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Stories from Darfur

A new translation of a nineteenth-century Arabic travel narrative allows today’s readers to learn more about early modern Darfur

David Tresilian , Tuesday 30 Mar 2021
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The western Sudanese region of Darfur is perhaps best known today among international audiences for the tragic conflict that tore the region apart after 2003, only finding some lasting resolution after the revolution in Sudan that removed former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir from power and led to wide-ranging political change across the country.

However, Darfur, like some other regions of what is now Sudan, was once an independent or semi-independent state, only becoming definitively attached to the rest of the country during British colonial rule in the First World War. Until 1916, when British troops deposed its last sultan, Darfur was a vast and geographically and culturally varied region pressed between territories in central Africa that had fallen under French colonial rule and the British-ruled territories in eastern Africa and further south that made up the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

Darfur was based on the institution of the sultanate in the capital Al-Fashir, where the ruling family followed in the footsteps of one of the major Darfur sultans, Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid at the end of the 18th century, who further promoted the region’s Arabisation and introduced much of the apparatus of central control. It was at this time that Muhammad al-Tunisi, an Arab author of Tunisian origin, visited Darfur, going on to produce an invaluable early account by an Arab traveler of the region on the cusp of the modern period.

It is this account, in Arabic the kitab tashhidh al-adhhan bi-sirat bilad al-Arab wa-l-Sudan – “the honing of minds through the history of the land of the Arabs and Blacks” – which has now been republished in an accomplished English-language version by veteran translator Humphrey Davies in the Library of Arabic Literature series. Entitled In Darfur, it first appeared in 2017 in a two-volume set with a facing Arabic text also edited by Davies. Today, it reappears in a competitively priced English-only paperback version, allowing further readers to learn more about early modern Darfur from one of the only extensive non-European sources.

Darfur specialist R. S. O’Fahey, author of a standard work on the history of Darfur, gives details about the history of the sultanate in his foreword, including the system consolidated by the late 18th and early 19th-century sultans. The state that sultan Abd al-Rahman established grew rich on the trade of gum Arabic, gold, rhinoceros horns, and other products, and its wealth began to attract unwelcome attention. Egyptian ruler Mohamed Ali “sent an expedition south to conquer the Sudan in 1820, including Darfur,” O’Fahey writes, and while Darfur got off lightly on this occasion, only losing a province to the invading forces, “it had acquired an all-too-powerful [Egyptian] neighbour that intermittently coveted the sultanate itself – the lucrative trade links between Egypt and Darfur were enough to explain this interest.”

Yet, “the first 70 years or more of the 19th century were largely peaceful and prosperous” for Darfur under sultans Muhammad al-Fadl and Muhammad al-Husayn, O’Fahey writes. It was only towards the end of the 19th century when the region as a whole was attracting intensified European interest that the sultanate began to struggle to retain its independence. O’Fahey does not commit himself on whether this “can be characterised as a form of proto-nationalism or nationalism,” saying it is a “matter for discussion,” but Darfur like the rest of the Sudan became engulfed in apparently endless wars.

First there were the campaigns of British officer Charles Gordon, governor-general of Sudan in the 1870s, and then there was the complex Mahdist revolution aiming to eject foreigners and culminating in the Battle of Omdurman.

This history lay in the future, however, when al-Tunisi visited the Darfur of sultan Abd al-Rahman and his successor in 1803, later writing it up in the 1840s in his travel narrative when he was ensconced in Cairo. This is also a text that very nearly did not see the light of day, since had circumstances been even a little different it is easy to imagine that al-Tunisi would not have thought of composing a written history of his visit to Darfur, as Davies explains in his introduction.

Writing on Darfur: Following a series of more or less short-term adventures, al-Tunisi wound up in Cairo in the later 1820s where he was employed as an Arabic-language editor at one of Mohamed Ali’s new scientific schools.

The job involved translating European books, at this stage mostly scientific and technical, into Arabic and having them printed at the new printing press in Cairo. Al-Tunisi was involved in the Arabic redaction of these translations, and while working on them he came into contact with European professionals, often French nationals, employed to improve local scientific, medical, industrial, and military education.

Among them was Frenchman Nicolas Perron, who encouraged al-Tunisi to write up his experiences in Darfur and undertook to help to publish the result in Arabic and French versions in Paris. Perron’s French translation, the Voyage au Darfour par le cheykh Mohammed ebn el Tounsy, duly appeared in 1845 followed by an Arabic lithographic version, also arranged by Perron, five years later. There was an abridged English translation, the Travels of an Arab Merchant in Sudan, by Bayle St. John published in London in 1854, eventually followed by a full edition of the Arabic text in 1965.

Davies, who recounts this complicated history in his introduction, has provided contemporary readers with the first full English translation of al-Tunisi’s book together with the first full Arabic text edited to scholarly standards. “The process by which In Darfur was created has been the subject of speculation, fueled by the facts that its French translation appeared before the Arabic original, of which no original has been found,” he writes, rejecting, however, any suggestion that Perron himself was responsible for parts of In Darfur. “It is inconceivable that Perron could have written a work that stands firmly in the Arabic belles lettres tradition,” he says, even if Perron and al-Tunisi undoubtedly collaborated in other ways.

Perron translated al-Tunisi’s work into French, and al-Tunisi translated Perron’s work into Arabic, including his chemistry lecture notes for use in Cairo schools, poetically entitled al-jawahir al-saniyyah fi l-a’mal al-kimawiyyah, or “sublime gems concerning chemical operations.” As part of al-Tunisi’s activities as an Arabic translator there were also translations of the Frenchman Antoine Fabre’s eight-volume dictionary of medicine and of lecture notes by fellow Frenchman Antoine Barthélemy Clot (“Clot Bey”), the founder of the Cairo medical school.

Such activities and the collaboration of which they were a part give an intriguing sense of the literary and scientific atmosphere in Cairo in the 1830s and 1840s during Mohamed Ali’s reforms. The translated works were “the foundation on which the training of Egypt’s new cadre of doctors, pharmacologists, chemists and other scientists was to be erected,” Davies writes, adding that they were also important for the “development of a modern formal Arabic language capable of transmitting the influx of new ideas that came with the opening of Egypt to European influence.”

He quotes historian Khaled Fahmy to the effect that the products of the translation programme were written in “an impressively lucid Arabic prose… as elegant as it was precise and a far cry from the clumsy and awkward Arabic used by the nascent government bureaucracy.”

Al-Tunisi’s travel book on Darfur, however, though also the result of collaboration with Perron, was more the product of his leisure hours, and it was a far more personal, indeed largely autobiographical, work than the others. Al-Tunisi explains in his introduction that “I was employed at the school at Abu Za’bal [near Cairo] as a language editor of medical books… [and] I met the most brilliant man of his age in keenness of mind and understanding, the French teacher of chemistry Dr Perron,” who encouraged “me to tell him of the strange things that had befallen me on my journeys.”

The first part recounts al-Tunisi’s journey to Darfur at the age of only 14 in search of his father Umar who had moved there in search of opportunities. “A common pattern is discernible in the lives of al-Tunisi’s grandfather and father,” Davies writes, consisting of “travel between Tunis, Cairo, the Hejaz, and Sudan; extended and ultimately permanent absences of fathers who left North Africa to settle in the ‘Land of the Blacks,’ leaving young families behind them in Tunis or Cairo; sons seeking those same absent fathers; and meetings of remarkable coincidence between sons and fathers in the midst of vast empty spaces.” Linking all this together is the “interconnectedness of the caravan system that served trade.”

Davies provides a useful map indicating al-Tunisi’s stopping-off points down the Nile on his way to meet his father in Darfur, the meeting eventually taking place at a town in the centre of the region. Al-Tunisi describes it almost casually, as if it had taken place accidentally, whereas in fact it had been his entire purpose in coming to Darfur. Fortunately, his father is pleased to see him. “At the gate of my father’s house, we found the horses, donkeys, and servants of some guests who were visiting him… My father came out to greet me. I rose, kissed his hand, and stood before him. He asked me what professional skills I had acquired, and I said ‘the Qur’an and a certain amount of scholarship.’ This pleased him, and the second day after my arrival he put on a banquet.”

Later, al-Tunisi reviews the achievements of Darfur sultan Abd al-Rahman, mostly focusing on his personal qualities but adding much about various appointments at court. Davies’s notes are particularly useful in understanding the significance of these. As befits a man of letters, al-Tunisi can be severe about lapses in the Arabic employed at the sultan’s court, mentioning that one preacher had asked his father to compose a sermon for an event, which he had done, adding “composed by the one in need of his Bountiful Lord Umar al-Tunisi ibn Sulayman on such and such a day and year” at the end. “On the day of the feast, the faqih [preacher] prayed with the sultan, then mounted the pulpit and gave the sermon, saying at the end ‘composed by…,’ etc., without realising that these words weren’t part” of it.

Such incidental details add to the modern reader’s sense of al-Tunisi’s personality and contribute much to what he has to say about life in early modern Darfur.


Muhammad al-Tunisi, In Darfur, an Account of the Sultanate and its People. Trans. Humphrey Davies, New York, Library of Arabic Literature, 2020

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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