Khartoum — This is one of the rare books that tackled the harsh life and environment of Kordofan Region of Sudan's Midwest.
Ms. Eniko Nagy had travelled wide, carefully watched, photographed and selectively chose the material of her book: a recollection of everyday moments of the largely desert or poor savannah region.
As a worker for a German development NGO, Nagy did not just dispense with the day-to-day requirements of her job. Travelling widely in the region, she listened, understood, recorded and photographed every aspect of the social and economic life of the locals, using just a medium quality Nikon camera.
The outcome is indeed an excellent documentation of that life, compiled in a photo book and, consequently, a traveling photo exhibition that was already put on display in several countries around the World, drawing wide audiences wherever it went.
Nagy's stunning photographs capture the mood and poetry of everyday moments and rare ceremonies, while the folk tales, legends, myths, poetry, proverbs and anecdotes draw the reader into the area's unique social fabric.
In addition to a thorough recording of every detail of the locals' life throughout the day, was the author's careful attention to the language, proverbs, songs, verse, adages and expressions of wisdom these people utter as they proceed with their normal daily practices. More fascinating is the masterly translation of these expressions, some of which draw from classical Arabic and revelations of renowned Moslem Scholar Imam al-Shafi'e about the value of travel and life under hardship.
The author's diverse background might have helped her in integrating with the life in the region, which is quite different from that in Europe. Eniko Nagy is a descendant of a Hungarian family, lived as a child in Romania and then moved to live with her family in Germany in the midst of the changing conditions after Second World War. By that definition, it could be said that the author was the daughter of a mix of cultures and identities. And when she came to Sudan a decade ago to occupy a medium post in the German development programme (namely in Kordofan), she fell in love with the Sudanese simplicity which beams from the eyes of children, voices of camels and cries of horses in the depths of the night or to the light of bonfire at Koran schools, the sound of jarrary songs and the singing of pretty women under moonlight.
Nagy stayed for five years in those poor surroundings, equipped with nothing other than her simple camera, a strong resolve, and a deep sense of the flow of culture in the veins of history. She toured those areas in cars and on camel and horse backs in three years, crossing 19.000 miles, interviewing 120 persons and collecting 2500 heritage texts. She recorded songs, proverbs, adages and popular tales and verses. With her camera she shot tens of thousands of pictures of people at work, in movement, at rest with friends and in austerity and affluence.
So adapted to hardships, Nagy could be seen in some of her videos removing sand to free her car wheels that stuck in the desert or pushing the car with the help of some locals when the battery went low.
The outcome was a rich depiction of the life in Kordofan's towns, villages and hamlets, a marvelous ethnographic cultural documentation of the life in that part of Sudan.
The book was unprecedented save by another photo book compiled by former U.S Ambassador to Sudan Timothy Carney. But Mr. Carney's book was a selection of scenes from all over Sudan, whereas Nagy's book was more in-depth about a specific region: Kordofan.
Nagy and Carney's works were preceded by a written description of the Kordofan desert life by the late primary school teacher and journalist Hassan Najeela, who described the modes of nomadic life of the Kababeesh tribe's people in the 1940/1950s.
From that big sum of pictures, Nagy picked over forty photos she specially designed to make a traveling exhibition she put on display in several world cities and towns, including Rome, Oslo, Budapest, London, Madrid, Berlin, Munich, Um Sidir (Sudan), al -Obaied (Sudan) and Khartoum. The expo was seen by 7000 visitors at the School of Oriental & African Studies(SOAS), University of London.
When the exhibition landed at the Palace of Nations (UN Palace) in Geneva, it was graced by yet a great celebrity with vast connections to Sudan. That is the Swiss Archaeologist Charles Bonnet who, decades ago, blew the whistle that the Sudanese old civilization (the Kush or Kerma civilization) was distinct from the Egyptian old civilization, a claim that raised eyebrows among historians, who had for centuries thought the Sudanese civilization was part of its Egyptian counterpart. Archaeological research and excavations continue to prove that Bonnet was right and very recent discoveries in Kerma (Northern province of Sudan) show how well established and independent the Sudanese civilization was.
For some observers Nagy had presented another face of Bonnet's project about the independence of the Sudanese old civilization, by showing that Sudan's contemporary civilization was also independent culture-wise. Nagy's project, those observers maintain, was a reclamation of the badya (bedouin or desert) culture which was more genuine, in contrast to the claims of the feuding elite who are obsessed with urban life. For Nagy sees in a simple picture of a Bedouin bright meanings of the depth of the Sudanese badya culture. Here Nagy had had a special celebration for a picture positioned in the middle of her expo of a dirty, fractured aluminum bowl containing milk stained with some desert sand. Nagy says of this picture that she happened to come across a shepherd after she lost her way in the desert. She asked the man what way she should go. Without uttering a single word, the man moved towards his camel herd, milked a camel and presented the bowl to her. When she drank from the milk, he pointed to the direction she was looking for. Offering milk in the depth of the desert, muses Nagy, transcends the connotations of traditional hospitality to the sentiments of acceptance, company, peace and security and a rejection of hostility and malice!
Nagy's pictures tell about the cohesiveness of the bedouin rural society, largely missed in the Sudanese urban life that moans under contradictions. For, through the set of proverbs, adages and anecdotes the bedouin culture manifests itself as a culture well established and at peace with itself. It does not harbour the fatal contradictions and hateful squabbling for resources and power and services that prevail among the urban elite. Nagy says she finds in the Sudanese badyas that clandestine spirit that gives things their names and belonging to the entity called Sudan.
Nagy is dismayed over the conspicuous difference between the urban elite and the country's laymen, as the former disdain the culture of the bedouins as primitive and backward.
Nagy's ethno-cultural documentation draws our attention to the existence of another stable world, complete in its form outside the mentality of the elite. It is a world at peace with itself, living its own life with its joy and sorrow and that sings and enjoys a coherent set up of values, traditions and conventions. Because of this, that world does not struggle for the achievements of modernity, nor does it enmesh itself in the feuding of the elite. Regardless, the elite look down upon it!
The picture of a girl from the Kababeesh tribe that occupies the book cover, with a shy smile before the camera, sums up a rejection of consumerist culture in the Sudanese cities. The picture is a reaffirmation that the beauty of the Sudanese girl stems from her originality rather than from make ups that avail artificial beauty which glitters under the cities' neon lights and in recording studios. What worries Nagy is her conviction about the existence of a unique and coherent Sudanese identity in the depth of the country's badyas which is unfortunately brushed aside by the elite who condemn it as backward and reactionary. For the elite the consumerist culture has become more appealing. And high-rising mansions are a caricature of those of the major Gulf cities. Even religiousness has become a copying of the nominal salafi religiousness imported from the Gulf. In comparison, there is an original Sudanese identity in the heart of the badya which is still stable, coherent and at peace with itself and devoid of the feuding of the elite.