Journey into Sudanese Reality
Arab Women Reshape Their Lives
The day I met Muna determined my entire future stay in the Sudan. We met soon after I arrived, when I tagged along with another American to the French Cultural Center where Muna was the librarian. Muna was like the Pied Piper, networking the various strands of cultures that ended up using the center. Her cherubic face and lyric voice provided an instantaneous invitation to get to know her. Muna had booked a party boat with a band for someone’s birthday. I, too, followed her down to the docks, like everyone else. The next time I was in town, I looked Muna up, and she invited me along to a wedding that she and her friends were attending. So it was that we began our long friendship.
Muna lost her apartment and all of her possessions in the great flood of 1988. Khartoum had not seen torrential rains for forty-some years, and given its location in the middle of the Sahara Desert, was not equipped for it. The Sudan is located in the heart of black Africa, yet it is not quite the southernmost point of the Arab world. Both the Sudan and Yemen border on the Red Sea, and the Sudan has large populations from Ethiopia and Yemen, adding elements of pure African and pure Arab culture to its own.
Temporarily without a home, Muna and her friend Halima joined me in the office where I worked, where we would prepare meals together, and soon Muna and Halima joined up with another female co-worker to rent a new apartment together. From then on, whenever I had business in Khartoum (about ten days out of the month, on average), I stayed with them.
Life with Muna and Halima was quite a journey. Muna had long since given up on Muslim society and the restrictions it placed upon her. There was no man living in her household to maintain her honor. Her “reputation” among the locals was pretty well shot, along with her prospects for marriage. But then again, Muna was pretty well done with them. Muna had long since given up the veil — as had most of the urban middle class women. She lived life on her own terms, and in return received a full life.
Life was full of events to attend — parties with her colleagues at the French Cultural Center, weddings, evenings at the American Club. Muna was well-educated, and fluent in French and English, as well as her native Arabic.
The Sudanese have a tremendous resilience, and their lives are full of laughter. They love to tell jokes. There is time in their lives to have fun. They have a feeling that it is futile to try to control their lives. Malesh — translated “So what? Don’t worry” — has special meaning here, where the elements are still very much in charge.
And so it was that while at home Muna and Halima would sing. Singing was a common part of the lives I shared in North Africa. Radio and T.V. were limited to a few hours a day — when there was electricity, and when the men would be home. So people learned to sing at a very young age, while still with their mothers.
Somewhere along the way, Akhbarret, an Eritrean friend, had moved in, and Halima’s sister Yasmina often stayed with us. Work ended at two o’clock in the Sudan, and so we were left with long hours to entertain ourselves. Singing was often part of our afternoon routine, as we sat sipping cups of Arabic tea to while away the heat of the afternoon. On this particular afternoon, as many before it, Muna and Halima began singing. We decided that we wanted to see the pigeon dance. Halima began drumming on the closet door, while Muna began swaying to the beat, ebbing and flowing with the rhythm. Akhbarret, unable to resist, rose to take her place with Muna, although she was unable to do it with a straight face. So Akhbarret followed behind, mimicking the passion that was unfolding in Muna.
The pigeon dance is the traditional wedding dance of the Sudan that the bride performs for her husband in front of a select crowd of a few people who congregate after the wedding party is over. The dance is intended to seduce the husband by the bride using her hair to come on to him. In Arab culture, long, flowing hair is considered to be very sensual, hence the rationale behind the veil and head covering. The woman is thought to be the owner of the sexual drive, and so it is her responsibility to not display her sexuality publicly.
Privately, however, sexuality is encouraged and legitimate. Procreation does not carry the stigma that it does in the West. Thus, joking about sex and men and male appendages was not uncommon among women, even in the best of company. The songs that we sang usually began, “I had a man. He had a…It was bigger than…”
Rich scents are an important part of the male-female interaction. Women wear oils to perfume themselves — especially given the rapidity with which alcohol-based perfumes evaporate in the desert climate. Raw incense burning over charcoal is used to keep the insects out of the home. And then there is the Dokhan, which I believe one has to experience directly in order to appreciate. It is a ritual I have only seen in the Sudan, and only among women. A hole one foot in diameter and eighteen inches deep is dug into the dirt, and a fire constructed inside and allowed to burn down. Sandalwood or other woods are then placed in the hot embers to burn, while one or two women sit on bamboo mats on the perimeter of the fire under heavy blankets to absorb the sandalwood smoke into their skin. (Dokhan is the Arabic word for smoke.) This is normally done without any clothes. The smoke permeates the woman down to the core. I also had my turn at the fire, but with my clothes on. This process also incidentally speeds up the taking of the freshly painted henna into the skin. Despite washing myself and my clothes for days afterwards, I continued to smell like I had taken a bath in sandalwood — which I really didn’t mind.
Both Muna and Halima had boyfriends, as did many other Arab women I knew. Seclusion is a figment of Western imagination, a vestige remaining from early travelers to the Arab world. Games between boys and girls and between men and women are a universal event — they just unfold differently in different cultures. And in Arabic culture the game is to just not get caught. Nonetheless, Lutfi and Ibrahim, Muna’s and Halima’s boyfriends, were a regular part of our life.
At some point early on in my stay, my female colleagues — the Western ones — pulled me aside and explained to me about female circumcision. At first I thought this was a joke, they were pulling my leg, telling me stories. But they were dead serious, and when they were done, I was totally grossed out. I wanted to be sick.
They explained how most of the women around me had no genitalia other than a uterus and a cervix. They explained how the rest of it had been cut away — the clitoris and the major and minor labia — and the remaining tissue sewn back up, leaving a hole only large enough for urine to pass through. Those were the only details they gave to me. The rest I read about.
For days after that, as I walked through the streets, I would wonder about all the women I saw, wondered what it would be like. It was difficult for a while to look at women and not be able to ask them, “What is it like for you?” I later learned of someone who knew someone who knew an Irish woman who worked in the south of the Sudan. She was well-integrated and well-loved by the local villagers, who so wanted for her to be happy that they held her down and circumcised her. The Irish lady was later back in Ireland in a mental hospital. I hope it was just a false rumor.
At one point during my stay, I called on a local Egyptian Ob.Gyn. with a problem. Alone inside his treatment room he told me that he could do whatever he wanted to me. I shuddered with fear as I thought about the things he might indeed be capable of inflicting on me. I left my problem unresolved until my vacation in London.
Eventually, Muna and I started talking about sex. Muna told me about Halima and how she came to be circumcised. Apparently her father was dead set against having it performed on his daughters, but when he was out of the country on business, his mother-in-law whisked her away and had it done. Unfortunately, it is a tradition that is carried on by the older women, who believe that their daughters will never marry unless circumcised. In Arab culture, an unmarried woman will have little opportunity for a normal life, as she must shun contact with men in order to protect her reputation. And, unfortunately, many men still think that sex could only be enjoyable with a circumcised woman. I’m not even certain that it is intended to keep a woman virtuous. It is a tradition that dates back to Pharaonic times, and has survived since then out of ignorance. It is not, as some Arabs and Westerners alike are wont to believe, prescribed by the Koran. In Halima’s case, her mother’s allowing for her daughter to be circumcised almost broke up the marriage. Her father nearly walked out, had others not convinced him that to walk out would be worse for his daughters than to stay. As a result, Halima’s little sister was never circumcised.
Muna, too, was circumcised, and she never spoke of the event or what she underwent. She did, however, claim to have a normal sex life, and the ability to enjoy sex. Halima, however, cried from the pain every time she had sex.
I eventually got used to the idea, and resumed getting along with life in the Sudan, as does everyone. I left the Sudan a month after the coup d’etat by the National Islamic Front, which brought Omar El Bashir to power. Muna left for Paris shortly thereafter, and is now a refugee in another African country.
I was reminded of all of this when I recently attended a symposium entitled “Forces of Change: Arab Women Reshape Their Reality.” Dr. Nahid Toubia, Sudan’s first female surgeon, spoke to the issue of female circumcision, as well as the ways that Western women mutilate their bodies — face lifts, tummy tucks, bigger breasts, smaller breasts, etc. Some cultures have a way of doing that…inflicting pain on their women in order to meet society’s definition of what is beautiful.
Dr. Toubia’s words stayed with me. I began rethinking how I had changed myself in order to conform with outside pressures. I looked at my tailored suits, my bras that pinch, my painted nails, and thought how uncomfortable, how impractical, how inconvenient they were. Is it not a milder form of how society has defined my body for me? And like the older women in the Sudan, don’t we women do these things to ourselves, and, indirectly, to each other? I am now trying to simplify my life. I only write about topics that are meaningful to me. I say “no” more often. I drink less coffee and take longer walks. So what is left, then, is me — unadulterated, unaltered. It is so much easier to breathe deeply when I am not wearing a suit…
The names of the characters in this story have been changed to protect them and their families.
Hanan lived in the Sudan in 1988-89 where she worked with the Ethiopian community in a refugee relief operation. Prior to that she worked in Tunisia from 1985-1987. She is now writing a book based on her experiences. www.hanandances.com