January 14 – May 31, 2019
Lee McKenna's Journal: Sudan, November 2008, Entry 8
January 27, 2009 | bpfna
Lee McKenna's Journal
Sudan, November 2008
During the morning re-cap the conversation centres on power and gender, honour and shame. ‘Women are on the margins here in Sudan,’ Adam Asiim says, ‘and even more so in Darfur. That my sisters are here is amazing!’ He pauses, his head down. ‘I help around the house; I take sage to the tea-sellers. But women are being raped every day in Darfur. How can we bless our sisters with safety?’
‘We need to co-operate,’ Malak responds. She is dressed entirely in blue today, from her hijab the colour of the Sudanese sky to her camel-skin shoes that have been dipped in indigo. Unusually, she is also wearing black woven gloves and socks, staking out a place on the spectrum of women’s vestments that is rare enough out there, rarer still in here. ‘Just like the ropes. If the power at the centre divides us, there is no hope for us. We are Furian, Baggarah, Zaggawah, Banda, Masalit; but we are Sudanese. We are men and women; we are human beings.’
For the next three hours, Muslims and Christians sit in faith groups with a unique opportunity to present their faith to the other: the ABCs of Christianity, the aliph, baa, taa of Islam. Any method of presentation can be used; any aspect discussed. The Christians move outside to the compound to rehearse.
The planning complete, the Muslims begin. ‘The heart of Islam,’ says Fuwaad Adam ‘is to live in justice and according to the Qu’ran. The Sunnah tells us how to worship and how to treat one another.’ Gauhar recites the five pillars of Islam taken from the Hadith – Shahadah (confession of faith in the one God), Salaat (five-times-a-day prayer), Sawm (fasting), Zakaat (the giving of alms), Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca). Islam does not impose its religion; killing is not permitted – with some exceptions.
‘Before Islam,’ Gauhar continues, ‘women were killed as part of traditional practice. But Islam stopped this practice. Islam respects all religions, treats everyone equally, whether men or women, Arab or non-Arab.’ ‘And,’ – the Christians hear the resonance: ‘if one part of the body feels pain, all do.’
The presentation completed, the questions begin.
‘If killing is forbidden,’ Charles asks, ‘how do you explain South Sudan and now Darfur?’
‘Our wars start because of marginalisation,’ Hawwa offers, ‘but then the problem takes on other dimensions, tribes, religion – that distract us from the real causes of our suffering.’
‘Where did sharia law come from,’ asks Morqos. ‘It doesn’t apply to me.’ Mansour answers: ‘In the context of Islam, it works, I guess. But in a country of diversity like Sudan, it should not apply to non-Muslims. In fact, sharia is not required in Islam.’
‘We were displaced by the war many years ago,’ says Amjad. ‘So we started over again. We are tillers. One day government officials came and told us that we had to pay zakaat of all of our land. No discussion, no talking, just hand it over. I am Muslim: this is not zakaat. Zakaat arises out of one’s heart, to care for one another. In the hands of the government, it has become obligatory, inconsistent and oppressive. This is not Islam!’
The Christians’ presentation is more polemics than show-and-tell, with yesterday’s stereotyping and Saturday’s fishbowl in mind. Thomas James goes through the list of items of the flipchart. Number 1: Christian faith is not associated with dress. Number 2: Christian faith is built on the ten commandments and, thirdly, the words of the Bible can be changed, translated into other languages, but the meaning cannot be changed. Christians believe in life after death. Men and women pray together because they have been united since creation. Dancing and praising at church is not regarded as ‘worldly’. Jesus is the son of God and God. In the Old Testament, God destroyed people if they did something wrong. The example offered is Sodom and Gomorrah. When Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on a donkey, the people greeted him and made music and a lot of noise; they laid down leaves and bedsheets on his path. The authorities got angry with Jesus because the people were disturbing the peace with all of their noise. Fasting, forgiveness and circumcision are also mentioned.
Nuha wades in with a question: ‘It seems there are some similarities between Christianity and Islam. So do Christians fast?’ The Christians, three Catholics, one Anglican, one evangelical and one Quaker, exchange glances. Thomas James attempts a response: ‘For Christians, fasting is within, and it is meant to help us concentrate on prayer.’
‘And how many days a year do Christians fast?’ ‘Forty.’ James then writes on the flipchart: ‘PUSH’, an acronym that I saw recently on a university bulletin board in Atlanta, taking mental note of the mysterious means by which some elements or expressions of Christian faith get globalised – and some don’t. ‘Push Until Something Happens,’ he intones, and the Muslims nod politely as if this expression meets no cultural or linguistic potholes on the path to comprehension.
‘But I don’t fast,’ one of the Christians says mischievously, not sure what will be more disturbed – the Christian solidarity or the Muslims’ views of Christians.
‘I learned a lot.’ Gauhar thanks the Christians for their presentation. ‘We only have one God in Islam,’ she says. ‘Now we hear that Jesus is also God. How can Jesus be God if God is only one?’
Salva jumps in: ‘The Bible says that Jesus existed before time. He was not born like other human beings. Together with the Holy Spirit, God and Jesus form the Holy Trinity.’ More polite nods.
Marzuq has a challenge: ‘Muslims pray on Friday; Christians on Sunday. Which must mean that Christians worship the sun.’
‘In Swedish,’ Patrick offers, ‘our word for Wednesday comes from our ancient god of knowledge; Thursday, our god of war and Friday, our god of Fertility. But that doesn’t mean that we worship those gods.’
The questions continue without let-up.
I hear that Christians confess their sins to the priest; does that mean the priest forgives sin?
‘Well, when Jesus died on the cross...’ ‘What cross? Why was he killed? Who killed him?’ ‘... the curtain of the temple was ripped in two; therefore everyone can approach God, not just the priest.’
‘George Bush always says he is a proud Christian. But he is so violent: look at Iraq and Afghanistan. How can he say he is a Christian?’
‘He’s a Christian, alright,’ says Morqos. ‘But as president, he has to follow the Constitution.’
The sounds of the al-Asabi market float in the thick night air. Spread out in front of me are my notes from the day. Scribbles, really; short-formed jottings of translated dialogue and untranslated noticings – that must make their way into this journal, a record of what happened, who said what, expressions, group dynamics, mood; feelings. The scrawls are circled and boxed and connected with arrows in an attempt to ensure the story flows in some order. Sitting here, perspiration making its way onto the keyboard of my laptop, I remember how much I want to step in and ‘save’ the conversations when it’s about my faith, my text, my tradition and practice and expression. When the western-evangelised southerners expose an uncritical view of the United States, its warmaking and its leadership and offer facile answers to tough questions, I want to ‘fix’ it, but I can’t. But then, what underlies that want? What is it I want to save? God? God’s reputation? Get over it.
The day ended with role plays that bring us back to where we are. Once more gathered in faith groups, the participants choose a story to tell that demonstrates their tradition’s commitment to peacemaking. In the first of the dramas, John the Baptist is baptising and preaching: Prepare your ways! one greater than I is coming, the herald of the kingdom of God. The ‘crowd’ want to know: ‘How do I get into the kingdom of heaven? What must I do?’ To the tax collectors, John says: Take only what is your due! To the soldiers, he says, Do harm to no one! To the artisans and merchants, he says, If you have two shirts, give one away! For blessed are the peacemakers.
Bilal is dragged into the room and thrown onto the ground. A black slave, he is beaten mercilessly and left to die. A recent convert to Islam discovers him and brings him to the Prophet, Mohammed, who has declared slavery to be antithetical to Islam. The Prophet chooses Bilal as his muezzin, Islam’s first. Other emancipated slaves gather to hear him, with his beautiful voice, call the people to prayer. ‘I thought I would die before I would ever see a black man as muezzin!’ exclaims one ( – or a black man in the white house, echoes the posters pasted at traffic circles, on cement posts and shop windows). Bilal became one of Mohammed’s most trusted companions, and one of Ali’s earliest and most loyal followers.
Fuwaad Adam, conscripted into the role of Bilal, is a reluctant actor, grinning sheepishly out of character at several points. The drama finished, the company accepts the applause of their audience and Suleiman slaps ‘Bilal’ on the back with satisfaction. Earlier tension have dissipated with the laughter as both groups use their ancient techniques of theatre to illustrate their faith’s commitment to peacemaking.
It is dark by the time we four, trainers and translators, gather to unpack the day. Emotions have run high and the effects linger. How familiar is the story of Bilal? I ask. Will the Christians have heard of it? It is new to Maryam. For us, says Rashaad, Bilal was a hero and he reminds us of our religion’s commitment to racial diversity and respect. We recall the closing circle in which we recognised our shared struggle: to close the gap between commitment and action, the chasm that yawns between what we think or hope we are or want to be and what we are, between theory and praxis. It felt as if we had been on two separate journeys, speaking to the other from the security of our own faith group – and then found ourselves together on a common ground of mutual vulnerability and confession.
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