With the current war in Sudan unleashing even more violence and suffering in the West Darfur region, it’s more important than ever to bring attention to this area of the globe. Here, we offer a brief excerpt from the postscript of Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf’s 2021 book about the complex history of Darfur. Darfur Allegory marries the analytical precision of a committed anthropologist with an insider’s view of Sudanese politics at home and in the diaspora, laying bare the power of words to heal or perpetuate civil conflict. If this passage resonates, you can learn more about the ongoing crisis in Darfur in these recent articles from the New York Times and BBC.
Darfur the Rhizome
The ethnographic materials that formed the basis for Darfur Allegory were gathered well before the onset of the Sudanese December Revolution of 2018 that resulted, in April 2019, in the ouster of Omar Al-Bashir, who had brutally ruled the Sudan for thirty years. I cannot, however, avoid touching upon the emotions that engulfed the Sudanese people and Darfuris in particular in the aftermath of these events. Undoubtedly, the Revolution was a cosmically powerful, seemingly miraculous event that no one thought possible in light of the regime’s ongoing brutality. The fast-moving currents swirling through the country, which have direct bearing on Darfur, militate against a conventional conclusion. Indeed, I could settle the matter by saying Darfur as an idea is about multiple stories branching into thousands of others. At its heart are issues splitting into minute arteries, veins, and capillaries that can be viewed only with microscopic scrutiny. The most important of these veins is the noticeable Darfuri recalibration of self and identity in diverse contexts, as we have seen in the Homestead, Doha, Tel Aviv, and Baltimore and environs. Throughout, I have stressed that Darfuri people are not victims but agents of change, as evidenced in both the innermost and collective facets of their lives. An obvious conclusion, therefore, is one I simply borrow from Deleuze and Guattari, the notion of the rhizome and multiplicity that challenges overdetermined answers and representations. Having described the complexity of the Darfur crisis throughout this ethnography, I can easily insist that a neat conclusion is an unwieldy if not altogether dizzying exercise. In short, I am confused.
But that does not quite satisfy. Despite my circumspection, I have also thought that touching on the Revolution can perhaps catch in a meaningful way what Richard Sorabji calls contractive and expansive emotions prevailing among the Darfuri populace. At first, exultation at the victory of the Revolution was incontestably real, followed soon after by uncertainty and despair about the situation of IDPs and the fate of the ousted Al-Bashir and the ICC. I turn to joy first.
In this ethnography, interlocutors in and outside of the Sudan bewailed the invisibility of the Darfur crisis post-2003, caused in large part by diminishing media attention. As we have seen, when Darfur turned into a ground zero of devastation and terror in 2003, significant attention focused on the manifold causes of the conflict. However, subsequent media silence led to the belief that the region’s plight would never attract international attention and hence anxiety that the prevailing environment of impunity would never end. Nevertheless, the Sudanese Revolution has caused hopes to soar as Darfur’s predicament came to figure prominently in the political drama being enacted. In particular, high expectations were placed on the new government to effect the long-awaited surrender of Al-Bashir to the ICC.
Moved by a powerful revolutionary fervor, Darfuris had arrived at Khartoum in droves to join the months-long sit-ins in front of the Army Central Command. Scenes of protesters carrying slogans such as “You arrogant racists, the whole country is Darfur” were everywhere, and for those Darfuris who remained at home, seeing their fellow citizens involved in protest was of great significance. As I, a Sudanese, followed the daily coverage on Hadath TV, I too was heartened by these slogans. Exceptionally powerful was a video I viewed in which young Darfuri women in their colorful dresses headed a demonstration chanting, “Freedom, peace, and justice. No more Zurqa or Arab. We are all Sudanese. Revolution. Revolution. Revolution.” The crowd of men behind them, waving a Sudanese flag, repeated rhythmically in unison, “Freedom, peace, and justice. Revolution is the people’s choice.” “Madania [civilian],” they chanted. “Madaniaaaaaaooooo! Madaniaaaaaaoooo!” exaggerating the word, drawing it out for emphasis. In their gleeful cheers, I heard conviction articulated with gusto and courage. In Tel Aviv, jubilation at the Revolution’s victory swept through the Darfuri community. Simultaneously, Darfuris in exile in the US along with their fellow Sudanese people marched in front of the White House calling for the government to act in support of those back home in their resolve to overthrow Al-Bashir.
Repeated statements by the formidable Forces of Freedom and Change in the Sudan, a coalition of oppositional groups that organized the strikes and rallies, stressed that “the Sudanese cause remains a unified concern and its solution must be comprehensive and indivisible.” This solidarity too was a source of celebration across the breadth and length of the Sudan. History tells us that the Sudanese people have time after time gallantly mastered the art of revolution-craft. Educated by harsh circumstances, they have emerged as what Grant Farred calls “vernacular intellectuals.” The sit-ins were a stage that bore witness to a ritual reenactment of solidarity and connection. The protesters sat down to both defy and define the political future.
Yet, in spite of the euphoria and the rising ululations, Sudanese people also learned an important lesson: to remain more vigilant and wary of the subtleties of power dynamics than usual during times of dramatic political change. Along with exultation, there was a sense of foreboding.
Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf is professor of anthropology at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Georgetown University.