Monday, May 07, 2007


We watch today the horrendous goings-on in Darfur in the Sudan. No-one knows how many people have been killed in the latest outbreak of violence, or is it genocide? We, in the West, simply read the paragraph about it in the paper, and move on. There is no doubt that these terrible acts are causing the deaths of numbers of people, which if only 1% of them were occurring in places we actually believed to be more “important” there would be the most horrendous outcry. But because they happen in parts of the world where we seem to believe that “Life is Cheap”, somehow it doesn’t seem to matter so much.

We’ve seen it in Ruanda, to a large degree in Iraq, and here it is going on in the Sudan – all places where the price of life seems to be very different, at least to us, in the West. And yet, the way these places have developed, and the way the culture of the countries is so different from our own, makes you wonder if we have the right to impose our own values on the way life works in these places. Even over the last century, we’ve seen, particularly in the Middle East, the way the western nations have tried to change the cultural basis of so many nations, just because it doesn’t conform to the way ours works. Just look at “Lawrence of Arabia”, in the early 1900s, and the way a Westerner with an Arabic view of life made his mark. Look at the whole way Africa has changed, or been changed over the last 100 years. Look at the Balkans, which make the issues in Ireland look like a simple One-Dimensional problem. Even Iraq, where the Americans simply didn’t bother to look at the history of the place before blasting their way in, is the result of too little understanding before taking military action.

The thread joining all these is the complexity of the issues, and the length of time these issues have been festering, making an understanding by an outside agency almost impossible to get right. As with Ireland, where you can still get someone believing “Well, it’s all the result of what one of your forefathers said/did in 1641”, and 400 years later, the fall-out of that is still with us. Except in the case of the Balkans, the date is much earlier, and someone probably is still blaming what some Roman Invader said/did nearly 2000 years ago.

All of which brings me back to Darfur. I am in no way knowledgeable enough to comment at all authoritatively on the current troubles, save to say that I can guarantee that the issues are more complex, and more deep seated than anyone can imagine. We, in the West, either do not understand, or choose to ignore the hundreds of years which have led up to today’s way of life in these areas.

To make the point, the following passage is from a book I have just been re-reading. It is probably my favourite single book of all time, and I read it every three years or so, to give me a continuing pleasure throughout my life. I will write a short piece in the near future giving my own opinion about why this particular book is such a terrific read, so I will keep its identity hidden until I get round to that.

But, as a taster, this excerpt was written in 1971, about the way the author saw the way life was in Darfur in the early 1900s. It is presented as simple fact, and I believe, knowing the author, that what is written is true and accurate. It does make you realize that we simply have no real idea about the way of life in these regions, and the way one person there is dealt with by another. It is so far away from “Our Way” that you almost can’t imagine it to be true.

It doesn’t make it “right”, it simply is the way it is, or was. And anyone looking to form a judgment about a region, and how best to take any action on involving themselves in creating a new way forward, could do a lot worse, than to read pieces like this and assimilate them into their minds, before deciding on a course of action, aimed, probably with the best of intentions, at improving things there.

"Ali Dinar (the "Black Sultan")
had turned against the Allies in 1916 and had been hunted down and killed somewhere near Abu Sela and now the governor lived in what had been his palace, and a pretty remarkable residence it was, at that. In the office was a picture of the dead Sultan and his magnificent red and gold velvet chair of State. The living-room had been his dining-room. All the doors were most beautifully inlaid with ivory and so were the window-doors, some of which were left open to form cupboards within the three-foot-thick walls. Big stone steps led up to a balcony, parts of which had been enclosed to make separate rooms, and at each of the four comers of the main room were the shelves on which the naked slave girls sat during dinner — and, one would imagine, without too much fidgeting either, since an elderly fellow who had worked for three years for Ali Dinar as a boy, when asked what he was like, replied, "I never saw him. We were not allowed to look above our knees!" Over the main gate was still to be observed a sort of wickerwork cage in which offenders were made to sit and roast in the sun during the Sultan's pleasure. For more serious offences he simply had them thrown down the well. Retribution in this savage part of the world is simple and direct. Ibrahim Musa, for instance, would simply order the man to be taken a mile or so from the village and in the full heat of the midday sun cause his ankle to be attached to a large log, the size being nicely calculated to ensure that the victim might, or again might not, just succeed in dragging it back into the shade before perishing from thirst and the heat. In other parts of the Arab world it is common-place, when a man has been caught thieving, to bring forward a bucket of boiling tar and a stout chopper and cut off his right hand. There is a refreshing directness in this, as against our own, as I think, more barbaric methods, and I often wonder whether the train robbers would not have opted to lose a hand rather than spend thirty years without seeing a woman or a blade of grass.

The Sudan remains a savage, barbaric land, its surface scratched by civilization in the shape of the Sudan Civil Service, who tended to be "outdoor" types, as against the classical scholars of the Indian Civil. Laurie was a case in point, Some time previously a fellow DC (District Commissioner), John Wilson, was surprised, on emerging from his courtroom, to see a spear, plunged into his back by a dissatisfied litigant, come out through the front of his stomach. By some miracle it had missed the vital parts and not only did he recover but he and Laurie, neither having rowed for eight years, returned home on leave and together won the Coxwainless Pairs in the 1948 Olympic Games.

Already, though, the writing was on the wall, and I had noticed in Laurie's bungalow in Nyala a huge volume of Gray's Anatomy, He resigned and became in due course a successful doctor at home. What Darfur has reverted to I do not know. I do know, however, that I should want a very powerful escort before I ventured down there today."

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