Patricia Levy. Sudan. New York and London: Marshall Cavendish, 1997. 128 pp. $35.64 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7614-0284-8.
Reviewed by Mark Sedgwick (Department of English & Comparative Literature, American University in Cairo)
Published on H-AfrTeach (January, 2000)
This is a beautifully illustrated book, which sets out to examine "Sudan's rich cultural heritage and its current problems" (p. 3). In the end, it is the problems that dominate, rather than the heritage -- and readers may be more confused than enlightened by the handling of many of these problems. For this reason, and also because of deficiencies in the handling of Islam, the book should be used with caution.
The British publisher Marshall Cavendish has some ninety titles in its "Cultures of the World" series. To judge from this volume, the focus is more on nations than on cultures. The book surveys all aspects of Sudan, moving through geography and history to government, economy, 'Sudanese,' lifestyle, religion, and language. There are additional chapters on arts, leisure, festivals, and food. This approach might work well for some countries, but is not the best one for Sudan, which is more of a state than a nation. The book attempts to cover all the Sudanese regions, for example by dividing the chapter on 'Sudanese' into northerners, westerners, easterners and southerners. This attempt is mostly successful, though it is not the case (for example) that "most Sudanese speak at least two or three languages" (p. 85): southerners yes, northerners no. Even so, it will be hard for the intended readership to grasp clearly the various, very distinct regional identities which make up Sudan: the different geographies, histories, economies, lifestyles, religions and languages.
What may well be the standard format for the "Cultures of the World" sometimes has unfortunate consequences in the case of the Sudan. The chapter on government, for example, is divided into 'the structure of government,' 'the presidency,' 'the legislature,' etc., with a box on 'the constitution' (pp. 33-35). Discussions under all of these headings require major qualifications, and the box on 'the constitution' begins: "The constitution is currently suspended." True, but somewhat bizarre in its likely impact on the reader. Likewise, the chapter on the economy starts: "The economy of Sudan could not be any worse" (p. 41). Again, this is not untrue - and again, faintly comic. The cumulative effect of infelicities like this is definitely negative.
Most importantly, this format does not assist understanding of the causes or nature of the civil war which has ravaged the Sudan for decades, and which is at the heart of most of its current problems, and so is mentioned or alluded to on almost every page. On page 51 it is observed that "Sudan is an interesting place because it is the point where two races meet." "Cultural groups" would have been more accurate than "races," and there are rather more than two - but the real problem is that even at this point (almost half way through the book) it is hard for the reader to see what distinguishes these cultural groups, and so why they continue fighting each other. The civil war is ascribed (rather inadequately) to northern Arab merchants and the slave trade in the introduction on page 3; after this, the only approach to a real analysis is a few lines on page 61. A fuller explanation might start from religion and history, but religion, which is of primary importance in Sudan, is relegated in this book to a place after 'lifestyle.'
We are more frequently assured that Sudan has a "rich cultural heritage" than shown what it is, at least after the destruction of Merowe in 350 CE. An important part of this heritage is related in one way or another to Islam, an understanding of which is (as has been indicated) also central to understanding the civil war. The parts of the book which deal with Islam are, unfortunately, the least successful. Islam is generally discussed in a negative tone often verging on hostility, and the statement that the Quran contains the words of the Prophet Muhammad (p. 77) is one that all Muslims would find deeply offensive. There is no attempt to distinguish between religion and custom in Sudanese Islamic culture, which is frequently (and inaccurately) referred to as either 'Arab' or 'Arabic' culture. There is also no attempt to distinguish between different strands of Islam, or to explain the radical political Islamism represented in the current Sudanese regime. In addition, inaccuracies abound: the Kaaba in Mecca was not the first mosque (p. 77) but a temple already ancient at the time of the Prophet's birth, and the Sunna is not the title of a book (p. 78) but the totality of the exemplary practice of the Prophet, as recorded in very numerous accounts of his words and actions. A faki is not a variety of medicine man found in a single Sudanese tribe (p. 82) but the title of the rural Sudanese Muslim 'man of religion' throughout known Sudanese history. The zikr is not the practice of a few "Whirling Dervishes" (p. 110), but of all Sudanese Sufis, that is to say of most Sudanese Muslims. Whirling Dervishes, incidentally, were once to be found in Turkey, and never in the Sudan.
Such inaccuracies are not restricted to Islam, but are found elsewhere in the book, especially when dealing with the north. The main means of transit between Khartoum and Omdurman, for example, is not "simple sailing boats" (p. 18) but a bridge. The strange statement that Arabic is a tonal language (p. 87 -it is not) suggests, together with some mistranslations, that the author's command of Sudan's official language is at most rudimentary. Finally, if two Sudanese pounds would really buy one US dollar (as they are said to on p. 124), the Sudanese economy would be in a very different state. At the end of 1999, one dollar bought over 2,500 Sudanese pounds.
In addition, there are signs of poor editing. On page 56, we are told that men of the Rashedia tribe have to "find 100 camels" to get married; it is not explained until two pages later, after many readers' amusement will have subsided, how and why cattle have monetary significance. A side-strap announcing that "Sudan Railways employs around one fifth of all wage earners in Sudan" accompanies a photo of a large number of men in a pick-up truck (p. 47). The section on 'Law Enforcement' is adorned with a photograph of a Shilluk King and his bodyguards (p. 37); we are not told until p. 58 who the Shilluk are. Might not a photograph of a policeman anyhow have been more appropriate?
Patricia Levy is of course right in saying that Sudan "is an interesting place," but a different structure and a more sympathetic approach (to the northern part of the country, especially) would be required to make it at least partly comprehensible.
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Mark Sedgwick. Review of Levy, Patricia, Sudan.
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