The mostly Christian and animist southern Sudan voted almost unanimously last month to secede from the mostly Muslim and Arab north.
Am I, a Northern Arab Muslim, supposed to celebrate, although I have been called by some southerners an oppressor, a colonialist and a slave-trader? True, my grandfather had slaves from the south, but was that my fault?
More than half a century ago, I saw the first southern Sudanese, when he visited my village, Wadi Haj (population 100), near the town of Argo, on the Nile River in Northern Sudan, south of the borders with Egypt.
An educational administrator, he was visiting the town’s schools, and was making courtesy calls to the village elders when we, young boys, curiously followed him from one house to the other.
We were curious for several reasons. First, although we were all black, we were surprised by how very black he was. A teacher at our school who had taught in the south told us, “All of them look like this.” The teacher showed us a gun that the government had given him when he was there to protect himself from threatening southerners.
Second, in a region that was 100 percent Muslim, non-Muslim visitors were a rarity. The southerner, who was respected and welcomed as a guest and as a government official, visited during Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, and news quickly spread that “aljanoobi alkafir” (the infidel southerner) was eating during the day; some said “alabid alkafir” (the infidel slave).
Thirty years ago, during my last visit to my village before I immigrated to America, my father told me a family secret that I didn’t know: My grandfather, an Arab Bedouin chief who died before I was born, had a few slaves from the South. He freed them just before he died, and their children and grandchildren lived in a nearby village.
The following day, my father and I, riding on donkeys, visited their descendents. We were warmly welcomed and talked cordially about different subjects, but there was never a hint about slavery. After we left, my father advised me: “Befriend them; don’t talk about the past; open a new page; don’t call them ‘abids’; and when you come back from America, bring them presents.”
During my years in America, I had my share of being called the n-word (the equivalent of “abid”). But thanks to my father, I tried to stand on higher moral ground. I also realized that people all over the world and throughout history have been insulting each other. And since I had come to believe that the color of my skin doesn’t have anything to do with my identity (and that the core of my identity is my faith), I felt that I had “liberated” myself from this “curse.”
Throughout the years, I have had arguments with some black Americans about what I believe is their preoccupation with slavery, the color of their skin and the n-word. Many replied that I didn’t understand because, as one of them said, “Your grandparents were not slaves and your parents were not discriminated against in Alabama or Mississippi.”
For many years, I didn’t follow the details of events in Sudan. But when I learned that the U.S.-sponsored peace agreement in 2005 had ended the war between the north and the south and called for a referendum on the partition of the country, I interviewed about a dozen leading personalities from southern Sudan. I wasn’t ready for the surprises.
The first — was it really a surprise? — was how little I knew about my “brothers.” The second was that most of them wanted separation. The third surprise was their preoccupation with slavery, the color of their skin and the “abid” word.
I told them of my debates with black Americans. I argued that in America blacks are both northerners and southerners. I argued that the blacks in America suffered more under the whites than the southern Sudanese under the northerners, but they didn’t call for a separate country, that at present there was a black president.
Now, these are my questions about the U.S. role in Sudan’s partition:
First, why did the United States, as it has moved from slavery to reconciliation without breaking-up, not pressure all Sudanese leaders to keep their country united?
Second, why did the United States neglect the part of the 2005 peace agreement that says: “The Parties shall work toward …making the unity of Sudan attractive”?
Third, why did the United States not seek higher moral ground so that Sudan could be an example of religious coexistence and a bridge between the Muslim world and Africa?
A few months ago, Time magazine had a cover story with the question, “Is America Islamophobic?” It mentioned that more than half of Americans had a negative attitude toward Islam and Muslims and that almost half of them said that Muslims believed in ideas contrary to basic American ideals of freedom and justice. The magazine said Islamophobia influenced domestic and foreign U.S. policies.
I believe that my adopted country’s role in partitioning my native country was driven by Islamophobia. This makes me sad and angry.
By Mohammad Ali Salih, a correspondent in Washington for Arabic newspapers and magazines in the Middle East.