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As War Rages in Sudan, Scholar Looks at How Ancient Sudanese Resolved Conflicts

As civil war rages in Sudan, Othman Al-Sharif, director of the Beja Cultural Studies Centre at the country’s Red Sea University, looks to the ancient Beja tribes and how they resolved conflicts.

In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, Al-Sharif said the Beja Centre has thousands of ancient documents relating to conflict resolution between Beja tribes so they could continue living peacefully together.

He described the Beja people as culturally diverse, comprising multiple tribes and languages. They have inhabited the Red Sea region, including parts of Egypt to the north and Eritrea to the south, since ancient times, with their primary language being Bidhaawyeet.

Al-Sharif’s centre is in Port Sudan in the east of the country, where General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and de-facto head of state, has relocated from the capital Khartoum, along with the offices of many government agencies. Khartoum is under the control of a rival military group called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). This week marked a year since the conflict between the two militaries began.

An Ancient People

The Beja people are an ancient Cushitic people closely related to the ancient Egyptians, who have lived in the desert between the Nile River and the Red Sea since at least 25,000 BC.

Nefertiti, the name of the famous queen of the Pharaoh Akhenaten in the 13th century BC, means “the beautiful woman comes” in both ancient Egyptian and Bidhaawyeet.

Today, there are about two and a half million Bidhaawyeet speakers in Sudan and another 121,000 in Eritrea.

Al-Sharif, who wears the traditional Beja tribal costume, told Al-Fanar Media that the Beja centre focuses on historical research and preserving his people’s heritage and social traditions. The centre relies on scientific methods, he said, but admitted he gets frustrated by the limited availability of modern tools.

Al-Sharif was born in the Gubob Awlieb locality of Sudan’s coastal Red Sea State. He is a graduate of Red Sea University’s College of Education and is deeply invested in the Bejan heritage of eastern Sudan.

Safeguarding a Unique Culture

The Beja Cultural Studies Centre’s goal is to safeguard the Beja community’s unique culture. This means promoting the learning and teaching of the Beja language, and conducting comparative analyses with the social context of the Beja people in the Red Sea State and other areas in the region. The centre also studies local laws, customs, and Beja poetry, storytelling, heritage, and history.

The centre was established in 2007, studying linguistics, history, and archaeology. It also conducts comparative studies of cultures within Sudan or in neighbouring countries. The centre also collaborates with academics, associations, and other higher education institutions interested in the Beja culture and heritage.

The centre organises workshops about preserving endangered manuscripts and digitising  them under projects like Sudan Memory, funded by the British Council Cultural Protection Fund and the Aliph Foundation, an international alliance dedicated to the protection of heritage in conflict and post-conflict areas.

The Beja centre has collaborated with the Language Rescue Centre in the United States to translate publications, raise awareness of and keep knowledge of indigenous languages. It has also produced numerous papers published with the help of the Institute of African and Asian Studies at the University of Khartoum.

Plans and Challenges

The centre is planning a workshop with experts and researchers to establish a scientific methodology for translating Bidhaawyeet, with the involvement of Red Sea University administrators, Unesco, and other cultural organisations.

Al-Sharif said the centre has a specialised training programme on ancient languages, including ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, which is particularly important in decoding antiquities and ancient writing on rocks and other places around the Red Sea.

Al-Sharif worries that much of the historic material in the centre has still not been documented in a way that benefits scientists and researchers. 

He also frets about the lack of specialists in the Beja culture from the community, who are clearly best equipped to continue the centre’s research. 

Al-Sharif fears that if the centre has to use experts from outside the Beja culture, they might bring their own biases to Beja history, culture and heritage analysis.

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