Holy Ground: Muslim-Christian relations in a context of civil war

Feb 14, 2011

The room is cacophonous with role-played debate and argument, hands gesticulating, brilliant clothing flying, faces wide open with passion and heat.  Abruptly it all ceases with a signal from the trainer; laughter, some of it nervous, ensues.  Two lines re-form to face one another.  The trainer trawls up and down the corridor formed by bodies, probing, questioning, ‘So what happened?  How did you feel?  What worked?  What didn’t?’

The ‘hassle-line’ – a phrase that translates poorly into Arabic – has played out a provocative scenario.  The two lines of equal numbers are made up of 18 people, twelve women, six men, nine Muslims, nine Christians, one side assuming the role of a daughter, the other, that of her father.  The latter has returned late for his tea which his daughter has laid out for him.  Once finished, he asks his daughter to remove his dishes, wash them and put them away.  She refuses.

The participants are invited to take some time to settle into their roles, imagine themselves into a scene and a perspective that feels perilous.  The composition of the two lines is purposefully random, with the result that some men are playing the role of the daughter, some women that of the father.  After sixty seconds of simultaneous role-play, they halt abruptly to reflect on what happened.  They switch roles and the drama begins once more.

‘So, daughters, what worked?  What did you say?  How did he respond?  How did it make you feel?’

Ilham responds quickly: ‘I told him that I was sick.’

‘Were you?’

‘Not really, but it worked; he felt sorry for me.  Just this once, he said.’

Abdul’s response is accompanied by giggles: ‘I am busy sewing up a hole in your gumsaan.  I can’t do it now; you do it.’

Fatima Muslim-Christian trainingFatima, her pale pink headscarf slipping to her shoulders, says, ‘I told him that he had dirtied them and he should clean them!’

‘So, fathers, what worked?  what did you hear?’

Masmino shoots up his hand. ‘I told her I’d had a hard day and didn’t need this kind of back-talk, but she said, well, she’d had a hard day, too.  And why should my hard day be more important than her hard day?’

‘What did you do?’

‘I did my own dishes.’

‘How did it make you feel?’

‘Strange. A little worried.’

‘Worried?  Worried about what?’

‘About being seen.’

‘Why? By whom?’

‘Well, by people; people passing by.  There I am washing the dishes.  What would people say?

’‘What would people say?’

‘They would see me doing women’s work.’

‘So, you would be seen to be a woman.   How does that make you feel?’

The conversation edges into disquiet.  Outside this oblong cinder-block and tin-roofed building, the deluge of the morning has given way to brilliant sun.  The compound is awash in red mud.  Its occupants, a mangy, emaciated tribe of street dogs, stretch out in the relative cool of the puddles, hopeful for lunch-time scraps.  The electricity has given out and the fans have long since slowed to a standstill.

A Whirling DervishThis is Ombdurman, the land of the dervishes – who still whirl in their multi-colours at Friday sundown to the rhythmic, intoxicating thrum of La ilaha ill Allah! La ilaha ill Allah! – where the Niles, the Blue that comes roaring in from the mountains of Ethiopia, meeting the White that arrives meandering and laden with the silts of the Suud, the marshes of southern Sudan, and beyond, to dance and roil before finally assimilating into the azures that plunge over six cataracts on their way to the Mediterranean.

Here, in the insular quiet of the Episcopalian compound, far from the violences of Jonglei, Rubek and Malakal in the south, of Hameshkoreib and Port Sudan in the east and Hajalijah, Tine and Tawillah in the west, Muslims and Christians, Africans and Arabs, women and men gather in an extraordinary bubble of both safety and risk.  They are Nubians and Nuer, Furians and Beja, Dinka and Bor.  Most have never done anything like this before.  They have decided, each with their own story and reasons, to consider peace and dissent within a country at war with itself and its neighbours and a culture of ancient norms and rules.

Muslim Christian TrainingThough all of them are from somewhere else, many now live within the sprawl that is Khartoum-Ombdurman.  Though some are employed, all are volunteers in non-governmental organisations or educational institutions, already venturing outside the lines drawn by family, tribe and religion.  Wilson left the South in the early years of the 21-year conflict that ended officially with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January of 2005.   He has never returned, part of the southern diaspora; instead he remains here, organising other displaced southerners and Christians for training in human rights, HIV-AIDS, gender and violence, and pressing for change in the outlying and burgeoning informal settlements of suburban Khartoum, where clean water, food, jobs and shelter that does not wash away with the first rains of the season are scarce. The southerners find the dust and heat of the capital an insult to their African bodies, raised in the lush green of the Equatorias.  They long to return, but the conditions envisioned in the CPA remain elusive.

Inass at Muslim Christian TrainingInass, a recent graduate in medicine, has been unable to return to her people in El-Fasher, some of whom have joined the more than 2.5 million Darfurians now living and dying in the camps of the internally displaced.  She practises medicine in a nearby hospital; she also volunteers with the Peace Bridge Association.

Matthew is a pastor, round-faced and mustachioed, his Bible at hand.  He is Seventh Day Adventist, earnest, determined, curious.  From Yei in Eastern Equatoria in the south, he has been plying his proselytising trade in west Darfur.

Matthew at Muslim Christian TrainingIlham lives in Mayo, one of the sprawling informal settlements that is stretching the southern and eastern edges of Khartoum further from the green rim of the Nile and deeper into the deserts.  She is of the ancient pastoralist Beja of the northeast, now part of an organisation providing support to artists and street actors.   Like most of the Muslim women in the group, she wears the hijab tightly wound over and around her head, covering forehead, ears, jaw and neck.

South Sudan NV Training

Rafaat’s family is amongst those facing displacement of another sort.  With the building of the Merowe-Hamdab dam below the fourth cataract, thousands of square kilometres rich in history and antiquities dating back 5,000 years will be inundated beneath the waters of the Nile.  Protest is met with brutal repression by the government as European and Chinese infrastructure giants carry on their business oblivious to the violence.

Flora shows up the first day proudly wearing her Mzee John Garang t-shirt.  A Shilluk Christian, she bears the scars of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Sudanese military.  Saleh is Nubian, an imam, and an oddity, a card-carrying member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.

The group belies the propaganda.  They come, curious about the other, willing to open themselves to new information, to invite vulnerability in a search for a vision of peace.  The Christians have Muslims who married into the family; the Muslims have Christian neighbours.  They are observant and agnostic, culturally compliant and questioning, pushing the boundaries of ancient custom.  They are already at work, leaning into risky terrain, determined to build bridges between religions and amongst tribes in their search for peace.  They discern the cynical machinations of forces within and without whose interests depend on destabilisation for the purposes of profit and power; they understand that religion is being used against them, dividing them from the other, animating and fuelling the competition for oil revenues in the south and east, for scarce resources in the west and north; their complicity in it all.  In this place, religion and all of its passions are invited in.  Muslim Christian TrainingThis is not lowest-common-denominator interfaith dialogue in search of diluted and unsatisfying blandnesses.  Here, Christian and Muslim will focus their work of liberation – not on some vague horizon over which the United Nations will arrive with peace in the back of their landrovers or packed in their briefcases; that tool is not in their toolbox – but on those elements of who they are that facilitate peace or drive violence – beginning with their respective faiths.

Only four of the group are married; of those, the spouses of two live outside the country, one in Kenya, the other in Uganda.  Only one, Abdul, has children.  At the time of his marriage, the ‘bridewealth’ required of him, he tells us over lunch one day, was seven cows.  Convention dictates that the prospective groom will deliver just five cows, accepting his eternal indebtedness to the bride’s family.  Abdul arrived at his intended’s doorstep to present her father with all seven cows.  His impudence was rewarded with a ‘fine’ of two cows.  Rafaat tells of the Nubians’ stick-fighting and wrestling traditions.  Philip demonstrates the proper posture in his culture for a woman to converse with a man, out of his line of vision, off to the side, bowed low.

‘How would it make you feel?  To be seen as a woman?’

To be seen as a woman; doing women’s work.  Why is that a problem?  Because women are not like men, not as valued as men.  In Ilham’s Beja culture, when baby boys are born, the news is accompanied by ululation, joy, music; when a girl is born, there is silence.  Women are nothing.  Compared to men, they are nothing.  It is not being seen as a woman that is the problem; it is to be mistaken for nothing.

The room is quiet as they contemplate their own words.

Workshop activity Gender FishbowlDuring the break for zuhr, Yasmin approaches the European trainer.  ‘Are you married?’ she asks him.  ‘No,’ he replies.

‘But if you were, would you actually do the dishes?’

‘Yes, I would,’ he says.  ‘Not here!’  She walks away shaking her head.

Later they form a ‘fishbowl’, a gender fishbowl, women in the inner circle, men on the outer.  ‘While you’re doing the dishes, where are the men?  What are they doing?’

‘At the tea-seller’s on the edge of the settlement.’  ‘In the camp commons.’  ‘At the dukaan. Each sitting on his kursii, drinking freshly-brewed hot tea.’  Each woman has her village, her settlement, her neighbourhood in her mind.  The call for isha has come and gone; the mats are rolled up.  There is respite from the heat of the day beneath a star-studded sky.  The conversation hums and undulates, cresting and falling as issues and gossip flow.

‘What are they talking about?’

‘Their day.  Work, if they have it.  Complaints.  The war.  Politics; the government,’ I suppose.  They make decisions.’  One woman says, ‘They are sometimes like a little court.  They pass judgement; on people, on issues.’  They make decisions that have an impact on our lives.  Things change the next day, sometimes for the better; sometimes for the worse.

The doctor is finding the conversation discomfiting.  She says she does not experience any discrimination at her workplace.  They treat her as an equal.  There is a silence, a kind of quiet harrumph around the circle.  Really?  Yes, she insists.   Yasmin is doubtful.  What would that look like? It does not happen.  It is the way of things.  Flora tells of her treatment under torture, those instruments and methods reserved for female bodies.  Yaar has no male relatives left; all have died in the conflict in the south, all fallen prey to the seductive call to tribal militarisation.

Gender Fishbowl MenThe search for a word other than ‘fishbowl’ – how does one describe such a thing in this place?  A pet fish.  In a bowl.  – proves elusive.  But the idea seems to have made its way in.  The men have watched, sometimes breaking the ‘bowl’, agitated, in and out; but they have watched the women disappear into their own place, listened as eavesdroppers on a conversation otherwise unheard.

They expect their turn in the middle, but it is not offered.

Later, at the end of the day, when the group is doing ‘noticings’ – non-judgemental observations on the happenings of the day – Matthew ‘notices’ that the men did not get their chance in the middle of the fishbowl.  The trainer turns the question back to the circle, ‘Why would that be?  What might be the reasoning behind that?’

This is a training-of-trainers and these moments of ‘drawing back the curtain’ on the drama of the day are critical to learning.  With each day, the participants become bolder in their noticings, leaving their politenesses behind long enough to challenge the ‘other’, the foreigners, the Christians, the Muslims, the women, the men.

Light through an open doorIf men had their chance in the middle, what then?  They could counter some of the things the women said.  They could have their say about what it means to be a man in this culture, Muslim or Christian.  Things would come out ‘even’.

‘And why should that be necessary?’ one of the women asks.  ‘Do you think things come out ‘even’ for us?  Ever?  Why should things be all nicely fixed up at the end when that doesn’t work out there?’  She points to the doorway, out to the compound, now backlit with late afternoon light; beyond.


On the first day, they talked about why they are here, what they want to do and to learn.  To understand the dynamics of conflict.  Peel back the layers, the story, the history.  Provide tools for popular education.  Develop tools for situational analysis and non-violent action.  Leave better equipped to use their respective faiths, traditions and texts as transformative resources for peacemaking in Sudan.  Deepen their networking capacity for peacemaking.

The host organisation, the Sudanese Organisation for Non-violence and Development (SONAD), arranged for the site, the meals, the transportation.  It is run by Christians and its work has been primarily with displaced Christian southerners, but is now putting into play its intentions to bring Christians and Muslims, northerners and southerners together in risky peacemaking initiatives.  The methodology is meant to be multiplied, trained trainers training others in their communities, exponentially expanding across a war-weary nation.

Sudan Pillars of Power workshop activityAll participants in this training have first been selected by SONAD to take a basic training in non-violence.  Though they are from diverse geographies and tribes and interests, they are unusual, literate, educated, leaders in their communities.  From that larger group, this smaller group was chosen, intentionally more women than men, with Muslims and Christians in equal numbers.  The tools are elicitive, experiential.  For 21 days, they are led through experiences – theatre, story-telling, games, simulations – on which they then reflect, asking questions about what happened, how it felt; generalise, asking questions about the meaning of the experience beyond the experience itself; and then applying it to their lives: of what does this remind me? what is this like? how can I use this learning in other situations?

The Christian hosts assume Monday to Saturday training, Sundays off.  No one has given thought to qibla nor mats, nor the demands of halal, nor scheduling that makes time for zuhr and asr, the two daytime prayers between sunrise and sunset.  Someone goes out and buys one big rug, which will accommodate all of the men and then, in their turn, all of the women.  The souq butcher is, of course, halal.  The Muslims suggest we combine zuhr and asr into a single prayer time midday.  Days later, in an afternoon devoted to considering and role-playing out the shifting reality of mainstreams and margins in their lives, their families, their work, their country, the world, the Muslims comment on the location of the training.  They are amazed at the space created for them.  While the Christians are just beginning to discern the challenge of Muslims walking into this place every day, the Muslims are amazed.  It would not be reciprocated, they declare.

working on the prayer matSometime on the second day, the group forms buddy pairs, some cross-religion, some cross-gender.  Buddies begin by talking about their expectations, their fears, their hopes.  They confess their most likely form of hiding, avoiding, running away, and ask their buddy to watch for it, to challenge them, to accompany them.  They assure their buddies of their gifts and commitment.  Each day begins and ends with their conversation, checking in, comparing notes, giving strength, drawing strength.

On 19 August, 24 Rajab, each person is given an egg, fresh from the souq.  They scatter around the room, sitting knees towards knees in buddy pairs bent over their egg; their conversation is earnest.  Their egg is symbolic of what they are doing here, fragile, pregnant with possibility.  They mark their eggs with their name or initials, talk about the meaning of the egg for them and then exchange eggs with their buddy, asking their buddy to care for it.  The eggs are given and received with a remarkable solemnity.  It is Saturday; forty-eight hours from now they will repeat the exchange.


Abdullah holding the results of the 'eggsercise'Monday morning they arrive, one by one, on foot, by bus, some in the back of a neighbour’s donkey cart.  They arrive differently today; carefully somehow.  Through Saturday’s proceedings, their eggs had sat protected in a candle-holder or on a window sill or under a chair; some wrapped in paper and tucked in a bag or box.  From there, the eggs went home, cupped, coddled, carried, from truck beds to riverine paths, from the crush of buses to the shelter of a flower pot next to the water pump; from a knapsack to a jewellery box.  And now back.  In buddy pairs, the eggs are returned to their original owner as they tell their stories of egg-caring.

‘I gathered my family around me when I arrived home,’ says Abdul.  ‘I told them of everything Susan’s egg meant for me, for us as Muslims, for our future together as Sudanese.  I invited them to help.  My elder son said he would find just the right place, where it could be protected, yet visible, reminding us of what we hold in our hands; the possibilities and how easily they can be shattered.’

‘I had to change my route home,’ says Yaar.  ‘My usual route would have exposed my egg to possible destruction.  I had to make other choices,’ she says, conscious of her meaning.  ‘And then, a man almost sat on it!  What we do without looking or thinking; what we do not see when it is right in front of us.  The possibilities.  We have broken a lot of eggs,’ she concludes.

Participants enjoy the results of the 'eggsercise'At lunchtime, a heaped-up dish of scrambled eggs appears from the kitchen to cries of delight.  Now savoury and steaming, tossed with tomatoes and green peppers and onions, the eggs have become another symbol, shifting into something about coming together, our shared essences stirred together, with some cost, but resulting in nourishment, a feast of hope.

The afternoon’s task is to create the ideal village.  The group divides up into ‘villages’ of four or five.  On large pieces of paper, they draw their village, adding all of the elements that make it ideal:  a river, trees, fields, a road, a well, school house, health clinic, shops, community gathering place, a mosque and a church, playground, park, transportation.  designing the ideal villageAfter they have finished, they display their picture and give the rest of the group a village ‘tour’.  As they are putting the finishing touches on their village, Mr MegaCorp and Ms MoneyBags, accompanied by Mr Ahmad Hac, arrive into the middle of the villages.  The ‘visitors’ smile their approval and take their own tour.   Wielding markers, two of them begin to make changes to the villages, cutting down trees for export, digging mines and dumping tailings into the river, building roads through the forest, damming the river and flooding the village, setting up oil rigs and evicting the people from their homes.  Mr Hac approaches one of the villages suggesting tea and conversation about future partnerships.  When one village begins to organise resistance, Mr Hac gets out his mobile phone and summons the military to quell the disturbance.  Other villages quickly follow suit, forming a circle shoulder-to-shoulder around the village and blocking any further moves by the intruders.

The game is called and the participants form a circle to talk about what happened, how they felt, the resonances.  The circle is flowing with emotion.  Anger: they are feeling the harm done by outsiders and their collusion with insiders.  Exuberance: they watched themselves resist, organise.  Sadness:  they recognise their reality.  The roads and runways ripped through the forests and towns of the south on the way to the oil fields; the collaboration of the military in the removal of obstacles to profit; the coming inundation of the Merowe; the brutality of Darfur.  They see their resistance and their co-operation within and between villages and they compare it to what they know and live, the tribalisms of religion, tongue and race that foment hatred and violence.

Paedogogy of the OppressedPaolo Freire’s Paedagogy of the Oppressed provides a further framework for discussion:  oppression becomes the normalised state; problematisation ‘notices’ and lifts up the elements of normalised oppression for consideration as a problem; conscientisation unpacks for deeper examination the contours of structuralised violence and generalises the information to the broader group; organising for non-violent action identifies allies and opponents as well as tools and leverage points for change.


While every day is wrapped in religion, with the participants’ faith, tradition, practice and text breaking in, invited in to give meaning-filled shape to our discussions, for the next two days, the discussion is explicitly religious.  Today, the Christians will present ‘the ABCs of Christianity’, the Muslims the ‘alif-baa-taa’ of Islam.  For two hours, they discuss, debate, negotiate in faith groups, seeking to reach consensus on those elements of their respective story that they would like to present.  Each group then has two hours to do so in any manner they choose.

Illuminated Cross with Crescent Moon in skyThe Muslims go first, beginning with the requirements of faith – belief in and acceptance of God, the angels, the holy books, the Prophets and Day of Judgement; the ‘five pillars’ of Islam – Shahadah (testimony of faith), Salat (ritual prayer), Zakat (almsgiving), Sawm (fasting), and Hajj (making a pilgrimage to Mecca), a bit of Muhammad’s life and two stories from the Sunnah.  Inass, the Darfurian doctor, delivers the information in a lecture format.  In answer to questions from the Christians, she speaks of Islam’s valuing of life, its prohibition of ‘killing without justice’, the exception for self-defence.  Susan wants to know about the rules related to touching and to clothing.  The rules have been bent increasingly with every passing day, with a level of intimacy, hand-holding, embracing and even Human Knot-untying, that surprises them all.  The Christian women, all of them in the same floor-length skirts as their Muslim sisters, press with questions of headscarves, veils and abbeyas.

Workshop participants form a "Human Knot"The ABCs of Christianity begins with a skit, a street scene:  a drunken Christian is stopped by a Muslim police officer and detained on alcohol and public misconduct charges.  A priest intervenes, telling the Christian, now sober, that the laws are good, no matter one’s religion. Flora, Susan and Matthew then use the flipchart to lay out the Christian story, from creation to apocalypse, with a focus on the divinity of Jesus.  They also touch on church practices, including communion and confirmation.  Abdul asks:  ‘Could you tell us again why Jesus was killed?’  Flora answers:  ‘It was foretold in the Old Testament.’   ‘Ahhh,’ the Muslims say, nodding.  ‘And what’s the Old Testament?  Is that the Bible?  Who wrote the Bible?’ Muslim Christian FishbowlMasmino jumps in:  ‘Jesus did.’  Matthew demurs.  ‘Actually it is written by many people.  The Old Testament is the Jewish Bible.’  There are more murmurs around the circle.  This is news to most people in the room, Christians and Muslims alike.  The assumption is that Jesus is the Christian counterpart of Muhammad, the Bible that of the Qu’ran.  Incarnation and Holy Text.  With the trainer giving guidance with questions, challenges, ‘noticings’ and careful attention, Christians and Muslims confront their stereotypes of the other, explore their respective texts and traditions for mandates for peacemaking – and warmaking, for inclusion – and exclusion, and a common tendency to supercessionalism, Christians of Jews, Muslims of both.  By the end of the day, there are no neat packages of confident assurances of faith-based exhortations to peace to exchange; but a powerful and fragile kind of mutual confession has taken place.

The day ends with the group encircling a large map of northeast Africa, Sudan outlined in orange marker.  Each one is invited to offer a blessing, a prayer, for that part of Sudan that is most dear.  Grief and longing sweep over us all.  A few speak in English, most in Arabic, of their home, reverting to their tribal language to bless their people.


This morning’s headlines cover the compass:

UN: Darfur is becoming catastrophic;

South may secede if no equality from Northerners!

Rebel Threat in Impoverished East.

Puppies in the compoundOne of the compound bitches has borne a litter of eight puppies.  They are tiny, mewling, crawling blindly over their mother’s limbs and each other in search of nourishment.  In the 42 degree mid-day heat, she leaves them to shade herself under the rear wheel wells of a derelict bus on the edge of the compound.  Left in the hot sun, the puppies’ wails attract some lunchtime human attention.  With the help of one of the compound workers, the puppies are moved one by one into the shade of the bus, reunited with their mother, who has dug a cooling burrow for herself.

One puppy is left behind with a scrawny female that is licking its drying umbilicus, rehearsing an earlier litter of her own.  The puppy is still, unresponsive, its mewling ceased.  The bitch abruptly stops her licking and bites the puppy in two, chomping briefly before swallowing.

‘That’s us,’ says one, coming up behind.  ‘Cannibalising our own,’ says Saleh.  ‘So much has to change,’ he suddenly asserts.  ‘Like me; I have changed.  I am not the same person who arrived here.  I am not yet sure how, but I will devote my life to peacemaking.’  He watches for a few seconds, then resumes his trip to the latrine.


removing sandals‘Moussa is in the Sinai wilderness of Madyan tending sheep.  How did he get there?’

Everyone knows.  ‘He killed an Egyptian.’  Furtive looks are exchanged around the circle.  It doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, to kill an Egyptian.

‘What does he see?’

‘A fire.’  ‘A burning bush.’  A mysterious fire.  He approaches, shivering, despite the desert heat, discerning the presence of Allah.

‘What does he do?  What does one do in such a situation?’

The Muslims know.  ‘Remove your shoes.’  The trainer, draped in a headscarf, removes her shoes.  ‘Moussa, take off your shoes.  For you stand …’

‘… on holy ground,’ the Christians say.


South Sudan NV Training Graduation RoleplayAt the end of each day, the group has continued to talk, planning for this day, the ‘graduation’.  Friends and family fill the room, bunched in doorways and overflowing into the yard.  As the light outside dims and the overhead fluorescent bulbs flash uncertainly and the fans hum, the graduands speak of their shared time on holy ground and demonstrate through complicated dramas and music the depth of their discoveries.  The skits are hilarious, tragic and hopeful.  Muslim-Christian TrainingThey play out last week’s demolition of the Dar es Salaam IDP camp by the army and its impact on the lives of a family.  They play out the risks of dissent in a crowded bus, in the kitchen, with the military in the streets.  In a now-familiar dialectic, Muslims and Christians blend into one another in their play, their laughter, their song, their poetry, diverge and give place to one another in their ritual, their blessings and their stories.

In the days that follow, this group will continue to meet, to talk, to plan, to bless one another.  They will organise, resist and work for peace.  And they will continue to build, create and stand on – holy ground.


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