Peace is not just the absence of conflict; peace is the creation of an environment where all can flourish, regardless of race, colour, creed, religion, gender, class, caste, or any other social markers of difference. Religion, ethnicity, language, social and cultural practices are elements which enrich human civilization, adding to the wealth of our diversity. Why should they be allowed to become a cause of division, and violence? We demean our common humanity by allowing that to happen.
―Nelson Mandela, Global Convention on Peace and Nonviolence, New Delhi, India, January 31, 2004
One day there will stand up in their midst one who will tell of a new sickness among the children who in their delirium cry for their brothers whom they have never known and from whom they have been cut off behind the self-imposed barriers of their fathers. An alarm will spread throughout the community that it is being felt and slowly realized that community cannot for long feed on itself; it can only flourish where always the boundaries are giving way to the coming of others from beyond them–unknown and undiscovered brothers.
—Howard Thurman, The Search For Common Ground : An Inquiry Into The Basis Of Man’s Experience Of Community
Image: Diversity Art the Palm of Your Hand, International Finance Center Seoul, Korea via MaxPixel.com
The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.
If diversity is a source of wonder, its opposite – the ubiquitous condensation to some blandly amorphous and singularly generic modern culture that takes for granted an impoverished environment – is a source of dismay. There is, indeed, a fire burning over the earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. Quelling this flame, and re-inventing the poetry of diversity is perhaps the most important challenge of our times.
–-Wade Davis, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World
Sudan is largely a country of desert, the Sahara reaching deeper and deeper into the nation with every passing year. Ancient civilizations once flourished here on the banks of the Nile: Kerma, Nobatia, Alodia, Makuria, Kush, Meroë- their names fade into legend. Nubia, the area of Sudan and Lower Egypt along the Nile, developed alongside and equal to the more famous kingdom of Northern Egypt and was ruled by its own line of Pharoahs. The name Sudan comes from Arabic: bilād as-sūdān, the “lands of the Blacks”. These were proud lands for centuries, but today are war torn and famine infested. We must never forget that human civilization is a fragile thing.
This is the first of a series of posts on Sudan, focusing on the beauty and artistic creativity of that nation. It is a gallery of images which have been shared online by photographers traveling and working there. Christopher Michel, David Stanley, Mark Fischer, Petr Adam Dohnálek and Arsenie Coseac have made their work available with Creative Commons Licenses. Click on the captions beneath the the photo collages to see their full albums and link to more of their images. Synkroniciti is indebted to the generosity and boldness of these travelers and artists. I encourage you to follow them.
Travel to Sudan is not easy, nor is it encouraged. The Darfur region, Blue Nile, and Southern Kordofan states are listed as off limits by the U.S. State Department, but, to be honest, the U.S. Embassy’s reach does not extend far outside the capital of Khartoum. Armed conflict is heaviest in the south of the country, where terrorism, warfare and violent crime abound. Genocide has been attempted in the provinces of Darfur and war crimes have occurred in various places across Sudan and South Sudan, which gained its independence in 2011. Both countries have been terrorized by corrupt governments, lawless military forces, disease and famine. This series will concentrate on the northern nation.
The Sudanese are descended from a combination of indigenous East African peoples and immigrants from the Arabian peninsula. By recent estimates, Sudanese Arabs make up around 70% of the population. Sudan is also home to 18 other ethnic groups and almost 600 subgroups speaking more than 100 languages. Nubians, Nuba, Zaghawa, Copts, Fur and Beja are among those groups. Most Sudanese are Muslim (around 97%), with Christians and adherents to indigenous religions filling out the mix. South Sudan, on the other hand, is less than 20% Muslim.
What does home look like in Sudan? Most are built of mudbricks or thatch, or a combination of both. Mudbricks may be covered with stucco and painted. Many houses consist of a single room, which may be round or rectangular, while others contain multiple rooms. There are also apartment buildings in Khartoum and other large cities. Some homes are designed for permanent use, while others are simple shelters for semi-nomadic families who move about the desert with their livestock. It is common for permanent residences to include a walled courtyard or garden on premises.
Earthen hut with thatched roof in Toteil, near Kassala, Sudan
View of the Taka Mountains from Toteil near Kassala, Sudan
Thatched hut house in Toteil near Kassala and Taka Mountains, eastern Sudan
In the slums outside of Khartoum, where refugees cluster and the government periodically knocks down homes on the pretense of urban planning, one can see people eking out their lives in houses cobbled together from sticks, cloth and cardboard. If they are lucky, they may have a wall or two that survived demolition. If the government ever makes good on its promise to build new homes with electricity and water, it isn’t likely that refugees and the poor would be able to live here. Unlike the nomads, these people don’t have anywhere to go.
Khartoum is a sprawling city at the confluence of the Blue Nile, flowing from Ethiopia, and the White Nile, flowing from Lake Victoria. The waters mass together here on their journey north into Egypt. The metropolitan area comprised of Khartoum, North Khartoum and Omdurman, three neighboring cities separated by the Nile and its tributaries, is home to over 5 million people.
Sudanese women visiting Tuti Island where the Blue Nile and White Nile converge
Republican Palace Museum, Khartoum, formerly and Anglican Cathedral
Cattle Drive, Omdurman
Sudanese children visiting the National History Museum, Khartoum
The bulging form of Burj al Fateh, also known as the Corinthia Hotel, is prominent on the skyline. The five star hotel, which opened in 2008, was built and financed by the neighboring government of Libya and has 18 guest floors, 173 rooms and 57 suites, with 6 restaurants, a gift shop, a club lounge, a spa and fitness center, Turkish baths, a gym, and courts for squash and tennis. Designed to mimic the shape of a billowing sail, it is known pejoratively as Khaddafi’s Egg, named for the former Libyan dictator.
On Fridays before sunset, except during the month of Ramadan, crowds gather in Omdurman at the Tomb of the 19th century leader Sheik Hamed al-Nil for a festive celebration of Islam featuring Sufi dervishes praying, singing, chanting, drumming, dancing and whirling as inspiration takes them. It’s a very colorful, happy expression of faith which is, incidentally, a major draw for tourists.
Khartoum has an easy-going façade, but there is much hiding beneath the surface. Like any large city, Khartoum contains diversity which creates flashpoints for animosity: rich and poor, Arabs and Africans, Muslims and Christians. The situation in refugee camps and slums like Mayo is dire for the poor. Skin bleaching has become a trend in many places in Sudan as young people try to look less African in order to improve their living conditions. The Sudanese government continues a disturbing tradition of seizing Christian churches without compensating the community, repurposing or selling them for profit. These injustices are not unique to Khartoum, but the lack of legal recourse in Sudan has allowed them to become highly institutionalized.
The deserts of Sudan are wild places where civilization will always be tenuous. The desperate need for water and the fearsome aspect that nature takes here, full of scorching heat and immense sandstorms, called haboob, which block out the sun, create a profound isolation from the rest of the world. While fighting is intense in the southern part of the country, where there is water and oil in close proximity, the northern reaches see less human interference. To call the desert safe would be neither correct nor prudent, but there is freedom in not having accessible desirable resources.
Boys at a rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan
Building near rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan
A set of traditional water jugs at a rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan.
Mosque near a rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan
Some of the painting in the ancient Nubian tombs at El-Kurru near Karima, Sudan.
Boys at a rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan
These deserts do contain small communities, full of tenacious people. Whether it’s a scrubby rural town, a well that provides sustenance to nomadic herders, or an archaeological site preserving the glories of Sudan’s past, life depends on the wise use of water. Sets of communal jugs can be found in such places, used by humans and and their animals. The threat of illness due to the shared vessels is outweighed by the extreme danger of dehydration. Despite, or perhaps because of, the difficulties in these desert outposts, there is a certain good humor, a certain quirkiness that plays out in the juxtaposition of donkeys and Toyota trucks. Life out here is no stranger to the beauty and resilience of absurdity.
There is so much history to be seen here, evidence of the early Nubian civilizations, which built beautiful temples and pyramids; the Romans, who never quite managed to get a toehold in Nubia after conquering Egypt; the Coptic Christians who introduced Christianity and built churches; and finally the Arab travelers who brought Islam and dotted the desert with small shrines where the traveler may pray and seek temporary shelter. The Nubian desert which so resists human habitation and meddling also preserves these fragments of the past.
There are 228 known pyramids in Sudan, more than three times the number that exist in Egypt. They are smaller, more intimate tombs than their cousins in the north, but many are beautifully detailed and well preserved. None of the Sudanese sites is as well known as Meroë, an ancient city on the east bank of the Nile that served as the capital of the Kingdom of Kush for centuries. The Meroitic civilization will be the focus of our next post on Sudan, but here’s a little sample, since I promised you pyramids.
This is the first post of a series exploring foreign cultures. We begin with Yemen, focusing not on the bloodshed and the destruction wreaked upon her, but the humanity and beauty that make her both vulnerable and resilient. I’ll be posting more about the culture and arts of Yemen later this week.
The images that follow were graciously shared online by Rod Waddington, yeowatzup and Valerian Guillot, who have made most of their illuminating and risky work available with Creative Commons Licenses. Click on the captions beneath the the photo collages to see their full albums and link to more of their images. Synkroniciti is indebted to the generosity and boldness of these travelers and artists. Please follow their magnificent output on Flickr.
As I curated these sets of people, places and animals, which date from 2010 to 2016, I could not help but wonder what has been lost in these few years. Are these buildings still standing? What has become of these people, especially these bright, playful children? I had to stop several times in my gathering to mourn the innocence and beauty that has surely been changed, if not destroyed. The human and cultural price in Yemen is very high.
Travel to Yemen is not suggested nor is it easily feasible, as the Yemeni Civil War and the presence of Al Qaeda and ISIS, as well as airstrikes (Saudi and American), make it a dangerous place for anyone, particularly Westerners, who have been detained and kidnapped. Mismanaged from within and exploited from without, it is a place that is lost to the outside world. Some might think that the poorest country in the region, a desert nation without an oil industry, doesn’t hold much. They couldn’t be more wrong. It’s a beautiful country, with fantastic architecture and a long, proud history.
Faces of Yemen
Yemen lies on the southwestern Arabian Peninsula, near the crossroad of three continents, along trade routes that cross both land and sea. This has made Yemenis a very diverse group. Some trace their roots to Africa, especially the northern Sahara, some to Persia, ancient Israel or other nations, ancient or modern, on the Arabian Peninsula, while others hail from India and South Asia. There also Yemeni of European descent, particularly Russian and eastern European.
The vast majority are Muslim, but Christians, Jews and others have a place in the culture, although the advent of more extreme fundamentalism has strained that somewhat. You will notice that women’s faces are under-represented. All women are encouraged to cover up, regardless of faith, in order to avoid negative attention. Photographing women in Yemen can be risky and is discouraged. This is an uncomfortable truth for a nation that counts two prominent Queens in its history, the biblical Queen of Sheba and the beloved Queen Arwa, who ruled from her early twenties until she died at the age of 92.
Note the gentleman below wearing the jambiya, a ceremonial curved dagger that is a symbol of male honor and status in many Arab countries. They are worn on expensive belts and many of the hilts are made from precious substances such as jade or ivory.
The favored pet in Muslim households is the cat, admired for its cleanliness and beloved by the Prophet. Cats are commonly considered indoor animals while dogs are kept outdoors. It is said that Muhammad once cut a sleeve off of his robe rather than awaken his cat Muezza, who had fallen asleep on it while he prayed. It is good to know that cats have remained constant throughout time and across cultures!
Sana’a, the largest city in Yemen, and until recently the capital, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on the planet. It has been a seat of power for much of that time, presided over by Sabaean (from Sheba) rulers, Himyarite Kings (who converted from polytheism to Judaism), Ethiopian Viceroys, Muslim Caliphs, local Imams of the Zaydi tribe and Ottoman Turks, who took the city twice over the span of a few centuries. Yemen includes four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the old city of Sana’a. Some of the buildings in Old Sana’a, including the Grand Mosque, are over 1,400 years old. There are more than 100 mosques, 12 bath houses and around 6,500 residences. These homes are several stories tall with flat roofs and elaborate decorative elements. The architecture is unique and lovely.
The Romans called Yemen Arabia Felix, “Happy Arabia”, because the country has a great deal of fertile ground. For centuries, much of the food for the Arabian Peninsula was grown in Yemen, which was also world-renowned for growing coffee. If you are a coffee drinker, you may enjoy coffee mocha, named for the fabled medieval port that distributed it to the world. Mocha, or Mokha, isn’t much to look at now, as it was upstaged by other Yemeni ports long ago. Recent damage has plunged Mokha even deeper into poverty, but coffee is still grown in the Haraz Mountain region of Yemen, known as Jabal Haraz. Terraced farms are visible on the mountainsides and fortified villages cling to rocky mountaintops. Long ago, in order to break the Yemeni monopoly on coffee, Westerners stole plants from this region and transplanted them into their own countries.
Away from the mainland lies Socotra Island and the tiny islands of Abd al Kuri, Samhah and Darsa. Together with a few rocky outcrops that support seabirds, these islands make up the Socotran Archipelago, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a tough, isolated life for those who live out here, but it is probably safer than any of the mainland cities.
Approximately one third of the plant life here is endemic, occurring naturally nowhere else on the globe. The Dragon’s Blood Tree, Dracaena cinnabari, and the Bottle Tree, Adenium obesum, are the most striking of these plants. Socotra was occupied by some of the earliest humans during the Lower Paleolithic Period (1.7 to 2.6 million years ago) when it was attached to the mainland.
There are many inscriptions in the rocks of the island, most in Brāhmī script, which was used across south Asia and India, while others are in South Arabian, Ethiopic, Greek, Palmyrene and Bactrian. Socotra was once an important landmark and stopover for boats moving from the Arabian Sea into the Indian Ocean and vice versa.
In addition to mountains and beautiful white sand beaches, Socotra features a karst region with stunning limestone caves.
Here we will stop, although there are many more wonderful places in Yemen, including stunning Taiz with its walls and gardens and lovely Jibla, where “Little Sheba”, the powerful Muslim Queen Arwa ruled for more than seventy years. Her story is a story for a different post.
It is humbling to realize that Yemen was a sophisticated place in better days, a reminder that poverty and lawlessness are never as distant from the human experience as we would like them to be. May this terrible conflict end before more is lost.
The interplay of individuality and unity is not one of uniformity and unanimity imposed from above but rather of conflict among diverse groupings that reach a dynamic consensus subject to questioning and criticism. As with a soloist in a jazz quartet, quintet or band, individuality is promoted in order to sustain and increase the creative tension with the group–a tension that yields higher levels of performance to achieve the aim of the collective project.
―Cornel West, Race Matters
The extraordinary thing we now know, thanks to Crick and Watson’s discovery of DNA and the decoding of the human and other genomes, is that all life, everything, all the three million species of life and plant life-all have the same source. We all come from a single source. Everything that lives has its genetic code written in the same alphabet. Unity creates diversity. So don’t think of one God, one truth, one way. Think of one God creating this extraordinary number of ways, the 6,800 languages that are actually spoken. Don’t think there’s only one language within which we can speak to God.
—Jonathan Sacks, “Enriched by Difference”, from On Being with Krista Tippett
Our categories are important. We cannot organize a social life, a political movement, or our individual identities and desires without them. The fact that categories invariably leak and can never contain all the relevant “existing things” does not render them useless, only limited. Categories like “woman,” “butch,” “lesbian,” or “transsexual” are all imperfect, historical, temporary, and arbitrary. We use them, and they use us. We use them to construct meaningful lives, and they mold us into historically specific forms of personhood. Instead of fighting for immaculate classifications and impenetrable boundaries, let us strive to maintain a community that understands diversity as a gift, sees anomalies as precious, and treats all basic principles with a hefty dose of skepticism.
A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.