January 25 – January 25, 2018
Lee McKenna's Journal
Sudan, November 2008
Reassembled in a room now still and hot in the mid-day brown-out, trainers, translators and trainees alike struggle to grab hold of concepts and vocabulary flung across linguistic chasms. Mainstreams and margins, privilege, rank and status – that shift according to context. In this room of trainers and participants, men and women, Sudanese and foreigners, older and younger, Muslim and Christian, talkers and listeners, the mainstream, they agree, are older male talkers, trainers and English speakers; in here, Christians, out there, Muslims. The image of the swiftly moving mainstream and the sluggish, sometimes eddying, muddy margins gives way to marqaz, centre and peripheries; in a country where earlier understandings of battle lines as north and south, Muslim and Christian, have been replaced by a recognition that the violence originates in Khartoum and emanates out in all directions to the peripheries, east, west, south, north – the word seems appropriate.
‘I am from Nuba Mountains; I am African and I am Muslim,’ says Marzuq, with a story that reminds the foreigners once again that the dividing lines are not simple. ‘But my family was forced to abandon our land, to give up our ways that bound us to our land. My language is Nuban. But I was forced to speak Arabic.’ A tall, strikingly handsome man in his mid-twenties, he is bent over as he speaks, his brow furrowed with memory.
Zuhr and tea time coincide and overlap, most have tea; some do both. A table is set up outside under a tree next to a tiny rivulet of water that issues from our main water source, a rubber tube that sticks out of the ground, stuffed with a plastic bag-wrapped twig when not in use. The dogs stir themselves to investigate the possibility of crumbs and a bit of water to lap and then roll in against the heat.
Only three days into the training, the school English they all studied in their youth is increasingly brought out for testing and stretching. Mohammed Yakub is bespectacled, slender and fine-featured and remarkably like Ghandi in his youth. Over a lunch of bread stuffed with a spicy mixture mysterious ingredients, he says, ‘When I first came here, I didn’t trust you. How could you possibly teach us anything? More white colonisers. But already I feel so different.’ His smile of brilliant white teeth lights up his earnest, open face. ‘You know us; but we are teaching ourselves. They are our stories; and you know them, don’t you?’
Divided into three groups, one composed of just women, they form human knots, the task then to solve the problem that is the knot. The one group of men remains in a close circle, right fists together, each enclosing the knot on one end of foot-long ropes, left hands reached through to grasp the knot at the other end of one of their neighbour’s dangling ropes. They discern the knot that will result as soon as they pull away; ‘We can’t,’ they say. ‘It’s impossible.’ The second group begins to work their way through, while the women negotiate the necessary moves, long skirts hiked over, hijab-ed heads ducked under; the talk is animated, at times sharp as leaders and followers ebb and flow. As soon as one group succeeds in untying their knot and forming a circle, a cheer goes up.
Their observations of the game – what happened, how did they feel – quickly move to real life.
‘It’s like Darfur,’ asserts Hawwa. ‘There is a lack of leadership. No one is listening to anyone else’s advice; we all go our own way. No one trusts the other. There has to be patience, trust, time. We will never be able to live in peace if we can’t find our way through to trust one another.’
Mid-afternoon lethargies abate as the participants are invited into an exercise of stereotyping. ‘What’, says Rashaad to the Muslims, ‘have you heard about Christians?’ Patrick readies himself at a flipchart sheet divided into two columns, one entitled What have you heard about Christians? and the other What have you heard about Muslims? Little urging is needed.
‘They are pagans,’ says one.
‘Black skin belongs to the devil,’ says another, clarification neither sought nor given.
‘They burn their dead.’ ‘Alcohol and adultery are not forbidden.’ ‘They don’t fast.’
‘Men and women pray together.’
‘It’s a religion of forgiveness.’
‘You pay money to the bishop so you can go to heaven.’
‘Men have one wife and many mistresses. And priests and nuns can’t marry.’
They fast; they don’t fast; at funerals, they don’t cry and they cut their hair. Jesus is the Son of God. The Bible is falsified. Killing is forbidden.
Maryam then asks of the Christians: So, what have you heard about Muslims?
‘There is a sea of wine and virgins for martyrs in heaven,’ comes the first contribution; ‘women are repressed.’ Rashaad writes it up on the flipchart.
‘No forgiveness,’ says another, no elaboration offered.
‘Martyrs can take 70 people to heaven with them.’
‘Killing non-Muslims is not a sin.’
‘You’re not allowed to touch women while preparing to pray.’ I notice that it’s men talking about men, women as the minus-male, either prize or problem; that, apart from Karin, Maryam is the only Christian woman in the room.
‘Muslim men can marry outside the faith, but not women.’
Both women and men are circumcised. You can’t leave Islam or you will be killed. They want to take Israel away. Islam corrects all religions.
A shudder reminiscent of a ‘wave’ at a Maple Leafs hockey game moves through the circle, a kind of sigh that mixes discomfort and relief. Furtive glances confirm they have survived; no apparent price exacted for their audacity, their impudence. Christians and Muslims stare into the other’s mirror, both discomfitted and satiated.
Invited to consider the grounds, if any, on which the other’s stereotypes rest, Thomas James, an ‘African’, a ‘lost boy’ southerner and a Nuer, his forehead marked with his tribe’s distinctive V-shaped cicatrizes, offers to explain the one about black skin. He does so with the slow, deliberate, didactic tones of a pastor-in-training. The story of Noah’s drunken nakedness is an awkward-making one to tell, but he proceeds matter-of-factly: ‘Black people, therefore, some have said, are under the curse of Ham, the Cushite, and their later enslavement the fulfillment of Noah’s curse.’ Oh my.
Fuwaad Adam acknowledges that, although Islam recognises other religions and key figures, the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, had the final word. Sort of what Christians say about Jews, suggests Salva. Ah, yes.
Slowly the learnings emerge: we all hold stereotypes. They all seem to be, to some extent, small or large, based on some fact, sometimes accurate, sometimes distorted to the point of parody. Stereotypes are the impressions and information we carry into new situations; a neurological necessity, if we are not to be constantly starting all over again. The problem arises when stereotypes put people in boxes, labelled and shut. The task is to be conscious of the stereotype and its power; to keep it in abeyance as we encounter the other, giving them the opportunity to confirm or challenge the stereotype, to see them first of all as persons like ourselves, yet, respectfully, other.
In a closing circle, everyone is invited to name one thing they have learned today. The faces around the circle display a mixture of sombreness and joy; something utterly unique happened today and we survived; more than survived, we are becoming one. Together we ventured out onto risky territory of mutual vulnerability. ‘I don’t think I would have come if I had known that we would be doing these things, saying these things,’ says one. ‘But,’ his thumb turned up at the end of his outstretched hand, ‘now I know this is the only way.’ As the last one makes her offering, the upturned thumbs are then turned sideways and linked into the neighbour’s to form an unbroken chain of hands, black, brown, white.
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