The War on Phonics: Sudan at a Crossroads
You wouldn't expect an obscure linguistics project to earn a headline in an international newspaper. But that's pretty much what happened in the October 3 edition of Al Hayat, a Saudi-owned Arabic-language daily, which featured disapproving coverage of a book party in an eastern Sudan village. The back story goes something like this: A group of Americans had helped a local tribe print texts in their mother tongue, a non-Arabic language dating back 4,000 years, for use in classrooms. Amid heightened U.S. pressure on the Arab government in Khartoum to take responsibility for genocide in the western province of Darfur, this seemingly innocent cultural celebration in the rebel-controlled east suddenly took on geopolitical implications.
"The armed resistance in eastern Sudan is using the Bedawie language," the Al-Hayat correspondent writes, "which is spoken by more than two million people, as a language of instruction in the 'liberated areas' where its forces are in control. [This comes] at a stage when the conflict between the 'marginalized region' and Khartoum is reaching a new phase of increased clamoring by other [non-Arab] peoples to demand the revival of their languages and to resist the Arabic language in Sudan." The article concludes: "It is expected that Sudan will confront the project fiercely." In essence, the story suggests that the promotion of Bedawie by an American NGO is part of a broad U.S. strategy to divide the country linguistically and politically--like God sabotaging the Tower of Babel.
The charge is, of course, preposterous. But it does demonstrate the kind of deep-seated suspicions confronting U.S. policy in much of the Arab and Muslim world, and the sensitivity required if Americans don't want to see their most noble ambitions in the region thwarted.
Anyone looking for evidence of benign U.S. intentions toward Sudan need look no further than the details of USAID funding for the textbook program--which at $7,000 annually had already run dry in September, before the Al Hayat piece was even published. The New York-based International Rescue Committee, which administers the project, has kept it alive on emergency funding ever since. "I've been trying to sell copies of the books here and there to people," lamented project manager Fergus Thomas, reached by phone in eastern Sudan, "to academics, universities, several departments in Europe." He is finding, alas, that Bedawie funeral rites transcribed in Latin characters do not a best seller make.
As it happens, USAID, the largest provider of humanitarian and development assistance to Sudan over the past two decades, supports a united federal Sudan and assists opposition governance structures only "on the county level and below," according to its Interim Strategic Plan for Sudan, 2004-2006. USAID has offered modest support to local leadership in the 15,000-square-kilometer region of southeastern Sudan where the rebel National Democratic Alliance is concentrated, but only to provide a modicum of health care and local governance.
The Strategic Plan calls for assisting town councils and schools in the "marginalized regions" of the country in order to make the north-south peace accords viable. USAID's plan for the next few years more closely resembles American humanitarian aid to the Kurds of Iraq throughout the 1990s than the direct military assistance that the British gave to the Saudis of Arabia in 1918.
But for all the goodwill with which American aid-givers approached their Sudan projects, what they obviously didn't appreciate was the powerful political and historical symbolism associated with the Bedawie language. The tribe that speaks Bedawie is called "the Beja." They are semi-nomadic pastoralists, merchants, and smugglers who have been resisting central governments in North Africa since the Pharaohs ruled Egypt. They are one of several ethnic groups in the Muslim world, like Kurds and Berbers, for whom the demarcations of modern nation-states have not been kind. Beja communities spill over the borders of Sudan, Eritrea, and southern Egypt.
The threat this community potentially poses to the Khartoum government stems not only from their mobility and omnipresence in the country--Beja traders, for example, are ubiquitous in Port Sudan, on which Khartoum's supply line depends--but also from their left-leaning militia, the Beja Congress, which makes up a good chunk of the armed opposition in southern Sudan. A Reuters report published a few days after the Al Hayat story describes a Sudanese intelligence official as asserting that his government had begun to arm Arab tribes in the east for attacks on eastern rebels--repeating, if true, the bloody counterinsurgency tactics infamously employed in the western province of Darfur. In light of its genocidal record, the expectation that the Khartoum government "will confront the [Bedawie] project fiercely," as Al Hayat's correspondent put it, is not hysterical speculation but a legitimate humanitarian concern.
Ironically, USAID may have done more to bolster Beja nationalism by cutting off its support this year than in all the previous four years of engagement. A lesson that ought to have been learned in Iraqi Kurdistan is that once a marginalized group begins to establish its own middle class, local governance, and mother-tongue education, it loses its taste for armed confrontation and becomes more open to a confederated arrangement with an Arab central government. If NGOs leave the Beja region for lack of funds and conditions continue to deteriorate, then USAID's achievement in the eastern province will have been just enough to provoke the ire of Khartoum but not enough to foster sustainable bourgeois leadership. Which means an end to book parties once and for all and a return to the trenches.
Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This essay first appeared in The New Republic Online, January 5, 2005.