A guest with the book collection in Khalid Albaih’s family’s home in Omdurman, Sudan (image courtesy Khalid Albaih)

My father, burdened by his obsessive-compulsive tendencies, spent the last 10 years building his house in our family’s 100-year-old home in Omdurman, the historical quarter of the Sudanese capital Khartoum, surrounding himself with memorabilia he had collected in his 85 years as if preparing for this war all along. Among his prized possessions was a vast collection of Russian classic Zenit and Minox cameras and mint-condition Soviet watches, as well as a lifetime of books stacked in boxes. The house was a museum in need of a curator. However, the tranquility my father created was shattered when the militia known as Rapid Support Forces (RSF) infiltrated our area despite a ceasefire that normally pauses the war between the two armies (but not against civilians). As expected, the young Janjaweed fighters stormed into our house, assaulting my father and callously plundering his belongings. They spared only the books, mercilessly tearing through the rest.

Our story is not unique; the RSF have brazenly attacked other houses in Omdurman, breaking into what would be considered private museums elsewhere in the world, starting with Sudan’s first Prime Minister Ismail al-Azhari’s residence. The home’s roof proudly displayed the Sudanese independence flag — waving nonstop since 1956 as a testament to the peaceful struggle for independence that the educated elite won as one of the earliest countries in Africa to gain its independence from the British Empire. Soldiers attacked, ignoring the house’s significance and the historical treasures preserved inside. A similar tragedy unfolded at the residence of Admiral Abdalla Khalil, al Azhari’s successor. The family had diligently preserved Khalil’s office, photographs, documents, and a treasure trove of medals and gifts, including a sword presented by Queen Elizabeth II. The soldiers brazenly wore the medals and swung the sword with reckless abandon, leaving behind a trail of destruction, as a family member reported on Facebook

Amidst the anger and displacement experienced by Khartoum’s residents, comments on RSF’s social media posts highlighting the soldiers’ ignorance mirror their leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as “Hemedti,” whose literacy or lack thereof remains uncertain. Most comments discussed how the soldiers are not Sudanese, as most of us in the capital are ignorant of these tribes’ history, traditions, and language or dialects. In online videos, men wearing Sa-style turbans seem to think they broke into the property of someone from the last regime, commenting on the seemingly comfortable lives surrounded by houses, cars, electricity, and mobile phones due to the corruption of the army. Most of the time these houses would host normal middle-class citizens of Khartoum. These encounters fueled the growing resentment among the population towards the capital’s inhabitants, the governing authorities, and the Arab-Northern superiority embodied by the city’s leaders, regardless of their ethnic or regional background.

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as “Hemedti,” leader of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The tales of the RSF’s ruthless assault on historical sites reverberate, shedding light on the profound cultural injustice ingrained in the peripheries. This injustice reaches an alarming magnitude, vividly captured in grainy mobile photos that depict the archive building consumed by flames, and videos revealing RSF soldiers unwittingly trespassing on the National Museum’s conservation lab. Mistakenly perceiving the skeletal remains within as evidence of a massacre committed by the previous regime, their actions exemplify the extent of their ignorance. The concentrated fighting in the museum’s vicinity raises concerns about the reckless destruction befalling this colonial building and its irreplaceable artifacts. It is sad to acknowledge the fact that many soldiers on both sides of the conflict may have never set foot inside the National Museum, completely oblivious to the immense historical value it houses. Consequently, the damage inflicted arises from indiscriminate gunfire rather than organized looting for personal gain, further extinguishing the hope of preserving this history within private or public collections for the foreseeable future.

Looking to recruit men for his army and a supply gold for his father’s separatist ambitions, Ismail Kamil Pasha, the third son of the Albanian Ottoman ruler of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha, established Khartoum in 1821 after invading the Sultanate of Sinar which was formed in the early 1500s as a unique union between Arab tribes and the Funj Dynasty, who research suggests were either the Shulk tribes of South Sudan or a branch of the Barnu dynasty that ruled in west Sudan all the way to Niger. It is said that the rulers of the Sultanate of Sinar expanded along the Nile in what is modern-day Sudan, excluding Darfur, which was incorporated into Sudan by Anglo-Egyptian forces in 1916. The Pasha’s invasion from the north marked a momentous event, as it shattered the tranquility of the Baqt treaty, which had ensured 700 years of uninterrupted harmony, earning the title “humanity’s longest observed peace treaty.”  The Treaty was established in 652 BCE between the king of Makuria​ King Qualidurut, who made a deal with the​ Mayyad governor of Egypt Abdallah ibn Sa’d ibn Abi Sarh in which, in its most controversial term, the Nubians were to supply about 360 enslaved people along with gold and ivory yearly to the Arabs. To get the enslaved people, they headed west and south. 

The land of gold and men continued to serve as Turco-Egyptian Sudan’s epicenter until its siege and destruction in 1884 by the Mahdist forces, which consisted of followers of the religious leader Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, who had proclaimed himself the “Mahdi” (the “final leader,” in Islam) hailing mostly from Darfur. Decades later, in 1956, after independence from the British Empire and independence of Egypt’s rule, Khartoum embodied more or less what it embodies today for the marginalized: an elitist center of power that continues to take resources from the periphery but never gives back. This unilateral relationship perpetuated prolonged wars rooted in tribal and racial divisions that led to the cessation of South Sudan in 2011 after 40 years of war. About a decade earlier, genocide in Darfur was ignited by dictator Omar al-Bashir’s forces, continuing the policies of Sadiq al-Mahdi, the previous prime minister and great-grandson of the leader of the Mahdist forces. This was al-Mahadi’s short-sighted plan to use the Arab superiority complex to take out the rebel groups by arming Arab tribes against them and thereby gaining men and securing the gold. Yet they still did not give back anything to the region’s development nor did they try to use cultural exchange to mend the deep divide and ignorance of these warring cultures. 

Now, four years after al-Bashir’s fall, Hemedti, the legitimate child of this history, emerges as the leader of the men, and later, the owner of the gold, shipping the gold to Russia and the men to fight in regional wars in Libya, Yemen, and now also Khartoum. Switching between the roles of a rebel from marginalized communities and a supreme ruler, he assumes Khartoum’s sense of Arab superiority, drawing tribal sympathy from those who see themselves as more Arab than those in Arab countries. As a result, his followers consider themselves superior to the Arabs of Khartoum, or Khartoumians in general, since after all, they do own both the men and the gold now; and whoever owns these owns Sudan.

Sudan National Museum in Khartoum (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Since the Janjaweed forces became a household name associated with rape and murder in Darfur in the mid-2000s, I was impelled to know more about these men. It is said that their name is Darfuri Arabic dialect for a jinn (demon or spirit) on horseback, but prior to widespread internet access, not much was known about them as far as academic research. Now, in a desperate attempt to understand this western Sudanese group that is now occupying Khartoum, I find myself falling down a YouTube rabbit hole — videos of traditional dances and costumes, including pro-Hemedti videos of the fighting in Khartoum accompanied by Sheilat folk music from the Gulf. Sheilat is a type of tribal contemporary dance music that originates from war poetry and dance in Arabic folklore. Thanks to YouTube’s algorithms, I discovered other videos of tribal Bija dance from east Sudan. These performances involved an enchanting dance of the Secretary Bird, adopted in 1985 as Sudan’s national emblem and a uniquely Sudanese and Indigenous symbol that substitutes the “Eagle of Saladin” and the “Hawk of Quraish” in the emblems of certain Arab states, symbols closely associated with Arab nationalism. The deliberate substitution of the more African icon, the rhinoceros, which had previously occupied this emblematic role, adds an intriguing layer to the narrative. I’ve read about the Bija, the Hadandawa, or the “Fuzzy Wuzzy” in Rudyard Kipling’s 1892 poem. The poem describes the respect of the ordinary British soldier for the bravery of the Hadendoa warriors who fought the British army in Sudan and Eritrea. Any information beyond that I’ve learned via cartoonish stereotyping of the tribe’s broken Arabic and short-tempered Afro’ed men made famous during early 1990s standup comedy routines which the diaspora listened to via cassette tapes that relatives brought back from Khartoum after summer, and the same goes for other tribes. Even though Omar al-Bashir’s regime has hinged its survival on tribalism powerplay, it didn’t encourage the study of tribes in school education; all we had access to was the inherited racism passed on via popular culture with tribes you joke about and tribes so discriminated against you don’t even mention.

All this slowly changed after the 2019 popular revolution that toppled al-Bashir. For most people, it was finally a chance to envision a united Sudan, a “New Sudan” as the viral hashtag suggested, with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok emerging as a unifying figure. It was a time for transformation as Hamdok’s diverse cabinet, exemplified by individuals like Nasredeen Abdulbari, brought much-needed inclusivity to the “New Sudan.” Abdulbari, who comes from a disadvantaged background in Darfur, assumed the role of Minister of Justice, amplifying the voices that cheer for Sudan, not a party or rebel group, and representing voices that were long silenced. Across Sudan, local history museums were springing up, serving as reminders of cultural heritage and fostering a deep sense of pride and inclusivity. By establishing and supporting museums, cultural centers, and educational programs in the peripheries, curators were able to empower local communities to reclaim and share their cultural narratives. Through collaboration and knowledge-sharing, curators bridged the gap between the central authorities and marginalized regions, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of Sudan’s cultural wealth. Ultimately, by acknowledging the significance of my father’s collection and the countless others lost in the peripheries — if there’s such a country left by the end of this war — Sudan can strive to rectify the cultural injustices of the past, honor its diverse heritage, and shape a future that cherishes and safeguards its cultural treasures for generations to come.

Khalid AlBaih is a Sudanese political cartoonist, freelance journalist, and civil rights activist.

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