On August 2, as General Shams al-Din al-Kabashi emerged from a house in Omdurman, protesters ambushed him with anti-military chants. Al-Kabashi, who is a member of the ruling sovereign council dominated by the military, had supposedly just had an hours-long meeting with supporters of deposed President Omar al-Bashir.
While the protesters’ anger was understandable, given that the military leadership continues to resist dismantling al-Bashir’s regime, some of them went beyond political chants and started shouting racial slurs at the general, who is darker-skinned and hails from the Nuba Mountains region, an area in the southern part of Sudan where most communities are of African descent.
This racist episode came just a few weeks after Sudanese social media users mounted a campaign of racist abuse against a famous footballer from west Sudan, Issam Abdulraheem, after he posted a photo of himself and his wife, Reem Khougli, a makeup artist who happens to be a light-skinned Arab.
Seeing this a bit more than a year after Sudan had its first Black Lives Matter moment is quite disheartening. As the Sudanese people battled al-Bashir’s tyranny last year, many came to the realisation that defeating his regime would mean not only toppling him and wresting political power out of the hands of the military but also dismantling the vast system of racial and socioeconomic oppression that has dominated every aspect of Sudanese life since before his rule.
The Sudanese revolution embraced national unity and vowed to build a “new Sudan” on the foundations of socioeconomic and racial justice and equality. But these recent racist incidents show just how far away we are from achieving it.
Race and racism in Sudan
Sudan is an ethnically diverse country. While the majority is made up of Muslim Arab-speaking tribes of various backgrounds, there are many non-Arabised ethnic groups, including, Nubians, Beja, Fur, Nuba (ethnically different from Nubians), Fallata and others. These communities have been historically marginalised, discriminated against and politically ostracised.
Part of the reason for this has to do with British colonialism, which favoured some tribes over others, but much of it also is related to Sudan’s pre-colonial history. In the seventh century, the Christian Nubian state of Makuria concluded a treaty (known as al-Baqt) with Egypt’s Arab conquers, which among other provisions included the transfer of 360 slaves per year to new Egyptian rulers. This established Sudan as a source of slaves for Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.
Over the following centuries, Arab tribes gradually migrated into Sudanese lands and intermarried with the local Black African population, thus gradually Arabising it. Some of these tribes engaged in the slave trade. The gradual Arabisation dislocated culturally parts of Sudan from Africa, solidifying the belief of Arab superiority and native non-Arabised inferiority and laying the foundations of modern Sudan’s identity crisis. Those who were enslaved were almost exclusively members of the non-Muslim non-Arabised tribes.
After independence, the Sudanese society continued to be plagued by this historical legacy. Growing up in the 1980s in Sudan, I was aware of these racial divisions. I myself come from an Arabic-speaking tribe and am considered an Arab in Sudan.
I went to a private school in Khartoum, run by missionaries, where the majority of students there were children of displaced families from the south, mostly Christians. A foreigner would probably have thought all of us looked the same, but to a Sudanese, there was a huge difference – I was an Arab and one or two shades lighter than my classmates, which gave me immense privilege.
Although I did not know why exactly I was “superior” to my darker non-Arab classmates, I knew for sure I was because everyone important I saw on television looked like me. Indeed, political and economic power was almost exclusively in the hands of members of the Arabised tribes.
This oppression and marginalisation had led to the first Sudanese civil war (1955-72) and then in the 1980s to another one. When al-Bashir came to power through a military coup in 1989 backed by Islamist forces, this situation deteriorated further. Discrimination and violence against non-Muslims and non-Arabs got worse, as his regime sought to frame the conflict in religious terms.
Around that time, my family had to leave for Qatar as part of the huge exodus of Sudanese professionals who got sacked for not being part of the National Islamic Front.
This is when my world turned upside down. My parents put me in a public school in Doha, where I was surrounded by Arabs from the Gulf, Levant, and North Africa. The kids knew I was an “Arab” but made fun of my accent, hair and skin colour. I had not only lost my privilege but for the first time in my life faced racism and discrimination. I was only 11 years old.
This shift, as well as the realisation that I had been part of the normalisation of anti-Blackness, affected me deeply as a teenager. I would regularly fight with classmates who called me abid (slave) only to go back to my community and hear north Sudanese people like me use the same word for anyone from the non-Arabised tribes. Indeed, the Sudanese people are a prime example of Black people being both the victim and the perpetrator of racism.
The 1990s for me were marked by news of the Sudanese war, where rebel groups of the predominantly Christian south fought al-Bashir’s army, the normalisation of anti-Black “jokes” by my Arab classmates, and my introduction to American culture, with sitcoms like Friends and Seinfeld, where no one looked like me, and conscious hip-hop, where everyone looked like me.
In the 2000s, the war in the south gave way to the Darfur conflict, where again Khartoum fought Darfuri tribes of African descent by arming what is commonly known as Darfuri Arabs, a mixture of Arabic-speaking local and migrant tribes. That was the time when I struggled with denial about the racism in my own community.
Years later, while travelling as a Black artist to exhibitions where my art was showcased, I saw first-hand how white supremacy had empowered more sophisticated forms of racism and anti-Blackness around the world. While in the West, I saw white people oppressing people of colour, in Africa, it was Black people oppressing people who looked just a shade darker than them, spoke a different tongue, or came from a different social class.
These life experiences have shaped me as an artist and guided the politics of my art – be it cartoons, installations or film.
Sudan’s Black Lives Matter moment
Although many of us in the diaspora walked this path of self-reflection on privilege and racism in Sudan, many of our compatriots remaining in the country did not. This was at least until last year when the Sudanese revolution erupted and the regime deployed in the north the same violent tactics it had used in the south and Darfur.
Protesters in Khartoum, Omdurman, and elsewhere faced beatings, shootings, rape and torture. Those who perpetrated these brutal acts were the same fighters who had been deployed in Darfur to wreak havoc on impoverished and marginalised communities. The protests brought together citizens from all over the country and cross-communal solidarity started to emerge, as people shared their stories of violence and pain.
And then one day in February, during a protest in Khartoum, the crowd broke into a new chant: “Ya unsuri w maghrur, kol albalad Darfur [hey you racist and arrogant, all the country is Darfur].” This was probably the first time that so many people in the north faced off with the military regime and showed solidarity with Darfur. This was our Black Lives Matter moment of Sudan.
Thus the country united. The dictator fell. And a new beginning was promised to people of all ethnicities and colours.
But more than a year later, not only are racial slurs still regularly used for non-Arab Sudanese people, but little has changed for Darfurians and other marginalised communities as well.
In July, violence erupted in the region once again, killing at least 60 people. According to the United Nations, some 2,500 people had to flee to Chad as the situation remains unstable. The Sudanese media, which now supposedly enjoys more freedom than under al-Bashir, ignored the news, demonstrating just how little Darfurian lives matter in Khartoum.
A month earlier, when mass protests erupted following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of police officers in the United States, there was no official reaction. That, of course, should not come as a surprise given that the Sudanese elite continues to deny its Africanness and behaves like a settler-colonial authority.
But common people, who last year were in the streets fighting for a better future for their country, also seemed uninterested.
“We are all Black people here [ie there is no anti-Black racism]”, “we have bigger problems than Black people in America”, “people die every day in Yemen or Syria, how come we don’t hear about them” – these were some of the comments I heard when I or other activists spoke up about Black Lives Matter in Sudan.
Building a new Sudan – the one we imagined last year when al-Bashir fell – will take a long time and a lot of hard work. The transitional government made some positive steps by choosing some professionals from marginalised communities for important posts, such as Justice Minister Nasreldin Abdelbari, who is of Fur background.
But we will make no progress until we realise that the anti-racism struggle at home and worldwide has to be an integral part of that process. We need to stand with our brothers and sisters in Darfur, in the rest of Africa and the rest of the world.
We have to stand for Black Lives Matter, we have to embrace our Blackness, in a land literally called the land of the Black people and accept that some of us are both African and Arab.
Individually, we have to be the change we want, we have to lay the foundations of a Sudan for all, where future generations can live in peace and harmony.