O’Fahey Responds to Mamdani

by Jun 30, 2009All Articles

posted by Sean O’Fahey
I am sceptical as to how useful these kinds of exchanges are, but let me just comment on two issues, raise a few general questions and end with a mea culpa and some praise.

Professor Mamdani questions my understanding of “Arabization”, proposing the definition, “the spread of the Arabic language and an associated culture” and linking Darfur, the Funj and Mamluk Egypt under this rubric within some wider theoretical framework. In this sense “Arabization” does not seem to me to be a very useful analytical tool if applied so widely. “The spread of the Arabic language”, i.e. Arabicisation, occurred in all three areas, but unevenly and differently. In Darfur, Arabic became the written language of administration and a spoken lingua franca, but the spoken court language remained Fur until 1916. In this respect Darfur is in an intermediate position between Mamluk Egypt and the Hausa states of Northern Nigeria; in the latter, Hausa, Fulfulde and Arabic all functioned as written as well as spoken languages, while the Mamluk elites may have spoken Turkish, but wrote their voluminous chronicles in Arabic. “And an associated culture”? I assume this means some form of Islamic culture? But one can become Muslim and read the scripture in its original language without “becoming” Arab, as is the case in most of the Muslim world, not least in Africa. As a teenager in Mombasa, I read the Qur’an with a Swahili scholar in Arabic, but he commented on it in Swahili or English.

Arabization in Sudanese historiography has generally been used by historians (Yusuf Fadl Hasan, Spaulding and myself are only three of many) to describe the emergence along the Nile and in the neighbouring savanna regions from about the sixteenth century onwards of ethnic groups, Ja’aliyyin, Shayqiyya, Shukriyya, Kababish etc., who spoke Arabic and had genealogies linking them to putative ancestors in the Arabian Peninsula. Similar processes occurred among the cattle-and camel-keeping Arabic-speaking nomads of Wadai, Darfur and Kordofan (Baqqara and ‘Abbala), but here the impulses seemingly came from North and West Africa and within which the Fulani played an important part as Ulrich Braukämper has shown (Migration und ethnischer Wandel. Untersuchungen aus der Östlichen Sudanzone, Stuttgart 1992).

Secondly on “retribalization”; Professor Mamdani’s comments here run along a continuum from “benign cultural identity” to “malignant form of political discrimination” and defy serious analysis, but let me try at least a little. Pace my “shallow understanding” of retribalization, “it [retribalization leads] to a change in intermediaries (”tribal chiefs”) of rule, and then through a change in the rules themselves”. What does this actually mean? Does it mean that the British installed a new set of chiefs; there is no evidence for this. “A change of rules”; does this means they changed customary law? Again, there is again no evidence and indeed much to the contrary.

Mamdani continues that I now consider that the hakura was not as widespread “as [I] had previously thought”, but I never thought, or wrote, that it was widespread; others have made this assertion, not me. Here we enter the realm of fantasy with the opposition of settler and native in pre-colonial Darfur, but what do these terms mean in a Darfur context?

The problem here is that Mamdani does not understand that tribe (Ar. qabila) is in one sense a non-ethnic label (just as the name “Darfur” is older than Fur rule in the region — Fra Mauro in 1470!) and constantly shifts in content. The building blocks of what were/are conventionally called tribes are the clans (Ar. khashm al-bayt: Fur, orrenga); at this level the “ethnic” map of Darfur is much more complex than simply “settlers” and “natives”. Mamdani notes here that the sultans speeded up detribalization through their state administrators, the maqdums, recruited regardless of ethnicity, but virtually all rulers at whatever level throughout Darfur came from a different ethnic ackground to those they ruled, as the British well understood and with which they rarely interfered. The level of British understanding is illustrated in my forthcoming Darfur and the British. A Sourcebook.

Rather than continue this discussion, let me move on to Alex de Waal’s point about al-Turabi and company, rather than MacMichael, as bringing race and identity into the public sphere. This is where Mamdani’s ignorance of the Sudan’s colonial past is most striking. The British created in the northern Sudan the perfect “subaltern state”, a small educated elite recruited from the riverain “Arab” tribes living around Khartoum for whom they built a series of excellent schools and later a university. By the late 1920s this elite began to create an “Arab” identity for themselves; much of this debate centred around concepts of ‘uruba or “Arabness” (echoing similar debates in Egypt between faraoniyya and ‘uruba, “Egyptianness” and “Arabness”) and which were played out in local literary magazines, al-Fajr and al-Nahda. By the 1940s and ’50s this subaltern debate around “Arabness” had become the dominant discourse of the Sudanese ruling class and has remained so ever since. Membership of the Arab League (along with Somalia, not obviously Arab except by fictitious pedigree), endless debates in the ‘60s about an “Arab constitution”, and later the Islamist take-over in 1989 have all served to reinforce this trend. MacMichael’s Arabs in the Sudan has long since been superseded by ‘Abd al-Majid ‘Abdin’s al-Thaqafa al-’Arabiyya fi’l-Sudan [“Arabic Culture in the Sudan”] (Beirut, 1968) or ‘Awn al-Sharif Qasim’s Mawsu’a ‘an al-qaba’il wa’l-ansab fi’l-Sudan [Dictionary of the Tribes and Families in the Sudan] (6 vols., Khartoum, 1992-6) – these are both works of great scholarship, but have a host of cruder semi-popular imitators as progeny.

The colonialist’s real and most enduring contribution to the modern Sudan (apart from the creation of the state itself) was to create one of the most successful and articulate subaltern cultures in Africa. Mamdani concludes this section of his response by chiding Daly, de Waal and myself with empiricist naivety, presumably in the face of his greater theoretical sophistication. If this is the charge, then I for one cheerfully plead guilty. Of course, Mamdani is absolutely right; facts do not speak for themselves, but if we are going to speak for or to the facts, then let them be facts and not imported and supposed assumptions from elsewhere.

But it would be unfair for me to conclude on that note (historians can quibble endlessly). I found Professor Mamdani’s book abrasively stimulating in its main theme (which is not really a re-interpretation of Darfur’s history), namely his critique of the questionable assumptions and biases behind the Save Darfur Coalition. Mamdani raises these straightforwardly and courageously, namely the delusion propagated by the Save Darfur Coalition and others, that there is some quick
fix coming out of the West whereby if good people stand foursquare together the problems of Darfur (or wherever) can be solved and lives saved. By whom and how?

Responses to “O’Fahey Responds to Mamdani”
Ana Majnun:
May 18th, 2009 at 1:43 am
Ya doktoor,
It might be that the question is not whether Save Darfur was deluded, but rather whether a deluded Save Darfur movement is a useful counterweight to all the other Sudanese and international movements of delusion (Ingaz al-Watani? Qaddafi? Christian Solidarity International?) that occupy the various levels of political space that operate in Sudan. Dr. Mamdani constantly berates his readers to examine motives and put things in theoretical context, yet he reserves much of his own analysis for Save Darfur. Where is his analysis of SPLM? The cult of Dr. John? NIF project? JEM? I still think that the explanation for the focus on Save Darfur is very simple: it would sell books and could be written comfortably from a New York office, while an analysis of Dr. John and Dr. Riek would not. Yet, which analysis is more necessary? Let’s all agree to read and discuss more Sharon Hutchison, Cherry Leonardi, Oystein Rolandesen, Stephanie Beswick, Steve Paterno, Scopius Poggo, Bob Collins, etc. shall we? And maybe some Dave Eggers and Valentino Deng too,

David Barsoum:
May 19th, 2009 at 8:14 pm
Dear Professor O’Fahey
You refer to (clan) as equivalent to arabic(khashm albeit).I respectfully disagree.(Clan) is the English for (Asheera).

Sean O’Fahey:
May 20th, 2009 at 6:16 am
Dear David Barsoum,

‘Ashira is not, as far as I know, used in Darfur. But you are right, a better translation for khashm al-bayt would be lineage.

Abd al-Wahab Abdalla:
May 21st, 2009 at 8:50 am
Ana Majnun is very sensible here. There are so many agendas at work on Darfur and Save Darfur is just one of them. In fact, as the Darfur crisis changes its character and other issues emerge we shouldn’t be surprised if Save Darfur splits into different factions and tendencies.

When we are talking about delusion and wilful ignorance, the real wilful ignorance is by the government of Sudan. The self-delusion or denialism of the Sudanese national leadership over what happened in Darfur is quite simply mind-boggling. In Darfur itself, each side denies the crimes that they perpetrated on the other. President Bashir admits that his government must take “responsibility” but doesn’t give a hint of an apology or a speck of remorse. Abd al-Wahid and Khalil are so self-righteous that they have no conception of the wirlwind of destruction they unleashed on their people.

David Barsoum:
May 21st, 2009 at 11:10 am
Dear Prof.O’Fahey
I share your scepticism regarding the usefullness of these exchanges.However contributions by people like you,Prof.Mamdani,Alex De Waal,John Prendergast and others,would be of benefit,if they were to be employed in search of the answer to the question :Can the Sudan and the Sudanese,solve these problems and create a united,democratic state? Are the studies and all the efforts that were made,to study the history,the sociology of Sudan,in which you more than distinguished yourself,basis for unity or justificatrions for fragmentation?I hope you consider thinking of dealing with this question and generate a debate along these lines.Thank you.

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