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Islam LGBTQ Personal Writing Projects Sudan Politics U.K. Politics

Modern Prayers: A Companion Guide

This article intends to be a companion to my work ‘Modern Prayers’ commissioned by Out and About: Queering the Museum at RAMM, Exeter, 2021.

Another way of saying history is written by the victors is that history is denied to the oppressed.

I grapple with this a lot, especially when museums have a huge task in modern times of not only preserving history but a responsibility to actively find out what was ignored or forced into hiding.

Queer histories are one of those blank spaces.

I was drawn to the necklace taken during the Nile expedition from a Sudanese soldier in 1885 when I looked through the online collection at the RAMM. I am – still today and through the months of the commission – fascinated by it because it is wrong, but only upon a second glance. It passes at first, blending into a normalcy. When you examine it though you find it falsely labelled – even taking rosary to be an approximation and not intended to associate the necklace with Catholicism the beads do not count high or few enough to be a misbaha, used to count the 99 names of Allah.

You always know when you have a good project when it plagues you. I spent a whole weekend reaching out to my Sudanese relatives and friends and they too could make no sense of it; my father said it is a fraud, not genuine Sudanese at all.

78 beads with 21 missing pieces – it neatly reflects how queerness is a missing element of our histories, both in the UK and in Sudan, as well as the sloppy way the history of those under British rule was treated during colonialism.

I want to note here that a lot of the questions I have around the treatment of the prayer beads are something I place in the historic period and not something I see as coming from the modern RAMM. I think it is likely that the prayer beads were broken at some point in someone’s personal possession and that information was not handed over to the museum when they were donated. I think it’s important for people to remember that we often have a complicated task in modern times of preserving and maintaining history when – either through carelessness or maliciousness – a lot of key information that should have been handed down hasn’t.

There are similar issues with museums in Sudan, where a lot of old Nubian relics weren’t treated well in the past for a combination of factors including religious prejudice due to the former government’s Arabisation drive, and only now is there really a push to properly preserve these important artefacts. Part of my intentional inclusion in the piece of my atrocious Arabic is a reflection of that – why should I be ashamed of my language skills when my family have lost their mother tongue, and relics of times gone by were allowed for decades to be swallowed in sand?

What is in the modern museums hands is how they choose to seek out that missing knowledge in modern times and who they ask to help them with that. Museums tend to reflect what society finds important to preserve and it is vital that more museums invert that process and take a proactive approach of adding nuance and uncovering hidden aspects of our past.

In the UK QTIPOC have a unique experience compared to white LGBTQ people, especially with our relationship to history. Many of us come from places that were under British colonial rule and experience marginalisation within both mainstream culture and mainstream queer life. I think prayer beads and I think of my own prayers for a sense of home, and how so many of us have nostalgia for a past that shares our fullness but no way to learn about or embrace it.

A lot of time with queerness people want to talk about the future. I am interested in the pasts that were denied. I am interested in the fact that the historical language of my fathers side – Nobiin/Mahas – was almost wiped out of common use in a few generations and yet holds so many fascinating aspects that would be considered futuristic by some; for instance there are no gendered pronouns and folk tales abound with stories of women stealing the skins of men to live new lives. I am interested in learning how exactly generation after generation of LGBTQ people have lived in shadows, and how they thrived as well.

There are five chapters to my piece. The first two look at crimes brought with colonialism and with those who originally claimed our history as theirs to filter before being passed down. Next I expore our erasure from history and then the role of us as rememberers. Finally I seek to reassure that there is still joy and revelry to be had as we continue to rebuild our pasts.

Coming from a place where these queer histories and those of other minority groups are regularly erased, from our personal stories right down to the languages we speak, it feels important to bring to light just how much of our past does not show up in formal records. I hope that by being part of such a project we can begin dialogues, not only here, but in other countries about how to tackle these blank spaces.

Acknowledgements

Firstly thank you so much to Dr Jana Funke, Natalie McGrath, and Eleanor Coleman for their help and support during this process.

Secondly a major thank you to the RAMM and the University of Exeter for commissioning this work as part of Out and About: Queering the Museum, and to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for investing in this fantastic project!

All music I was kindly able to source through https://www.free-stock-music.com and tracks are listed below in the order they appear in the piece. One of the things that was important to me was to have the strong sense of drums throughout as it drew from the ceremonies the Dervish’s hold in Omdurman each Friday where they spin and chant to obtain a closeness to God. There is something in the rhythm and intensity of the beat that makes you feel a oneness and it was that I wanted to tap into and how through time it has faded away.

Ambient Bongos by Alexander Nakarada https://www.serpentsoundstudios.com
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Mirage by Hayden Folker https://soundcloud.com/hayden-folker
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Bumbumchack by Alwin Brauns https://soundcloud.com/alwinmusik
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Last Promise by Nettson https://soundcloud.com/nettson
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Luminance by Ghostrifter Official https://soundcloud.com/ghostrifter-official
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Categories
African Politics Sudan Politics Writing Hosted Elsewhere

Independent Voices! Bir Tawil! Colonialism!

Some time last year an American man planted a flag in an unclaimed area of land between Egypt and Sudan called Bir Tawil to make his daughter a princess. More recently Disney announced that they were making a film based on this. As the whole incident obviously reminds people of a very particular moment in history, there was a lot of fury on twitter (which included myself) and I decided to write all my feelings down. You can read my anger here, which the Independent’s online Voices section published:

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-princess-of-north-sudan-when-i-see-a-western-man-plant-a-flag-in-african-land-my-heart-drops-10254047.html

Sadly my link to the fabulous Eddie Izzard sketch did not make it in, but I do think it makes the perfect bookend to the piece.

Categories
African Politics European Politics Sudan Politics U.K. Politics

#SudanVotes or Rather Not Really (And Other Apathetic Elections)

I remember being in Sudan the last time the general election was held and getting a slight sense of excitement for the opportunity, that rapidly declined to resignation. A few months following there was a referendum that would split the country into two halves and redraw Africa’s colonial boundaries for the first time. First no change, then a big one.

As expected, both general elections produced sweeping victories for the National Congress Party, who have ruled Sudan for decades. It feels so routine I initially wasn’t going to comment.

This time though pictures circulated of sleeping officials at polling stations, policemen queuing to vote in snaking lines, men trying to encourage people off the street, and the entire voting time-frame was extended by a day due to low turn-out. When you know what to expect, why bother?

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When it comes to discussing voter-turnout we often see it framed by the global north-south divide, where in poorer nations ‘not voting’ is allowed to be a radical act. Perhaps, we say, it’s the difference between active apathy (“my vote won’t make a difference due to rigging, therefore I won’t bother.”) and passive apathy (“my vote won’t make a difference because all politicians are the same, so why bother?”). Except it isn’t that clear-cut; low voter turnout due to lack of faith in the system is low voter turnout due to lack of faith in the system regardless of the root cause, even if some root causes do not prevent a free and fair election. Where vote-rigging is common the best way to protest and make an active political choice is to not lend yourself to the charade of freedom. Here in the UK many people feel they cannot determine the differences between politicians, nor if the values they claim to subscribe to will even slightly resemble anything they do. When politics is reduced to a stab in the dark (for example the Lib Dems did not just say in 2010 they would vote against raising tuition fees, but one of the promises in their manifesto was to work towards abolishing them), protest can be a refusal to participate in a charade of choice, even if it is harder to distinguish from apathy.

You have one day in the UK to determine the future of the country, and yet you are left either voting against your worst-case scenario, or live in the fear that an ideological choice you make you will come to regret. Voter registration is low (and with the registration deadline now passed we have a fixed maximum of voters), and on top of that turnout amongst registered voters is low because the system refuses to engage with people by increasing accountability. Yet non-voters themselves are blamed. In Sudan this is not the case, lack of turn-out rightly shines light back on the institutions themselves. The voice of the people in their refusal is more respected.

A few months ago I was completely opposed to those who were actively against not voting in the UK. I still think that this choice allows politicians to ignore large portions of the population and only cater to an increasingly shrinking pool of people who do turn up. In generally free and fair elections spoiling the ballot is preferable because it demonstrates numerically that there is a politically aware population who do not like what is happening, making not casting a vote less likely to be brushed off as laziness. However I can recognise now that this can be impractical, a little soul-sucking, and ultimately shouldn’t have to be done – I was casting the issues of the system and the biases of politicians back onto the public. Patronising people with messages from Nelson Mandela frames voting as if all our problems could be fixed with a simple ‘x’ every five years. The right to vote is certainly hard won but the freedom to vote also carries freedom not to, and that can sometimes be our most important weapon.