Crisis of Identity in Northern Sudan

Among the elements that constitute a crisis of identity in any community, one can identify three that are applicable to the Northern Sudanese: In Search of Identity......

Editor’s Note:
It is difficult for the average South Sudanese to read Al-Bagir al-Afif Mukhtar’s revelations of the chaotic psychological state of mind in which the average North Sudanese finds himself today and still fails to appreciate the solidity of his own traditional background. While in the North the fusing of African and Arab blood over the centuries has resulted in the physical appearance of the average Northerner, the psychological North Sudanese is a confused being indeed. Below is an abstract from: “A paper presented at the CODSRIA African Humanities Institute Tenured by the Program of African Studies at the Northwestern University, Evanston”. It is written in American English and the full text may be retrieved from documents on this website. Have a good read and should a topic for discussion presents itself, please post it on the discussion site: Elements of the Crisis in Northern Sudan.

Crisis of Identity in Northern Sudan
A Dilemma of a Black people with a White Culture.

By the Editor 

First, there is a disparity between Northerners’ self-perception of their identity and others’ perception of them. Northerners think of themselves as Arabs, whereas the Arabs think otherwise. Northerners’ experience in the Arab world, and especially in the Gulf, proved to them beyond any doubt that the Arabs do not really consider them as Arabs, but rather as abid, (sing. abd), slaves. Almost every Northerner in the Gulf has had the unpleasant experience of being called abd. The Arabs of the Middle East, and especially those of the Arab Peninsula, and the Fertile Crescent, represent the in-group of the Arab identity that Northerners aspire to. These “real Arabs” occupy the center stage of this identity, and enjoy the power of legitimizing or de-legitimizing the peripheries’ claims. The Northerners, on the other hand, represent the outer circle of the Arab identity, occupy the periphery and wait to be drawn closer to the center, as a sign of recognition. Mis-recognition of any group by others, especially if these others represent the center of identity, can inflict serious damage in that group. In Charles Taylor's own words, "a person or a group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirrors back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves". Far from recognizing Northerners as Arabs, the center dubbed them ‘abid, and thus kept them, to use Taylor’s term, in a “reduced mode of being”.

The second element of the crisis of identity in Northern Sudan is concerning “ambiguity” about identity. Northerners came face to face with this symptom especially in Europe and America where people are classified into ethnic and social categories. In 1990, a group of Northern Sudanese in Birmingham in Britain convened a meeting to discuss how to fill in the Local Council’s Form, and especially the question about the social category. They felt that they did not fit in any of the categories that include, among others, “White, Afro-Caribbean, Asian, Black African, and Others”. It was clear to them to tick on “Others”, but what was not clear was whether to specify as “Sudanese, Sudanese Arab, or just Arab”. There was a heated discussion before they finally settled on “Sudanese Arab”. When the question why not to tick on the category of Black African was raised, the immediate response was that, “but we are not blacks”. When another question raised the point why not just say Sudanese, the answer was that: “Sudanese include Northerners and Southerners, and, therefore, does not give an accurate description of us”. Ambiguity about identity was also observed in the feeling of dismay Northerners usually experience when they discover, for the first time. 

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