Cultural Contrasts and Confluence

Khalid Al Mubarak
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Date: 14/09/2012


Immediately after independence in 1956, thousands of Sudanese students left home for university studies abroad. Some have never returned. Some have returned but have written very little about their experience of contact with Europe and America.
As one of those who have returned, I hope to fill the “gap of silence” about some aspects of Sudanese encounters with “the other” or with the Khawajat in their home ground.
Industrial Society Mentality:
One of the most glaring differences between a “peasant or nomadic” mindset and the sociological make up of those who grow up in an industrial society is the contrast between vagueness and precision. I still remember a German song that was popular in East Germany in the 1960s (when were were students there):

Ich sah ein schones Fraulein
    Im letzten Autobus 
    Sie hat mir so gefallen
    Drum gab ich sie ein kuss
“I saw a lovely girl
In the last bus
I liked her so much
That I waved her a kiss”

Ibrahim Al Kashif
Ibrahim Al Kashif

What is “given “here is the existence of a timetable for the first bus, the last bus and the weekend buses. The table (together with a map of the bus’s route) is on the side of the bus stop which is roofed to protect waiting passengers from weather extremes. Nowadays in London, they have a small screen that tells waiting passengers when the next bus is due. We did have something similar when we had “Abu Rigiela” buses in the 1950’s. They left every quarter hour from the central station Omdurman. I used to take that bus or the tram regularly to the Congress Secondary School (that gave me fee-paying refuge when we were dismissed from Hantoub for occupying the school).
I was encouraged by the interest shown in London Transport by Dr. Abdurahman Al Khidir during his recent visit to the UK. The fruits of that interest will be most welcome. 
Precision in industrial societies is a necessity. During the industrial revolution in England, the breaks for workers were so strict that nursing mothers had a “breast-feeding window” that enabled them to stay inside the factory but walk to the window to breast feed the baby who is held from outside by a grandmother.
Conditions are much better today but they are strict. I know that from experience. Like most students I once needed money and worked for 2 weeks at a factory near Reading that made tea and ash trays. The sheets of aluminium are fed into the machines, if you are absent-minded or if you delay withdrawing your hand, the machine can harm you. The number of trays produced was carefully calculated and compared daily. So was the performance of workers at the different lines of production. You clock in and out at given times and break for lunch. No vagueness.
This is the mentality behind setting a definite price to the trays (no room for bargaining).
By contrast we bargain with the shopkeepers or greengrocers. The joke that the price of a melon depends on the model of car you are driving summarises this. If you stop at the greengrocers with an expensive brand new car, the price of the melons will skyrocket. If you park at a distance and walk, the price would be much lower.

Abdul-Rahman Al-Khidir
Abdul-Rahman Al-Khidir

We talk about “atayyat muzayyin” a “handout to a beautician” for what we pay the hairdresser. In industrial societies, it is a recognised job with a list of prices for the different haircuts and different age-groups, pensioners and children pay less. The barber knows how much to charge and you know how much to pay. The tip is extra and optional.
We often underestimate the modernising influence of schools with the 45-minute periods, the time-limit for exams and the timed beginning and end of school day. This competes with the customs of saying “nearly” or “we will visit you in the evening” without specifying what part of the long evening.
In the cities, as expected we now phone before we visit (at least to make sure that the friends and family are at home)
Another indicator is the street names. Successive governors of Khartoum have tried and failed to make street name plaques all over the capital. Plaques from the colonial era still exist in central Khartoum; but home delivery of the mail has not been preserved. In the sixties, I used to write letters to house 450/2/2 in Omdurman and all my letters were delivered by the postman to our family headquarters.
There are maps of the three cities of our capital but, without street names they are not much help. I am aware of a highly qualified committee that has revised the names of streets; but whatever the result, the new names become irrelevant if they are not to be seen at the entrance of the street and if the numbers of houses are not clearly displayed. When they speak about the rule of law in the industrialised societies they also mean strict application of the law in driving license rules and regulations. How many citizens have we lost in motorway accidents because a semi illiterate driver somehow got a license and led coach passengers and others to their demise.

Khartoum Buses
Khartoum Buses

Transport, especially the trains, is often mentioned in our songs by Zingar, Sayyed Khalifa and others; but always in vague references. The best contrast to the East German song, however, is a famous song by Ibrahim Al Kashif in which he says:

“Habibi Ah,
Galbi Tah,
Fi youm azziara”
Oh my beloved
I’ve lost my heart
On the day of visits.

Friday was the day on which women in the sixties were allowed to leave home unchaperoned in order to visit relatives or neighbours in hospitals. Although there were visiting hours, Al Kashif sings about the whole day (youm).
Sometimes the concepts of time and timing can cause embarrassment. On 1st May 2012 in London, a leading Southern Sudanese politician, Pagan Amum, arrived more than half an hour late for the Overseas Development Institute’s event in which he was the main speaker and did not bother to apologise to those attending. We deserved and expected an apology; but got none because his Excellency was not aware that to be half an hour late was a grave matter,
Summer Dress codes are also an indicator. We the Sudanese are almost unanimous in our suspicion of the behaviour of the Khawajat. Especially reprehensible is their unashamed readiness to take off their clothes in summer resorts and lie down almost naked. I still remember the day I was shocked in Bristol when I saw a middle age Khawajyya lie down with a “symbolic” swimming suit only at the opposite balcony.
I remembered her when the GP asked to see me to discuss the results of my blood test. “No problem”, she said except lack of a vitamin that makes you almost anaemic. You need some sunshine, because vitamin D can only be provided by your skin’s exposure to the sun.
Suddenly, a long list of question marks was answered. It is not degeneration; but necessity that drives the khawajat, young and old to bare their bodies without hesitation in summer, on the beach or the balcony.
Both the Khawajat and Sudanese need vitamin D and other vitamins and minerals, because, notwithstanding different complexion or social background, they share their common humanity under the skin.

By Khalid Al Mubarak, 14/09/2012

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