Saturday, 27 June 2009

Mr. Cat strikes again...

He crouches, his eyes harpooned to his target.

“A formidable prey.” He growls. His tail curves into a smile. 

The prey is motionless. He goes in for the kill.




Mr. cat is chewing my mosquito net. While I applaud his imagination, I am not entirely pleased with the holes.

“Bad Cat!” I hiss.

He jumps away, looking quite pleased. His body swaggers.

“BAD CAT!” I repeat, this time a bit angrier. My words echo against the ceiling fan and shoot off into Khartoum.

“What can I do?” I growl. His tail curves into a smile. 

Thursday, 25 June 2009

cult of celebrity... mafi fi sudan!

Just a quick note today...

I went to this lovely concert last night at the National Theatre in Omdurman to see Igd al Jlad. They are a band that has been around for ages. The musicians come and go with age, but they keep the same songs... and what long songs they are! 

Taha kept trying to explain the lyrics to me. It was difficult for him because the crowd was so loud and he was smiling too much. One was about a young boy having to leave Sudan; he describes the route and talks about the sadness of leaving his home. Another was about a father being happy at the birth of his daughter. Another was about an old woman and how she has to be patient that things will get better. Lyrics so different from the lyrics of western pop songs!  The band is intentionally diverse, with members from all over Sudan and lyrics sung in all different dialects. It's been that way from the start. I also loved that this band (maybe the most famous in Sudan) was so approachable. The audience knew every word to every song, and yet at the end, you could go up and talk to the singers. There is no cult of celebrity here and that is cool.

You know, for all Sudan's wars and problems, there seems to be a tradition of inclusion in its culture. In Britain, we don't have pop groups with English singers, Scottish drummers, Welsh guitarists and Northern Irish trombones bringing up the rear. No, that would never work.  Sudan is a tolerant country at its heart. That's why I believe that any change has to come from within. 

Monday, 22 June 2009

What PhD students are supposed to be doing...

I am reading a great book on Higher Education in Sudan today by Mohamed El Amin Ahmed El Tom (thank you Paul!). It is really refreshingly great! I found a nice couple quotes about what higher education should be all about:

First, Egron-Pollack: "one of the most important roles that higher education institutions need to play both in developed and developing countries, remains that of the critics of the established truths, the questioners of the rules of the game, those who bring to light the contradictions, debate the ethical and moral issues facing societies." 


And then we have Said, describing "intellectuals": "The central fact for me is, I think, that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is public ally to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy or dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d'etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug. The intellectual does so on the basis of universal principles that all human beings are entitled to expect decent standards of behaviour concerning freedom and justice from worldly powers or nations, and those deliberative or inadvertent violations of these standards need to be testified and fought against courageously. "


Sunday, 21 June 2009

Disappointed by the Promise of Glucose

I went to the shops the other day and found a curiously named biscuit. “Glucose” it read. Well how bout that? I said to myself. Glucose. I like the way this company thinks. They tell it how it is. They cut the crap and give you what you need. Glucose. I happily bought one.  I think I might have even bought two.

You can imagine my disappointment when I greedily ripped open the packet and discovered a very dry, cream-less, chocolate-less biscuit with no kind of culinary embellishment at all. What the…?

It is my understanding that glucose is basically sugar, right? Shouldn’t a biscuit that prides itself on being “Glucose” be a bit more exciting than this? Basically thin dry bread.

Quite frankly, “Tiffany Biscuit” company, I am disappointed in you! What a waste of a good name! What a big waste. I hope there is another biscuit company somewhere in the world that will do justice to the promise of Glucose. I await its discovery eagerly.


Saturday, 20 June 2009

Happy Chance to Hate

A bit of a rant today, I am afraid.

I spent the morning (well late morning), reading through the Guardian website. It is my dog-lead home. It tugs me out of homesickness and pulls me towards the park inside my head. I get some news, a bit of comedy and a sense that I am not as far away as I sometimes feel. I can almost feel the green grass under my feet when I read.

Today, Charlie Brooker refrained from his usual crazy rant to talk about a slightly mad art show, taking place in Manchester: It Felt Like a Kiss by Adam Curtis. Normally I don’t like slightly mad art shows. I find them pretentious and immediately feel sorry for all the homeless people in LA that have the same ideas knocking around in their heads but lack the academic qualifications (and money) to justify their madness. Anyhow, as I am feeling in a strangely tolerant mood today, having recently been rebuked for my anti-Australian, anti-theatrical sentiments, I have decided to be uncharacteristically open-minded about cooky art. 

From what I can make from Charlie Brooker’s glowing review and the bizarre “trailer” that goes with it, the exhibition is all about how power does not just work through the law or the military but through culture and beliefs. The artist, Adam Curtis is looking at the “Pop” era of American supremacy, when the American dream infected the whole world with promise. He tries to show the ways in which this dream has now blown up around the world; how perhaps America's optimism and self-confidence is not sustainable. In his own words (from Brooker):

"I wanted to do a film about what it actually felt like to live through that time ... Where you could see the roots of the uncertainties we feel today, the things they did out on the dark fringes of the world that they didn't really notice at the time, which would then come back to haunt us."

It's a common theme in Curtis's work: he's not interested in conspiracy theories, but rather with the unforeseen consequences of ideas throughout history, and their impact on a deeply personal level. "The way power works in the world is: they tell you stories that make sense of the world. That's what America did after the second world war. It told you wonderful dreamlike stories about the world ... And at that same time, you were encouraged to rise up and 'become an individual', which also made the whole idea of America attractive to the rest of the world. But then this very individualism began to corrode it. The uncertainties began in people's minds. Uncertainty about 'what is the point of being an individual?'"

I like this idea of story-telling and how individuals personally relate to the power of their own society, but the question that follows is who gets to write those stories…

This week, I have been reading Orhan Pamuk’s book about his childhood in Istanbul. It is a strange sort of thing; a mix between a memoir, a history of a city and an analysis of the Istanbul psyche. Pamuk writes beautifully and humorously and what’s more, there are pictures. Lots and lots of pictures! Some featuring dogs, I hasten to add.

I feel a curious similarity between his description of Istanbul and the way I perceived Cairo when I lived there. He speaks of the “Huzun” of the city, the nostalgic melancholy that hangs in the smoky air of the Bosporus, the collective feelings of a city, once great but now smouldering in ghostly neglect. Beautiful in a haunting sad way.

Cairo has the same beauty; a disordered array of historical remnants thrown haphazardly out of chronology. It is not a happy beauty; not an ocean full of blue lulling light nor a mountain top in the sun, but a sad beauty, a beauty of loss and grief. It reminds you that power comes temporarily to places, but the inhabitants of these places will forever remain in the ruins of grandeur stranded like museum pieces bolted to the floor.  

As an outsider, it is easy to find this sadness charming. We take pictures of the old man sitting in his fallen-down shop, sending a text message on his phone. We find it charming and funny how modernity can creep out of the cracks of neglect. It is a beautiful scene. But it is also a beauty which we have the self confidence to enjoy. As Pamuk writes:

“Those who take pleasure in the accidental beauty of poverty and historical decay, those of us who see the picturesque in ruins- invariably, we’re people who from outside” (Pamuk, 231).

Pamuk talks about the purity of ruins and the fantasy of “Old Istanbul’ in which “poverty was to be honoured for preserving traditional identity” (235). Sometimes you hear the same sort of feeling in the words of foreigners living in Cairo and Sudan; they enjoy cultural events, when they feel they are experiencing something pure, something authentic, something truly “Sudanese”. They do not like it when there are other foreigners around because in a sense the scene has been corrupted.

On the other hand there are plenty of young Egyptians and Sudanese who value things because they are not traditional; they are Western, or at least modern. Similarly, they resent foreign portrayals of their own culture that emphasize the more traditional and ‘backward’ features. I was surprised when an Egyptian friend of mine told me she hated the Yacoubian Building, She felt that it was written for Westerners: “He is just telling them what they want to hear” Beautiful poverty. Beautiful traditions- slightly tyrannical in their attitudes to women- but nevertheless, authentic and pure! We all exoticise the Other to a certain degree. But there is a fundamental difference between the two positions, between an Egyptian or Sudanese aspiring to a Western culture and a khawaga wishing to sink into the past.

We in the West are the authors of our own cultural stories. We seldom have to cope with the readings and interpretations of others. Only once in a while do we hear what the rest of the world really thinks of us and if they say something critical, we usually put it down to jealousy or political resentment. This is because we are rich.

But this is not always the case. This is the main thrust of Pamuk’s book. He reflects that even as a Turk writing about his own city, he has been brought up to view the city as an outsider. His own literary heroes, Yahya Kemal and Tanpinar drew heavily on earlier Western accounts of the city to inform their own sense of place. He shares how these two influential writers used French descriptions of their own city to weave a beautiful but sad appreciation of their impoverishment. He writes:

“So this is how two friends living in Istanbul- one a poet, the other a prose writer- drew upon the work of two friends from Paris- one a poet, the other a prose writer- to weave together a story from the fall of the Ottoman Republic, the nationalism of the early Republican years, its ruins, its Westernizing project, its poetry and its landscapes. The result of this somewhat tangled tale was an image in which Istanbullus could see themselves, and a dream to which they could aspire. We might call this dream, which grew out of the barren, isolated, destitute neighbourhoods beyond the city walls, the ‘melancholy of the ruins’, as if one looks at these scenes through the eyes of an outsider (as Tanpinar did) it is possible to see them as picturesque. First seen as the beauty of a picturesque landscape melancholy also came to express the sadness of a century of defeat and poverty would bring to the people of Istanbul” (227-228).

(sorry for the long quote).

I get the sense that Cairo suffers from this same forced-outsider-perspective. There is a desire to be Western but at the same time, a resentment of the West. There is a desire to protect traditions but also a resentment of these traditions as a source of backwardness. Pamuk explains this external-internal gazing as a result of literary development; early Turkish writers had to draw on foreign writers in order to learn about structure and prose; there were no Turkish equivalents and Turkey itself was a brand new country at the time. But I think it goes deeper than that.

In Sudan, you get the sense that British colonialism infected society with a sense of inadequacy. During the conference I attended this week, many participants harked back to the period of British control as a time when education was much better than it is today. Sudanese translators were the best in the world. They were respected all over the Arab world for their excellent English and Arabic. Now there is a sense that this reputation has been lost, that the Arab world mocks them for their poverty (especially the Egyptians) and that they can no longer hold their head up high. But as the participant from Lebanon suggested, Sudanese are still some of the best translators in the world. They still work in all the major cities of the Arab world and they can still hold their heads up high. It is just a matter of numbers.

In the days of British colonialism, only the elite and those that showed the most promise were educated, so of course the educational system produced fine graduates. Now there are thousands of graduates every year and not enough money. It is a much harder task to ensure quaity. While I do believe that political policies of the past ten years have severely damaged the educational system of Sudan, this is not about culture. This is about politics and insufficient resources. But what results from this inadequate feeling is a mixing of nostalgia and resentment towards the West.

It expresses itself in defensive nationalism. Usually the first question, a Sudanese taxi driver asks me is “What do you think of Sudan?” They are desperate to hear that their country is beautiful. If you say something about their president or their political system, they shoot up their claws. They defend Omar Bashir with real passion. He represents them abroad. He is Sudan. They want to author their own story. They may well want the riches of the West but they want it on their own terms.  Sudanese resent the ICC because it has been authored abroad. Authorship is extremely important.

Adam Curtis’ installation is all about American power expressed through American culture. It is a self-confident culture that needs not bow down to external measurements. It is a confidence built on power. But now, this self-confidence has got them (and the rest of the world) into trouble. I cannot really speak too much about the show, because I have not seen it, but it sounds fascinating (and only a bit pretentious). 

In Britain, I think we lack the same level of self-confidence. We were once a powerful Empire; we are now the inhabitants of a tiny island in a very cold and wet sea. Yeah, we have our Security council seat and we do not suffer the same kind of post-Imperial poverty that the Turks must endure, but we still have something in common with Istanbul; we have a kind of “Huzun”.  

Luckily ours is a self-authored Huzun. It is a self-depreciating “Huzun”. We are old and wise, not naive like the powerful Americans. We are self confident enough to mercilessly mock every inch of our social space and still feel proud to stand tall upon our mockery.

The other day, I got chatting to a neighbour about politics. I now live across the road from a political newspaper. They have basil outside their front door and I sometimes attempt to steal it. One day, I was caught by the guards and by a very friendly woman who asked me (somewhat predictably)

“What do you think of Sudan?” I was feeling in an obliging mood and replied,

“Sudan is very beautiful and its people are very kind” (this is absolutely true). She smiled, but then I added “But I don’t like the government that much.” Her smile slipped away and then her brother launched forward,

“Omar Bashir is our president.”

“I know” I replied, “And inshallah the elections next year will be fair, so we can see if he gets elected. Then we will know if he is really your president.”  The man replied,

“The elections will be fair. I have no doubts.”

I disagreed. Feeling slightly worried that my supply of basil was about to be cut, I cautiously disputed whether there was freedom of expression in Sudan. I got a bit carried away in my poor inelegant Arabic and asked him whether you could march down the street with a giant placard saying that you hated your leader (as I once did in London as a student: Tony Blair, war criminal, I think my placard proclaimed- don’t blame me. Blame the over-zealous socialists who gave it me). The man thought a moment and then replied,

“But we don’t hate Omar Bashir. We love him.”

“But that’s not the point.” I said, realizing I had dug myself a basil-less hole, “There are presumably some people who don’t like him, that might even hate him, but they are not allowed to say that. You are not allowed to make fun of him. You are not allowed to say you hate him. It is not free!”

“But we don’t hate him.” The man repeated, probably feeling sorry for my own hatred of my government.

“Poor khawaga.” He might have mused. I retreated.

But in a way, I am proud that I am not proud. I think that Britain is in a particularly lucky place in history. We do not have the blind self-confidence of the Americans, but we do not have the insecure pride of the Sudanese either. We are proudly ashamed of our political system. We are extremely lucky. As David Mitchell writes:

“I've been to LA and it's horrible. I don't want to live there. I think, fundamentally, the people I want to make laugh are British. I can't ever imagine living abroad. I love all elements of how British society lends itself to comedy - you know, it's own sort of pompousness and self-loathing and class system and cynicism and irony: all these sorts of things are strongest here. Something like Curb Your Enthusiasm, great though it is, it's like their first faltering steps into that world of self-loathing that we, as a post-imperial power, have been in for the best part of a century. I think the Americans will be doing some amazing comedy in 60 to 70 years' time. But for the moment I'd say we're in the right part of the curve of the decline of our civilisation in order to be funniest."

Putting aside the fact that he is being extremely rude about Los Angeles, I think David Mitchell is right. In some ways, comedy needs self-loathing. But doesn’t that make us a wee sad? And aren’t we all just a bit jealous of the Americans at the moment?

They have Barack Obama, shiny and new, African American, international man of diplomacy and just damn cool. We have Gordon Brown- poor Gordon Brown- who no one really likes but everyone pities. It is a bit pathetic, our current relationship with power. No wonder you find so many Europeans reading Barack Obama’s books. We wish we could have such political love.

I used to think that the more a country expressed hatred towards its political system, the more democratic it was. I surmised that the moment people started loving their president and hanging flags in their cars, things were not looking good. During Bush’s insane popularity, even Los Angeles was full of stars and stripes. Now in Khartoum, Omar Bashir smiles from every car window. These are not good signs. Democracy is at risk.

But how do we explain Obama? The lovechild of a new America?

I suppose that in a strange way, I take comfort in the crazy racist ramblings you sometimes hear launched against him- not because I agree with their horrible sentiments- but because they show that you can still hate in America. Hating has not become illegal. That is good.

I guess I am being cynical (and having started off this post with such enthusiasm and open-mindedness! malish) but in some ways, I think it healthy when people occasionally hate their political process. It shows that there is still some spice in the system. We don't all get along. We don't all love our Lord and Master Gordon Brown because at the end of the day politics shouldn’t be about popularity. If we are to consent to be ruled by our leaders, they need to win our approval; not the other way round. We shouldn't have to prove our patriotism. On the contrary, they should have to prove their competence. 

So when you find yourself telling someone how much you hate your president, you must feel extremely lucky. You are allowed to hate your president. 

When you hear someone else openly make fun of your president, it doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree, you must feel lucky, because you were born at a particular time in your culture’s history when you are allowed to make fun of your president. 

You didn’t really earn this right. It was bequeathed by the past. It is a “happy chance” to hate. And there are plenty of people in the world still trying to build that right. 

Thursday, 18 June 2009

A healthy dose of technology makes the president go down, the president go down...

Last Tuesday, Patrick Meier came to the Khartoum Student Seminar to share his research on how IT can be used as a tool by activists in countries with repressive regimes (being very careful not to mention a particular regime). 

I picture his research as a bit of dystopic future-world spaghetti western in which the repressive regimes represent the proverbial cowboys (I am being PC here and suggesting that cowboys are baddies due to the whole “extermination of whole peoples groups” and all) while the activists are clearly the Indians- a.k.a. the goodies. This is kind of accurate, given that native Americans were battling against a repressive regime. They just used small pox instead of sms messages.

Patrick’s research question is who is going to win- who is going to master the technology first- the activists or the governments? Censorship or IT empowerment? 

I like the dramatic arc of his research. I clearly need to develop a movie metaphor for my own research.

Patrick shared a whole bunch of funny and interesting stories from around the world. Here are a couple of my favourites bits from his presentation (I am not sure if I am allowed to talk about one so I have left it out):

Zimbabwe goes analog

Ok, I will admit it. I am not entirely sure what analog means. Maybe it means 1010101010000010001 and I should just write the rest of this section 1’s and 0’s and the occasional flourish of spaces. Are they allowed? 1000111! (no!)

Anyhow, in my simpleton mind, analog means non-digital.

Governments can shut down the Internet. Governments can shut down mobile phone services and blame it on dogs chewing wires and bees attacking electrical engineers- apparently how the government explained why Darfur went offline in the past… but governments cannot shut down tape decks and they cannot easily shut down landlines (for how are they going to communicate themselves? Maybe Haboobs are failed smoke signals- duh duh dah!).

In Zimbabwe, people are getting around government censorship by recording news from outside of the country and bringing it on tapes. Patrick said they use the long distance road networks as radio stations, with bus drivers making excellent DJs. How clever! This suggests that bus drivers in Zimbabwe are sympathetic characters. I don’t think this would work in London, where bus drivers are recruited from shutdown mercenary companies.

But let's get back to Zimbabwe, land of friendly bus drivers! There is another very clever IT development going on there called Freedom Fone. 

Freedom Fone is a landline phone service in Zimbabwe that allows you to call up and request news. According to Patrick (and embellished by my imagination) it goes something like this:

Helloooo, and welcome to Freedom fone. If you know the name of the social problem you would like to hear about, please press one.

If you would like to hear a list of social problems, please press two.

Using your touchtone phone, please enter the first three letters of the social problem now.

You have selected civil rights abuses. If this is correct please hold the line.  

So cool!

(Patrick’s presentation invariably led to everyone in the room feeling like brothers and sisters in arms, resisting the great temptation to raise our fists in solidarity with people everywhere.)

Souktel- sms jobs in Palestine

Patrick didn’t actually talk about this during his presentation but told me about it afterwards and it is KOLKO INTERESNO (with capital letters, note!).

Souktel is a service in Palestine that allows people to send in their c.v.s and receive job posts using sms messages. Apparently it has been a huge success. You can check out their colourful website:

My friend and I got to thinking about how it could be used in Sudan. We are going to do some investigations...

But I wonder whether it would work. On the one hand, it seems that when it comes down to it, Sudan has too many job seekers and not enough jobs. Whether companies want MORE applications is dubious. At the same time, if they want the best candidates, surely they want to reach as many people as possible. A friend of mine said that when he applied for his job, there were 12,000 other applicants. They selected 52 from this huge number. Personally, I would not want to have to read 12,000 c.v.s. I would rather fight a bull in a china shop. But on the other hand, this company probably got the cream of the cream.

On their website, Souktel seems to suggest that there is some degree of filtering that goes on and that they “match” people with jobs. I wonder how many of those 12,000 applicants were completely irrelevant and how many were qualified people. The numbers depress me daily.

In some ways, I think souktel could be more useful for low-end jobs in Sudan. I promised (long ago) that I would share how plumbers and electricians get work in Sudan.

It is very simple, no phone book required. There are certain corners of the city, where plumbers, electricians and other handymen hang out. Usually tea ladies are on hand to supply them with constant tea. They prop their tools of the pavement, “advertising” their craft. When you need one, you simply drive up to the curb and they all come forward. You pick one and take him home with you. He does his job and returns to the corner. It is a simple process but also one which requires effort on behalf of the customer. After all, I do not have a car. The last time I needed a plumber, my lovely neighbour had to drive me all the way and back. Additionally, it can’t be fun for the plumbers to sit in the sun and dust all day.

If they could set up a system, by which customers, could text in and request a certain tradesmen, then they could spend their days how they wished. In this way, I do see potential for this kind of technology in Sudan. I just wonder at what levels. Do companies really want more applicants for those high-end jobs? I am not sure.

Paranoia gets the better of me: I will never buy an iPhone.

I say ha ha to you, my sister Loula! I say ha ha to you, my brother Gareth! The iPhone may be your Oracle. Sure, it can become a cow-bell at the flick of the switch and can tell you the location of the nearest sizzler on long distance drives. And perhaps it allows us to tell Derek to come to the Botanical Gardens in Pasadena when we have both forgotten our phone numbers…. But according to Patrick, they are also a tool of “the Man” (he didn't actually say that).

Apparently all cell phones made in the US must have a component that allows the government to use them as listening devices. That is bloody scary. Just a little bit scarier, iPhones can never be turned off. 

The government probably doesn’t care whether any of Derek's friends did or did not get our (ingenious) facebook message---- but whatever you do, don’t go gabbing in Arabic to your friends at Egyptian airline companies. And if you do, try not to make too many jokes. The CIA doesn’t laugh. And neither will you when you get your orange jumpsuit. All right, maybe it will be a bit funny on the first day- sort of like when you go paint-balling and everyone has a good old laugh about the ridiculous costumes, but that will wear off hasta pronto when you discover that you have to spend the rest of your life in a cage.

I have the world's most ineffective phone. It switches off at least five times a day and displays the message "emergency calls only" when it senses that I am in a particularly bad mood. But I will say this now to you my dear sweet phone, I will never trade you in for a younger model. Sure, she has legs up to here and hair down to there, but she is a spy. A spy, I tell you!!!!!! And I am no James Bond.

Maybe Patrick is conspiracy theorist and I shouldn’t believe anything he says, but he doesn’t seem like one to me. He seems very nice, very friendly and he used econometrics in his presentation. I don’t think conspiracy theorists can sit still long enough to engage in regression analysis. Nor do their eyes stay in one place when they talk to you. Patrick isn't paranoid. He is very calm. 

So beware fancy iPhone users, Washington is watching you!

So that pretty much sums up my post for today. In short, I hope the Indians will win. Let's all hope that creativity will trump control. I don't want to live in a police state.

So I bid thee "Tara" my brothers in digital arms! 

(But remember, arms are for hugging.)

If you would like to read to the same post in analog, please press three…

Saturday, 13 June 2009

thinking critically while thinking foreignly.

A couple of weeks ago, Mamour Turuk gave a very interesting seminar on his doctoral research: Developing Critical Thinking Skills through Integrative Teaching of Reading and Writing in ESL. His PhD is a form of educational experiment. He is trying to find a way of teaching English that encourages students to “think critically” in English. In a show of PhD student solidarity, I have been thinking in English about thinking in English.

English in Sudan

Sudan has always had a complicated language policy. Traditionally, Sudanese universities used English as the language of instruction. In the early days of independence, many of the professors had received their training abroad and most teaching materials could only be found in English. English became the de-facto language of higher education in Sudan. However in the 1990s, this all changed. In what was wildly regarded as an educational revolution, the government instituted a policy of Arabization within the public education system. As a result English was replaced by Arabic as the compulsorily language of instruction in all public universities in Sudan.

For many, this was seen as a political issue. Southerners had, by and large, grown up within an English speaking educational system. The imposition of Arabic as THE language of education put them at a huge disadvantage. There was also the issue of speed. Arabization happened very fast, with few professors being able to both speak Arabic well and lecture deeply about the subject matter in question. Quality is said to be adversely effected by the new policy. For others, this was an anti-colonial matter; Arabic was the official language of the country, so therefore universities should teach in Arabic. Khallas! Additionally it was thought that students would learn better in their own language.

Of course, Arabic is not the first language for many of Sudan’s citizens. Sudanese speak multiple languages in the home and in the South, English has become the lingua franca. Indeed under the new constitution, signed in 2005 as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, both Arabic and English are the official languages of Sudan and Southern universities are now able to use English as the language of instruction. And even within the North, private universities still teach in English. And even within Arabic-speaking universities, many technical subjects rely heavily on English textbooks and computer programs.  Therefore, while Arabic may be the official language of higher education in Sudan, many students are still trying to study in English.

For one thing, English opens doors. When a student graduates, the first thing she must do if she wants a professional career, is to learn English. If she doesn’t, she will not get a job. It doesn’t matter if the company is Sudanese, Chinese, French or Dutch, she needs to speak English. Every HR manager I have spoken to during the course of my research says the same thing. They offer law as the only exception, as all court cases must be conducted in Arabic.

Whether they are speaking some pure form of “British” English or “American” English that the queen would approve of is debatable. Because they don’t have to. If you read half the emails leaping through the UN system, you would see what I mean. The UN is an international space and international English prevails. My high school English teacher would run riot with her little red “grammar” pencil. A sea of crosses and questions marks and “syntax error number twelve”! I can even see the smile on her face as she tears them up; this is fertile ground for her over-enthusiastical grammatical brain. But these guys don’t need perfect grammar. They don’t need to blink an eye over syntax nor pronoun agreement. They don’t even need to use the verb “to be”. What they need is the ability to think in English, think quickly and resolutely, and under pressure as the world falls down upon them. In simple terms, they need to think critically.

So is it possible to think critically in a new language?

When we study foreign languages, we often slip into the convenience of translation. We translate the material, think about it in our own language, come up with a response and then translate it back again. It may look like we have thought about the subject in the foreign language, but really we will have treated the language as a code. This is especially the case when you learn a foreign language outside of its native stomping ground. If your teacher is good, she will only use the foreign language in the classroom, but as soon as she turns her back, you may well whisper something to the student next to you,

“Oi! What was she going on about?”

Then when the class is over, you return home and turn off the little language part of your brain. “click” like a light switch it’s gone. No more Arabic grammar for the day! Ilhamdulilah!

But you must be forced to think in the foreign language for it to really sink in.

You’re on your way home after a long hot day, sitting on a particularly uncomfortable seat on the bus. Your seat is sagging onto the next person’s lap and the woman next to you has three children who stare at you for the entire ride home. They are suspicious of the khawaga. The president has made them sensitive to the ways of the wicked West and they are not going to take their eyes off you. You scan the horizon for signs of a junkfood establishment. You must consume something before you melt into your bedsheets. The sun has drained you of your sugar and salt. This is not a culinary matter. This is about glucose! You close your eyes as the bus screeches to a halt. You leap out and walk home through the pasture of donkeys and dust and strange metal objects that surround your home. You are SO ready for Bed-fordshire that you’re not even going to buy a ticket….

Then you get home and there’s a power cut, or a sandstorm or some other crisis- and your landlady is there, angry and incomprehensible, saying something about God above, and your neighbours are speaking to you in rapid-fire-five-hundred-words-a-minute Arabic and you wonder, God Almighty, won’t they just let me go to sleep? I will sleep without electricity. I will sleep without a roof. I will sleep in the middle of the Nile if that’s what they want from me. Is that what you want from me?!!

That’s when you know you are being forced to speak a foreign language. Because you have to.

When I think back to my bachelor degree, I remember how difficult it was for the foreign students in my environmental policy courses to keep up during the first couple semesters but they had to. I remember proofreading their essays and seeing how drastically they improved from one year to the next. I do not doubt that by the time we had finished our degrees they had not only acquired funny half-British accents, but also the ability to think critically and deeply in English. I admired them for this deeply. I am not sure I could do the same for Arabic.

However this transformation was not so common among my economist colleagues at university. They were never really forced to think in English. Economics was a chiefly mathematical affair. Discussions were seldom held and when they were, we were less animated than a group of stuffed animals on a shelf. Answers to questions were almost always numbers, even when we were talking about economic policies that affected social welfare:

“Should we raise the tax on petrol to encourage public transportation in the UK?”

Answer: +2.6% . Next Question….

In this way, Economics died a slow and painful death. Reduced to mathematics, I lost interest in about five weeks and decided that I no longer loved the discipline as I had before. I shifted my interest to the environment policy part of my degree and gave up wanting to be a “real economist”. I thought Political Economy had been buried and its tombstone lost amongst the partial differentiation equations that dotted the landscape. It certainly wasn’t hanging about in the Economics department at LSE.

The Importance of Critical Thinking

I would agree with Mamour: Critical thinking is a necessary component of education. If you do not force your students to think critically, they will lose interest and if they lose the love of learning, knowledge becomes a matter of memorization. You shove all the information into your brain before the exam, spit it all out and then hope that you didn’t forget anything important. Little real thought is required.  

I have been told by many students that this is the situation in most universities in Sudan today. Some even say that questions during class are discouraged and that classmates rely heavily on other classmates for explanation and copying. People even photocopy their friends’ work. Now if you ask me, that’s plain lazy!

And that’s in the Arabic speaking universities. What about the English speaking ones? Well, like economics at LSE, the majority of students are not native English speakers. The language of instruction is English but the environment is Arabic. They are not forced to speak English outside (and sometimes in) the classroom. I have met many graduates from English speaking universities who do not speak English very well at all. It is almost impressive that they have managed to get through an English-speaking university without being able to speak English, but it begs the question; how much did they really learn? Would it have been better for them to have studied in Arabic (provided Arabic is their first language) and to have thought deeply about what they were studying? Or did they acquire language skills that put them at an advantage in the job market? Because at the end of the day, these people need jobs.

I remember a debate in one of my classes at Edinburgh. I think the question was: Is the use of European languages as the medium of instruction in African educational institutions more negative than positive? I can’t remember what conclusion we came to (if any). All I can say is that English is necessary for social mobility in Sudan. If you want to get a good job, you have to speak English, plain and simple.

In some ways, English also represents a different kind of space in Sudan. For one thing, it is space in which Southerners might be at an advantage. For another, it is a space that might be less policed by the elder generation.

Last Valentines, I found a man in a bookshop writing love letters. I am not sure if he wrote customized letters for each customer or whether all women in Khartoum thought that their loved ones “burnt with respect and admiration” for them but this man was a pro. There was a line of people waiting.

This Casanova was writing in English- apparently the new language of Love?

“Why?” I asked, a bit naively and feeling decidedly French.

"Because parents can’t read." They replied. 

In this way, English represents the langage of the youth, of the new generation of Khartoumers who see the world with international eyes.

Could English therefore also be the language of protest? If you master English well, can you veil your comments in sarcasm and a cutting wit that the government and its probes might not recognize. I have seen this on the facebook statuses of my friends. Sarcasm is a powerful tool against the strong.  

In this way, English, or more precisely international English should not be seen merely as a colonial remnant. It is no longer a British space, a former territory that we control, as native English speakers. No, English is alive. It lets people communicate with foreigners from around the world, from Asia and Africa and Latin America. It allows you to express yourself in deviant, socially liberated ways. And perhaps mostly importantly of all, English is the gateway to social mobility in a globalized Sudan. It gets you a job.

This is why Mamour’s research is so important.

As a short side note; there is a conference on English language teaching in Sudan next week, on Monday and Wednesday at Omdurman Islamic University. If you are interested in joining me, let me know!

You don’t have to mean it, you just got to say it…

Hard Currency. Cash. Bones. Clams. Call them what you may. They make the world go round… especially in the neighbourhoods of Amarat, Riyard and Khartoum Two. Sometimes on a very hot and bothersome Sudanese afternoon, you can smell them in the air (they smell a bit like generating fuel, funny that).

I was talking to my friend Waleed yesterday and he thinks that the banishment of the NGOs might have had something to do with cash.

I think he’s right (well a bit).

Hard currency is extremely important in countries with economic sanctions. It keeps the wheels of commerce grinding along. This government needs hard currency to enter the country so it can keep the economy going, or perhaps it is more appropriate to say to keep the spending habits of the rich going…

When they kicked out the NGOs, the government required them to pay all their workers six months severance- which was good for the workers, but bad for the NGOs. I remember people complaining about how the government was seizing all the money in the NGO bank accounts, but according to a friend working for one of the NGOs, their bank accounts were bone dry; they had to bring in more money from outside to pay this huge sum of money. A LOT OF EXTRA CASH.

So now I am wondering how much of a knee-jerk irrational decision it really was. Maybe their banishment was about getting hard currency into the economy. Maybe not completely…. Maybe just a bit.

And maybe the fact that they are being allowed to come back has something to do with the fact that there is a hard currency crisis in the country at the moment. The black market is tight and the price of dollars has shot up. People are in desperate need of cash. Especially the rich. Especially the ones that matter to the government.

I think this government is very smart. They can see that they need more clams floating about the economy. Where do clams come from?

No, not the ocean, silly. I am not speaking nautically.

They come from the kingdom of khawagastan.

It makes you realise the full impact that the UN and the NGOs have in Sudan. It is not just their work that changes the place, but their cash and their good time living.

I am feeling a bit naive to have thought that the government was going to feel the impact of the departed NGOs in the form of angry people on the periphery who had lost their programs. They are feeling the impact in their own pockets- or perhaps more appropriately (because their own pockets are presumably well lined) in the pockets of their political constituents.

Might it all be about cash in the end or have I caught the cynics bug? 

Saturday, 6 June 2009

on the transportation of semi-wild animals...

I have had a fun afternoon. If transporting semi-wild animals across Khartoum isn't a good time, I don't know what is... 

 Here is the "situation":

Two friends have a cat. They went on holiday. They asked me if I knew anyone that wouldn't mind looking after a cat for two months. I suggested my former neighbour, May. It turns out May's daughter is allergic to cats...End Result: I am now looking after a cat. Ilhamdulilah. 

I have never had a cat before. I once had a kitten when I was four. It's name was Fozzy and it got hit by a car shortly before we moved to America. It never really got the chance to be a proper cat. My new son, Toab looks a bit like Fozzy. He is orange and white, a tabby, a handsome tabby cat with a reckless spirit. 

But apart from Fozzy, I have limited experience with cats. This afternoon, I have already learnt a lot about cats:

Fact Number One: Cats do not like boxes. 

Fact Number Two: Cats do not like cars.

Fact Number Three: Cats are extremely talented escape artists.

Fact Number Four: Cats have claws.

Fact Number Five: It is not possible to "sneak" a cat into a building without guards or landladies finding out. 

I am sure I will learn all sorts of new facts about cats over the course of the next month.

Now Toab is asleep in the new bed I have made for him in the corner of the room. He looks pretty tranquil but he is probably planning his next assault... I await in fear and great trepidation.


One of my best friends in Khartoum is Paul, or as someone people like to call him "the other PhD student". Paul has been in Sudan for ages and has really mastered the art of Sudanese greeting. I am too lazy to fully engage... But this is how it goes,

Hello Paul!

Hello Laura! How's your condition?

My condition is fine. Thank you God! How is your condition?

My condition is fine. Thank you God! How is your family?

My family is good. Thank you God! How is your family?

My family is good. Thank you God! Everything good?

Everything is good. Thank you God! Everything good with you?

Yes, Everything is good. Thank you God! Anything bad?

No, nothing is bad. Thank you God. Anything bad with you?

No, nothing is bad. Thank you God. Are you a hundred percent?

I'm a hundred percent. Thank you God. Are you a hundred percent?

Yes, I am a hundred percent. Thank you God. Where have you been?

I have been around. Thank you God. Where have you been?

I have been around. Thank you God. What is the news?

Everything is good. Thank you God.

Yes, thank you God! Good. Well, I will see you later... if God wills it.

Yes, I'll see you later... if God wills it.

With peace.

With peace.

Now I know this seems comical in English, and slightly annoying when Paul and I insist on doing it every time we see each other, complete with multiple shoulder pats and serious facial expressions... but now that Paul has made it seem like a game, I am starting to be less lazy in my greetings with others. I have also noticed the difference it makes in people's attitudes with me. 

I used to try and get by with the bare minimum,


All in one breath, not waiting to hear their replies. But I have found the longer you take in greeting someone, the more friendly and helpful they are with you. 

So now, whenever I see someone, I know I am about to kiss goodbye to five minutes of my life.
Good bye five minutes! 

On the other hand, what's the rush? I think that this drawn-out greeting came about because Sudan is so bloody hot and people do need to occasionally take a compulsory chill out. We might even say that saying hello is a form of Sudanese verbal yoga... You have to stop in your tracks, forget your haste and be overly polite to someone you may or may not like. It calms you down and shows that you are not too busy to say hello. 

This is just one reason why Paul Fean is my PhD fieldwork guru.... Thank you God for putting Paul Fean in my life...

With peace.