Ingrid @ Sudan Watch asked the following question:
Since Sudan belongs to both the African Union and Arab League, I wonder if Sudanese women see Sudan as an African or Arab country.
Now even though I’m not a woman (Duh!), I’m still going to try and answer Ingrid’s question. Is Sudan an African or Arab country? In other words, are we Sudanese, African or Arab? It’s a tough question to answer for the simple reason that I’m only given the option of choosing between “Arab” or “African”. I don’t see Sudan as being either one or the other. There are about 600 tribes in Sudan. Yes, that’s right, 600 tribes! Ethnically, some are African, some are Afro-Arab and the few remaining others are Arab. Therefore Sudan is an Afro-Arab country. It’s as simple as that but I don’t believe that answers Ingrid’s question or does it? Well in case it doesn’t and I can only choose between “Arab” or “African”, then here are my thoughts. Sudanese girls and boys in da house, indulge me in the comments section if you may.
THE ETHNIC PERSPECTIVE
First of all, let’s discuss this issue from the perspective of ethnicity. Pictured at the bottom of this post are 2 Sudanese girls (aren’t they so cute and innocent). They represent both the far sides of the Sudanese ethnic spectrum. The first picture is of a girl from the Nuer tribe which is an African tribe from Southern Sudan, not Afro-Arab but African. The second is of a girl from the Rashaida tribe which is an Arab tribe from Eastern Sudan, not Afro-Arab but Arab. The Rashaida are the most recent Arab tribe to make into Sudan. They crossed the Red Sea from the Arabian Peninsula about 150 years ago and made it to the north eastern side of the country. Since they arrived recently, they haven’t intermarried with locals. It’s a known fact that a Rashaida father will almost never allow his daughter (or son) to marry outside of the tribe (the same is quite true for other tribes). As such, the Rashaida have remained purely Arab.
Now that both ends of the spectrum have been presented, allow me to further explain the main difference between them. What’s the main difference (besides the obvious)? Well here is the main difference: one is indigenous to the land and the other is not. Arab tribes came from the Arabian Peninsula while African tribes (Nuer, Dinka, Nuba, Nubians etc.) have been in Sudan for ages.
Let’s move on to the next point i.e. the Afro-Arab. “The Afro-Arab” is the product of intermarriage between Arab tribes and African tribes. I am a Northern Sudanese. Ethnically speaking I am a Shaigee. I am of mixed blood, mainly being Nubian, Nuba and Arab. The Nubian and Nuba in me are indigenous to Sudan. The Arab in me was an outsider that came, settled, assimilated into the Sudanese African ethnic pool and as a result made part of it Afro-Arab.
In the big context, it is “the African” that dominates. It’s very difficult finding many pure Arab tribes like the Rashaida in Sudan. They’re minorities. The majority are either African or Afro-Arab. Hence, ethnically speaking and in the big context we Sudanese are mainly African and not Arab. That’s also true for most Northern Sudanese. “The African” still dominates.
Whether we’re Arab or African, can’t be fully answered without taking into account how we Sudanese view ourselves though. For Southerners, that’s not a major issue. It’s simple. They’re Africans. For many Northern Sudanese however it gets a little complicated. Choosing either Arab or African is not easy. Here’s a little test for my Northern Sudanese Afro-Arab readers that should make it easier. Do you want to know how you can find out if you view yourself as more African than Arab or vice versa? Here’s how. Visualize the following and tell me which one you find more offensive.
a) A Persian guy shouting “Arabs are filthy dogs”.
b) Some KKK dude shouting “Africans are filthy niggers”.
For most Sudanese I asked, the answer was (b).
THE CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE
We’ve concluded that us Sudanese are mainly African in terms of ethnicity but what about culturally? In terms of culture are we Arab or African? Again, I’d say that for Southern Sudanese, this won’t be a major issue. Unlike many Northern Sudanese, they’re not suffering from an identity crisis. Southern Sudanese are both ethnically and culturally African but this is not really true for Northern Sudanese. For the Northern Sudanese who are dominantly ethnically Afro-Arab, it’s a different case. All Afro-Arab tribes in Sudan (and even some African ones) have been Arabized even if not fully (keep in mind that along with Arabization came Islamization and Islamic culture). Therefore culturally speaking Northern Sudanese are mainly Arab due to Arabization and not African.
In the big context, I believe that it is the Arab culture that dominates in Sudan. Yes, many Afro-Arab tribes have retained a lot of African traditions and have not been fully Arabized. Yes, the Arab culture in Sudan might be sort of loose but it is what ties many tribes together and is what’s common amongst them besides Islam. About 70% of Sudan’s population is Muslim. Moreover the majority of Sudanese also speak Arabic together with other languages. They’re multilingual.
Now this is the really difficult part. (Voice inside my head: damn it, why do you have to choose between Arab or African man? Why can’t you just choose both?). Well like I said at the start of my post. Sudan is an Afro-Arab country. It’s really that simple. However to which side do we belong more? If you as a Sudanese had to make a choice, which one would you choose? African or Arab?
As I’ve presented, ethnically speaking we Sudanese are mainly African but culturally we’re more Arab than African (thanks to Arabization). So, which one do we belong to more? Which one do we choose? In order to give an answer, I have to ask another question. Which one plays a bigger role in forming one’s identity? Would that be ethnicity or culture? For me, the answer is ethnicity.
A girl from the Neur, an African tribe (Malakal, Southern Sudan).