The Sudanese identity

Questions about ethnicity lead to discussion



On April 13, a group of students at Mason gathered inside the Johnson Center Room E for a discussion night.

This event, hosted by the Sudanese Student Association, discussed the pertinent issues of the Sudanese identity and racism, and it included a poetry reading by poet and author Safia Elhillo.

When asked whether students from Sudan identified as African or Arab, people at the discussion answered with an unequivocal, “I don’t know.”

Many, as it turns out, have a hard time explaining or distinguishing the difference.

“When people say Arab, a lot of the time people don’t think you can be black and be Arab,” Safia Elhillo, author of “The January Children,” said. “I think there’s been so much drama around the term because I don’t think there’s a universal definition that was ever questionably put forth.”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of Arab refers specifically to members of “the Arabian Peninsula” or “an Arabic-speaking people,” but Sudan prides itself in its multiethnic tribes and languages, where tensions are very pronounced, scholars say.

Civil wars have been defined by a clash of cultures, religions, and ethnicities. In Sudan, civil wars are conflicts between “Arab” Northern Muslims and “African” Southern Christians, but many sentiments on national identity are at the crossroad of the Arab world and Africa and at the center of this discussion.

“It’s hard to say identity doesn’t matter,” Magdeldin Hamid, a Sudanese-American resident of Northern Virginia who was interested in the discussion, said. “Half of our lives are spent trying to figure out who we are, and I don’t think you can find anyone who says ‘I don’t care where I’m from.’”

That is why, for instance, students are coming together to talk about identity and racism in a college that prides itself on its diversity and cultural backgrounds.

According to the Sudanese Student Association’s GetConnected page, the organization aims to give students a platform to celebrate Sudanese culture and history while informing students on current events.

When it comes to current events, there seem to be many issues surrounding the debate on identity.

“Honestly, I’m still trying to find out who I am,” freshman Sucpa El Nour, who self-identifies as Sudanese, said. “There’s a lot of controversy whether or not we’re Arab or African, and it’s a topic that not everyone agrees on.”

Because of its geographic location, Sudan has long been considered part of Africa, but it has a long a history of cultural ties to the Arabian Peninsula — including a history of Arabization and Arab influence that, experts say, shifted the national identity.

“Some Arabs don’t consider Sudanese as Arabs and maybe Africans don’t consider Sudanese as Africans,” junior Zeineb Negasn said. “It’s kinda like, ‘what do you choose to be a part of?’”

According to freshman Alaa Ali, a lot of it has to do with skin color among other factors.

“We’re stuck in the middle; we don’t know what side and what spectrum we’re on,”Ali, vice president of the organization, said. “We’re too Arab for African, and we’re too African for Arab.”

According to the CIA World Factbook, 70 percent of the population identifies as Sudanese Arabs.

But that’s not to say that everyone identifies this way, as evidenced by Sudan’s complicated history.

“Sudan has been ravaged by conflicts over identity and socioeconomic marginalization,” Wayne State University Professor Abderrahman Zouhir said in a publication on identity conflict in Sudan. “Identity formation has been often associated with violence and external engagement.”

In 2003, ethnically African rebel groups, including the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Justice and Equality Movement, launched an uprising against the Sudanese government, alleging mistreatment of the non-Arab population.

Arab militia groups known as Janjaweed — allegedly supported by the government — responded by retaliating, resulting in an ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s non-Arabs.

Essentially, there has always been a perplexing yet conflicting struggle between ethnic groups and identity in Sudan’s history.

Experts say that domination in power struggles — characterized by non-Arab populations and the Arab-dominated government as well as economic and political inequality — led to the secession of the south into South Sudan in 2011.

“There’s always been a big issue of identity within Sudan,” Ali said. “The whole point of South Sudan making a new country is feeling that their identity wasn’t represented.”

But now, many youths feel as if their identity is still not represented. South Sudan might have been formed, but students say identity still remains a heavy topic.

And while there was talk on what cultural identity meant during the discussion, there was also talk on race relations, and not just about the race/ethnicity boxes on form applications.

As it turns out, identity is not well-recognized by everybody.

“The whole black vs. Sudanese vs. Arab vs. African experience is so real,” Magdeldin Hamid said on his experience of being Sudanese. “I feel like us — as men, not only are we black but we’re also targets in America. When people see you they automatically assume you’re black. Nobody is going to ask if you’re Sudanese.”

However, the topic is something that the Sudanese Student Association hopes to educate people on — starting with discussion night.

“Diversity is a good thing about this club,” Ali said. “We promote that, but we’re not going against [what people identify] because we’re just trying to educate people.”


Editor’s note: A previous version of the article misprinted the title “‘The January Children” and mislabeled an attendee as a Mason student.