“El-Misr,” the Arabic word for Egypt, refers to the emergence of Arab military colonies following the expansion of Islam, later developing into such fixtures as “al-Fustat,” modernly, Cairo. The expanse of desert, pockmarked by oases and with unrivalled riverine breadth, continues to be known locally, and proudly, as the Mother of the World. The birthplace of civilization on the banks of the Nile still resounds throughout global history as a mystifyingly wondrous herald of language, architecture, and spirituality.
Though, as is typical to every modern nation-state, the post-independence geographical borders of Egypt and Sudan continue to bleed from the pages of history, into the soil of Nubia, and throughout the peoples of common heritage. In the Middle Ages, as Arab traders travelled between the Red Sea south of the Sahara to the Atlantic Ocean, they called the land now known as Sudan, “Bilad-as-Sudan,” literally, the “Country of Blacks.” The significance of naming cannot be understated in this context, where the Arab name for Egypt is Anglicized, while Sudan remains a figment of the Arab lexicon.
In Aswan, for example, from where a mere walk will traverse Egypt’s southern border, Nubian folk rites are practiced to this day within the ceremonial grounds of the bygone world of Pharaohs. In broad daylight, tourists, and townspeople bear witness to the bemusing traditions, where a Nubian woman, for example, draped in black from head to toe, will step over a heap of human skeletons in a burial cave heavily marked with ancient hieroglyphs.
Cairo: Six months before the January Revolution
In the summer of 2010, sand-whipped Egyptologists rubbed shoulders with traveling hipsters in a small Nubian music café known as “Makan,” meaning The Place. The Center for Egyptian Culture and Art, as Makan espouses, assures organizational legitimacy within the regulated Egypt-centric business model. The Place is a fifteen-minute walk from Tahrir Square down Al Kasr Al-Aini, a bustling avenue featuring the bourgeois neighborhoods of Garden City, European-inspired cafés, government ministries and foreign embassies.
Running parallel to the Nile Corniche, Makan is frequented by Cairo’s culturally sophisticated, openly dedicated to preserving local music in their traditional contexts. While touted as Egyptian within Cairo, the eye of the regional storm of Islamic and Arab acculturation, Sudanese people share abundantly in the cultural traditions of the Nubian repertoire, as performed nightly by the extended community.
One night, the Darfuri activist, educator and translator named Abdel Rahman Siddiq Hashim Karo arrived at The Place. He had recently returned to Cairo, after a brief visit to the capital of his motherland, Khartoum. As an associate researcher to a study backed by a Canadian academic association, the Consortium for Peace Studies, he was able to see his country after evading persecution in 2001, two years before the international community began to more critically examine the crisis in Darfur. Before entering the Place, he stood at a juice bar on the historic Talaat Harb Street.
There, in The Place, he recounted stories of when he was a child in Al-Fashir, Darfur, triggered by the songs, which he said, with proud conviction, were sung by Sudanese woman in the mornings. In Cairo, as in the blustery streets of Western Sudan, Nubian, Sudanese and Egyptian women enacted a spiritual revolt against the manifold sociocultural oppressions wrought upon them in the male-dominated, militarized, Islamic society of Sudan, and its parallel expressions in Egypt. They chanted to the hard rap of frame drums, followed through into a mesmerizing rhythmic outpouring of long-suppressed, female-led emotion.
While seeing the near obsolete, ancient double-reed clarinet, the “arghula,” was an important highlight to The Place, what was more significant, was that the intellectual and spiritual culture of a shared Sudanese-Egyptian people’s history had a place. Currently, this has only gained in significance, as countless displaced Egyptians, and bereft Sudanese refugees scrape out a living in post-Revolution Cairo.
During the short concert, which we attended free of charge due to our being right on Sudanese time — that is very late — the arghula could be heard over the audience hubbub. The image of the arghula appears on the ancient wall paintings on tombs and temples scattered throughout the Nubian landscape, a testament to a shared cultural heritage among Egyptians and Sudanese, which continues to this day. Also an ethnomusicology preservation site, Makan professes that arghula makers are in such short supply that their numbers can be counted on one hand.
Hearing an arghula player enticed into the musical foreground by a gorgeously massive female Nubian singer was true magic, a synthesis of ancient and modern, Egyptian and Sudanese. Likely only a small percentage of the largely Western audience could appreciate the grand history and colorfully toned rhythmic playfulness, as inspired by the popular Nubian music of today.
Afterwards, Abdel Rahman walked back to an oft-frequented teashop down an alleyway from Tahrir Square, where he would often speak with the manager. Over hot black tea, the late-night desert summer set the tone for stories of Khartoum. Around the corner, two Egyptian fast food deliverymen began a raging fight over the fate of a young woman, who looked on excitedly, pregnant and homeless. The teashop owner welcomed Abdel Rahman, expressly as a Sudanese person in Egypt, saying that Egypt is his country too. If only the political and legislative reality was as assuring as his streetwise sentiment.
From inside, wherein a scant sum of older Egyptian men drank boisterously, served by Egyptians, and furnished with distinct tables and chairs, a young Egyptian man overheard of Abdel Rahman’s Sudanese origins. “Ahsan Nas!” he said, meaning “the best people,” though not without a slightly aggrandizing self-interest. Merely a table away the local youth spoke across the international, and psychological divide as it was drawn and dissipated in such a typical evening conversation as could be heard in the heart of the Mother of the World. The myth of modern Egypt has been wealthily romanticized, formerly the Amsterdam of the Middle East during the belle époque. The youth displayed a characteristically Egyptian welcome, distancing in its sincerity: a foreigner is always welcome, to remain a foreigner.
Abdel Rahman continued, now with a gaining cohort of two eager listeners, informing them of his organization, known as the El-Wafaa Refugee Culture Center, which, during its promising five-year lifespan, accepted all people in need, while focusing on asylum seekers from Africa, on the basis of humanitarian education services. “El-Wafaa” translates from the Arabic as “The Fulfillment.” The Center provided English language classes, and community resources towards a non-tribal, non-religious, non-political consensus among African communities in diaspora.
The teashop owner facetiously asked for assistance. “You are welcome,” said Abdel Rahman. “Sudan wa Misr Wahed!” he repeated that night to tea-sellers, juicers, and passersby, meaning “Sudan and Egypt are One!” Walking to and from The Place, and having arrived from Sudan only hours before, the unification sentiment was not exactly wholeheartedly embraced among workers at the street level in Cairo. Walking away from the teashop, Abdel Rahman put on his green skullcap. Accompanied by a wooden rosary, signaling piety, he took to representing the air of a respectable Sufi ascetic. He wore the religious ensemble confidently, while not without certain sarcasm as to the means required for personal refuge among the popular minds, hearts and eyes of the Egyptian people.
The skullcap and rosary symbolized a seething religious reality, which continues to define Egyptian and Sudanese relations. Religion is pervasive, as heard in Cairo five times a day by the call of the muezzin from the over 1,000 minarets rising above the endless concrete sprawl. In this milieu, the commonplace repetition of “Egypt and Sudan One!” served a double function, not only to remind Egyptians of their current and historical social ties, but also as a self-reminder, that as a Sudanese person, and more, a refugee, Abdel Rahman was simultaneously bound to the predominance of Egypt, and especially while within its borders, continues to endure its fate as his own.
While an asylum seeker in Egypt, his recourse to the land of his birth proved revealing on many levels. Most emphatically, as he discussed, he was often misperceived as a foreigner, due to his linguistic and ethnic identity as a member of the Zaghawa people of Darfur. While the Zaghawa, as with Fur and Masalit peoples have become household names among genocide scholars, and peace activists the world over, people in Sudan, as in the greater region, including in Egypt, remained ignorant and without empathy as to the epochal significance of their struggle as a minority within a minority.
The time he had spent in Sudan culminated, on his return to Cairo in the summer of 2010, with a determined vision to explore, and challenge the Egyptian social and political dominance over the Sudanese populations both in Egypt, with respect to forced migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, and in Sudan, as nationals of an independent African state. At the time, the Sudanese pound valued higher than Egyptian currency, for him a measure of national pride. “Henna, Enta fil Oum Al-Douniya” (Here you are in the Mother of the World), said the Egyptian juicer of qasab (sugar cane), selling his refreshments for a value appalling to his Sudanese compatriot.
If Egypt were the Mother of the World, then Sudan would be the Second Wife of Geopolitics. They say they are sister countries, but as Abdel Rahman repeated knowingly, they merely share interests. Instead of practicing family honor, they maintain imbalanced power relations, juxtaposed by cultural and historical memory as a single country. In 1956, Sudan won independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule, preceded by Turkish, Roman, Greek and Egyptian occupations, beginning as early as 2300 BC. Contrary to the popular image, there are more pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt.
In Part 2, Identity and Human Rights in Egypt and Sudan.
Crossposted from Nation of Change.
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