital from stomach ulcer complications. As world attention focused on Sudan’s wars and politics, this devastating event received almost no international coverage.

Thousands in Sudan mourned Abdel Aziz’s passing. As with his concerts, impassioned fans chanted accolades and carried signs, some of which loosely translated to “the clouds of joy have traveled from our life,” a reference to a song from Abdel Aziz’s first album.[1] 

Unmoved by Sudan’s brutal political system, Abdel Aziz lived a lifestyle that was true to himself, and managed to cross social, class, and racial boundaries with his unassuming manner. For many, he represented the voice of the people, especially the youth.

These were some of the reasons Abdel Aziz was so beloved by a people worn-thin by a brutal regime. Known for appearing drunk or drugged in public, Abdel Aziz had a well-earned reputation for receiving public floggings from security officials. Because intensifying his punishment only increased his fame, the regime never knew quite how to deal with the beloved singer.

As a symbol of unassuming defiance against repressive rule, the regime feared that Abdel Aziz’s funeral would mobilize further protests against a government already dealing with growing dissent. Much to the agitation of his fans, authorities were vague in releasing any details about his funeral. Awaiting the arrival of Abdel Aziz’s body, mourners briefly breached the tarmac at Khartoum International Airport only to be dispersed by tear gas. Clashes between fans and police also took place near Airport Street.

Despite the secession of South Sudan, many in the South also mourned Abdel Aziz’s death. One of a handful of Sudanese musicians who actively promoted coexistence between northern and southern Sudan, Abdel Aziz performed in the South Sudanese city of Juba and recorded songs about peace between the two regions.

At the Khartoum concert, the restless crowd burst into cheers when Abdel Aziz eventually arrived on stage.  As the band played, the crowd became bewitched by the singer’s music. Together, the Whale and his enchanted fans sang and danced along to his songs.

Abdel Aziz embodied a simple, indiscriminate acceptance of humanity, at its best and worst. In many ways his egalitarianism was the dream of what Sudan could have been, a New Sudan, where pluralism, tolerance, and equality prevailed and the country’s diversity was celebrated instead of exploited for political gain.

[1] Anonymous. (Identity withheld at request of translator.)


*This piece was originally published by Muftah on March 12, 2013 under the title, “The Passing of Iconic Sudanese Singer Mahmoud Abdel Aziz.”

Why Sudan’s Protests May Not Lead to Revolution

The first of Sudan’s intermittent protests began in January 2011. Though inspired by the revolutions emerging across the Middle East, the demonstrations were rooted in long held frustration at the economic and political mismanagement of the country by the ruling National Congress Party (NCP).

Initial protests opposing President Omar al-Bashir’s regime were limited mostly to university students. Although quickly crushed, they raised hopes that the barriers to expressing public dissent against the country’s notoriously heavy-handed regime had been crossed.

In the ongoing cycle of protests and calm, the question remains, however: why are the demonstrations in Sudan failing to gain significant momentum?

Ethnic and Class Divisions

While many Sudanese sympathize with the protesters, ethnic mistrust and class divisions have prevented the demonstrations from transforming into a formidable force.

Sudanese groups who have faced marginalization and violence from the regime, including the Darfuris, Nubans, and Easterners, fear involvement with the protests. While their counterparts from the northern Shaagi and Jaali tribes may be abused, tortured, or detained for participating in the protests, marginalized groups face the prospect of death for their dissent.

These groups also hold resentment and distrust toward student protesters, who are predominantly from the northern tribes and failed to come to their defense when the Khartoum regime launched various brutal campaigns in the peripheries.

As with most protests, these students have kept the momentum alive. They have, however, received limited support from across the socio-economic spectrum. Sudan’s small class of middle-income professionals has yet to see enough promise in the current protests to take to the streets.

For some members of Sudanese society, regime connections have ensured survival during the country’s current economic crisis. Those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder have borne the brunt of Sudan’s floundering economy and austerity measures. While they briefly participated in popular outbursts in the summer of 2012, their participation was short-lived for numerous reasons, including the brutality of the police crackdown, ethnic divisions that manifested into class divisions, and a sense of resignation with both this and any prospective future regime.

Lack of an Alternative

The absence of viable alternatives to the current regime has further limited support for the protests. The two most historically significant parties, the Ummah Party, headed by former Prime Minister and Ansar sufi order leader Sadiq al-Mahdi, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by Khatmiyya sufi sect leader As-Sayed al-Mirghani, offer only a diluted version of the NCP’s Islamism.

Much of the population is disenchanted with the Islamist Ummah and DUP, which have both been co-opted by the current regime. Both parties and their members hold comfortable positions within the government. The son of Sadiq al-Mahdi is, for instance, an assistant to President Omar al-Bashir, while the DUP is a minority member in the current government.

Most Sudanese view these organizations as little more than pockets of aging political dinosaurs unwilling to relinquish their diminished power to the younger generation. Sudan’s political parties have repeatedly failed to seriously challenge the NCP’s rule or to connect with the disenchanted youth who have only known al-Bashir’s oppressive rule.

Even more pragmatic in its resigned simplicity is an oft-heard explanation from ordinary citizens about the protests’ limited chances of success: the current government has already filled its belly through widespread corruption; any new regime will come hungry with an empty stomach subjecting the already suffering population to further corruption.

A few years before, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-North), presented an interesting alternative for some Sudanese youth. It is the northern branch of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement, a southern rebel army that fought against the government in a decades long civil war and is now South Sudan’s ruling political party.

The group’s talk of a pluralist, tolerant Sudan based on equality, justice, and individual citizenship rights exclusive of identity was promising, but short lived. Subject to the will of its mother party in the South, the SPLM-North was curbed in its efforts to alter the northern political landscape. The Juba-based SPLM was focused on its long awaited prize of southern independence in the run up to the April 2010 presidential and parliamentary elections. It had no interest in shaking up the northern political scene and upsetting the NCP’s domination, only to jeopardize timely implementation of the referendum on southern independence.

Held in contempt by the NCP and the black sheep in Sudan’s primarily Islamist opposition, the SPLM-North lost any viability as an opposition group after the April 2010 election. Now all that remains of SPLM-North is a rebel movement fighting against the government in parts of Blue Nile and the South Kordofan states. The two border-states remained a part of Sudan after South Sudan’s secession, but have significant populations that aligned with the South during the civil war.

Lack of Organization and Support

Many of the current protests in Khartoum have been mobilized by the youth-led opposition movement, Girifna, which means “we are fed up.” Although Girifna has managed to mobilize youth, students, and Sudanese expatriates, its ability to mobilize other sectors – labor, the working class, and diverse ethnic groups – within and outside of the capital has been limited.

This can partially be explained by limited media and internet accessibility outside of Khartoum. Additionally, most traditional trade unions and labor syndicates have been broken and co-opted by the state leaving no room for organizational linkages to form between student groups and organized labor, a historically important alliance in previous revolts.

Though the opposition parties did sign the Democratic Alternative Charter on July 4, 2012 unequivocally calling for regime change, they have done little to put this commitment into action. Opposition parties have made it clear that, until the protests become more successful, they have no interest in relinquishing their political gains to take to the streets.

Then there is the old vanguard of feminist and secular opposition members from the 1950s and 60s who played significant roles in the Sudanese Communist Party. Many of these individuals have found comfortable positions running civil society organizations and academic institutions, which are monitored by security agencies. They manage to stay afloat on dwindling international funding, host conferences, publish occasionally, and hold armchair discussions on the need for regime change. They, too, are more talk than action, disconnected from most of the youth leading the current protests.

Security Force Restraint

Some commentators suggest that severe police brutality against protesters, including the use of live ammunition, rubber bullets, and tear gas, as well as prolonged detentions and sexual violence against female opposition members, have deterred many from joining the protests and dispersed those who have participated.

Notably, however, the Sudanese security forces have been surprisingly restrained compared to their counterparts in neighboring countries. Though employing brutal force, Sudan’s security forces have been careful not to create any martyrs;[1] in neighboring Arab countries, martyrs have been a strong mobilizing point for protesters.

In Khartoum, there have been only two deaths reportedly related to the protests. A student protester died from injuries sustained during the January 2011 protests, while a second protester died from tear gas inhalation in June 2012. While a number of protesters have died outside Khartoum, namely in the Darfur region, the tempestuous cycle of youth martyrdom has yet to take hold in Sudan.

Lack of Media Coverage

In neighboring countries, widespread use of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, were instrumental in organizing and mobilizing the revolutions, and providing footage for international news media broadcasts.

In Sudan, access to the internet has been limited outside major cities. Overall internet penetration in the country is estimated to be a mere 10 to 25 percent. As such, reports and footage of security force brutality outside the capital has been significantly limited. Even protests in Khartoum have received limited coverage on YouTube compared to Egypt and Tunisia, and even less in local and international media outlets.

Most of the social media coverage on the protests has resulted from the efforts of the expatriate Sudanese community, which continues to consistently report on events in Sudan. Girifna as well as #SudanRevolts, a collaboration of Sudanese residents and expatriates, have been crucial in providing analysis, coverage, and promotion for the revolt. While their online contributions have been important for publicity purposes, their ability to overcome organizational hurdles in order to galvanize further domestic support for the protests has been limited.

Closed Democratic Spaces

Although the April 2010 general elections were seriously flawed, they received only mild criticism from an international community intent on making it to the 2011 referendum on southern Sudanese independence.

With the elections’ passage, many northern Sudanese believed the chance for a democratic opening was lost. Having won the elections, the NCP could now claim a democratic mandate to rule over the country, even though all opposition groups except the DUP had boycotted the election. Any incentive for the NCP to compromise with the opposition had been quashed.

In addition to this, the referendum’s completion brought an end to the NCP’s superficial and temporary attempts to accommodate southerners in northern Sudan. International donors, once optimistic about prospects for government reform, quickly lost hope and most funding and democracy-related activities came to an end.

Recent Protests

The mostly-student led protests against the regime continue. A unique development in these demonstrations came in December 2012, when protests spread across the country following the death of four Darfuri students from Gezira State University. While state officials claimed the four students had drowned, many believe they were killed by security forces after being arrested for demanding tuition exemptions as per the Darfur peace agreements.

These demonstrations were one of few instances when violence against Darfuris, or any peripheral group, incited protests across the country. At least temporarily, these developments presented the shimmering possibility for greater solidarity between disparate ethnic and regional groups in the country.

Mostly recently, on January 31, 2013, dorms at the University of Khartoum caught fire after security forces fired Molotov cocktails at students protesting against Sudan’s Second Vice-President, Al Haj Adam Youssef, who was attending an event on campus.

The attacks led to further sit-ins by students frustrated with the muted response from the school’s administration and unsatisfied with the insufficient compensation given to those who suffered losses from the fire. The resilience of these students, unwilling to back down in the face of state violence, may hold the promise of a new chapter in the country’s protest movement.

Conclusion: Future Change

Now that they have begun, the protests will likely continue, although they may never become large enough to single-handedly oust the NCP regime. Sudan’s ailing economy, combined with internal divisions within the NCP, may, however, provide more concrete possibilities for regime change. At the same time, any such changes may lead to little more than mutation of the current regime, sporting a new face but following similar policies.

The loss of oil revenue from the South and implementation of austerity measures are causing suffering across the country. Inflation rates have more than doubled and prices for basic commodities such as wheat, flour, sugar, and oil have risen dramatically.

In May 2012, the Finance Minister Ali Mahmoud reported that the poverty rate exceeded 40 percent, while youth unemployment was 25.4 percent. In the summer of 2012, the country’s deteriorating economic conditions led to protests with widespread and diverse participation, although they eventually petered out and have not reappeared since.

Factions within the NCP are also discontent with the ineptitude and corruption of the current regime. These groups have called for reform and may seek to capitalize on the current unrest to topple the regime from within. Different elements affiliated with the NCP, including the youth movement, the parliamentary bloc, the army and student movement, have independently sent letters of protest to the leadership. Bashir has attempted to handle this dissatisfaction in typical fashion, pitting factions against each other and implementing further Islamization and Arabization policies to appease those who believe his regime is insufficiently Islamist.

The International Crisis Group report on Sudan in November 2012 included several unconfirmed reports of army generals criticizing Bashir’s ongoing war in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. While Bashir has attempted to placate the generals, he lacks the support of junior officers, many of whom are also strong Islamists. Internal upheaval triggered by discontentment among junior officers or hardliner Islamist factions within the NCP may prove to be the most likely scenario for regime change of some kind.

Revolution, however, is inherently spontaneous and disregards all expectations. Perhaps the Sudanese will again defy all odds and, as in 1964 and 1985, continue their country’s trend of rising up against the repressive dictatorships ruling Sudan.

[1] Dziadosz, Alex (Khartoum-based journalist). (9 February 2013). Personal interview.

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*This piece was originally published by Muftah on February 18, 2013.

The Oasis

In the yard of a brick church tucked away in downtown Khartoum, behind tall metal gates and under mulid tents, there is an oasis that springs up every Ramadan. While the rest of the city falls under the lethargic lull of summer fasting, this place can’t move fast enough. Tea ladies serve up shai bi nana, karkady, and jabana. Food stalls dish out fuul, thaamia, kisra, bamia, perhaps even aseeda bilmoolah if you’re lucky enough to find it in the winding, expansive maze of chefs.

In a tender description by one of Khartoum’s infamous underground poets: “This is the place of criminals, writers, artists, poets. Everyone who matters.”

Nothing Comes to Those Who Wait

The meeting place of the Blue and White Niles, Khartoum, derives from two different linguistic traditions. From Dinka, part of the Nilotic dialect cluster, “khar” are the  branches of a river, and “toum” means meet. In Arabic, a Semitic language, “khartoum” is the trunk of an elephant. This convergence, known as the longest kiss in history, fuses what exists with those who have existed here.

Half an hour outside of the capital, far from the banks of the river, are the settlements of Jabrona, Mayo, and Soba.  There are people here who just sit and wait. Under blue tarps, they take shelter from the scorching sun eager to set flesh smoldering – the way red-hot coals glow in the shishas of smokey men tucked away in back alleys, hidden from the morality police.

Skeletal figures, sunken eyed emerge from modernity’s art of plastic chairs, tables, and beds amassed together by rope and protected from the dust by blue tarp. This is where they sit and wait, where they have sat and waited since last November. Last November was when they first received word from their “chiefs” or “sultans” to prepare for an organized exodus to South Sudan. It is now March.

Power lines stopped snaking alongside the road long ago. Boys on donkey carts deliver water to people’s houses, at least for those who have houses. There are tall Dinka men missing their front teeth, Nubans from South Kordofan with their squashed noses and high cheekbones, and lanky, slit-eyed Darfuris adorned in abayas. Almost every group that the government has fought, and who has fought the government, has found its way here.

A family of elders from Warrap have given up their home and their land in preparation to travel south. They squat on someone else’s land fearing everyday, that today, they will be thrown off the cracked, barren earth.

The South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (SSRRC), responsible for transporting the returnees is currently negotiating with international agencies and embassies over money in the donor basket fund. Already contributed funds have disappeared plagued by a hushed up scandal. The government in Khartoum has made vague promises of assistance to transport people as far the border, but wants nothing to do with the whole exercise.

Every so often, Bashir scapegoats the Southerners to rile the sodden spirits of the rest of the country. Those who do not “return” to the South will enjoy no rights of citizenship, jobs, or benefits after July 9th. For many Sudanese classified as Southerners, the term returnee is problematic. Their supposed return home may in fact be their first trip to South Sudan. For those born in the North, they have known no other home.

Some of the state branches of the SSRRC responsible for receiving the returnees upon their arrival in South Sudan have flatly informed international agencies that the returnees are not their problem. They are the responsibility of the international community. South Sudan’s government at all levels will continue this trend of disowning responsibility for its people, whether returnees or IDPs.

Yet, from the streets of Khartoum, the presence of Southerners has still quietly disappeared as July approaches. Better off returnees have started to ship their families and belongings back on the numerous flights traversing between Khartoum and Juba each day. Airfares have hiked up, and tickets that could once be purchased days before, must now be bought weeks in advance. Children attired in their Sunday best – frocks of frilled lace and dapper suits – bumble along between the suitcases and plastic carrying bags plastered with images of Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and President Obama.

Those with meager resources, but intent and lucky enough have made it to the river port city of Kosti, crowd into transit centers. From here, the International Organization for Migration operates cavernous, rusted barges in conditions worse off than Gordon Kitchener’s. In the next week, seven barges – three packed with human cargo and four with material belongings – and donkeys – will begin the journey southward on the White Nile, leaving behind forever the longest kiss in history.

The Traffic Ballerina

1, 2, 3 step
1, 2, 3 step


sweat dripping
sun scorching
skin burning
uniform sticking

and smiles
for donkey carts
and vans

1, 2, 3 step
1, 2, 3 step

The Coiffure Lady’s Triumph

With a newfound love of henna as of last summer, I decided to spend my afternoon at the coiffure in Kassala at the mercy of weapon bearing women programmed to cluck, tsk, and shake their heads in disapproval at my unshapely eyebrows whether in Atlanta, Montreal, Kassala, Khartoum, or Lahore. These farm animal renditions are followed by variations of scolding, cajoling, and fist shaking directed at my naive, unworldly eyebrows unassumingly hanging out where they should be – above my eyeballs. Eventually, these plier wielders realize that I will champion my eyebrows till the end, and they best get on with what I actually came for – the henna. Today, as the henna-tube was pulled out, wiped, and everything squished from the back forward like a toothpaste tube at its end, faint grumbles continued:

Manal (Coiffure lady): Inty hilwa…laikan (*points at her own thinly arched, cleanly shaped eyebrows*) ma hilwa  (You’re pretty…but [eyebrows] not pretty.)

Me: Ma hilwa? Ma mushkila! (*Grins – lovingly, reassuringly strokes eyebrows*) (Not pretty? No problem!)
Manal: *Heaves grunt of inability to understand*
After the usual eyebrow ordeal, we got on with the henna, which proceeded without any incidents.                                                                                     
Coiffures have become one of my favorite places to explore. There’s something bizarrely comforting in the universality of its inhabitants – coiffure ladies. Coiffure ladies might be the one Truth, with a capital ‘T,’ in the world. They’re the same everywhere. You are never in control. You will always disappoint them. And there’s always one more hair to pull off, one more coat of nail polish to apply,  just a little bit more color to put in your hair, or have you tried this mask yet – it’ll get rid of that ugly tinge to your skin.

Even more twisted, I always feel a bemused yet heartfelt sense of camaraderie with my persecutor.

Anyways, I was innocently sitting, watching trashy Egyptian movies waiting for my henna to dry, when I once again came to the attention of the coiffure lady. This time, I became the khawaja barbie…helpless against my overly enthusiastic attacker, my khawaja hair was brushed repeatedly and then pulled back into a ‘horse’s tail’ so tight that my scalp is still yelping in pain. My fingernails and toenails were painted (painted being loosely used – more like splattered thickly) a lemony-gold as I sat the helpless victim. The finishing touch – a plastic, beaded bracelet to adorn my arm.

Kaif hilwa! (How beautiful!)

No one heard my pleas for mercy.

I was nine-years-old the last time I painted my toenails.

Afternoon Am’Maria Wedding

Exquisite women in colorful thobes
Nose rings, bangles, earrings
Men in jalabiyas and vests
Bravely carrying swords

Wailing, scratching, jubiliating saxophones
Thundering, beating drums
Dancing, prancing, racing horses
Shrilling, trilling crowds

With Love, from Kassala

Less than one month before Sudan’s long-awaited general election in April 2010, President Omar al-Bashir, with his usual campaign enthusiasm at a rally in Gezira, threatened to cutoff the fingers of international election observers and put them under his shoes.

and toes
Will be no more

Thanks, Bashir
I’ll be over here
تشرب جبنة معنا؟