Protest in solidarity with the Sudanese revolution in front of the German foreign ministry. Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy, CC 2.0 via Flickr.

Protest in solidarity with the Sudanese revolution in front of the German foreign ministry. Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy, CC 2.0 via Flickr.

On Sudan and the Interminable Catastrophe: A Conversation with Bedour Alagraa

Bedour Alagraa is an assistant professor of Black studies at the University of Texas–Austin, a wayward political theorist, and author of the forthcoming book The Interminable Catastrophe. In the wake of the one-year anniversary of the current war in Sudan, she traced her family’s departure from Sudan into the diaspora, the relationship between the Ottoman slave trade and the production of race, and explored how her theorization of the interminable catastrophe can contribute to our collective understanding of violence within Sudan and the potential to make a radical breach with its repetitions. 

J. Khadijah Abdurahman: People often split Sudan into a simple binary of Black and Arab, or northern Muslims and southern (as in South Sudan)1 Christians, without giving further thought or recognition to Black Indigenous sacred practices in Islam, Christianity, or in opposition to both, the specific experiences of the Nuba people or the Fur, the Masalit, and so on. Where do you locate yourself within the social and political geography of Sudan? How has the war transformed or reinforced your perspective on this? 

Bedour Alagraa: I was not born in Sudan. I’ve never lived there. My mother never lived there, and my dad left Sudan when he was nineteen or twenty years old. The way that color-based caste societies work is that it’s contingent upon the population there. It might be one thing in one place and another thing in another place, but what I’ve found, for me and my family, is that we benefit from these color-caste systems everywhere we go, in a way that’s carte blanche. The story light-skinned Sudanese families tell about how they came to be is often very strange and uncanny because there’s not much attention paid to the processes that historically made that happen. Usually, “we’re Arabs” or “I have a Turkish grandmother” is the only context you’re given, and people assume that the inability to confirm or deny certain origins empirically is where our current melodrama emerges. But that’s not the case. We find ourselves in the terrible throes of genocidal ethnonationalism because the way these origins are restaged, rather than the way they’re uncovered or simply signaled.

In my family, there’s always been an emphasis on the very long and winding story behind our ancestry, and what’s interesting is that a lot of the archival material I’ve found confirms the story—which is something entirely unexpected! Because in Sudan, most people might avoid the desire for an empirical data point, since it might confirm the opposite of what their racial-ethnic strivings are. My mom comes from a long line of Mamluks, and the interesting thing about the Mamluks in Sudan (originally from Egypt) is that they were enslaved in Europe and brought to North Africa as part of the military and the ongoing conquest of Africa north of the Sahel region.2 This exposes two things that are not talked about as frequently as I think they should be. One is the Ottoman slave trade that brought European slaves into Sudan and Egypt, and the importance of the port of Suakin (about an hour drive down the coast from Port Sudan), which was one of the largest ports for the export of African slaves in history. This places the Ottoman Empire firmly inside the history of a large-scale coordinated and industrial slave trade, and the development of the infrastructure it required.

My mother’s family is caught up in this history because they were brought over during the Ottoman Empire’s last ditch attempt to secure Sudan and Egypt in the late 1800s. The story is that there were some Mamluks who mutinied against the Ottoman Empire and fought on the side of the various local tribes who were rebelling against it. They were given tribal membership and fully incorporated as locals as a direct result. Some made their way down the Nubian territories—Nubia being a region; Nubian is not an ethnicity unto itself, since there are many Nubian peoples—establishing residency there and incorporating themselves into the local communities in ways that are pretty fluid, all things considered. There’s a really interesting, and often confusing, patriotism accompanying Mamluks that looks a bit different from those who see themselves firmly as Arabs, since it lacks that distinct type of ethnonationalism that characterizes the latter’s patriotism. I attribute this to experiencing a rupture from what would’ve been their homeland in Ottoman territory and having to embrace what was around them for a lack of other options. In any case, this much is true: those with very recent Mamluk ancestry, despite not subscribing necessarily to the same type of ethnonationalism, still benefit immensely from what this ethnonationalism produces racially, linguistically, culturally, economically, and so forth.

This is very long and winding, but it’s all to highlight that much of the “evils” of the ruling elite in Sudan was of course inherited from certain kinds of attempts at Arabization and the ideologies that accompany that. A lot of them are also holdovers from the Ottoman Empire, which was the longest colonial period in Sudan. The British kept so much of the caste system they found upon arrival because it worked so well at cordoning people into stratified groups. My family is right smack dab in the middle of that history.

But, back to the question of Arabness and genocidal ethnonationalism: the people claiming a kind of riverine and peninsular Arabness are enacting a violent genocidal project of Arabization locally and displacing the other kinds of expressions of Arabness that are represented in some of the populations claiming this story. Why one story versus the other? Why the story of having your ancestors come from Hejaz in Saudi Arabia versus the recognition that your ancestors might be Moroccan Jews? They might be from Libya. They might be Amazigh. They might be what is called Bedouin in Sudan. Why not that? We know why!

Khadijah: Could you further pull the thread on slavery and racial geographies in Sudan that you were beginning to describe in your last response? 

Bedour: Many people don’t recognize that the Ottoman Empire was a significant colonial power, even inside of Europe, in the medieval period. It wasn’t just a precursor to European colonialism in the way that Arab, Moorish, Ottoman, or generally Islamic practices of slavery are popularly understood as having “loaded the gun” and the Atlantic slave trade “pulling the trigger.” The Ottoman Empire was toe to toe with all of the major powers in Europe in terms of militarily expanding its imperial reach. The Ottoman Empire infamously reached the gates of Vienna. That’s how much territory they’d conquered even inside of Europe; they also had reached North Africa and the Levant.

Traditional periodization in this way also removes the Ottoman Empire from its simultaneity with European colonial expansion and the rise of the slave trade in the Atlantic world. The Ottoman Empire was giving Europe a run for its money with the scale and immense reach of both of its colonial enterprises and the slave trade. They were the only power that was also enslaving people in Europe and bringing them to their colonies.

Core assumptions within Black studies about how we historicize, periodize, and reckon with the residue of slavery are thrown into crisis by the case of Sudan and the Ottoman slave trade. How can we assume that the Portuguese and the Spanish, in the early attempts at colonialism—having been colonial subjects of the Moorish civilization themselves, having been colonized—didn’t carry forward this imprint in their attempts at slavery in the Atlantic world? We rightly argue that some things were carried forward from the Moorish colonial period and even perhaps intensified by the Spanish and Portuguese forays into colonialism. But we account for their Muslim peers who were engaging in similar practices of colonialism and slavery at the same time! We assume they learned from their former colonizers but didn’t learn or exchange ideologies with their Muslim peers in Europe, the Ottoman Empire!

Empirically, that seems like bad practice! But it also seems like bad practice in terms of how we see ourselves as scholars dedicated to studying the immense breaking, and what Sylvia Wynter calls the “negation” produced by slaver. If we see ourselves as dedicated to complexity rather than solving riddles, if it’s the case that we don’t want any necessarily neat answers but we want to add constantly complexity to the way we understand things, then why not this complexity? Why the elision in this way? And I don’t mean an elision in the way of, “People only cared about the Atlantic slave trade.” I’m like, “Yes, well, there’s a reason why the Atlantic slave trade is distinct!” I actually agree with that! It was a rupture in a way that the other slave trades simply were not, and there’s no way around that.

The centrality of the transatlantic slave trade is one thing, but we also know that it didn’t fall from the sky; it emerged in a context and was potentiated by certain historical antecedents and also certain things historically that were happening alongside it simultaneously. The Ottoman slave trade is one of those things. The Ottoman slave trade was mostly enslaving people for military pursuits, dispatching enslaved soldiers to go out and conquer more lands. But that doesn’t mean that the ruptures that emerged were any less integral to shaping the activities of their slave-trading European peers, especially if you consider that everywhere from Morocco to parts of India were Ottoman holdings huge swaths of the world that had been subjected to the practices of the Ottoman Empire!

Slavery is always the story wherever you go, and I think that’s something Afropessimists and slavery scholars have gotten right on the nose. Wherever you are, slavery is the story.

But the Ottoman slave trade was the slave trade arcing over all of this, and we give Arabs too much credit when we tell them that they implemented slavery in Sudan. They wish they did, but they didn’t! They certainly made out the best they could by conducting raids and selling slaves in a context where slavery was already permissible, where the larger infrastructure had already been developed and made durable, and it was made possible by a large structural attempt at a global slave trade implemented by the Ottoman Empire. My mom was like, “Yes, the world says Arabs are the bad guys, but the Ottoman Empire were the badder guys!” And it makes you realize that these are the real opps; it was the longest colonial period in Sudan 

Khadijah: Due to the legacy of the Save Darfur movement, the Western public easily identifies the Rapid Support Forces as the only villain because they grew out of the Janjaweed. Like much of continental African politics, there’s a way that images of the Janjaweed rampaging Darfur are understood as a “humanitarian crisis” outside of politics or at most “an ethnic conflict,” but nonetheless, it is relatively easy for the West to understand that the RSF is the “bad guy.” On the other hand, many marginalized communities from outside of Khartoum also raise that they’re equally terrified of the Sudanese Armed Forces. What is your experience and perception of the SAF?

Bedour: I think having both military folk—SAF—and people opposed to them inside of your own family is a common story within Sudan. Such is the case when your country has been internally at war for most of its recent past. It becomes very sticky and tragic, honestly, at an interpersonal level. The focus on the Janjaweed elides the way that the SAF was responsible for two civil wars that destroyed entire parts of the country! It created an institutional and political culture in Sudan where war is the norm. The Janjaweed were doing the most abhorrent things in Darfur, and the SAF was doing that in the South, in the Nuba Mountains and in the borderland regions like Abyei. This is because the source of their actions are the same—a genocidal Arab ethnonationalism. Both were reaching for the same gun, and perhaps one got there a little quicker than the other in a given historical moment. But let’s not forget that the Janjaweed was an unofficial arm of the government in Khartoum and was empowered by them to carry out the project of Arab ethnonationalism into a region that had been autonomous and difficult to subjugate for over a century. After decades of turning their guns on everyone in the country who wasn’t a self-described Arab, the SAF and RSF have now turned them on each other. The difference is that only one is seen as having a legitimate mandate to use military force. But what is legitimacy in a place where genocide is also seen as legitimate? What of this apparently legitimate force’s role in authorizing the terror of the supposedly illegitimate source of violence?

Protestors march during the Sudanese revolution. Photo: Hind Mekki, CC 2.0 via Flickr.
Protestors march during the Sudanese revolution. Photo: Hind Mekki, CC 2.0 via Flickr.

How do you negotiate that when you know that much of what the SAF has managed to accrue for itself, in terms of power and ability to defend itself against the Janjaweed, happened because of its violence and subjugation of the South and the Nuba Mountains, for example? These are the only people available to protect you against the RSF/Janjaweed, but also, they’ve only managed to develop or cut their teeth by subjugating other people in different parts of the country. So now you’re like, “Okay, these are the people defending me, but I know that they’re also the same people who have been doing what the Janjaweed are doing, but elsewhere, outside the capital.” And that’s the issue: if it doesn’t happen in the capital, it’s as if it never happened. And now the SAF and RSF can use the escalation of war in the capital as cover for their genocides in the South and Darfur respectively. What a sleight of hand that is!

It’s an impossible choice. I remember when the nonviolent requirement of the sit-in happening in the Qiyada was heavily criticized. I was trying to explain to people, “You have to understand that in a place like Sudan that has had two civil wars, a third one now, that for all of my life, all of my parents’ lives, Sudan has been at war internally with itself.” Couple that with sanctions, the rise of paramilitary groups, et cetera. What young people understood in Sudan at that time was if the Janjaweed doesn’t get you, the SAF might get you as well, for some other reason—for being Nuba, for being Janubi, for being from some place that isn’t the northern riverine provinces or Port Sudan, even if you are born and raised in Khartoum your whole life. Someone is going to get you, one way or the other, in a militarized society where it’s always shoot first, ask questions last.

No part of the society has really been untouched by the presence of intense militarism in a place where drafts conscripted people into directly fighting one of the last three wars or supporting them in some other way. What these young people did by refusing to use weapons was actually the break in a society that has been so defined by arming itself, by militarism. You can’t understand it in the same context as you understand it here in the West, especially in North America.

They understood that to participate in certain kinds of violence was ordinary—so ordinary that it wouldn’t even register. But you know what would register? Being the first generation in recent history to refuse to take up a gun. And that is what really, really angered the political elite: here are all these kids that were raised to hate each other, for all kinds of reasons, refusing to kill each other! Why aren’t they turning against each other? Refusing to pick up weapons was a kind of political break.

Khadijah: What do you have to say to people who ask why the genocide and war in Sudan isn’t as documented or as visible as Gaza?

Bedour: What I make of it is, this thing of promoting something else to the exclusion of themselves is also politically convenient; because when you’re focusing on elsewhere, you don’t have to talk about what’s happening where you are. This is what Al Jazeera does. They do excellent coverage of everything that’s happening elsewhere, but you’ll never see them reporting on something happening internally that’s not favorable or good.

I think that Palestine being the site of coherence for all of these Abrahamic traditions has made Palestine into a controlling metaphor for all kinds of theological and metaphysical attachments that have nothing to do with Palestinians who are actually living there, so there’s also that. It’s like the battle for Islam, the battle for Christendom, the battle for Judaism apparently are all going to be waged inside of Palestine by people who did not ask for this to be the case, ever, and have no real technical relation to the people. It has become this free-floating signifier for whatever Abrahamic strivings we might possess in our own communities. But Palestinians are dying. It’s not a game!

There’s also this whole thing of “People pay attention to Palestine and not Sudan.” What’s happening in Palestine has brought more attention to what’s happening in Sudan than anything else! Before all those people were saying, “Nobody is paying attention to Sudan.” It was Palestinians online who were literally asking me, “Are you okay? Are your people in Sudan okay? Because I know what’s happening in Sudan.” It’s actually Palestinians who have done so much work to lift the veil on what’s happening in Sudan, while also experiencing genocide themselves. So this has always confused me, so, so much.

When I hear this, I’m like, “Do you know any Sudanese people or Palestinians in Palestine? You probably don’t if you’re coming online and you’re saying this.” I’m Sudanese, I know Palestinians, and I know that they’ve always said something. Now, if it’s the white media and white leftists and white liberals doing that, make that clear. When you say, “Nobody is talking about Sudan,” who is included in this nobody? Am I a nobody? Are Palestinians a nobody? I don’t think we’re nobody. But if white liberals and white leftists are your only somebodies, then yes, you could say nobody is talking about Sudan, that people only care about Palestine. Palestinian students have come up to me on campus, completely unprovoked, to ask about Sudan, where they can send funds, and what the updates are. Black people who study Black stuff don’t do that! But they will say, “Well, what about Sudan?” Even as it pertains to mainstream media, Sudan’s diaspora in English-speaking countries is also so much smaller than the Palestinian diaspora. Most of the Sudanese diaspora live in other Arabic-speaking countries where there is lots of awareness about what’s happening in Sudan! But those non-English-speaking diaspora strongholds also don’t count. I’m not sure what people want.

Khadijah: Drawing from your work theorizing catastrophe, how do you conceptualize the war in Sudan? What genres of the human are rendered possible by Sudanese organizing, and what kind of language do you think offers a breach from the deadly repetition we see in Darfur and Sudan more broadly?

Bedour: I’ve always felt drawn to Caribbean thinkers, in large part because my mom is from a small island and my dad was an only child—so I don’t really know my extended family on his side. The only extended family I know are all on this tiny island, right? And when bad things happen on an island, in small place, there’s no part of the society that’s not touched, and there’s no way to ever liquidate that experience away from how people live their lives.

When I was finishing the dissertation, I found myself frustrated at the way that so much of what was happening was being presented as novel or totally singular historically, because we know that’s not true when we look at even the very recent political history in Sudan.

But there is also a way that a lot of what was happening with the sit-ins in Qiyada and everything was new to a lot of people from the North who were grappling with how their own identity as northern Arab Sudanese people was made coherent as a result of the violence and genocidal practices against other Sudanese people in other parts of the country. How to move forward in the process of a national project—and therefore your own political position as an Arab Sudanese—when your very position was only made possible via genocide? How does one grapple with that? How does one recognize that, still, you were raised with a degree of Arabness that is very immense? You speak Arabic. You know what I mean? What to do about that? But at the same time, these are Black people by any measure everywhere else. And not in the way that the discourse around Afro-Arabness circulates (which is a term I will never, ever use). No, these are unambiguous Black people insisting they are Arab, not insisting they’re Afro-Arab, or whatever. It’s an Arabness that only coheres in Sudan, an Arabness you can’t cash out on in your neighboring Arab countries. The buck stops inside Sudan. So what do you do? When your entire sense of self and national position hasn’t been thrown into crisis necessarily but has only lasted as long as it has because it is the crisis? What if the crisis has to be durable—or interminable—for the structure itself to hold and congeal, albeit messily?

"In terms of genres of the human, I think that Sudan has a lot to tell the world about our assumptions about Man, because it’s a country that doesn’t have very many white people at all."

As much as I don’t believe that all paradigms are really movable, I’m proud of myself for trying to develop a way of thinking about things that is as movable as I could make it. What I’ve tried to theorize, you could place it in Sudan, and it would help to explain a good amount of things—not everything, certainly not the totality of the situation. But I think it would explain how these kind of repetitions of certain kinds of state violence and intramural violence, how they cycle over and over, and how the conversations that emerge seem to echo the conversations that emerged after other cycles of violence, and how even the state has a kind of sadistic poetry to it. They’ll commit massacres on the anniversaries of other massacres to evoke that repetition, for example.

There’s a way that the time sense of how things happen in Sudan occurs in this bad, spiraling infinity that I’ve tried to talk about. Then, when we talk about how so many of the strivings and the attempts of the revolution were betrayed—which is also something that happened before, something we ought to have been prepared for. But because we were so preoccupied with the novelty of the revolution that was happening, we didn’t feel like we needed to prepare for the restaging of the violent aftermath of prior attempts that might’ve been similar.

So I think that with my work on Catastrophe—it is what the title says it is. It’s interminable unless a genuine interruption is introduced in such a way that it trips up the entire system. But I don’t think that the conversations we’re having inside the diaspora, for example, are robust or urgent enough to introduce an interruption. It’s not enough to simply say, “Now we’re going to grapple with anti-Blackness.” That wasn’t even enough sixty years ago. We’ve got to tighten up immensely if we’re going to do the work that’s required to interrupt things. We can’t cycle through the same conversations and pat ourselves on the back for being so inventive when we’re not. That’s the same thing that happens in the West when bad things happen. So I think that would be my answer to that question about the betrayal of the revolution as well as my work on Catastrophe.

In terms of genres of the human, I think Sudan has a lot to tell the world about our assumptions about Man; because it’s a country that doesn’t have very many white people at all. It doesn’t even have the American dollar, because of sanctions. It doesn’t have a lot of the mainstays and the staples of what we would call Homo economicus, or Man 2’s overrepresentation as the human. And yet, they have their own genre of Man that is overrepresented that context—Man as Muslim, landholding, literate, and has a desire for war and battle. This is not what most Sudanese people would call the terms of their own humanness, but it is the version of Man that is masquerading as the whole! And so the question becomes, if it’s the case that Man’s overrepresentation is due to this idea of Man as breadwinning, as rational, as what have you, then what version of Man is overrepresented in the context of Sudan? If it is not that same kind or genre, what genre is being overrepresented? How to delink from that would be a good question.

Khadijah: The geographies of Black Studies (TM) can feel as if continental Africa is the site of exceptional case studies instead of central as the Caribbean or Turtle Island. On the other hand, many of those back home and in the diaspora are drawing on the Black radical tradition (and contributing to it) in thinking about where they live and how they got there. What do you think is needed from Black studies to better address Sudan and continental Africa? Conversely, how do you think those already engaged in Sudanese politics could also draw on (or already drawing on) the Black radical tradition, in the noninstitutional sense?

Bedour: Black studies’ “Africa problem” is something that Sylvia Wynter has constantly discussed in her work. She has always been insistent that Africa as a continent be at the very center of what we think about when we think about a return as a break, in the Garveyite sensibility many people of her generation believed in, or in the way she gestures to Blombos Cave as the key to a human configuration on the horizon as Homo narrans. She said it fantastically: How do we conceive of a third event without Africa, when Africa has given the world its entire character of language and symbols?3 How is that even possible? How do you conceive of such a leap or an endeavor without Africa at the middle?

For her, the question was not always “What is the human?” The question was “Who are we as Black people, as Africans?” So for her, understanding herself as a Black person is one and the same as understanding herself as someone who is African—certainly not African in terms of the nationality sense. She’s also not discounting the rupture of the slave trade—in Black Metamorphosis she calls the Middle passage a vast set of negations. But she believes that that is the question. And it’s so interesting because she has been so committed to Black studies as a project as well.

There are many kinds of Black studies, right? Hers is a kind of Black studies that is elastic and is asking different questions, as compared to a lot of mainstream Black studies today asking, “What have Black people done?” This is a different question from “Who are we as Black people?” The types of questions that are asked by the different strands of Black studies matter, and today, Black studies is overwhelmingly a specific type of historians who are doing an empirical job of archiving, or doing archaeology of things that might not have been as well known or understood about Black people. The overrepresentation of these historians as technicians of the past, within Black studies departments, is an institutional problem. 

But I’m also cautious of this attempt at Black studies to try and study or pin down certain other kinds of things; because I feel like what’s most instructive about Black studies are the methodologies, not necessarily the places that are focused on. I know that, sure, the people I study are from the Caribbean; but to me, the way they think, the kinds of questions they ask, the methods they use, and unveiling what emerges after asking these questions is the instructive thing. Why does Black studies have to consistently expand and gather in this way? It will go where it needs to go without indulging that impulse to unearth it all.

I actually have no interest, for example, in Black studies taking on “Afro-Arabness.” I really, really dislike this term, as you can tell. [Laughs] I actually don’t want it at all! I don’t think it’s useful, because I believe that the academic study of these things are enclosures. You have to enclose something in order to pin it down and study it properly. Yes, I’m pinning down catastrophe, but in the same sense, I’m creating an enclosure that will have to be broken from eventually. But this is an enclosure that I’ve had to commit myself to in the here and now to try to ask certain questions. But, necessarily, it will need to be broken from; because, really, all concepts are enclosures. I personally don’t think Black studies needs more enclosures to claim; I think we need to do more work to reach outside these enclosures. The problem is, if we are committed to the latter, we’d have to jettison our own self-concept as authoritative, as declarative, as having an understanding—which would be devastating for so many of us. To me, that’s exciting!

1.  South Sudan became an independent state on July 9, 2011, via referendum.

2. In the late 1880s, Mohamed Tawfik Pasha was frequently tied up in conflicts with Great Britain and the Mahdist uprisings over Ottoman control of Egypt-Sudan. The Turkiyya (Ottoman colonial rule) lasted roughly sixty-five years, ending in 1885, though last attempts were made in the several years of interregnum that followed. See Gabriel R. Warburg,  “The Turco-Egyptian Sudan: A Recent Historiographical Controversy,” Die Welt des Islams, n.s., 31, no. 2 (1991): 193–215.

3.  See Bedour Alagraa, “What Will Be the Cure? A Conversation with Sylvia Wynter,” Offshoot, January 7, 2021.

Khadijah Abdurahman is the editor in chief of Logic(s).

This piece appears in Logic's upcoming issue 21, "Medicine and the Body." Subscribe today to receive the issue as part of a subscription, or preorder at our store in print or digital formats.