What I have learnt and why I am going back

Regular readers of this blog will note that postings directly pertaining to Sudan have been a little thin on the ground lately. This is because, as astute readers might have already been able to deduce, I was in Europe – making it a little difficult to keep up-to-speed with developments in Sudan.

Aircraft hijacked in Sudan and taken to Libya. Show-trial of JEM rebels begins, for the attack launched on Khartoum back in May. Trial of extremists accused of killing USAID worker John Granville starts, and then is abruptly stopped. All extremely interesting stories, but all rather passed me by. The only story that I have been able to write from London – which was penned very reluctantly – concerned the Sudanese economy, and the trouble that it faces in the light of fluctuating primary commodity prices. Far more interesting than it sounds – and it will be blogged about in due course.

For now, though, I want to write a blog entry that I have been meaning to put together for many months. What, if anything, have I learnt about Sudan during my year-long stay there – and how has my understanding of Islam improved?

When I came to Sudan, I knew less than nothing about the religion that calls itself Islam. I knew that Muslims periodically strapped bombs to their bodies and blew themselves up, and that the religion is constantly under fire in the British press for suppression of free speech, but that was about all. Okay, I do myself a slight disservice. I did know more than I am letting on, but the point is that a great deal of what I learnt was clouded by negativity. The British press are responsible for this.

Now that I have spent a year in Sudan, I am far wiser about the religion, although I still have a great deal to learn (reading the Qur’an in Arabic, as I am constantly being advised to do, will no doubt help). And I have discovered that the religion ain’t half as bad as it is cracked up to be. In fact, what I perceive to be the true application of Islam as many people practice it in Sudan (though many do not), is quite beautiful: not at all the thing of terrorists, and in fact many in Sudan deride the hostile actions of the few. I have just finished reading Blood and Sand by Frank Gardner, a BBC journalist who was put in a wheelchair by an al-Qaeda attack, and can see why he fell in love with the Arabic world – and, even after what happened to him, remains so.

So, Islam is a beautiful religion, but is often applied differently throughout the Arabic world. When I wrote the “Culture” section of our guidebook, I was beseached by at least one English woman, who had studied in Egypt, to change it, on the grounds that it did a disservice to the religion. But I held firm. The one significant change I was persuaded to make was to include the word “and Sudan” after “Islam”. The (often quite heated) debate that we both held over this chapter highlighted the wide differences of the way in which Islam is applied between countries – but I will not go into the discussions here.

I particularly like the way in which Islam is applied within Khartoum, and cherish the honesty and integrity of those Muslims that have become my friends. Still, some things remain hard to get used to:

– Having once dated a Jehovah Witness, I dislike dogma in religion. Since the Qur’an is perceived by most practitioners to be irrefutable (as opposed to the Bible, which even men of the cloth see as being flexible), and most people can’t understand why I choose not to convert, I often grow weary of intense religious discussions which you cannot hope to win.

– It is hard for me to accept the way in which many in Sudan treat women. On the one hand, there is this amazing respect for them (I was once told off by a bus conductor for being too slow to give up my seat), but on the other hand I have frequently seen them working harder than their male counterparts in the house and then having to eat left-overs at dinner, whilst the menfolk gorge themselves on the best parts of the meat. And female circumcision, which is rampant in Khartoum (but not in Egypt), is objectionable to most Europeans. But let us always remember: what folk say in the West about women in Islam is not always fair. For example, Westerners can’t understand why Sudanese women are compelled to wear the full head dress – but many in Sudan choose to do so, to avoid the eyes of leering men. Interestingly, my ex-girlfriend who was a Jehovah Witness, but not an Arab, used to like the veil for the same reason.

– I feel that Islam is sometimes slow to adapt to the changing world. When the Qur’an was related to Mohammed, the world was a very different place and people were hacking of limbs left, right and centre. Things have changed, and yet only recently have the majority of the Islam world decided that amputation is not always the best punishment for some smaller misdemeanors (though the statute books have not yet caught up: apostacy in Sudan still warrants the death penalty, though not all practitioners agree that it should).

So why am I going to back?

The answer came to me as I stepped out of the airport yesterday morning at three o’clock, to be met by a surprising gust of dry heat. All around me were men in jallabias, many with that charmingly distinguished warmth which characterises the elderly generation, who remember growing up under the British flag and who maintain a strong affinity with the UK. It was just too delightful for words. An unfamiliar land of which I am no longer a stranger. A land of charm and intrigue, of African wildness and Middle Eastern sobriety, of possibilities and opportunities, a land of diverse cultures where great intellect meats intellectual fallibility, but most of all a land where anything is possible.

Foreigners who apply for a visa to the UK invite one of two responses: either they gain admission or they don’t. But, have visa difficulties in the UK, and this is not the end of the story: if you know the right people, things can still work out okay. Want to travel around the country? Okay, you need permission, which is not the case in the UK. But, know the right people, grease the right wheels and things start to happen. Loathing nepitism as I do, I didn’t think I would like this aspect of Sudanese culture. But I love it. I really do.

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4 Responses to “What I have learnt and why I am going back”

  1. Amal Says:

    I think your views confuse Islam and culture. Circumcision, for example, is a widely practiced tradition in Africa, which is not connected to a particular religion and is even practiced by Christians all over the continent. Circumcision is also not mentioned in the Quran.

    You also state that only recently has the Islamic law decided that Sharia law may not suite the current times, however, you forget that in Sudan Sharia law was not the law until 1984. In fact, it was the implementation of Sharia law that has caused many of the political turmoil in the country and contributed to the mass riots and imprisonment of many young Muslim youth who knew that this was a political maneuver rather than a religious move by the extremist Muslim. The same goes for countries such as Iran that only saw the introduction of Sharia law after the overthrow of the Shah; another example is Nigeria, which only saw the implementation of Sharia law in the end of the 1990s.

    In fact many Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Syria and Jordan, Mauritania and many others do not have Sharia law.

    It would be apparent therefore that rather than the Islamic world advancing as you seem to be suggesting, it’s going even further into religious extremism.

    Furthermore, the discrimination against women is not related to Islam. It’s a purely cultural factor that women work harder than men in Sudan. Not only do women work harder in the homes but also more recently they contribute more to the household income. I believe that the majority of women in Khartoum appear to be the sole breadwinner’s, while their lazy husbands sit around and complain that there is no work.
    This is a sign of a fault in the current mould of Sudanese society, such attitude is very recent and would have been considered shameful back in the day. I also think it is a very common attitude through Africa. From my own experience of Egypt, it is ten times worse in terms of lack of contribution to household income and work within the home.

    Although there are many problems involving the religion, Islam is a religion that gives many rights that other religions don’t. In Islam couples have the right to a divorce, the religion encourages family planning and if a mother or a child are in danger, the mother is allowed to get an abortion, and surprisingly even countries lack Saudia Arabia encourage medical research and have some of the best medical facilities.

    These are not new introduction to the religion but rights that are stated clearly in the Quran. However, these rules differ from country to country. For example, although there is a right to a divorce, the ability to get a divorce may differ from one country to another.

  2. Violet Says:

    Blakerig: Do not blame the British press for reporting Islam negatively. There is good reason for that negativity. Don’t be fooled by the Islam of Sudan. The Sudanese are very polite, charming, kind, civilized, yes, but much of this is as much is spite of Islam as because of it.
    And don’t be fooled that the discrimination against women is not related to Islam. Of course it is. Any culture which allows polygamy discriminates against women right away; as for female circumcision, it is an unjustifiable horror and occurs mainly within Islam.
    Don’t bother to read the Koran in Arabic, unless your Arabic is already perfect . Read it in English. In any case, I am sure it is a pretty violent book in either language, and I feel sorry for anyone who is deluded by Mohammed and his commands.
    People complain all the time in Sudan but they rarely relate their problems to the religion. It seems extraordinary that they can’t, but you don’t seem to be able to either. Even Sufism, with its beautiful cultural expressions, is Islam and cannot deny the violence of the basic texts.
    You say women in Sudan wear veils to avoid the eyes of leering men. How is this? I saw men leer at women in Sudan, veils notwithstanding! And the women wear tight clothes and try to look sexy, and flirt like mad with the men. They are having you on when they talk like that! Anyway, men should learn not to leer, whatever women wear. It is a ridiculous connection… no veils means no leering…what a joke!
    You might have been there for a year but you had rose-coloured glasses on, and believed everything people told you.
    There is a lot to enjoy and admire in Sudan, though, and despite the heat and many other difficulties, I am going back too…maybe I like trouble!
    As for your responder, Amal: What rot about special rights in Islam. Divorce? Give me a break! And the religion encourages family planning? Are you serious? The major industry in Sudan is babies, and no-one cares about overpopulation or women’s exhaustion from childbirth or underage mothers or poverty from too-large families. If I was going to say nice things about Sudan, these things would be the last things I would think of.
    Promote Sudan’s qualities, by all means, but don’t pick out its faults and pretend they are virtues – surely you can do better than that.

  3. Violet Says:

    I meant, of course, the PRESENCE of veils means no leering what a joke…

  4. blakerig Says:

    Very interesting post, Violet, but I think much of what you say shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Islam in its truest form – which to say uncorrupted by the minds of men and politicians. I am not talking about Islam as it is practiced in many areas of the world, and by governments, but Islam as it was meant to be practiced – and still is by many of the people that I spoke to in Sudan. I am not going to spend time arguing the points here – I could go on for pages – but some of the more salient points have appeared elsewhere in this blog. One thing that I would mention is your confident assertion that Muslim would never choose to wear the veil out of choice. This is wrong and many women do actually feel more comfortable with it. I once had a girlfriend who was not a Muslim but chose to wear the full veil because she was fed up with the stares she used to get from other men (she was quite attractive). I did not encourage this or do anything to dissuade it. Believe me, she is not the only person I have met that feels this way. But, all this aside, good post and some well-made points.

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