Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 August 2004
Issue No. 704
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yunan Labib Rizk

Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (559)

Rediscovering Sudan

Political circumstances in the mid-1920s led to a withdrawal of Sudan from Egyptian public life. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk analyses Egypt's rediscovery of Sudan a decade later through news of the Royal Agricultural Society's mission

Click to view caption
Al-Imam Al-Shafei Mosque -- many families own graveyards in the vicinity of the shrine

Between the mid-1920s, when the assassination of Governor-General of Sudan and Commander-General of the Egyptian Army Sir Lee Stack (1924) precipitated the expulsion of Egyptian forces as well as most of the civilian Egyptian presence from Sudan, and the mid- 1930s, when the Egyptian Economic Mission departed for Khartoum, Egyptians seemed to have forgotten that land with which they formerly had such close ties.

Sudan only rarely imposed itself on the Egyptian consciousness -- brief exceptions included the Egyptian flag fluttering alongside the British flag on top of the governor- general's residence in Khartoum and the official appointment of the governor-general by Egyptian royal decree. Sudan usually re-floated on the surface of Egyptian public discourse during the various rounds of Egyptian-British negotiations over its control -- between Tharwat and Chamberlain in 1928, Mohamed Mahmoud and Henderson in 1929 and El-Nahhas and Henderson the following year -- all of which were unproductive save for the Nile Waters Agreement of 1929. The British, after all, were determined to keep Egypt and Egyptians out of Sudan. Although Egypt, as always, opened its arms to Sudanese who made their way northwards, the British kept the doors to Sudan closed to Egyptians, in spite of the occasional crack for Egyptian railway personnel, for example, or for Upper Egyptian merchants, and particularly for those from Naqada who settled in Umm Dorman most of whom being Copts whom the British thought posed less of a danger than their Muslim compatriots.

Against this background, the decision of the Royal Agricultural Society, in 1934, to dispatch a mission to Sudan the following year represents an attempt to bridge the enforced rupture between the Egyptians and Sudanese. In order to pre-empt British objections, the organisers declared that the mission was a "special case" and urged its members to bear in mind political circumstances and not involve themselves in political religious matters. "The purpose of this expedition is solely to develop the agricultural and economic relations between Egypt and Sudan," they stressed. Clearly, the strategy worked, for Governor-General Sir Symes approved the visit of the society's delegation to Sudan.

The 34-member mission headed by Rashwan Mahfouz, a member of the agricultural society's board of directors, consisted of seven other members of that board, three members of the agricultural syndicate and nine representatives from the Cairo and Alexandria chambers of commerce. The remaining members were prominent agriculturists, merchants and journalists. On hand for Al-Ahram was Hussein the lawyer and prominent editor whose Front page coverage of the mission contributed to what we might call the national rediscovery of Sudan.

Indeed, in his report of 1 February 1935, Hussein expressed the spirit of renewed awareness of Sudan, albeit one tinged by a degree of dismay: "As I compiled information during the visit, I was overcome by a jumble of thoughts and feelings... It is a great pity to find myself writing about a country the history and current of events of which should be more than familiar to the Egyptian public. Egypt and Sudan are bound by ancient ties and links of blood. We are the builders of their railways and their roads and we are the founders of their civilisation. Everywhere you turn you see evidence of the impact Egyptians have had on every aspect of life there, from customs, language and religion to the way they construct and furnish their homes and design their mosques."

The correspondent also lamented the commonly-held image of Sudan in the Egyptian mind: "We -- writers, politicians, journalists and others -- have long begun our articles on Sudan with reminders of how closely it is related to Egypt. However, having now visited some of its cities, I must say that our image of Sudan as based on the books we have read and the stories we have heard does not reflect the whole reality. Upon our return to Egypt we will carry with us a picture that is much truer... One of the Sudanese notables I spoke with underscored a little known truth, which is that the knowledge Egyptians have of Sudan comes from a handful of Egyptian government functionaries who regarded Khartoum as a place of exile and who only dreamed of being transferred back to Cairo, because even Assiut or Banha were not good enough for them."

Hussein assures his readers that the mission of which he was a part would approach Sudan with an entirely different spirit, far removed from those functionaries who pined for the coffee houses, bars and clubs of Cairo or who merely yearned for the peace and quiet of their own homes. He then expressed the hope that his account of the visit would open Egyptian minds on Sudan and encourage Egyptians, especially youth, to visit this country. He further appealed to the Ministry of Education to overhaul those portions of its curricula pertaining to the history and geography of Sudan, because "the text books that are currently available are the worst possible introduction to the country."

Although several studies have appeared on this Egyptian mission -- foremost among which are Abdallah Hussein's own book Sudan from Ancient Times to the Egyptian Mission, the third part of which is dedicated to this trip, and Hamadna Allah Mustafa Hassan's The Egyptian Economic Mission to Sudan in 1935, which appeared in Misr Al-Haditha, a periodical published by Dar Al-Kotob's Centre for Contemporary Egyptian History -- most of these have concentrated on the actual work of the mission: promoting bilateral economic cooperation. The contemporary reports of Al-Ahram 's correspondent, on the other hand, do something that I believe is more important: they placed the Sudanese first, as is abundantly evident in the narrative and in between the lines, a difference which warrants a closer look.

Port Sudan was the first piece of land the members of the mission set foot on in our southern neighbour. Hussein related that they were put up in a village called Al-Sheikh Barghout, most of the buildings in which did not exceed a single storey and many of which were designed as homes for civil servants and the staff of various companies. Port Sudan, itself, was Sudan's only port and a great commercial centre. "The city is lit with electric lighting, its streets are clean, it has villas of all sizes, and the taxis are very comfortable and mostly brand new Fords and Chevrolets," remarked Hussein. With its broad streets, arcades, gardens, cleanliness and calm, Port Sudan resembled the modern Egyptian suburb of Heliopolis. Other manifestations of modernity included a government school, a Catholic school and a hospital that was "better than any hospital in the Egyptian provincial capitals". However, the correspondent added, the city had undergone something of a crisis and only began to emerge from it the previous year.

The population featured a mixture of Sudanese, Yemenis, Hijazis and Indians. "The people are earnest, sedate and dignified. They are also cheerful and display frank and open smiles. Many of their youth are very tall and brimming with health and vigour, and there are many beautiful women, with their alluring eyes, friendly and noble expressions, and their modest and graceful gait," wrote Hussein.

There were also many Greeks in the port city. "I learned that this was the case throughout Sudan. They are the owners of the workshops, gunneries and factors, the directors of the banks and the owners of vast plantations. It is thus that the Greek people demonstrate their application, efficiency, self-sufficiency and powers of endurance," wrote Abdallah Hussein. Indeed, he was not the first to make such observations for the Greeks had played a similar role in the northern half of the Nile Valley. Lord Cromer has famously remarked that one couldn't turn a stone over in Egypt without finding a Greek beneath it.

The next stop was Suwakin, a great commercial centre linking Sudan with the rest of Africa and with Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, India and other countries to the east. Hussein informs us that this city was once the capital of the highly lucrative slave trade, which is why it had counted among its residents so many people from Yemen, Mekka and Hadramawt. The features of the city, itself, spoke not only of its age but its former grandeur and wealth. However, "two catastrophes" transformed that city's happiness to misery, its opulence to desolation and its pride to humiliation.

The first catastrophe was the construction of Port Sudan. One reason for this was political: during the Mahdist Revolution, the "courageous people" of the strategically important old port were loyal to the Egyptian side. A second was technical: the old port could not accommodate large ships.

The second catastrophe was the expulsion of the Egyptian army from Sudan. "This army once had an enormous camp [in Suwakin] and the money its officers and soldiers spent would filter through the local populace," he explained.

The effects of the catastrophes were visible. "Most of the houses are grievously dilapidated, locked up and haunted by the hooting of owls. Most of the stores have shut down. The once wealthy inhabitants have been reduced to abject poverty. Their sources of trade have vanished, leaving their grand commercial buildings empty hulks. They could not even find people to dwell in these buildings, even for free, in order to forestall their demolition. More than four-fifths of the population has migrated to Port Sudan, Tokar and other cities."

The name, Tokar, would have caught readers' attention. The city had once been a place to which Egyptian political and non- political criminals were exiled, and its mere mention evoked the jocular threat, "Watch out, or I'll send you to Tokar!" However, the place was far from as desolate as people imagined. In fact, it was an agricultural centre dedicated primarily to cotton cultivation. Abdallah Hussein did note, however, that in the summer most farmers left to take up residence in the cooler mountain foothills or their native homes. He added, "most of the farmers are not from around here. Rather, they arrive from various other parts of Sudan and Egypt during the cultivation season, which is in winter." He further noted that "the people themselves cannot own land. All the agricultural land in this area is owned by the government, which apportions it among the 72 registered tribes for cultivation, in proportion to their size. The government retains several thousand feddans to distribute for farming by individuals who are not members of these tribes. Many of these are Greeks."

Of the "72 registered tribes" in the area Abdallah Hussein apparently considered the Hadnadwa the most important. "Some historians maintain that the Ancient Egyptians originate from this tribe and that the Hadnadwa and Egyptians share a common genealogy. They are slender and of average height, their noses thin and sharp. Their women are extraordinarily beautiful and help the men. The men carry a bow and a curved knife. Their hair is deep black and they have extremely sharp vision. They speak and learn Arabic, yet they have their own dialect which is of non- Arabic origin."

From Suwakin, the Royal Agricultural Society expedition headed south to Kassala. "The city is laid out in quadrants, its streets narrow and regularly spaced, its houses of single stories. The houses are built of mud brick, reinforced by reeds and palm fronts. Government houses and the main stores and bars are built of red brick. There are many Greeks with their families. We visited the Ethiopian Trade Company, which is owned by four Greeks. It runs the generating plant that supplies electric lighting to the city. The price of a lamp is 15 piastres per month for the inhabitants. Government offices are charged five piastres for every four kilowatts of consumption. The company also owns a commercial mill, an ice factory, a soft-drink bottling plant and stores for selling fabric and small household wares. Most homes are lit by ordinary gas or kerosene lamps. Anyone who ventures outside of the city must carry a lamp with him or otherwise he risks arrest." For drinking water the people relied on wells. "The source of this water is very close to the surface. Wherever you find shrubbery, you know water is in the vicinity."

In Gadaref, as in the previous stops, Al-Ahram 's correspondent's account began with a focus on the people. For the most part the population consisted of Shukriya and Jaali tribes that migrated to the city from other provinces. Although not far from the Ethiopian border, "Ethiopian migrants are not allowed into this city because of their reputation for criminal activities, trading in vice and carrying diseases." Nevertheless, the city was linked to Gallabat, on the Ethiopian border, "half of whose population is Ethiopian and which produces Ethiopian manufactures, coffee, honey, doum fruit, beans, lentils, coriander, cumin and cows".

As remote as Gadaref was, it nevertheless had an elementary school with an enrollment of 191 pupils and a teaching staff of three. There was also a sporting society called the "Athletic Cooperative".

Abdallah Hussein was particularly impressed by the superintendent of the quarter in which the mission members were put up. Sheikh Ahmed Abu Sinn was in his mid-70s, tall, of robust health. He also proved to be a charming and generous host. He offered his guests two kinds of cold drinks. One, "abri" was made of wafer-thin dried bread soaked in water and drunk with or without sugar. "It has a palatable acidity not unlike tamarind juice." The second, called "ghabasha," was made of sour milk, either skimmed or not, and to which a little water was added and sometimes sugar. "It is a nourishing, refreshing and delicious drink and I will continue to partake of it after I return home."

Next, the Royal Agricultural Society mission turned eastward towards Sennar. On their way they stopped in Singa, "the oldest trade centre in Sudan and still a major supplier of sesame, corn and glue, and surrounded by some of the finest agricultural land in the country."

En route to Sennar, Abdallah Hussein observed numerous roadside coffee houses that served the famous Sudanese coffee. "It is made of ordinary coffee roasted on a fire in front of the customer and brewed in a red- clay vessel shaped like a small pitcher without a spout. The coffee has a distinct flavour that many find very pleasant," he recounted.

Sennar, itself, was one of the more important stops for the mission, which is why Al-Ahram 's correspondent dwelt on it at some length. Indicative of the city's importance was the fact that it had a European bakery, three rest houses -- one for government officials, a second for tourists and British "and the like" and a third for effendis (educated gentlemen) -- and a fresh water reservoir supplied from the Blue Nile.

The people of Sennar were famous for their generosity to visitors. There was no bar in town, perhaps because, as Abdallah Hussein informed his readers, "a licence for selling alcohol costs LE50 a year". Government offices and the homes of civil servants were all equipped with electric lighting. However, the same did not apply to the homes of ordinary people. "Japanese goods and Indian fabrics are plentiful, as is the case throughout Sudan. A British entrepreneur is currently negotiating with the government for a permit to establish a textile factory here," he explained.

From Sennar there was a lengthy trek to Obeid, capital of Kurdofan and another major stop in the expedition. Here the members of the mission visited the livestock market, where Abdallah Hussein noted that the uqqa (1.2 kilos) of freshly slaughtered lamb cost a mere two piastres and beef 2.5 piastres. They then toured the various stores and shops in town, where "we saw, in addition to the local merchants, merchants from Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, as well as Indian, Greek and Armenian merchants."

Near the Obeid airport, there were two mosques, which they visited. The first, built in 1912 by the Egyptian army, was "spacious and elegant, with two minarets and a special area for women to perform Friday prayers, and two religious studies classes are held here after evening prayers". The second was called the Ismailiya Mosque.

The tour of the city then took them to the government hospital, which had 120 beds and three doctors, the senior of whom was British. They also observed that there were three churches in the city, one Anglican, another Roman-Catholic and the third Coptic -- a clear indication of the Egyptian presence in the city, which they would also have noted in Atbara, headquarters of the Sudanese railway system, had that city been on the itinerary.

As in Suwakin, water in Obeid was also supplied from wells. The price of a jerry can could get as high as eight piastres. This considerable sum prompted Abdallah Hussein to express his envy for the well owners. Not that all water sources were privately owned. "The government installed a pump for extracting water from an artesian well and constructed a tall water tank from which water can be piped into homes at reasonable rates. However, the poor still drink from the wells."

Because the city was built at such an important crossroads, the population of Obeid was made up of a great medley of diverse tribes and ethnic groups. There were the Fallata -- migrants from various parts of Sudan and Africa -- who lived in specially designated areas outside of the city. Most of these had passed through Sudan on their way to the pilgrimage -- "on foot because of their dire poverty" -- and decided to settle and take up work in Sudan on their return trip. "Many work as farmers, servants, labourers and porters, because they are not averse to working more than it takes merely to supply their daily food. However, the people of the city regard them as strangers and refuse to intermarry with them. The Fallata have preserved their own customs and language, and their women are unveiled."

Another group was the Halab, whom Abdallah Hussein describes as gypsies. Iron smiths by trade, "they live in tents outside the city, and remain remote from the people of the city, as well as from the desert Bedouins and the Fallata."

Hussein's notes on other features inside the city give an idea of the nature and composition of its inhabitants. Obeid had two primary schools, one for boys and the other for girls, in addition to a Greek school. There was a special quarters for the British, complete with tennis courts. The tramway ran from the train station to the commercial area. The tram itself was pulled by two bulls, "but mostly it was used for transporting goods, for only rarely do passengers board it". The most important company in the city was Singer. "Managed by our compatriot Zaki Boutros, it sells 150 sewing machines a year and has engaged graduates of the Sewing School for Girls to teach purchasers how to use the machines."

Finally, the expedition reached its last stop: Khartoum. Naturally, the mission's hosts in the Sudanese capital had arranged a full schedule for their Egyptian visitors. Although Abdallah Hussein recounted much of this, he was more interested in the manifestations of the Egyptian presence in Sudan. He focussed on three institutions in particular:

The first was the Egyptian Club, founded in 1904 by officials from the Egyptian Ministry of War and Egyptian civil servants in Sudan. Although its membership had dropped drastically since its founding, reaching less than 30 not long before the Egyptian economic mission, it had recently climbed again to 120 because of the influx of Egyptian irrigation personnel. Hussein appealed to the Egyptian government to allocate an annual fund for the club, "because it is a national symbol of Egypt".

The second institution was the Coptic Philanthropic Society, directed by Archpriest Yohanna Salama. The society ran a nursery, an elementary and secondary school for boys, and an elementary school for girls. "Approximately 40 per cent of its students are given free tuition. It accepts Muslims, Copts and Sudanese, and has an enrollment of 750. These are the only schools in Sudan that follow the Egyptian Ministry of Education curriculum."

Finally, there was the Coptic Library. Although in fact a club founded by Copts in Sudan, its founders opted for "library", Abdallah Hussein explained, because "when it was established the word 'club' signified a bar and gambling spot." He adds, "The Coptic Library was founded in 1907 and the society owns its premises. A similar society was founded in the same year in Umm Dorman."

It was soon time for the members of the Royal Agricultural Society to pack their bags and return to Cairo. Their expedition had encompassed a large geographical expanse and though its aim was economic, it had fulfilled the greater purpose of reviving Egyptian awareness of Sudan.

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