January 14 – May 31, 2019
Lee McKenna's Journal
Sudan, November 2008
It’s Sunday and the Christians have not yet shown up. For the vast majority, however, it is the first day of the work week and the streets, wide, with opaque boundaries that are often parallelled by deep and half-concealed drainage ditches that often break the axles of the unwary, are back to a bustle, a chaos of human, animal and vehicular traffic. Somewhere underneath all of this is a set of rules that I can’t quite see, that somehow keeps the death, mayhem and road rage remarkably tamed within its strictures and politenesses. Out of two lanes of traffic, drivers create three or four or five, with tuq-tuqs darting and weaving in and out like beetles with bobbing antennae. Three-wheeled, made-in-India scooters, topped with brightly-coloured canopies, with seating for two medium or six smallish persons, they tend to capsize easily when they wander into potholes or the crumbling edges of slapped-on asphalt. With stiff competition for open road between Toyota Hilux pickups, ancient yellow Corolla cabs, Tata buses and growing numbers of large, private vehicles belonging to politicians, generals or the petro-rich, there are plenty of accidents, but, since no one can actually get up any real speed, the life-threatening or death-dealing kind are rare.
Pedestrian traffic is equally heavy. Mostly men, but also women, sometimes with children, audaciously, it seems carelessly, step into the middle of this, disembarking from buses, leaving the market with daily purchases in hand, heading for somewhere – and survive. Hands emerge from drivers’ windows and bus doors, a downward wave to mean one thing, flat hand down or sideways to mean another, four fingers brought to the thumb, shaken once or twice in that internationally-recognisable request to, I don’t know, cool it, give it a rest, hold on a minute, let me in; perhaps a leftover from the Italian period. It seems to work.
As we make our way past Al-Asabi Market a gaggle of goats suddenly bolts from between the stalls heading in our direction. Just short of a collision, the animals dive head first into a heap of dried green stuff, a Sudanese hay perhaps, a real breakfast to supplement their usual diet of plastic bags and other commercial carrion. I notice again that arrangement of markets here and in a million other souqs around the world that places all of the car-parts vendors together, all of the kitchen-pots-and-pans vendors together, the weavers of everything from roofs to beds to baskets and prayer mats all clumped together; then the butchers, the bakers and the candle-stick makers, with last of all, the charcoal sellers. They always seem to be at the outer ends of the market, their sooty kuffiyehs and sootier djelabiyas blending into their wares: slim black bodies of charred young trees which are wrapped in small-body-size bundles of brown paper, scuffed and blackened in the wrapping. I stifle my desire to stop and compose a photograph, recalling my arrest and nasty interrogation a couple of years ago for taking photos in the Mayo market without a permit.
The front page of The Citizen features a photograph of a janjawiid astride a horse, accompanying an article condemning al-Bashir’s latest announcement of an ‘immediate’ and ‘unconditional’ ceasefire even as more die under the bombardment of the Sudanese Air Force, and a cartoon depicting a skull-and-crossbones-bedecked boat helpfully labelled ‘Somalia’, its only occupant gesturing to a shadowy Lady Liberty emerging from the sea. Inside articles tell of declining consumer spending in the United States, a feeble communiqué issuing from the emergency G20 meeting in New York, and the UN’s $2.2 billion humanitarian aid appeal for Sudan.
People arrive at the compound to see the long, far wall taped from one end to the other, punctuated with dates, 4th century, 7th century, 16th, 19th, 1820, 1899, 1924, 1956, 1964, 1969, 1972, 1979, 1985 – up until the present, an invitation to add more, to add the details of conquests, defeats, milestones, the signing of proliferating peace accords, frameworks and protocols, the ongoing wars; the coming of Islam, the Turkiyah, the Mahdiyah, Gordon, Nimeiri, al-Turabi, Bashir, Garang, Kiir; the imposition of sharia, the rise of the petro-economy, famine, the building of dams; those hopeful moments, 1955, when women won the vote; 1985, of those moments of non-violent change that didn’t last; the flawed census, the upcoming 2009 elections and the 2011 referendum that holds forth spectres of partition and peace, or more division and death.
A Lifeboats exercise elicits enthusiastic participation, exposing ourselves to one another as players of musical instruments, speakers of multiple languages, the poets and the pious able to recite a verse about peace from their respective holy text – ending in an age spectrum – with me at one end and Adira at the other: only three admit to being born before Nimeiri’s 1979 coup.
Four empty chairs in the middle of the circle invite questions: which one is the most powerful of the four? why? how would you change the chairs in order to make another chair the most powerful? I ask for four volunteers to fill the chairs. Four men are up and out of their seats before the translated words have quite made it into the air. Two slide into chairs. And then, ever so subtly, the two others notice that there are others, women-others, who are also making their way to the chairs, that two of them are already occupied by men – and they retreat back to their chairs. Of the two women who now occupy the remaining chairs, one is wee Adira; she has come up through the middle, scrambling, plopping her little self in the chair with an air of triumph and glee.
They move their chairs around a few times, power sometimes expressed in distance from the others, sometimes by proximity. Then they are asked to use their bodies to depict power: decide upon a pose and hold it. Morqos sits back, his right leg crossed over his left at the knee, arms relaxed at his side. Fuwaad Adam sits on the edge of his seat, feet apart, arms forming a muscular wishbone, fists rolled. Nuha also sits relaxed. Adira does not appear to have moved; feet on the floor, hands on her lap, an indecipherable expression on her face. We talk about the cultural meaning of crossed legs, comfort with power, projected power; we talk about the assumptions of power that have informed this exercise. What are the criteria or vehicles for power; what makes one apparently powerful? The responses go up on the flipchart:
- success as a warrior
- having many wives
- creative and influential
- skilled in wrestling
- a member of the security forces
- wealthy with many possessions
- political leaders
We walk around it for awhile; eventually someone says it: they’re male, confidently masculine; power is strength that is muscular, backed up with the threat of violence. Adira’s dash to the chair ends with paralysed confusion: once there, what are the symbols of power available to her? Muscles? warrior prowess? There aren’t any. They just aren’t there.
Breakfast arrives from the souq. The tuq-tuq driver delivers stacks of flatbreads, falafel, djir djir greens and crates of soft drinks and everyone settles into conversations, small groups collecting in the meagre shade of scrub trees, or crowded on to the largest of the prayers mats, divisions increasingly indistinguishable amidst the ease of laughter, touch, exchange and story.
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