Is it difficult to speak Sudanese

The drums never stopped speaking

Music and dance in public spaces - for women and men. Something is moving in Sudan, which has been politically isolated for decades. Thanks to the Swiss Initiative and with funds from the Swiss embassy, ​​the local population, young cultural activists from the capital and expats met under the date palms on the Nile for the three-week cultural festival "Open Sudan". A report by Daniel Hitzig from Alliance Sud, a working group of six Swiss aid organizations.

December 15, 2017, six o'clock in the morning, it is still pleasantly fresh in Karmakol in the northern Sudanese province. Daniel Cavegn, Switzerland's ambassador for Sudan and Eritrea based in Khartoum, looks satisfied at the world. Also a little mischievous, as is the nature of the trained experimental psychologist.

He has been on the road with great commitment in the last few days - and it was worth it. Not least thanks to his last-minute advocacy with the Sudanese minister of culture, the first of a whole series of large open-air concerts took place here the evening before.

Music! Dance! In public space! For women and men! Only a few weeks earlier, optimists had believed in this. Cultural initiatives with a broad impact that arise without the express consent of the Islamist military regime are not foreseen in Sudan.

Cavegn will soon be driven back by his chauffeur through the desert to Khartoum in four and a half hours.

The Bündner from Sedrun, which is almost as marginal in Switzerland as Karmakol in Sudan, is happy to see something of the country in which he started his first job as the responsible ambassador in August.

"Since taking office, I have hardly come out of the air-conditioned offices of embassies, UN agencies, NGOs and ministries in the capital." Every now and then the topic was the dossier of the cultural "Swiss Initiative".

Filmmaker Ahmed Abdel Mohsen, Egyptian-Swiss dual citizen from Aswan, founder and initiator of the Swiss Initiative and driving force behind the Karmakol International Festival, also came to say goodbye to Cavegn. Together with Sandra Gysi, he made the documentary Sira in Egypt in 2011 about the Arabic epic of the same name.

When Gysi and Mohsen showed their film in Khartoum in neighboring Sudan, they encountered a culturally starved country that had hindered, harassed and exiled its best powers for decades. But "in all these years the drums have never stopped speaking", as the Sudanese Sufi musician Asim Tayeb Gorashi put it in Karmakol.

Mohsen and Gysi founded the Swiss Initiative, which was soon recognized by the UNESCO commissions of Sudan and Switzerland and the Swiss embassy in Khartoum was supported with a small financial contribution.

A camel race was also part of the three-week cultural festival "Open Sudan". The winner was rewarded with a bonus of 1,000 Sudanese pounds (around CHF 50). (Image: Daniel Hitzig)

At the center of their cultural projects is the conviction that no country can do without culture and appropriate freedom, that culture is a condition for social, economic and political development. More importantly, the Swiss Initiative works on an equal footing with Sudanese cultural workers and activists; these formulate the type of support they need most urgently.

Roman keystone as a key

But how did the Swiss Initiative come up with Karmakol, this little spot on the Nile? Tajjib Salich, the internationally best known and most important Sudanese writer, comes from Karmakol. His book "Zeit der Nordwanderung", published in 1967, addresses the uprooting of the intellectual from the south, who questions his role as a celebrated exotic in London salons and seeks his true identity.

Ahmed Abdel Mohsen, himself someone who lives between the worlds, has the rights to film this key novel of the Arab world and the relationship between the South and the North. When he traveled to Karmakol for the first time in 2014, he encountered a paradise lost. The village on the Nile, built in traditional Nubian mud brick construction, was abandoned in the 1970s and has since been partially covered by the Sahara sand.

Abdel Mohsen contacts the notables of the new Karmakol, an unspectacular scattered settlement that has arisen in the immediate vicinity. His idea: under the date palms of Alt-Karmakol, a small cultural center is to commemorate the world-famous son of the village.

The idea of ​​a small Tajjib Salich cultural center has turned into a major event in three years, the concept and communication of which had something completely utopian about it beforehand. Everyone involved in the festival agrees that it was a pretty crazy idea to organize an international festival for cultural exchange in the neglected Sudanese province.

The "Omdal", mayor of Karmakol and Ahmed Abdel Mohsen, the initiator of the festival "Open Sudan" in Karmakol. (Photo: Daniel Hitzig)

At the beginning of December, Ambassador Cavegn could not imagine standing in the spotlight in Karmakol in just a few days and receiving his walking stick from the village head, the Omdal, as a thank you for the support from Switzerland.

But Cavegn, whose message had contributed CHF 20,000 to the budget of the (free) festival, remained pragmatic: "If the Swiss Initiative can only manage a third of what they are announcing, then that is for Sudan and for them People here, undoubtedly a milestone. "

Played and won

The sadness and gloom of the Sudanese National Museum in the capital gives a good impression of the importance that culture has in Sudan: none at all. Authoritarian regimes generally suspect large gatherings of people; it is important to prevent young men and women from being able to meet at ease.

Great open-air cinemas in Khartoum and Omdurman, where there was once space for well over a thousand people and politically incorrect heroes like James Bond performed, the revolutionary Al-Ingaz regime (Arabic for salvation) closed after it came to power in 1989.

The Swiss ambassador to Sudan, Daniel Cavegn, before returning to the capital. (Photo: Daniel Hitzig)

After all, for about a year and a half - due to increasing diplomatic pressure, perhaps also out of sheer economic hardship - a certain loosening of the reins has been observed. What is certain is that the US did not lift the trade embargo it introduced in 1997 in vain and demand concessions in October 2017.

The people of the Swiss Initiative were unsuccessfully looking for high-level access to the Sudanese Ministry of Culture to present their festival plans. The embassies - in addition to Switzerland, especially those of the Netherlands - and the cultural departments of large European countries that have held their positions in Khartoum for years despite difficult circumstances: l’Institut français, the British Council and the German Goethe-Institut were all the more interested.

The UN family, which is represented in the crisis country Sudan by some of its most important agencies such as WHO, IOM, UNICEF, UNHCR and UNESCO, was particularly open. There was close cooperation above all with UNDP, the UN development program.

With the support of UNDP, Canada, Japan and the SNCCT (Sudan National Commission for Countering Terrorism), the Swiss Initiative 2016/17 realized the 40-minute feature film Imanexterner Link (Director: Mia Bittar), which deals with the topic of preventing violent extremism (Prevention of Violent Extremism, PVE).

A good two dozen sponsors of the festival ultimately allowed a budget of around 150,000 US dollars, whereby the work of the organizers and helpers was done largely free of charge in an enormous effort.

A lost and regained paradise: Nildorf Karmakol, which was renovated with the help of the village population and converted into a festival stage. (Photo: Daniel Hitzig)

Abdel Mohsen, who is very familiar with the peculiarities of doing business and maintaining personal relationships in the Arab world, says cool: "Ultimately, our strategy worked 100 percent. We organized the festival from the bottom up together with young cultural activists, with us Well-intentioned circles and finally financed with local sponsors from the private sector. At the beginning of December we had created so many facts that the regime had no choice but to let us have their way. Otherwise they would have lost face to their own compatriots. "

Ahmed certainly admits that the support from the Swiss embassy was extremely important at the crucial last moment.

What is left of Karmakol?

The close interplay of young and young at heart cultural activists from local civil society and the carefully brought in Swiss expertise made this festival possible on the traditionally neglected Sudanese periphery.

The parallel involvement of different levels - support from civil society, sponsorship from the national private sector, backing from the international community in the capital - also seems adventurous in retrospect.

Ibrahim Ibnalbadaya, singer and leader of the group Aswat Almadina (Voices of the City), the favorite band of the enlightened middle-class Khartoum youth, who can all sing along to their folky songs by heart. (Image: Daniel Hitzig)

But in an opaque state like Sudan, in whose closest circle of power there are currently fierce disputes over the future course between the blocs - Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey on the one hand, and the USA, Russia and China on the other - was the approach of the Swiss Initiative precisely.

Countless workshops on a wide variety of topics could take place, from calligraphy for children to empowering women, storytelling in films, the secrets of Sudanese cuisine, to the question of how musicians from Sudan can market their music internationally (the fair revolution of streaming music.

For one week, big concerts took place in the open air, including the exiled Sudanese Sinkane, who lives in Brooklyn / New York, the desert rockers Imarhan from Tamanrasset / Algeria, Sharhabeel Ahmed, the 85-year-old doyen of Sudanese jazz and Aswat Almadina ("Sounds of the City "), who inspire today's Khartoumers with their folk songs.

And last but not least, the local population was able to generate some income for the festivaliers with market stalls and accommodation.

It is still too early to take stock of what remains of the first festival in Karmakol. It remains to be seen whether and when the festival will take place again or even regularly in the future, whether the desired sustainability, with the handover of all responsibility in Sudanese hands, will remain more than a nice idea.

Karmakol, the hometown of Tajjib Salich, has definitely had its place on the cultural map of Sudan since last December.

This article was first published by Swissinfo.