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Counting the “Missing People” of Omdurman: Theatrics in Khartoum, Sudan

[Khartoum Skyline. Image by Mutaz Photography (Mutaz Elneel) via Wikimedia Commons.] [Khartoum Skyline. Image by Mutaz Photography (Mutaz Elneel) via Wikimedia Commons.]

[The essay is based on collaboration between the two authors. AbdouMaliq Simone conducted and wrote the field research about the drama school; he then invited Jadaliyya Cities Page co-editor, Hiba Bou Akar, to contribute. Simone’s field research is based on his life in Khartoum in 1987-1990, and this contribution is part of a larger work in which he reflects on “black urbanism” across cities in Africa, the Middle East, and North America through the figure of Malcolm X. Bou Akar’s contribution is based on secondary sources to provide an overview of the urban context of Khartoum in 1980s and the conflict around the 2008 census; she develops the conceptual framings of the problematic of “body counts” and the contestations around it at two moments: urban Khartoum in 1980s and the census after the end of the Second Sudanese war in 2005.] 

Way back in the day before Omar al-Bashir[1] and who knows how many others behind the scenes, made their move to take over Sudan in a grip that still persists decades later, the theater program at the University of Khartoum was located far away from the main campus in a disheveled, almost forgotten part of Omdurman.[2] For the surrounding residents, the presence of students dedicated to drama stirred feelings that alternated between a godsend, an insatiable curiosity, or mostly an incurable irritant. For deep in the night, arguments among the contentious student body seemed like interminable rehearsals for a final show constantly deferred, as no one wanted to graduate and face probable permanent unemployment or, at best, positions as school teachers in rural Yemen. Baathists, Ansars, Khatmiyya, Communists, Secularists, Islamists, Christians, Animists, Progressive Muslims, and Radical Democrats would fight nightly over a range of concerns, from the seemingly most minute details associated with the management of their dormitory to the larger issues gripping their country. These arguments were interrupted only by the search for home-brews or smoke best suited to their respective playing of the margins of propriety. The only thing that seemed to bring them together in what would eventually prove to be a masterful interweaving of inventiveness and stealth was the conviction that the authorities were seriously and intentionally undercounting the population of Khartoum, and Omdurman in particular, its conjoined twin across the Nile River.

At the time, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced from the violent conflicts in neighboring countries, such as Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, flooded cities of metropolitan Khartoum—including Khartoum, Omdurman, and Northern Khartoum. These cities were also the destination for thousands of internally displaced populations (IDPs) who fled the two civil wars in Sudan (1955-1972 and 1983-2005), in addition to others who were displaced by droughts and desertification. The population of Khartoum and Omdurman soared.[3] Being of a different tribal, ethnic, and/or religion than the majority of the inhabitants of Khartoum at the time, who mostly identified as Arab and Muslim, these incoming displaced bodies were racialized as “darker-skinned.” Official and local discourses constructed these racialized categories, simultaneously through a reductionism and an excessiveness of tribal, religious, ethnic, and class differences. Yet, these racialized bodies were to remain invisible to the official Sudanese population count.[4] The post-independence official discourse of Sudan adopted being Arab and Muslim as the prevailing elite Sudanese national identity, centered in the capital Khartoum, while marginalizing other Sudanese identities. In Omdurman, “darker-skinned” residents from Darfur, Kordofan, the Blue Nile, Nuba Mountains, and the Southern provinces seemed to be lumped into timeworn slave calculations where it took four or five bodies to make a single individual.[5]

[Map of Khartoum and Omdurman via Google Earth.]

There were many motivations for maintaining Khartoum, through the official counts, as a pleasantly sized city instead of the messy metropolis it was. First, it allowed the long-time ruling family networks to maintain the myth of Sudan’s multiracial composition and keep their privileges without having to confront a “darker-skinned” city with minimal interests in fine-grained constructed differences rooted in theological or ideological matters. Residents largely understood that, if they were to make it in this city, they would have to demonstrate sufficient loyalty to one of many combinations of ethnic, tribal, religious, geographical and political identities to help put bread on the table. But they could not spend too much effort demonstrating their fidelity to these identities that they took on. People needed time to also figure out what they were missing exactly in not having taken on the identities that their neighbors took on, which often were different from their own. Evident in the late 1980s in Umbadda, a poorer section of a highly-mixed area in Omdurman, was that space and time were implicitly delegated for people of different backgrounds to at least touch upon each other's lives and pay attention to their fellow neighbors in large part through late night markets, Zar rituals, and nocturnal “neighborhood strolling.” That Khartoum was like many of intensely segregated cities in manifesting a certain exuberance and practice of boundary crossing. As the majority of such urban residents live on slim margins, there was a need for the circulation of ideas, strategies, tricks, information that maximize the possibilities of household and individual efficacy. These usually did not come from people who are “just like you” and so, economies of mutual attention were forged that avail diverse experiences to a wide range of residents. These differences enabled people in Khartoum to access a multitude of resources to make it in the city together.

[Bazaar in Omdurman. Image by Petr Adam Dohnálek via Wikimedia Commons.]

Despite the possibilities that racial, ethnic, tribal, and religious differences allowed people in metropolis Khartoum, many—especially “darker-skinned” refugees and IDPs—remained “missing” from the official narrative. Now the students at the drama school may have indeed had their own sectarian motivations for trying to beef up the official body count, but all were truly incensed by all the racialized “missing people” and set out to do something about it. They knew this could not be a matter of administering a systematic census or household surveys. Not only would they be interrupted and detained by the authorities in no time, but also asking any member of a household compound about who lives there was usually a matter of constant dispute among family members to begin with. In a country where cousins marry cousins and kinship lines tend to mix up all kinds of other identity categories, deciding who is family or not becomes a major device for an individual deciding who they are. So, the students concluded that they might as well attempt to do what they were being trained for, which was to offer dramatic performances. They set up their performances in neighborhoods across the city just after the last Ish’a evening prayer when most residents were likely to be at home. Some members of the troupe were assigned to wander around the hoped-for crowds with a hand counter. Of course in these days, in 1987, before cellphones, SMS and twitter, it was at this time of day that people would travel across neighborhoods in order to visit family and friends, attend ceremonies or simply try to get things done after their days of official toil. Most meetings with colleagues and friends were often set for midnight. There would be the danger of inflating the count, but the prevailing assumption among the students was that not everyone in a neighborhood were going to turn up for any given performance.

The performances themselves initially stuck to innocuous materials. Students would research the particular compositions of neighborhoods, even sending “advance teams” to consult with neighborhood elders about the kinds of entertainments, stories and depictions they thought both popular and appropriate. But quickly it became apparent that adherence to the well-worn tropes of popular culture was incapable of holding people’s attention for very long. Their performances could not compete with more exciting events that were gripping the city. In the neighborhood of Umbadda, thousands argued on the street about whether an unmarried couple from different ethnic groups should be stoned to death for being caught copulating behind a local bakery. This situation was not resolved until the couple agreed to restage their transaction as a wrestling with djinns who had come to steal the souls of the neighborhood. Such events made it clear that, even in acts that were clearly offensive to local sensibilities, the real concerns of the residents were the insecurities of day to day living and the arbitrary ways they were pushed around by big men from the ministries across the river. The students’ performances from then on dealt with issues such as jobs, transportation, the costs of land and rent, and harassment from police. People used to call their neighborhoods Chicago, Harlem, the Bronx, and Detroit, pointing, all at the same time, to the intensely urban character of their lives, as well as to their toughness and resistance. By using the names of these U.S. cities, whose inner cities are commonly known as “tough” cities mired with poverty and racial injustices, the residents were also inter-referencing these injustices to describe their living conditions, and their exclusion and marginalizing from the apportioning of rights and resources in the metropolis of Khartoum. Inter-referencing these cities of racialized poverty in the West was also used “as a way to contest the Arab Gulf reference of the richest Khartoum’s districts with names like Riyadh” and its “rich Islamic reference” (cf. Eric Denis [6].)

Such inter-referencing of cities in the Global South with those of the Global North around issues of racial and material injustices became the locus of these theatrical performances. After one of the authors had joined the troupe in 1987, and following the discovery that a particularly handsome, darker-skinned Baggara[7] Arab student had himself been to America, residents in some districts started demanding shows about the Chicago’s and Harlem’s they would occasionally catch glimpses of on TV. Abu Gassim Gore, the Baggara Arab man, was a spitting image of Malcolm X. Malcolm was the only Muslim American residents might have known. So, more and more of the performances ended with Abu Gassim delivering some of Malcolm’s speeches in Arabic. The crowds loved them. Since the official discourse of Sudan had absolutely no racial problems, despite the frequency of the word ‘abid (slave) across the city, the vituperative sentiments of Malcolm’s words could not be interpreted by the local authorities or police in attendance as having anything to do with them or the politics of racial injustice in the city. But, of course, the crowd knew better. And, the theater school managed in their small way to add on a ‘million or two’ to the city’s population.

These neighborhood-based theatrical performances enabled residents to articulate their exclusion from the material resources of their city and nation, and to expose their racialized bodies that had been rendered invisible. Through borrowed and adapted transnational discourses of racialization, marginality, and demands for representation, these performances were transformed into sites of resistance where ideas of social change were articulated, beyond the official narrative on national identity that glossed over the multitude of racial, ethnic, tribal, and religious formations.

[Khartoum Skyline. Image by Mutaz Photography (Mutaz Elneel) via Wikimedia Commons.]

In many post-conflict settings, not only in Sudan and its cities, demography and its scientific methods, primarily the census, are sites of contestation especially around racial/ethnic/sectarian categorizations and the questions of the return of displaced populations.[8] Even beyond contexts of war and violence, the construction of census categories and the interpretation of their results could be shaped more by politics than by the “science” of statistics. Categories of differentiation are often produced and contested through relations of power (embodying racial, sexist, gender, ethnic, religious, and class discrimination). At stake in these demographic measures is who, how, and when are certain bodies counted or when they are not, determined often by major political, economic, and geopolitical interests that render certain populations visible and others not (such as the sectarian power-sharing formula in Lebanon, Palestinian rights under Israeli occupation, Native Americans claims to land in the USA, or the allocation of oil resources in Sudan to name a few.)

The counting of Sudanese population and the mapping of their racial and ethnic categories are even more controversial as the body counts and their geographies have been constitutive of the ongoing conflict. In Sudan, the ways in which racialized categories have been constructed and populated have shifted over time. While the 1956 census gave an ethnic distribution, the censuses that followed in 1973, 1983, and 1993 did not provide one. However, upon the request of the South Sudan authority, the latest and fifth official census, in 2008, included another attempt at racial and/or ethnic categorization. The preparation for this census started in 2005 after northern and southern Sudan signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the Second Sudanese civil war in 2005. The results of that census were central to the 2011 referendum on whether Sudan was to remain one country or split into two. More importantly, the two entities agreed that the allocation of resources, primarily from oil revenues, that each part of Sudan would receive until separation would be proportional to their respective demographic body counts.[9] The South Sudan authority rejected the 2008 census that was issued in the northern capital, Khartoum (although the two initially collaborated), arguing that the Sudanese government undercounted the South Sudanese population to decrease its share of resources.[10] With the support of the International Organization for Migration, the northern government then started a Migration and Population Movement population survey in 2009 that, in part, aimed to count the Southern Sudanese IDPs living in the north. However, that process remained contentious due to allegations that the census rendered certain racialized bodies invisible while over-counting others—for example, one claim was that the survey undercounted the South Sudanese IDPs in cities like Omdurman and Khartoum as well as the inhabitants of oil rich areas in border areas with South Sudan, while over-counting Arabs in Darfur. As a result, Omdurman’s “darker-skinned” populations, who were partly IDPs from the South, and who were rendered visible by the drama school performances two decades earlier became new sites of a body count contestation. South Sudan claimed that the northern Sudanese government was restraining the South Sudanese IDPs from being counted in the census and restricting those who wished to leave back to South Sudan, hence skewing the resource allocation formula that was to be quantified through their body counts and its distribution.

At a time in which the Sudan is split into two with a looming and/or ongoing conflict, the politics of bodies and their identities, their densities and geographies, their visibility and invisibility are continuously being negotiated and contested as the global, regional, and local alliances and interests shift over time. By juxtaposing two contested moments over body counts, that of the drama school’s effort to render visible the racialized populations of Omdurman in 1987, and the struggles over representation and resource allocation in 2008-2009 as Sudan was about to split into two nations, the essay aimed to highlight the continuity as well as the shifts between local, urban, and national struggles over categories, representation, and rights, and how these mutate over time. However, while the official counts continue to render certain populations invisible, the drama students in Omdurman showed that, in their quest for social change and existence in the city, urban residents “count” in a different way. For them, counting difference is about the politics of survival and possibilities.

[The authors are grateful for Eric Denis for his generous and helpful feedback. The authors would like to also thank Jadaliyya Cities Page editors, Mona Harb and Farha Ghannam, for their thoughtful comments and support, and Yumna Marwan for editing support.]


[1] Omar al-Bashir is the President of Sudan.  He has been in office sine 1989.

[2] Omdurman is the most populous city in the greater Khartoum metropolis, and in Sudan in general.  It is the primary commercial, artistic, and cultural capital of Sudan.  The iconic National Theater in Omdurman opened its doors in 1959.

[3] According to Pantuliano et al. (2011), an estimated two million residents of the current population of Khartoum were originally internally displaced populations.

[4] The last census, before the latest one in 2008, took place in 1983.

[5] This refers generically to the common colonial assumption of how black people were counted.  For example, in the U.S. each black person started out with a 3/5 status.  It does not refer to a specific Sudanese mode of calculation.

[6] This information is based on Eric Denis' feedback on an earlier draft of this essay.

[7] According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Baggara (or the Baqqārah, the "cattlemen") originally referred to nomadic people of Arab African ancestry.  In Sudan, the Baggara eventually settled around Kordofan, Darfur, and Wadai.  They were involved in the Second Sudanese civil war, fighting along the northern regime as its allies.  As a result, the Baggara complicate the body count narrative discussed in this essay.  Despite their racialized constructions as "darker-skinned", the fact that they fought with the regime gave them a privileged visibility to the regime's official discourse.  Therefore, understanding their position in terms of how they are counted needs further investigation.

[8] For example, in Lebanon, due to sectarian conflicts, the last official census was conducted in 1932.  The most recent census in Bosnia, conducted in 2013, is being heavily debated and contested regarding the counting of refugees.  Back in 1983, the census in what used to be West Germany was postponed several times due to contestations.

[9] While most of the oil wells are located in the land-locked now-South Sudan, the refineries, pipelines, and ports are located on the Red Sea in northern Sudan, and therefore the production of oil in South Sudan is contingent on its processing through the infrastructure in the north.

[10] The South Sudan expected their population count not to be less than a third of the country's total population.  However, the 2008 census put the population of South Sudan at 8.9 million out of a total of 39.15 million people in Sudan.

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