What is the Sudan Syllabus and who should read it?
Ever heard of the Muslim Funj Kingdom of Sennar? Aware of the rumor that Sudanese folksinger Setona did Prince’s henna in Egypt? Know anything about the history of religious oral poetry in Sudan? If your answer is “no”, then you should read the Sudan Syllabus.
Directly inspired by Kayla Wheeler’s Black Islam Syllabus, Sudan Syllabus is an open project for the collection of resources on Sudanese people and history, with a focus on academic sources and news articles. I curated Sudan Syllabus mainly for English-speaking journalists, academics, and Sudanese diaspora (including myself) who are frustrated by the lack of resources on Sudan and its history – or who might not even know enough to be frustrated about what they don’t know. All you need to do is use #SudanSyllabus on Twitter to suggest more resources to add!
If you’re Sudanese diaspora, then you should read the Sudan Syllabus in order to connect with others in diaspora and to find conversations on where you’re coming from. If you’re a journalist, then you should read the Sudan Syllabus to produce rich stories instead of opening every story on Sudan with a simplistic voiceover about war. If you’re an academic who is at all interested in the history of Africa and the Middle East, especially religion therein, then you should definitely consult #SudanSyllabus for your classes this fall. But there’s far more – if you’re interested in archaeology, in the nation state, in womanhood, in local vs governmental organizations, in historical slavery, in art, in literature, in cuisine, or in any of the topics listed in the table of contents, then there’s something for you to connect with in the syllabus.
Why did I write the Sudan Syllabus?
Many Sudanese who have grown up in the US know the complexities of experiencing blackness without being African-American, and many have also experienced the marginalization of Muslims not being perceived as African, especially if they speak Arabic. In the 1960s, African-American Muslims had a lot of interaction with Sudanese religious and Afrocentric thinkers, and their narratives have long been intertwined in my mind. I noticed these interactions more and more when I began to do readings at university and as interest in “African Islam” rose. Essentially, these histories are not very well known to the public even if academics nerd out about them occasionally. So, when Kayla Wheeler wrote the Black Islam Syllabus (which is fantastic), I noticed that there was very little information about Sudanese experiences, which don’t always fit neatly into African-American or even Middle Eastern narratives of race or religion (especially because Sudan isn’t only Muslim or “black”). I decided that this was because most people, including myself, have never read accounts of Sudan beyond very superficial government-focused studies about warfare – and I began to put together the Sudan Syllabus.
Digital awareness does a lot to provide more perspectives on a “single story” country, to quote Chimamanda Adichie. I chose to focus on “sidelined” history because it’s what I personally find fascinating and what I was unable to find in the usual websites about Sudan – the readings listed in the syllabus are just as much for me as for anyone else. Issues such as “Why did Egyptian social media recently deny the age and number of the pyramids in Sudan? What was life like during the Mahdiyya? How did educational books change over time? What did your great grandparents wear?” aren’t just wistful questions which we’ll never know the answers to – there’s plenty of records which we can access and read, including the libraries contained inside the minds of people who are alive and well today.
Sudan is under sanction by the United States, so if you’re living there, you can’t order books online from Amazon or get immediate access to American academic articles – I know this because I lived for years without public libraries when I was in Umdurman. Even if you could, what young person in the Sudanese economy has $90 lying around for every out-of-print academic book they want to read? So for me, the Sudan Syllabus underscores the importance of reading and connecting to Sudanese researchers and creating alternative platforms for sharing stories. Even Khartoum’s power cuts don’t turn the digital age off entirely – English-language writers shouldn’t be acting as though Sudanese researchers and activists are nonexistent, nor acting like there is no way to contact them if one doesn’t speak Arabic. Otherwise, this results in academic Columbus syndrome, where writers pat themselves on the back for “discovering” what other people are already working on.
Famously, Sudanese people have many different beliefs about politics and religion in particular, and I learned how difficult it is to collect sources that give access to these different perspectives. I linked to Sudanese newspapers and historians and organizations and channels from the beginning of the Sudan Syllabus, rather than leaving the reader entirely dependent on books, because in my opinion readers shouldn’t prize written sources over what they know from their families and lives. This is pretty important considering that Sudanese have often lived what researchers haven’t recorded. Different types of sources should be complementary – otherwise you can end up trying to, for example, inaccurately characterize Sudanese religious figures as “bad Salafi vs. good Sufi” in reaction to early 2000s American journalists’ foreign policy lenses, rather than having a more critical view which takes Sudanese agency and religious complexity into account.
Finally, people often associate history with journal-published papers, ignoring “informal sources”. But most Sudanese obtain information about Sudan from policy studies, journalism, their families, photographers, television channels, Whatsapp messenger, and blogs – and I loved working with these sources. Part of my current thesis actually grew out of reading a blog by Reem Gaafar on a racist proverb used in Sudan – it made me look up a 1960s anthropological study of proverbs in a village in Nuri, which led me to a PhD thesis which showed me that a medieval religious book that also used the proverb was being taught in the area before educational reform. I’d love for people to realize that history isn’t something in books – THEY are history.
What would I like to see come out of the Sudan Syllabus?
This is my first time doing anything like this – and I really enjoyed learning from it, especially because I learned about the gaps in English-language writing about Sudan!
Firstly, it would be great to see a complementary South Sudan Syllabus, as well as a syllabus with Arabic-language texts. The main failing of the current syllabus is the exclusion of these, because I wanted them to be given their full due as entire documents instead of being side-notes – but of course both Sudans’ histories are deeply intertwined and you can’t understand one without the other.
Secondly, I’d like to see a lot more accessible and visual projects on Sudan –for example, photo-essays and oral projects on cultural history, a coffee-book of modern Sudanese art history and architecture, translations of memoirs, and open-access digital reviews or even podcasts of books in both Arabic and English for those who don’t have the ability to read the books themselves. For Sudan to be taken seriously, it needs to be a place which you “see” clearly and richly inside of your head – not just an empty space on a map which anyone can manipulate for their own ends.
Finally, I recognized so many friends and family members in the pages of these sources – and that made me prouder than any syllabus ever will. That’s what I hope others ultimately get out of the syllabus as well – faces and voices whom they recognize, humanize and respect.
Browse the Sudan Syllabus and join the conversation on Twitter with #SudanSyllabus!