Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Sudan: the class war in the capital

Over the past few years the Sudanese press has dedicated more and more space to coverage of crime, reports that attract a greater readership than the seesaw of Juba-Khartoum relations and the bellicose politics of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and its opponents. In fact, the widest distributing paper in Sudan, al-Dar, is wholly dedicated to crime and scandal, feeding a steady stream of the bizarre, extreme and shocking to the gossip rounds of the nation, associated in the rule with the lengthy multi-event weddings and extended funerals that channel rather than interrupt daily life. 
Thanks to an ever increasing number of cars and internet-wired mobile phones, the more affluent middle-class inhabitants of Khartoum and other major towns of the Sudanese heartland converted the norms of the extended family into an urban art of socializing. Well informed about the calamities that befall their own families as well as those of colleagues, friends and acquaintances through the gifts of communications technology, they find themselves obliged to criss-cross the capital offering congratulations and condolences as the situation might require. The less committed of course might restrict these mujamalat (courtesies) to a phone call or a text message but drop them they cannot, to the extent that the distinctive marker of a middle-class Khartoum funeral is no more the anguished cries of bereaved relatives but the cacophony of ringtones and exhibit of parked cars, the more the higher the social value of the event. 
In addition to birth, wedding and death less cyclical misfortunes like a burglary or a car accident are also occasions for a mujamala, in this case prayers for kafara, i.e. consideration of the mishap as credit necessary to delete past sins from personal history. When suffering from his throat ailment late last year President Bashir invoked the kafara principle. He told a small group of supporters who assembled in the Sudanese embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, after undergoing a medical procedure that his throat complaints were a kafara for whatever grievances his citizens might have against him. 
Sudan’s upper class proper, like their global counterparts, have the means to shield themselves and their property from the menaces of the less fortunate. In recent years, gated communities have mushroomed in Khartoum’s suburbia with private security firms taking over the responsibility for protection instead of the regular police, accused in popular perception of colluding with the very burglars they are supposed to nip and sharing in the booty of nocturnal house calls. With the withdrawal of the filthy rich from the city to their own sharia-free ‘liberated’ mini-worlds the immediate ramifications of class conflict play out orders of wealth lower, foremost in the crime-exposed neighbourhoods of the upper middle class still wholly dependent on state benevolence for security and services. 
As a boy growing up in Omdurman in the 1980s I remember vividly our neighbourhood burglar, a lone bachelor who despite his disrepute enjoyed the respect of children for being an adult and that of adults for adhering to a minimum degree of civility. Hasan spent his free time off burglary selling weed at discount prices to a small clientele of local craftsmen, shopkeepers and rebellious secondary school lads and running a one-man delivery service of ‘aragi’ (the famous Sudanese dates liquor) for respectable gentlemen who could not possibly risk buying the stuff themselves. A keen observer would spot Hasan in sneak mode gliding through the streets from this to that door during the early night hour when dependents were in trance watching the daily Egyptian series and the alpha males pretended to be waiting for the main news bulletin of the day but had their ears perked in expectation of his welcome drop-off. 
When business was down for any reason, or he just wanted to, Hasan would resort to stealing the bed sheets left hanging on washing lines by busy housewives, the random cassette player forgotten in the yard, and when lucky the odd piece of gold jewellery neglected by an anxious bride in the rush of matrimonial duty. In that regard, Hasan was more a scavenger than an active burglar. He did climb over walls, usually in the dark hour before dawn, but mostly only to pick whatever surplus of household items was on display. In return, Hasan had the duty to guard the neighbourhood against competing burglars, and in that he proved quite efficient, usually the first to shout harami (thief) whenever he spotted one during his regular rounds, and the most vicious in punishing trespassers of his domain. 
Almost every house in the neighbourhood lived partly off the dispatches of an expatriate son or daughter, cash of course as well as consumer products, electrical appliances, clothes, sugar, toothpaste, you name it. Hasan, like all neighbourhood residents, awaited the annual home vacations of these generous providers with great hope. Keen to avoid his intrusions, judged as particularly scary for children growing up in the safety and wellbeing of the Arab Gulf, the better off parents preferred to buy Hasan’s abstinence from the job with gifts, a new shirt or cloth for a new jellabiya was usually sufficient to secure his compliance. This precarious symbiosis was obviously not made to last. Trespassing gangs of thieves outcompeted Hasan as the capital received more and more impoverished migrants from Sudan’s devastated rural communities, drought stricken and war ravaged. He was soon accused of assisting the “strangers” through reconnaissance or the passage of crucial information on the in-country itinerary of vising expatriates. The new burglary model of which Hasan was charged featured ethnicity as a diagnostic cue of criminality. Being a Nuba, he was accused of siding with his kin in forcibly taxing dispatches from the Arab Gulf. 
Private property had by then acquired greater significance, partially as a result of the combined effect of the deterioration in living standards in the capital and the inflow of hard earned remittances from abroad. It was in Ramadan, the fasting month when believers are encouraged to share in the woes of the less fortunate by abstaining from food and drink from dawn to dusk, that the discrepancies between an emerging class of particularly pious nouveau riches and the sin-inclined majority were glaringly on display. Electricity generators and air conditioners turned Ramadan into a vacation of indulgence for the few while chronic power and water cuts kept the left behind permanently praying. Some envious evil-doers were even tempted to sabotage those beastly generators in order to silence their exhibitionist noise, torture pure that robbed the sinners destined to endure the glowing coals of Ramadan unmediated by modern devices of their only consolation, sleep.
The ideology of the remittance economy featured on one hand a jealous passion for private property and on the other confirmed faith in the infinite wisdom and superiority of sharia. Fidelity to sharia was perceived in this context as the reason behind a divine welfare scheme for the good Moslems of the Arab Gulf and its disregard as one definitive cause for Allah’s wrath towards the bad Moslems of Sudan. Echoes of the same notion are still operative today and can be discerned in the controversial statements of the one member of parliament who at least has something remarkable to say compared to the party-line parrots in the house, Dafalla Hasab al-Rasoul. The punitive sharia regime introduced by Nimayri in September 1983 functioned in part as a tool to safeguard the wealth of the nouveau riches from the extended hands of the rabble. The prompt justice courts manned by power-hungry sharia judges were welcomed as such by this powerful constituency at a time when the Sudanese judiciary was triple crippled, overwhelmed by the sheer number of criminal cases awaiting adjudication, depopulated by its Gordonian-trained staff of judges and prosecutors who found more attractive employment in the Arab Gulf and paralyzed by the intermittent strikes of those who held out. 
Today, even sharia seems incapable of disciplining Khartoum’s armed gangs, the professionals who have slipped out of the subversive civility of the likes of Hasan to join a global knighthood of adroit operators. Last year a troop of such men and women targeted the house of the NCP heavyweight Qutbi al-Mahdi, a Canadian citizen, and managed to get away with a cache of foreign currencies and gold. They security services eventually captured some of them but the trial proceedings proved a greater embarrassment for Qutbi than for the ‘criminals’ behind bars. I suppose Bertolt Brecht’s resonating indictment “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” would have served them well in court. “Hungry man, reach for the book, it is a weapon,” he also said. Hasan recently passed away in an Omdurman hospital. Farewell ya my friend.
Creative Commons Licence
This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.