Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Red Threat... in a dress.

Over the course of the past week, I have heard two stories of Sudanese women being accused of communism. One was a doctor with no interest in politics whatsoever and the other was a professional involved in multinational business. What makes them commies? 

Their hair.

Now you could argue that hair is intrinsically political- and that showing or not showing your hair is basically putting your religious and political convictions out where everyone can see them (on your head). But communism? Really? I shall have to go back to Marx and find the section on hair. Marx himself had quite the mane- maybe that’s the connection? 

I'd like to sit in on the political science element of security training in Sudan. They must have check lists: "How to identify a communist" 

Step One: uterus?

Step Two: HAIR! 

Step Three: lipstick. 

Step Four: Smoking sex Appeal. 

This is beginning to sound like a cold war film, isn't it? 

But getting back to the ladies in question... Due to their apparent “redness” both faced difficulty in their careers. One was accused of being a communist by a senior hospital administrator and as a result had her “wasta” (social capital) badly damaged. She is currently unemployed. The other got held up by “security” in a big company. Weeks passed and the HR manager got impatient. He went to the security man and asked why it was taking so long. He was told that this woman was a “communist” and posed a security threat to the company. Luckily, the HR manager fought for her (as she was a great candidate for the job) and eventually she was accepted. Ilhamdulilah! But these two cases demonstrate how politics and religion are deeply gendered in Sudan.

There is clearly more than one type of “wasta” in Sudan. In some fields, it is all about family. In others, they want candidates who have studied or worked abroad, preferably in an English speaking environment. Among some communities, like the Nubians for instance, tribe or ethnicity play a huge role. And finally, in fields closely connected with the government, the “wasta” is very political, NCP membership. The doctor told me: “you will get a job in a government hospital if you are a member of the National Congress Party. If you are not, then things will be tough for you.” Scholarships and training abroad are also strongly associated with political "wasta". 

To a certain degree, this explains the different fates of the two women. For the doctor, she was pushed out of the system whereas for the professional, she had enough other connections and support to win her case for her. She had experience in other companies and a critical mind that convinced the HR manager that she was the (wo)man for the job. Here business beat politics. 

Of course, you could say that political “wasta” is more accessible than family “wasta”. We cannot choose our family members, whereas we can choose to join a political party. I have heard that the tribal explanation is often overplayed; that to a certain degree, political “wasta” is less governed by tribal background than in those industries controlled by family connections. But when it comes to NCP, there are still sacrifices to be made. For women these sacrifices are bigger and much more public.

The “communist” doctor recently had coffee with a male colleague from university. He was about to start his civil service in a military hospital, where he was to be paid handsomely (in other hospitals, this is not the case for those undertaking civil service). He revealed that he had recently joined the NCP. This surprised her for he was not your typical NCP character: a rock musician, a heavy drinker, a smoker and a bit of a “man about town”. He said that it didn’t matter; the NCP was changing, he said, they accepted me as I am. New generation. 

The doctor was pissed off… and rightly so. She IS religious. She DOES pray. She just doesn’t think it is anyone’s business to make judgements about her background based on her appearance. Furthermore, why must she suffer for her bare head of hair when there are men, far less conservative than her masquerading as NCP in order to acquire useful political-religious “wasta” from the same people who call her a “communist”?

Politics and Religion are entwined in Sudan, I get that… but it is important to look at the gender issues inherent in this “entwining”. In Sudan, access to political, and therefore economic opportunity is a thoroughly gendered field. The heart of a woman must be worn on her head at all times... not on her sleeve (a much subtler place). 

If you are a liberal woman, you will become "communist" in the eyes of the public. Whereas, if you are a liberal man, don't worry, you can still get a NCP card. It's what we call: New generation. 

Today I am feeling mighty like a feminist!

Saturday, 18 July 2009

A lesson in English, courtesy of Arabic

One of the things I love about Arabic is the root system. Reading through Hans Wehr makes you stop and contemplate the interconnections of  words and their meanings. Every word has a story behind it. Such reflection soon makes me wonder about the history and interconnections of my own language, English.

I remember the first time I looked up “mathaf” in the dictionary. Mathaf is the Arabic word for museum and comes from the root, t-h-f, meaning “treasure” or “present” or “work of art”. It made me think about museum in English. Why do we call museums museums? Well if you stop and think about it, museum has the word “muse” in it and in a way, museums are indeed the places where we get inspiration. 

So if we were to define museum by its root meaning, would it be “the place where we get inspired”? 

Wow. Makes you want to go off and study Ancient Greek doesn't it? 

Today I made another discovery/realization about an English word: encourage/discourage.

If you take a moment and look at the word, you see that it contains the word “courage”. What can we surmise about the true meaning of the word “encourage”?

Encouraging is all about giving people courage to succeed. Confidence to try… and fail but try again… and possibly fail again, but keep trying!!! (especially when it comes to learning Arabic).

I wish that all those over-zealous types who put so much pressure on their children to succeed paid more attention to the etymology of words, because then they would see that encouragement is all about giving courage… believing in your students and children and making them realize that they are capable of intellectual bravery on their own.

Thank you Arabic for once again teaching me about English!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Hey man, your ankles are swelling…Idioms of the world!

In celebration of Bastille day, the recovery of my mobile phone and the bringing of cheese from America, I had a few friends over for dinner last night. It was one of those “Model United Nations” moments, when we realized everyone was from a different country. I should have made everyone sit at different tables and discuss trade negotiations over pesto but I was not that cruel.

Besides learning that Indonesia has 17,000 islands (17,000!!!!!!! How many years would it take to visit every one at a rate of one per day? Just think of it!), I also learnt a great deal about Indonesian, German, French and “American” expressions and idioms. 

I learnt that while in English we say “your ears are burning” when someone is talking about you and in Indonesia, they say “the wind is blowing into your ears”, the French say “your ankles are swelling”.

We learnt that while the French say “speak of the wolf” and the English and Germans say “speak of the devil”, in Indonesia they say “Long life to you!” Indonesians are obviously a lot nicer than the rest of us.

It was also noted that in English we like to talk a great deal about our backsides: “You’re full of shit”, “You’re talking out of your ass”, “I’m freezing my ass off out here!” “When the shit hit the fan”. All this bears the question, what is wrong with us?!?

 There were low points to the evening, like the moment I discovered the French expression: “The first one out of bed owns the future”. I much prefer the English equivalent: "The early bird catches the worm". As a vegetarian, I don’t care much for the availability of early morning protein, whereas the future is something to get out of bed for! I wonder if I would have been different had I been brought up in France...

The French do have some good one liners. For instance (literally translated here for added effect) “Those that resemble assemble”. In English we say “Birds of a feather flock together” but then again, we also say “opposites attract” so we clearly do not have a clue about anything…

 Then we got to talking about the Indonesian language: Bahasa. It sounds like the most amazing language in the whole wide world. Here are a few examples…

First of all, they don’t have plurals. This may not seem like a particularly inspiring fact among non-Arabic speakers, but in Arabic every noun has both a singular and plural form and some of them are really difficult to remember! To make things plural, Indonesians just repeat the word, so while one person is an Orang (orang-utan meaning man of the jungle), people is Orang-Orang and every day is se hari hari (Hari=day).

Lovely lovely!

Second of all, Bahasa doesn’t have different tenses. You just say when you have done something. I go to the shop today. I go to the shop tomorrow. I go to the shop yesterday. I go to the shop now as we speak.

Are you equally convinced that Bahasa is the best language in the world and should immediately replace English as the lingua franca of the world?


OK, how about this: there is no feminine, masculine, no cases, no sentence order, no bizarre spellings (it sounds like its written, ilhamdulilah!). Thank you God for every one of those 17,000 islands… I am learning Bahasa as soon as I leave this country.

Finally, I learnt that in Pakistan there is an expression “Without a moustache, you are nothing”. I think this could equally apply in Sudan, land of Freddy Mercury impersonators.

I sometimes like to play a game in Sudan. When I have been indefinitely abandoned in a waiting room full of people eating Fatour and playing solitaire on their computers, I play a little game I like to call “find the non-man”. It basically entails searching the room and surrounding area for a man without a moustache. He is the “non-man”. When you find him, you silently mock him and pat yourself on the back for winning the game. You then return to your seat and attempt to move pencil holders with your mind. 

Anyhow, the whole point of this post is that I learnt a very useful expression this morning which relates to the name of my blog “Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, or crazier".

Bright and early, I went to an NGO to interview their human resources manager about her organization’s recruitment policies. She was “a bit” late so I had the opportunity to play a quick game of “find the non-man” and talk to the lovely receptionist.

We began our discussion with talk of weddings (a topic of much conversation in Khartoum). I told her about a friend that I knew that had recently got married after quite a long tough life. She had married someone from a very different culture (and religion) and her wedding had not been traditional. She said she thought my friend was “abnormal” because she was anti-traditional and she had married a non-Muslim. I said that I thought this was because she had had such a tough life, and she had therefore become strong.

I told her that we have an expression in English: ” “What ever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”. 

She then told me that Egyptians have another expression:

“The gun that doesn’t kill you makes you crazy”.

I couldn’t believe it! It was my expression… my hard fought expression…and apparently it’s Egyptian! Ya salem!

Had my time in Egypt instilled in me this idea that hardship makes you crazy? Is that the essence of Cairo life distilled into one single lucid sentence? With the car horns honking in your subconscious as enlightenment fills your mind?!

When I think back on my life, I wonder whether hardship has, on the whole, made me stronger or crazier as an individual. Am I slowly getting madder as the years roll on by or stronger? I can’t decide. Perhaps I have become both…

So I ask you this: are the strongest people in the world the craziest? Or are the craziest people in the world the strongest?


Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Ticket to Ride: the nice amjad

I just got back from a meeting with my University of Khartoum supervisor. He is such a lovely man so I was already in a happy buoyant mood when I left his office.

On my way back, feeling hot and decidedly lazy, I decided to treat myself to a taxi.

These days I am smart enough to ask taxi drivers if they have other jobs. They usually do. Some are journalists. Some are teachers. Some are traders of some stripe… and they are always happy to grumble about the labour market. Today my taxi driver told me he was an “agent”.

Exciting! I thought.

A government agent? I asked. My mind buzzed: Don’t talk about politics, Laura, don’t don’t about politics. Whatever you do, Laura do not talk about politics!

No, he said, I am a private agent.

Private agent, heh? This sounds even more interesting.

What kind of field? I asked.

Visas, travel documents. That kind of thing.

(Ah, I forgot about the other meaning of agent. My heart dipped.)

But not for the government? I asked.

No, no. I worked at the airport for three years after university. Now I work for companies. Gulf companies. I call the airport and the ministry and sort it out. If someone wants to go to Europe, I ask a friend. I don't have the right connections for Europe. 

Do you make more money now?

Yes, of course. I take a cut. I take 30% for the Gulf. 10% for Europe. We do everything for them. Fast. Lots of people want to go to the Gulf these days. Foreigners and Sudanese, we arrange both.

I asked him if lots of people did the same; acquiring “wasta” in a government job, then moving on to the private sector to make more money. He said it’s pretty common. About 40% of people do the same. He estimated.

At the end of my journey, I went to fetch my wallet.

No, no! He said. You don’t pay.

I took out my wallet.

No, no! Really!

Are you sure? I asked. Surely someone can’t be so nice to put up with my rigorour line of questioning, drive me across town and then require no payment? 

Yes, you don’t have to pay. He said, smiling. And then he drove away.

What a nice man! 

A fine privilege for being a student! Shukran Sudan!

Monday, 6 July 2009

The things a father will do for his daughter

I have been reading about US Sanctions against Sudan and it has made me realize how much my dad loves me.

My father became a US citizen in 2000. He took the test, went to court and received a small American flag which we planted on top of our television. He is now the super power of our household and we get to tease him mercilessly.

My father got to take part in both the “national loss of hope” (my name for the 2000 election) and the “resurrection of the American dream” (my name for the 2008 election). Although he furnished our inauguration viewing with cynical over-critical commentary about how Obama had already sold out with his cabinet appointments and how Aretha Franklin had really lost her voice, I am sure I spotted a little spring in his step when he left the room to make some tea (his stomach still retains strong Northern English loyalties). But my dad is an American now… as strange as that might seem... 

So as I was reading the 2009 congress report on US sanctions, I realized that it applies to my dad.  He is a “US person”.

As a student in Sudan, I don’t have access to legitimate money. My scholarship gets delivered to a bank account in Britain, which does not allow transfers to Sudan. Now that I have sufficiently tricked them into believing that I am undertaking my research in Lebanon (going into far too much detail as I do whenever I have to lie, but what interesting imaginary research I do in Beirut!), I don’t have to worry anymore. I have found a way to pay my rent… but when I first arrived, I wasn’t so wily.

I had been in Cairo, feeling very proud that I had managed to obtain a one month Sudanese visa in 48 hours and managed to infiltrate the AUC’s exclusive library (probably more difficult than the former) when a friend told me that I would not be able to use my bank while in Sudan.

What? I shrieked in horror. How come no-one told me about that before?

Dunno. My friend replied. Perhaps they forgot. 

Well, I quickly ransacked the nearest ATM for my daily limit, begged the bank teller in the Hilton hotel in Cairo to do something, anything!! and then went away entertaining dreams that I would find a secret magical ATM machine hidden somewhere in the hinterland of the Sudanese wilderness … perhaps in the middle of the desert in the shadow of acacia tree with an eagle perched on a branch with a serpent in its beak…that's the sign. 

But alas, it was not to be.

So whom did I call? Whom do I always call when (to use my French flatmate’s favourite English expression) the shit hits the fan? 

I called my dad… the super power of the household and he engaged in necessary banking behaviour to help his youngest child clean her soiled fan. 

(Just in case you are reading this, OFAC, next time I will ask my mum to engage in the wheeling and dealing.)

People get around these things… of course they do. When there’s cash, there’s flow. The important thing to ask is who gets around them and who doesn’t? And do people actually profit, apart from the clever Lebanese, who always seem to benefit when shit takes its grand leap into the sky?

Sanctions are supposed to lead to policy change. They are not just about causing economic damage, but strategic economic damage that will either cause people to change their views on a certain issue or change their loyalty. Some authors contend that sanctions against a dictator might have the opposite effect; that sanctions can further entrench the power of the regime (Kaempfer et al, 2004). It doesn't help when the sanctions come from an unfriendly country. 

Taha and I are thinking about writing an article on how IT graduates have to go abroad in order to acquire the necessary IT certificates (Microsoft, Cisco, etc). They must do this because American companies cannot provide this education within the country.

We are interested in whether access to education and social mobility within the IT industry has become more restricted due to sanctions and whether certain groups are more disadvantaged than others in accumulating human capital. Does the economic, ethnic or political background of students help determine which groups benefit or suffer from economic sanctions? 

But we are also interested in whether study abroad provides a reflexive experience for the lucky students; whether being forced to live in another country might in some way give them a political education… or at least a political curiosity.

So we are trying to be open-minded about sanctions. My gut reaction is that they are ineffective against autocracies and that they further concentrate wealth in the hands of the elites while making it hard for small businesses and entrepreneurs to get off the ground…On the whole I think Sudan needs more economic development, not less.. I am not really sympathetic to the Sudanese boycott folk. But maybe there are subtle undercurrents that we must find…we shall see... 

Kaempfer, William H., Anton D. Lowenberg, and William Mertens (2004) International Economic Sanctions Against A Dictator Economics & Politics. Volume 16, No. 1.