RACIAL IDENTITY IN THE SUDAN:
DISPELLING POPULAR MYTHS
There is much confusion about race and ethnicity in the Sudan, and thus I was very surprised in my recent August 2007 visit to this country to find that the vast majority of the Sudanese people are thoroughly Africoid in appearance, including people in the northern "Arab" areas. My Sudan visit was to conduct a research survey in the 4th Cataract area because in this region the Merowe Dam will flood a 100-mile long zone in 2008 and thereby destroy thousands of archaeological sites and displace 70,000 people in this northern area of Sudan.* It is obvious that the phenotype (physical appearance) of the vast majority of northern Sudanese is fundamentally African or Black, yet they are often described by the Western media (and by those who repeat this information) as "Arabs." The ethnic and racial identity in the Sudan is obscured by media-driven stereotypes of Sudanese "Arabs" in the north and west against "black Africans" in the southern and western regions. The fact is that very few Sudanese would be considered "Arab" in the United States or Britain , and this was one of the most surprising findings of my research tour. I have traveled throughout neighboring Egypt for the past 18 years, and because of the media hype I incorrectly assumed that much of the Sudan 's population would be very similar to Egypt 's Arab population, particularly in the northern region. For two weeks while I was in the capital area of Khartoum (the country's most populated region) and the Northern State and Nile State I saw tens of thousands of people, but I did not see very many "Arab" people that we hear so much about in the Western press. What I saw and recorded was completely contrary to my expectations. The Sudanese population is overwhelmingly African, and it is plain to see that even those northern groups that have an Afro-Arab mixture in their family are predominantly African. The strict racialized models of the "Arab" versus "African" dichotomy are false, yet these models are widely used in popular interpretations, even by progressive writers.
ANCIENT SUDANThe Sudan is the ancient land of the Kushite and Nubian civilizations, and the black African builders of these civilizations are unmistakable. When the original Arabs arrived to the area in the 7th century CE, they called it bilad al-Sudan - Arabic for "land of the Blacks." The ancient Sudanese (Kushites and Nubians) had Africoid facial features and their skin color ranged from jet-black to various shades of dark-and-medium brown, and these racial characteristics are still the reality of the Sudanese people today. The later Arab intermixture with these indigenous black Sudanese has not substantially altered their appearance, and thus the Afro-Arab groups in the northern and western Sudan are predominantly African and the vast majority would be considered as such in the U.S. and Britain , without any question.
However, the confusion comes in because since Sudan's independence from British control in 1956 the northern so-called "Arabs" have been the country's ruling elite. These "Arabized" northern groups are largely Muslim and they speak Arabic, which is the national language of the Sudan. The British colonial policies favored a narrow elite group from within "Arab" communities, and after independence Arabization was turned into an official policy that sought to propagate the Arabic language and Arab identity throughout the country. However, this Arabization did not simply development Arabness, but it also sharpened the non-Arab and self-conscious African identity. Only in the past few years has an African identity emerged in the western region such as Darfur, and thus this Africanism has recently superseded the Arabic language, Islam, and the influence of Arab culture as a determining factor in identity. This new African awareness has emerged as resistance to the zealous effort to promote Arabization in the Darfur region.
AFRICAN IDENTITYThe one issue that struck me this past August in my visit to the Merowe area in the Northern State is that despite the influence of Arab culture the vast majority of the people are thoroughly Africoid in physical appearance. With the U.S. and British media hype about the "Arabs" in the north versus the "Africans" in the southern and western Sudan , I had expected to see in this northern region a large number of light-skinned Arabs that are similar in appearance to those in neighboring Egypt . However, only a tiny percentage of people fit this description or would even be classified as "Arab" in Western countries. In discussing racial identity, many people often confuse phenotype (physical appearance) with cultural traits such as language or religion. When a northern Sudanese refers to someone as "Arab" they are speaking of their cultural orientation and not their phenotype. Thus, one is an "Arab" if they have adopted some aspect of Arab culture (such as speaking the Arabic language) or have claimed a (real or false) Arab ancestry, even while their physical appearance remains thoroughly African. However, the Western press uses the term "Arab" in reference to racial identity and thus causes confusion, as it never makes a distinction between the Sudanese and Western definition of "Arab." Likewise, in the U.S. media we often hear similar confusing discussions about the "Jews" as if they are an ethnic group, when the fact is that a "Jew" can be from any racial group. A "Jew" is simply a practitioner of the Judaism religion, regardless of their race.
I recall a very important experience that I had in Mannheim, Germany in October 2004. I was conducting a week-long series of presentations in London , so I decided to travel over to Germany for about a day and a half to see my Sudanese colleague, Sarwat. It just so happened that the day before I arrived the Sudanese community in the Mannheim area received news that a Dinka brother had died under suspicious circumstances at a local hospital facility. It was shocking news for the Sudanese in Germany, and thus they all came together to collect 2,500 Euros ($3700) to send his body back to Sudan for a proper burial. We all gathered at the main apartment to eat, fellowship, and raise money for the shipping fees. I met brothers from all over the Sudan , representing different ethnic groups, religions, and ideas but they all agreed to support their fellow brother from south Sudan .
Sarwat and I spent quite a lot of time at the apartment and I estimate that there were about 40 or so men who either stayed overnight or came through to make their financial contribution. I witnessed the apartment owner making and receiving phone calls throughout Germany regarding the contributions. What was interesting about the conversations is that no one, regardless of their ethnic affiliation, or whether they were from the north, or some other area, had any concern about sending money for a "Dinka," who was from the south. They simply supported the cause because he was Sudanese, period. Also, what made the experience memorable is that we had meals together and several detailed conversations about ancient Sudanese civilizations, and modern politics and conflict in the country. We all learned quite a bit from these discussions. The one thing that every Sudanese brother in the room agreed to is that the Western media greatly distorts the ethnic politics in the Sudan, and that most of the news stories are false but with each of them the media injects a grain of truth to it, and then distorts the rest of the story beyond recognition, including the "Arab" versus "African" wars. This was one of the most important insights that I gained from the experience.
I also noted that all the brothers were completely African in physical appearance, other than two guys who would without question be considered Arab in the U.S. However, I noticed that these two guys felt right at home in the apartment, as they were there (like everyone else) to support the cause of sending the deceased Dinka brother back home.
The precise meaning of the term Arab is "nomad" or "Bedouin," and in a strict sense the term refers to nomadic people. Unfortunately, this term Arab is now used for nomadic people in the country even if their physical appearance is clearly African. Thus, many people in America and Britain call everyone in the Sudan who is a Muslim, speaks Arabic, or who is nomadic an "Arab." This is why the war in the Darfur region is misunderstood by people in the West as a conflict between Sudan 's "Arab government" in Khartoum aiding the "Arab Janjaweed" against the "black Africans." However, the fact is that most of the Sudanese top-ranking government officials are totally African in appearance, and the Janjaweed are an Afro-Arab mixture that are Muslim and live a nomadic Arab lifestyle. Thus, the Janjaweed are "Arab" in the sense that they are a nomadic group, and not so much by their racial characteristics, which remain largely African. This practice of applying the sweeping term "Arab" to describe the racial identity of all members of the Janjaweed and other Sudanese groups has little basis in fact. When northern Sudanese use the term "Arab" they are referring to the person's orientation towards recognizing their (real or imaginary) Arab ancestry, preferring to speak Arabic as their mother language, and being interested mainly in Islamic history, customs, and laws, and they are not referring to the person's racial identity. There is a basic difference between cultural traits and racial identity, but these factors are often co-mingled and confused by Western writers and reporters. The fact is that all parties involved in the Darfur conflict -- whether they are labeled "Arab" or "African" -- are equally Black, local, Muslim, and they speak Arabic along with many local dialects. There is no discernible difference between most of these fighting groups in Darfur in terms of racial appearance or religion.
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*PART I of this report is on my research findings at the archaeological sites and villages that will
soon be flooded. SeeThe Case of the Merowe Dam