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'Brothers' or Others?

Propriety and Gender for Muslim Arab Sudanese in Egypt

Anita Fbos

204 pages, bibliog., index

ISBN  978-1-84545-018-2 $120.00/£75.00 hb Published (March 2008)

ISBN  978-1-84545-989-5 $29.95/£18.50 Pb Published (November 2010)

eISBN 978-0-85745-024-1 eBook

hb Pb
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This book is a welcome contribution to anthropological debate and to the scant work on Sudanese transnational mobility.”  · American Ethnologist

 “In addition to writing a thoroughly engaging ethnography of Sudanese residents in Cairo, Fábos makes an important contribution to our understanding of the intersection of race/ethnicity and gender in the construction of diaspora identities”  · African Affairs

This rich ethnographic work complicates the notions of identity, loyalty, citizenship, and inclusiveness, showing how ethnic categories and cultural references can be manipulated to determine affiliation, inclusion, or marginalization… To understand the fluidity of these identities, as well as the ambiguities and contradictions of the legal and political status of Sudanese in Egyptian society, Fabos employs not only a wealth of ethnographic research, but also significant knowledge of colonial history and international legal re­gimes.  ·  Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies

Muslim Arab Sudanese in Cairo have played a fundamental role in Egyptian history and society during many centuries of close relations between Egypt and Sudan. Although the government and official press describes them as "brothers" in a united Nile Valley, recent political developments in Egypt have underscored the precarious legal status of Sudanese in Cairo. Neither citizens nor foreigners, they are in an uncertain position, created in part through an unusual ethnic discourse which does not draw principally on obvious characteristics of difference. This rich ethnographic study shows instead that Sudanese ethnic identity is created from deeply held social values, especially those concerning gender and propriety, shared by Sudanese and Egyptian communities. The resulting ethnic identity is ambiguous and flexible, allowing Sudanese to voice their frustrations and make claims for their own uniqueness while acknowledging the identity that they share with the dominant Egyptian community.

Anita H. Fábos is an anthropologist whose work focuses on refugees and the nexus of ethnicity, race and gender in the Middle East. In addition to conducting research together with Sudanese individuals and families in Cairo and elsewhere in the Sudanese diaspora, she explores livelihood and identity strategies for urban forced migrants, refugee transnationalism, and refugee narratives and the state. She is Associate Professor at Clark University's Department of International Development, Community and Environment, where she coordinates the graduate program in International Development and Social Change.

Series: Volume 22, Forced Migration

LC: DT146.6.S83 F33 2011

BL: YC.2008.a.9364

BISAC: SOC007000 SOCIAL SCIENCE/Emigration & Immigration; SOC032000 SOCIAL SCIENCE/Gender Studies; SOC002010 SOCIAL SCIENCE/Anthropology/Cultural

BIC: JFFN Migration, immigration & emigration; JFSJ Gender studies, gender groups

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Are Muslim Arab Sudanese in Egypt living as 'brothers in a United Nile Valley', or are they a besieged ethnic minority subject to an increasingly harsh immigration regime? This book suggests that Sudanese ethnicity in Cairo follows from the ambiguous political, legal, symbolic, and social position Sudanese hold in Egyptian society but that it interacts with other social identities deriving from historical processes. It has its basis in Egyptian control of the greater Nile Valley, and the development of a Sudanese national consciousness resisting Egyptian hegemony and built upon the cultural attributes of a narrow elite from a handful of qabail (tribes) of northern riverain Sudan. But the apparent inequality in the relationship between the two Nile Valley polities is tempered by historical ties, common interests, and shared bonds, as the term 'ashshiqa', or 'full siblings', attests. Overarching identities such as Islam and Arab nationalism have appealed to the peoples of both Egypt and Sudan, similarities in gender systems have presented commonalities, and historical Sudanese links with Egypt through kinship, trade, and political activity have led to mutual interests.

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Being Sudanese in Cairo

Like other members of the Muslim Arab Sudanese diaspora, Sudanese in Cairo are in the process of rethinking the meaning of 'Sudaneseness' in the face of ongoing crisis and conflict at home as well as changes in their host country. Historical ties and broad cultural similarities with Egyptian mainstream society have rendered Sudanese in Cairo neither foreigners nor citizens; they are an integral part of Egyptian social, economic, and political life and yet bear a legally ambiguous status. Processes of upheaval within Sudan and between Sudan and Egypt have created conditions of transition for Sudanese in Cairo, between their former acceptance as quasi-Egyptians and the new reality, dating from the mid-1980s, of diminishing opportunities for pursuing a livelihood in Egypt. This complex situation, which pits an official Egyptian state ideology of Egyptian-Sudanese brotherhood against a recent loss of legal status, is reflected in a Sudanese identity that is caught between recognition of the supra-identities shared with Egyptians and the growing fear of invisibility and political and economic marginalization.

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Creating Foreigners, Becoming Exiles

'Egypt and Sudan are the closest that countries can be, because for many years Turkish rule tied them together, and English rule tied them together, and there was a feeling of respect from Egyptians that has continued until the National Islamic Front government. But the media influences people's attitudes. In the past, we used to say we are brothers and cousins [of Egyptians], but they have started to say Sudanese are terrorists, and all of this affects us.' Khadiga Mustafa, elderly Sudanese woman born in Egypt Historical patterns of Sudanese migration to Egypt and their integration into the social fabric of Cairo's cosmopolitan society are related to the Muslim and Arab regional identities they share with Egyptians. Additionally, Egyptians hold onto a historical memory that frames the territories of northern Sudan as part of a greater Egyptian state. This chapter briefly traces the evolution of both Egyptian and Sudanese nationalisms within this framework of unity. It notes that Nile Valley history has been recalibrated by both Sudanese and Egyptian actors in the context of modernity and the establishment of national boundaries and regulatory institutions. While the previous chapter introduced the fact that, for centuries, 'Sudanese' and 'Egyptians' have been intermarrying and moving between the two protonations, this chapter discusses the rise of citizenship regimes that have produced transnational, rather than transcultural, families. Finally, it explores the interplay of international and national regulations that have given rise to the contemporary refugee situation in Egypt.

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Presenting Sudanese Differences

The previous chapter described the dramatic political changes over the course of the twentieth century that have imposed borders on previously fluid migratory routes and established regulatory frameworks upon the loose 'denizen' status for Sudanese in Egypt. Sudanese women and men have experienced these changes differently, as women, and the children they bear with Egyptian husbands, have been able to 'become' Egyptian through marriage. Sudanese men, in contrast, are legally marked as Sudanese, since their citizenship (and that of their children) is interpreted in both Egypt and Sudan as the bearer of ethnic identity by reference to Muslim and Arab cultural norms. The chapter also linked the 'modern' principle of demarcating citizens with the production of refugees. Though this process has been driven by Egypt's defence of its recognized state sovereignty, the international refugee system has also participated in marking differences through a system whereby particular types of legal status have been conferred on some Sudanese and not others.

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Muslim Arab Adab and Sudanese Ethnicity

Sudanese are ambivalent about their place in Egyptian society, since they feel increasingly marginalized legally, politically, and economically despite sharing many commonalities and bonds with Egyptians. In addition to kinship and other ties that link Sudanese and Egyptians, the shared frameworks of Islam, Arab culture, and the Ottoman empire pave the way for present-day loyalties, which endure despite political turmoil between the two countries. These ties may predispose some Sudanese – even if their individual fortunes have suffered from the negative changes in the relationship – to downplay the problems they face in Egypt. The adab ideal, based on behavioural norms of women and men shared by both Sudanese and Egyptians, enables Sudanese to negotiate a fluid and at times ambiguous ethnicity and maintain group pride without challenging the Egyptian social and political order. For Muslim Arab Sudanese in Cairo, the cultural concept of propriety, adab, is a fundamental expression of ethnic identity.

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A Sudanese 'Culture of Exile' in Cairo

The circumstances facing Sudanese in Cairo in the mid-1990s, and the various organizations they have developed to address their needs, have created a 'culture of exile', rooted in modernity but shaped by the particularities of the history of the Nile Valley and the supranational ideologies of Islam and Arabism. A public discourse around the continuing Sudanese presence in Cairo includes the voices of long-established community associations run by expatriates, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) founded by exiles, each contributing to an imagined Sudanese homeland. The articulation of an 'authentic' Sudanese culture implicitly defined by adab is one of the roles of NGOs in Cairo.

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Gender, Diaspora and Transformation

The characteristics that underpin Muslim Arab Sudanese identity in Cairo, expressed through the adab discourse, have gained more importance for this community in crisis in being harder to fulfil. It is more difficult, and thus more respected, to extend hospitality to guests when one's pockets are empty and when one's neighbours are living in equally straitened circumstances. Ideals of modesty are harder for working women to maintain when their jobs keep them late or force them into contact with 'immoral' activities such as brewing or drinking alcohol. A Sudanese person who is able to maintain his or her 'Sudanesenes' in Cairo through adherence to the adab ideal contributes to the belief that Sudanese are different from Egyptians. However, experiences of displacement and diaspora have altered Sudanese relations with each other, most significantly in the realm of gender relations. The circumstances of exile – intensifying political, legal, and social restrictions – affect people's livelihoods, mobility, and opportunities in specifically gendered ways. Adab norms, while represented by Sudanese as an unchanging ideal, have also been affected by these changes, and so represent lines of conflict and contention among and between Sudanese communities as well.

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