Written in Arabic by Najlaa Eltom
Translated into English by Yasmine Haj*
In 2006, while working as part of the administrative and financial department in the headquarters of one of the UN agencies in Khartoum, I was assigned to follow some affairs at the office in Kadugli, capital of South Kordofan State. One of my tasks was to help hire some workers and employees in what was called a “welcome station” for Sudanese returnees to South Sudan as part of the Sudanese Voluntary Return programme. We needed about six cleaning ladies and guards, as well as two observers and an administrator. We followed the procedures required for job postings, after which I continued working with the others. I had no expectations concerning the hiring process; it was a minor task, and there was much else to do during the two short weeks. However, we were flooded with job applications, and what was supposed to be a minor task transformed into a moment encapsulating a history of violence, war, and the complexities of social injustice that the Nubian mountains have suffered throughout centuries of exploitation.
The toughest task was deciding who, out of the hundreds of applicants, would attain each of the six opportunities. The basic qualifications were simple and straightforward, which rendered most of the applicants fit for the position. This one little job posting brought out issues beyond its initial scope. We were looking for cleaning ladies, but received applications from teachers, graduate students, and women who worked a variety of freelance jobs. Different women who are in fact one – deeply affected by the war. Neither clan, class, level of education, nor age group was the common denominator; rather, it was a history of war. Thus, in reality, it was one intense story, turning this UN moment into a breeding ground for stories of the war: I’m a widow, I have five children. My man left for war and never came back. I’m providing for my kids, mother, and relatives. His hand was cut off in one of the operations. My brother came back mentally disturbed. I left school. My son died over there, his wife married over here and is supporting his children. I used to be a kindergarten teacher; a tea lady; the market is stagnant; I’m a henna artist; I used to make food and hats. The market is stagnant. No, we don’t need English. It’s not necessary. Are you sure you can do this, mam? This work is tough. Well, poverty is tough. A large number of them had taken up gigs with little revenue just to manoeuvre life and its discontents. Each opportunity meant changing the lives of unseen people whose presence was still much more potent than anything surrounding and defining the small seen world of the office. How a minor decision could unfold so many dangerous things…
Inside and around the city, I saw war spread over women’s faces. Areas of operation there, blood-thirsty fronts here, a normal vicious war there, and life’s ever-devouring inferno. In a region consumed by the passage of centuries, there wasn’t much for the war to ruin. And as men came back with damaged brains, women would continue facing the war life waged on a daily basis. There was economic downturn; off went the cotton projects and precarious stability they provided, having weakened the traditional infrastructure; off went unionised and civil activism; off went the men to war; and women were left to fight off destitution on their own.
The moment has arrived for the ghosts of torture in political prisons to learn that tough men trembled at the threat of harming a swaddled son. In millions of courtyards, women trembled at the beseech of famished screaming. There you go, today has started off in a dungeon, at the front; it started with women coming to the office, and war tagged along with them. Where is this damned morsel of food? Who will die of diarrhoea this time? Another day has started, followed by another, and another. What an endless nightmare.
In landscapes of national struggle for noble things like freedom and other complicated things like democracy, we see men’s faces, then more of men’s faces, and then a small number of women. We find men in nonviolent resistance against militaristic totalitarianisms, and we find men at war against those same totalitarianisms. They are our prophets, those who were hanged, tortured, exiled, and expelled for the sake of the common good. Those who persevered in prison cells, sublimated the ghosts’ nails, and persisted in the face of hunger and humiliation. Print-outs from the 1964 Sudanese Revolution show a crystal-clear photograph of Ahmad al-Qurashi: a smiling youth, full of innocence. The first martyr of the revolution. Who’s the mother who gave birth to this beautiful smiling martyr? What’s the name of the lady whose seat we’ve preserved in heaven, next to our son, al-Qurashi? What a sole martyr he is, adopted by our people. But why does he appear now as a lone fruit fallen from the heavens? Why does he appear like a crucified Christ, this time without Mary by his side?
Wherein lies the contradiction? In a society that sanctifies the family, heroes or martyrs will not appear on the struggle screen unless portrayed as originless individuals.
National struggle is a battle of consciousness that the body undergoes. The gallows taught us such wisdom. And you won’t find it written on Mahmoud Mohammed Taha’s non-existent tombstone. This knowledge circulates and shines through the martyrs’ eyes. From their unbelievable handsomeness. Everything communicates pain. But what is this endurance? In the battle for social justice, men’s faces crowd, some veiled and others unveiled, and with flaring clashes, many conclusions are formed and accumulated, one generation after another. The struggle scale has many gradations, but it starts with consciousness and passes through the physical body, which always ends up with a faultless degree of machoism. And in one specific and dangerous categorisation, labour as a value of the struggle was relinquished and replaced with fighting, to an extent that the fight for justice became synonymous with masculinity. Then, when the outstanding silent resistance led by women was relinquished, the captivating unripe work carried out by women everywhere in Sudan was relinquished as well, all for a life that must continue at any price. This is resistance whence women are given the option of neither compromise, betrayal, nor retreat. This destiny is inevitable. One could argue the difference between resistance and suffering, stipulating the presence of awareness in the former, and eliminating it in the latter. But who has determined that women lack political awareness? More than once, and in more than one place, political analysts have concluded that women are the first to be affected; they are the most affected victims of conflicts, in all their shapes and forms. Nonetheless, nobody reaches the logical conclusion that this general note entails: those most affected are those most knowledgeable of their situation. The victim’s place is one that overflows with direct knowledge and claims the most hazardous proximity to danger. While we could perhaps imagine what pain victims experience, because we are operating from a place of privilege, we fail to imagine that a victim thinks, or learns from her suffering, and that those lessons and knowledge are available to us through the victim, and only through the victim. What did the raped women of Darfur learn about being women who belonged to a community marginalised by an Islamist Arabist mentality, followed by a downpour of natural catastrophes? What are the conversations, questions, and conclusions that their minds raced with? What do they now think of femininity and masculinity? Do they sympathise with one another and does that sympathy hold any political meaning? The victim has been changed because of the criminal, and therein lies the victim’s superiority over the latter. The victim has been transformed by the criminal, and that’s one point where her superiority prevails – once a criminal is able to rape one woman, he could technically rape tens of other women without accumulating any knowledge or existential transformation; rather, the only enlightenment he might achieve is the partial evil emancipation from self-loathing upon plunging into another criminal act. On the other hand, the woman has transformed – from a woman – into a raped woman. My goodness! What does that really mean? How does a rapist’s eternal smell affect a woman’s political consciousness? That is precisely the knowledge available solely to the victim, and what politicians should do is step aside and listen – the victim will say that which we do not know, and she will say it in a way we couldn’t tell. That applies to all other injustices to which women are exposed, merely for being women. When we actually think about how ignorant we are of the reality of things, we must think of what hides beyond women’s silence in Sudan.
Patriarchy is a way of seeing life and treating present women. Feeding on omnipotent structures of masculinity, struggle has been founded upon the image of war, deriving its principles from its raw material, whereby courage is measured by pools of blood. However, if the soul of the struggle has been engrained and protected by courage, where do we place the reproachful soul, the distressed soul, enduring over terror? The soul born of nightmares, the soul that confronts life’s sharpened teeth? The soul that feeds what the courageous clatterer leaves behind? The soul that shelters his parents and relatives? The soul of those who face life with neither shield nor weapons? And what would the tougher struggle be; dying once, or a thousand deaths?
In mountains of resistance, summits do not jump on planes. The silent resistance led by women in Sudan is core to the struggle, even if it does not match up to the fighting phase; it is bounty rather than a shortcoming. Women’s nonviolent silent resistance is not less valuable but equally necessary to the more prominent phases. And perhaps they contain a more profound wisdom, one which we haven’t been invited to encounter yet. Patriarchal mentality is what has produced our social and political norms, formulated values, and stipulated customs, including the values and norms of struggles. Because the dictator is male too, and cannot breathe outside the confines of machoism, he has become the combatant’s contender for the values produced by the same patriarchal society that gave birth to them – machoism that is measured by torture and the gallows. And because we were raised upon values of knighthood and girth, the two sides of the conflict have joined the process of testing each other out based on that same configuration. Therefore, both dictator and fighter for freedom have thus shared the value of machoism, and danced around it with blood, in war and reconciliation, and approached each other to such a dangerous extent that renders the entire narrative of the struggle questionable. All this takes place as women pay the most horrific prices for the patriarchal mind, whose barren state found nothing better than war and fighting as a way for pushing each other around. A few women happen to approach the inferno of the free public space battle every once in a while. However, as soon as a woman approaches this male territory, the dictator recedes back to the quiver of the collective patriarchal mind, from which he draws an adequate sword – the sword of honour and purity. And here, lo and behold, the fighter for freedom also recedes, closer to the dictator – he is his equal in masculinity, and almost identifies with him; once an issue touches upon honour, you will find them as close to each other as possible, both aggressing the common genitals, while doubt infiltrates you from every corner.
Authority lies in the hands of the dictator, however, and he is now aware that honour is the loophole, the mortal weak link. And so he rapes women in Darfur, and uses them as a weapon to break their silent resistance and their people’s resilience, thereby rendering them a burden on their own society, becoming its Nemesis: honour is like glass once broken. I wonder, if we were to point out the real criminal behind the rape crimes in Darfur, would we reach a moment of self-awareness? Oppressive patriarchy is what has reduced women into disposable products that could be thrown into the kiln of honour. It is also patriarchy that turned purity into a weapon that the Janjaweed men could use against the Sudanese for humiliation. Had society put women in their rightful position, in their equal necessity, in their range of potentiality, their image wouldn’t have dwindled to the point where their bodies become a battlefield of war, strung between enemy and allied males.
Journalist Faisal Mohammed Saleh is quoted to have said during thinker Al-Khatim Adlan’s memorial service that the Sudanese opposition kept deferring the question around the real common denominator shared by the numerous sides of the opposition – as a way to gain time and avoid fragmentation. It was built around a minimal number of similarities in order to focus on the rescue at hand; taking down Al-Bashir regime. Faisal pointed out the current irrelevance of such excuse, and stated to the effect that the opposition must return to the starting point in order to answer difficult questions. Now, having learned the lesson on rape in Darfur, the incidents of rape and sexual assault that occur here and there, as well as the incidents of blackmail inflicted upon women engaged in social and political activism to break their determination, the Sudanese feminist movement must revisit those painful questions. Until then, the weapon of rape will remain the most effective in disintegrating the social fabric, and public space and activism will remain women’s forbidden fruit.
The struggle in Sudan is patriarchal. And its patriarchy has destroyed our existence, history, and political vision. We see it in the sanctification of an individual’s authority in political Sudanese literature, which is reproduced in the image of the knight. Barely could we find, tucked within this folklore, sporadic instances that include non-masculine summons of heroism, resistance, or endurance. In an interesting take by Dylan Valley on Sudanese-American Hajooj Kuka’s film (Beats of the Antonov), there appeared a popular sad Nubian song that reproaches youth joining the war; women address the recruited boy in their song and depict the appalling cruelty with which war steals childhood; “Don’t go to war,” they tell him, “the army boots are too big for you!”
Such a long way to the apartment!
Yes, the struggle in Sudan is patriarchal. And the patriarchy of the struggle doesn’t lie within its knighthood-derived values only, but also in its structures. For the traditional and religious party is built upon the spiritual authority of the Sayid (master), Imam, or guide. And even if the more modern customs were to allow a woman to preside over one of those parties, she would remain excluded from the original place of spiritual leadership, which cannot be but masculine. All the while, other parties had structured themselves through masculine imagination that reinforces women’s alienation and isolation. In reality, resistance will naturally react to the nature of the foe it fights. The enemy intercedes to formulate the discourse for the resistance, thus forcing the two to overlap. In modern colonial Sudan and post-colonial Sudan, the armies have taken over power, and the picture of the militant persisted as the dominant one in political imagination. Post-independence, the main parties were led to use the army, and so it ended up using them, whereby their modernist voices mixed with the army’s gruff voice, subsequently poisoning the entire public space with a crude patriarchal discourse; no wonder then…
If Sudan is to have a future, however, it would have to be contingent on acknowledging unheard voices. It should place women in their space of potential, and when creating the discourse of the struggle, try to abstain from shoving them into the corners of housekeeping. Even as women roam the house, the tree of struggle must maintain equal branches. And while men herald non-violent manifestos and battlefields, another war is actually taking place on the life front, in the fields of the left-behind and the forsaken, and it must not be overlooked. The time has come for us to listen to what women have to say: they are in fact operating inside the battlefield, and know about political failure what politicians don’t. Likewise, let us remember that Sudanese women wouldn’t be arriving at political spaces out of nowhere; they weren’t always tucked away as housekeepers. Not long ago, women in Sudan have filled public spaces, accordingly sharing them with men. However, even when abstaining from public work, women must not be simply dismissed from the act of moving life forward. Furthermore, if women are absent from the revolution, it is because they are too busy paying the bills of men’s struggles, at the expense of their own flesh. As long as social justice is lacking, there will always be someone out there being eaten alive without dying, every single moment. Women in my homeland, and especially women in Darfur and southern Nuba are ready for everything, even for life – as they hope for a better one. And life, for those unaware, is the nightmare they endure with hope. That mechanical hope, that physical habit recurrently activated in the body – the battlefield of all wars. There is no time for the soul, as if in that abandonment they could reach their full potential.
Once I was invited to a new-born’s Sammaya (naming ritual) in one of my friends’ houses in Kaduqli. Among my packed things I found a beautiful green Sudanese Toub, the least practical dress for a UN admin, my sister Sanaa had stuffed at the last minute (she knows life better than I do). I put on my green Toub and joined the crowd of women. During the Sammaya, neighbours and relatives gathered, and, right after, the aroma of brewed coffee intermingled with the burning incense in the air. They collected khattamoney for the child’s mother, and coins collected in the chief’s hand. The simple lessons of cooperation learned over hundreds of years aren’t necessarily so simple. Kerang music followed and the women alternately entered the circle. Through the Kerang dance, Nubians speak with the land without a mediator. Their words seem full of love but also intertwined with much blame. In this troubled region, land has long served as an object of desire. Kerang is the earth’s body and dancer’s body. With anguish and suffering, the stomping feet connect. In between moments, transcendence is reached: the dancer flies into the skies, completely liberated from anguish, for a moment at least, then descends to taste earth. The dancer looks into the faces; she sees them smile at such exercise, candour, understanding, and intense embrace.
*This translated piece was originally published on Specimen on May 25th, 2018.