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Leaving Sudan

 

Text by Omer Asim

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Omer Asim began his professional career at the Bartlett School of Architecture and completed a postgraduate degree at the London School of Economics, then became a psychoanalyst before taking a degree in pattern-cutting at Central Saint Martins. Now, he is a fashion designer with his self-titled brand of ten years alongside co-creative director Maya Antoun. TANK last spoke to Asim in the autumn of 2022, when he told Caroline Issa about a new project that looked to recover the ancient perfume-making practices of Sudan, the country in which he was born. In the year since that conversation, the perfumery project has progressed, but so too has political turmoil in Sudan, which culminated in the outbreak of war in March this year – three days after Asim had landed in the country – when long-standing tensions between once-allies General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (colloquially known as Hemedti), the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), broke into full-blown conflict. The project’s stated aim – to capture one precarious cultural practice belonging to a time, a country and a people whose lives have been often contorted by violence, collided with the reality of civil war and displacement. Asim told TANK about his relationship with record-keeping, his experience at the cusp of conflict, and about the people who remain in Sudan.

As told to Nell Whittaker

Sudan is a complex country where people have different ideas about who they are. There are more than 104 languages spoken in the country. Perfume was a way of addressing various issues around identity because, ultimately, there is something about taste – be it for food, or hygiene or body care – that says a lot about your heritage and your background. It can speak about your identity without you even knowing.

The perfume that I was interested in had ingredients not native to the country, which makes it obvious that Sudan was in a trading route, indicating that we are quite a mix though, of course, people don’t like to admit that. To look into the history of the perfume was a way to address this issue, looking into identity through the cultural products that you take pride in.

In 2018 or 2017, a project was begun at the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London to go out and digitise endangered archives, which was created after a fire in the library of Timbuktu, Mali. One thing that many people don’t know is that Sudan has the oldest and largest archive of film in Africa, but much of it has been damaged because it’s being kept in the worst way, with reels of film kept exposed to the light, and to dust.

So many people have tried to save it, but the government was always an obstacle – they would not let anyone near it, and with each new fund that came in, they took the money and did absolutely nothing. I think it was an exercise in allowing identity and history to be erased so it can be rewritten. You couldn’t access anything, even though these archives are all public, and you couldn’t even talk about it openly.

For a while I have thought that beauty and makeup will overtake fashion, because fashion has reached an impasse. Wherever consumption is going, in the end the one thing that will always hold its value will be your body, and it matters how you take care of it. That is how I became interested in perfume. When Covid-19 happened, one of the early symptoms was the loss of smell, which made our senses and corporeal experience more important.

Another thing that made me interested in the perfumes of Sudan was that perfume in that part of the world is strong. It’s not as soft or gentle as it is here. When there is someone in the room wearing a Sudanese perfume, you know it. It’s an exercise in power, to lightly penetrate the other sex, but in an acceptable way.

Perfume production in Sudan starts with a dough made from sorghum, though different families use different recipes. After the dough has been pounded it is smoked underground in a fire of shittah or sandalwood chips for about three days. Then different oils are added. Most of the perfumes end up clear but the dough base also lives inside the jar or bottle. It’s like wine, where the longer it rests the better it becomes. There are so many different ingredients. Some of them are native to the region and some are from other countries – cardamom and cloves that come from India, making an interesting juncture between food and perfume. I spoke to a perfumer and he said that the method perhaps dates back to an antique tradition in ancient Egypt, possibly deriving from embalming.

The project was funded by the EU. Although they have had a cultural fund for a while, it wasn’t open to Sudan because of the economic ban that lasted for 30 years. After the upheaval in late 2018, America and the EU took Sudan off the embargo list. It’s a cultural preservation fund for tangible and intangible culture, though they were struggling to find intangible cultural proposals. They said, “Finally, someone’s applied with something that isn’t fashion or books or film.”

 

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A local jeweller making amulet cases, Kassala

My method was just to go into it without any set ideas about what this perfume is – to keep an open mind and speak to as many people as possible. This made the whole funding process very tedious, because it was written by someone who didn’t know how these things go. They want you to give them the outcome before you do the work – they want you to tell them exactly what you are going to find out and what you’re going to do with it. In the end, I spent two years filling in forms. It was like applying for a PhD.

Things started to get tricky when we got to the question of how they were going to give us the money and how we were going to give feedback on how it was being used. They have their own standard for how things should work that don’t apply to that setting. I can’t be dealing with people in the marketplace then asking them for a receipt. In Sudan, too, the whole banking system is rudimentary because we were under 30 years of embargo, so the system there doesn’t match what the EU was expecting from a bank.

However, in March this year, everything had aligned. I managed to find many people who had the knowledge to help. I even found a perfumer who said that he would be interested in going to Sudan to find out about the local ingredients. There’s so much complexity in scent – if you want to use a jasmine essence, you have to choose from so many different types of jasmine depending on which part of the world you’re working in. I found a botanist who had made a two-volume encyclopaedia of the aromatic and medicinal flora of the region, who was willing to help. I still needed to talk to different families about their recipes, and I didn’t know if they were going to share them, but at least if we got to the bottom of all the main basic ingredients, then we could go from there.

I hadn’t been to Sudan since the pandemic, and I arrived there last year three days before the conflict broke out. Unfortunately, what happened was the thing I thought I would not live to see. The premise of the whole project was capturing the essence of what was once there, that perhaps a particular smell could represent safety. When it came to it, that was untrue.

I know many people who left their homes with just a thin plastic bag. When they reached safety, they started to think about what they could save from their homes – you could pay people who were going back into the danger zone – and many people asked for their perfume. That perfume might be left over from your wedding, as when you get married, your family makes a big batch of perfume for you that would last for decades. The perfume-making ceremony would be part of the events leading to your wedding, so the perfume would be a link to all the people who came to help. It would be imbued with all those people, who will all now be displaced.

When the conflict started this year, I felt that what was happening was quite serious. I had lived outside Sudan for nearly 30 years – I first left in 1995 when the government came into power, as they were wreaking havoc and it wasn’t a safe place to be. I was from the very first generation of people to have left. Over the last three or four years, people in Sudan have become used to everyday background violence, so when it first broke out, there was a sense of complacency. By the second day, I felt that this wasn’t normal, but I didn’t have anything to compare it to because I hadn’t been there while the “normal” violence was taking place. So I just kept on saying, this doesn’t seem normal, this seems quite serious.

 

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Carved ebony pieces, designed by Maya Antoun, using traditional hand-carving techniques used in the production of walking sticks and prayer beads

I was staying with my wife’s family in central Khartoum, exactly where it all started. By the end of the first day, there were three tanks outside the house and the airport was closed, because the RSF had burned an aeroplane. Some people who escaped from the aeroplane came to us – it took them more than 18 hours to find a safe passage to us over a distance of about one mile. We gave them food and a place to stay and they told us about what they had seen on the way.

The next thing that made me think, Okay, this is really bad and there’s probably no going back, was when the RSF started to go into embassies and raid them, which is a total diplomatic disaster, and one you can’t recover from. We had a neighbour who was with the UN – fortunately, they didn’t shoot her. The UN were trying to evacuate her but they couldn’t come anywhere near, and she was in contact with the security person on the phone and this person – who doesn’t know me from Adam – was telling me to find a way to get out. I knew that if we left the house, we would not be coming back.

As we were trying to find a way to leave, I would speak to the militia who were coming into the house looking for spies, and the funny thing was that they didn’t know where they were. They didn’t know that they were in Khartoum. They had been dropped in the middle of nowhere and told, Go off, take control of the area. Many of them were not even from Sudan. They were from Niger, Djibouti, Chad – people who had been child soldiers. You didn’t know if you should feel sorry for them or if you should hate them. Some of them thought that they were on their way to a job contract in Saudi, and then they ended up in Sudan. You just wonder, who is funding all of this? Who is paying for all of these guns?

We had to find a small car, because they were taking the cars of people who left in four-wheel drives. It was me, my wife, my little son. At the time he was a year and a half old. Then there was my wife’s sister, some of the neighbours, and the people who came to us from the aeroplane. We had managed to evacuate the woman from the UN two days earlier. When we left on the fifth day, we had to pass through the area that they were controlling. Over a distance of one kilometre, there were ten checkpoints. At each of them, the soldiers didn’t know anything. They didn’t have any instructions on what to do. They were also in fear. Some of them were quite vicious, and you could tell that these were seasoned militia, whereas some were just numbers. At every checkpoint, next to us was a car with dead people inside. I think people got shot because at the checkpoint, they didn’t even know what to ask you. One would tell you to go, and the guy at the other end would tell you not to go, and all of this was done with a gun at your head. They would start arguing between themselves. I guess those people got shot in the confusion.

While the whole thing is happening, part of you doesn’t believe it. When you leave, and then you look back, you think, Oh my god. I could have been killed at any point. But the worst part is being forced out of your home in this manner. It’s a feeling that will never leave me. I understand how people in Palestine feel now – I know what that feels like.

In Sudan, the whole of the capital is lost, but it’s also bad in the west, in Darfur, which has been an ongoing problem forever due to the gold and the minerals there. I stopped following the news. There is no point in knowing more details.

 

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A Rashaida woman selling in the market, Kassala

It’s also happening silently. You come face to face with the order of things – these ideas about rights and democracy and all of that. They are window-dressing, creating the illusion that we are safe. You lose your faith totally in organisations like the UN. I have always known that they were very limited in what they could do, but it was very obvious. What is happening now with Israel and Palestine is a clear example of how things actually work.

When I was younger, I thought that I wanted to work in the UN. For my master’s, I wrote my dissertation on Organisational Neurosis, so I had to go into an organisation and work for a period of time to observe it from the inside. I chose the UN since I wanted to work there afterwards. I did an internship with them for one month and figured out that the UN is in such a mess. It’s filled with people on very good tax-free salaries. When I left, I thought, Okay, I’m definitely not going to go into the UN. What is now happening in Gaza shows that the UN doesn’t have any power whatsoever. They have been in West Sudan for ages, doing nothing, earning good money. If everyone knows that no one is coming to help, that’s okay. But instead, there is a pretence that there is help on the way, when there’s nothing.

When I left, I was thinking about things differently. I started to think about where I am going to be buried when I die; I started to understand the relationship that cultures and people have with their dead. Once, when I visited Indonesia, I went to an island where every household had their family buried in the courtyard. Now, I wonder what trauma made them want to keep their dead close. Part of my family comes from the north, where the Aswan Dam is, which was built in the 1960s. When they built the dam, our land went underwater, as they flooded the whole basin. We were given the option to either go to Egypt or to come to Sudan – I have distant family who went to Egypt, and my side of the family came to Sudan. So, I grew up with my grandparents talking about their experience of being displaced. My grandmother and her sisters didn’t like eating fish; they said these fish are feeding on our ancestors that were buried there. As a child I thought my grandmother was just being dramatic, but this is something I now feel I am living with, too.

With the project, of course, now the funding is gone, but I am hoping that at some point there could be a way to use the information we gathered. It’s clear to me now how important and urgent these apparently frivolous things are. The preservation of the past might not seem to be such a pressing issue day to day because everyone is just trying to get by – but once these things are lost, you begin to understand. I never thought that I would.