Tag Archives: Sudan

The ancient history of Sudanese perfumes

South African-based Sophia Shuttleworth has written a well-researched and fascinating article about Sudanese perfumes on her African Aromatics website.

Sophia, who describes herself as a artisan perfumer, starts out this way: “On Sunday 9 July 2011, South Sudan seceded from Sudan and became the world’s youngest country. The conflict in Sudan has been well documented, but little attention has been paid to the crafts and arts of Sudan.

Few people realize what a rich reservoir to the aromatic past Sudan is, and that Sudan once played a vital role in history of Perfumery and the trade of aromatics. . .” See Sudan’s Aromatic Culture for the rest of the article, which also discusses Bint el Sudan.

Surprise in Omdurman Souk

Pix Bint el Sudan

Three bottles of Bint el Sudan

By Alison Bate

It was my last day in Khartoum, the dusty desert capital of Sudan. I lay spread-eagled on my bed, trying to keep as cool as possible, and planning the day ahead.

I’ll visit Omdurman Souk, I decided, follow on my grandfather’s trail. After all, it was thanks to Grampy and his “expert nose” that I was in Africa at all.

Pix perfume bottle

The original Bint oil perfume (non-alcoholic)

Omdurman is Khartoum’s sister city, and I first heard the name from my globetrotting grandfather. It was on one of his trips that the perfume Bint El Sudan was born, after a meeting with Omdurman merchants. It quickly became the best-selling non-alcoholic perfume in the world.

Eric Burgess, known in the style of the times as E.E. Burgess Esq., was a traveling perfume salesman for W.J. Bush & Co. of Hackney, East London.

His mission? To sniff out new markets for exotic perfumes. Like his father before him, Eric Burgess started at the company as a youngster and stayed with Bush for 50 years. It was a family tradition: his grandfather and great-grandfather also traded in chemicals of some kind. And as an export manager and buyer, he travelled all over Africa, the Middle East and Europe, often in very remote areas.

“He lived at a time when you could have real adventures,” his younger daughter Elizabeth – my Mum – recalled.

As a young child, she remembers him flying in a small plane over their garden in Kent, waving a large white hankie out the window as he headed across the English Channel on yet another long trip. Continue reading

In the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan

Reflections as South Sudan votes 99 per cent for independence

Pix of Dilling boys

Boys in Dilling, South Kordofan

Feb.8, 2011

By Alison Bate

As we headed toward Dilling, white egrets wandered in and out of scrub bushes and stubby trees.

It was the rainy season and the desert land was transformed into an endless series of golf courses, with fresh green grass broken by bunkers of burnt orange mud.

Sand seeped into the crowded minibus and my nose twitched and throat itched. But each kilometer took me farther away from El Obeid and eased the tension in my shoulders. I’d been quizzed three times by the security police while overnighting in El Obeid, and believe me. . .not much fun.

This was 2007 and I’d been cocooned in Khartoum for a few months. Now I was heading into South Kordofan for a brief break from teaching.

Pix of Dilling, Sudan

Dilling, with Nuba Mountains in the background

Dilling was the closest I got to South Sudan, but this week’s confirmed vote for independence (98.8 per cent) brought back memories of one of the southerners I met there.

James was an engineer from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and he taught me a lot about the complexities of Sudanese loyalties. I learned that Sudan is not just about South Sudan and independence, or Darfur in the west and grazing rights. That other areas of Sudan, such as South Kordofan, are also unhappy with Khartoum’s dominance.

The name Nuba is really a collective term for those living in the Nuba Mountains, but includes many distinct peoples speaking different languages and with different religions. There are 99 mountains in the range, and used to be as many separate tribes.

During the last civil war, the Nuba peoples allied with the southern rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), but had been fighting their own war of autonomy against the Khartoum government for years. In fact, the Nuba region was one of three special areas identified in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005.

As James took me on a tour of Dilling by pickup truck, he talked about his own life, as well as the lives of those in the Nuba Mountains.

Like so many others, James fled Sudan when civil war broke out and moved to Nairobi in Kenya. An estimated 2.5 million southerners died and a further 4.6 million were displaced or became refugees in the war between North and South Sudan.

After the war finished, James returned to Sudan, but his family stayed in Kenya. He was building a house in Juba and almost ready to return. But he was reluctant for his family to join him until schools were functioning properly and his kids could get a proper education.

Drilling in Dilling

He’d been living in Dilling for a few years and had set up the field office for a charity called International Aid Services (IAS). By the time I met him, the IAS crew had drilled 101 wells with hand water pumps for nearby villages.

Although the charity was Scandinavian-funded, the engineers working in Dilling were all African. And after seeing westerners squandering aid money in Khartoum, it was refreshing to talk with engineers doing practical work in the field, and to see Africans helping Africans. They were slowly winding down for the rainy season, as muddy roads made it almost impossible to get to some of the remote villages.

Dilling was a quietly pretty village, with green fields and picturesque piles of rocky hummocks. Driving around, we passed the usual messy but colorful souk (market): an amorphous mix of tea ladies, small restaurants and minibuses. A procession of people and animals drifted by: a donkey cart, two men on cycles, then a white-robed man leading a camel and two women in colorful robes, curious at seeing a foreigner as they walked past.

Pix of mature trees in Dilling, Sudan

Shady avenue in Dilling, Sudan

After the souk, we crossed a dried-out riverbed into an area that reminded me of the boarding school my father used to teach at in Somerset, England.

A grand avenue of mahogany trees lined the road and had been planted by the British in their colonial days. A soccer field was surrounded by a decrepit brick wall. There was an old-fashioned feel of faded glory, solidness and predictability.

But then on the outskirts, we entered a totally different area, with remnants of more recent conflicts. Small thatched and brick round houses were full of SPLA supporters resettled as a result of the peace agreement.

Just because a piece of paper says a war has ended, doesn’t mean it has in people’s minds, though. Or even in reality. Outside of town, bright lights in the distance marked the UN compound. Although the UN patrolled the area in vehicles, several people said there was still a lot of crime, and they didn’t really do anything.

The civil war in the Nuba Mountains ended with a ceasefire in 2002, but five years later, many villagers still didn’t realize a peace agreement was in place.

“They believe it’s just an interlude,” James told me.

After the vote in South Sudan, Africa’s newest country is set to formally declare its independence on July 9. This area in the Nuba Mountains will remain in north Sudan. Strategically, this is a very important area in Sudan and there are so many unresolved issues.

What happens in a country when some get independence but others still feel marginalized? Certainly, it’s not a good recipe for stability.

RELATED: Darfur Redux: Is ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ Occurring in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains?(2011)

Where to buy Bint el Sudan in North America

I’ve had various emails from folks asking where they can buy Bint el Sudan in Canada or the U.S.

As far as I know, it’s not produced here, but I’ve met a very nice Sudanese lady, Lubna Ali, who sells Sudanese products, including Bint el Sudan, here in Vancouver, Canada.

I have no commercial stake in her company, but she can be reached through her website, Bitmakaly Enterprises.

36 bottles of Bint el Sudan

By Alison Bate

A well-worn package arrived today from northern Nigeria.

The Fedex package looked lumpy, heavily inspected, with yellow and blue stickers and tape splashed with orange type declaring “Inspected by Canada Customs”.

The sender: W.J. Bush & Co. of Kano, Nigeria. The original company of W.J.Bush & Co. may no longer exist in East London, but perfume production is still going strong in Kano, northern Nigeria.

Several readers of my article “The Bint Factor”, published in Reader’s Digest Canada, had asked if they could buy Bint el Sudan in Canada.

The short answer is no, as it’s not made in North America, but an email to IFF’s Nick Evans worked wonders. Nick is International Flavors and Fragrances’s sales manager for Africa, and he arranged for 36 little bottles of the non-alcoholic perfume to be sent to me in Canada.

When I opened the package, three cardboard boxes appeared, surrounded by crunched-up transparent plastic. Looking for all the world like boxes at the hardware store holding screws or nails.

Each box bore the company label based on a photo taken by my grandfather E.E. Burgess in 1919. And inside the boxes are little bottles steeped in history.

I’ve just pulled out one of the little bottles, green in color, and can smell the distinctive scent on my fingers: strong, lingering and surprisingly pleasant. My grandfather always said the fragrance was too strong for European noses, but it seems pretty neat to me.

Now I just have to figure the best way to get some of the bottles to Nelson, Kamloops and Toronto…

* Surprise in the Souk
* Memories of Bint el Sudan
* Brownbook article on Bint el Sudan

Bint el Sudan, my grandfather. . .and me

My grandfather E.E.Burgess, left, and another W.J. Bush agent in Africa

On a trip that took me to Africa, I found my grandfather’s lasting legacy—the continent’s signature scent—in a market in Sudan.

This story “The Bint Formula” was published in the December 2009 issue of Reader’s Digest Canada magazine.

For more information about Bint el Sudan, see the following:

* Surprise in the Souk

* Memories of Bint el Sudan

* 36 bottles of Bint el Sudan

* The history of Bint el Sudan (on Perfume Projects’ website)

* Where to buy Bint el Sudan in North America

Camel driver in Mygoma, a suburb of Khartoum, Sudan

Teaching in the Muslim World

My story about teaching in Khartoum, Sudan was published by Transitions Abroad. Here’s the full story:

By Alison Bate

Shortly after I arrived in Sudan, one of my favorite male students quietly passed me a handwritten note, whispering that I should read it later.

After class, I read a charming explanation that because he was Muslim and I was a woman, he could not shake hands when we met.

“OK?” he asked, embarrassed, the next time we ran across each other.

“OK.” I smiled but kept my hands firmly behind my back, mortified that he felt he had to explain his actions.

In Sudan, such mistakes are easy to make. Whenever men meet, they shake hands with everyone in the room. Whenever, I walked into a room, they nearly all shook hands with me too. It is a charming custom, and you soon get in the habit of doing the same. But Khartoum is home to students from all over the Arab world, and those from Saudi Arabia, in particular, have been raised in a strict Muslim culture that believes men should not touch women, especially those outside the family.

Most Sudanese Arabs—in Khartoum anyway–come across as moderate Muslims, and are usually curious about the West and surprisingly comfortable when discussing politics. They’re also very hospitable and friendly to foreigners, so it is easy to forget that the government or fundamentalist Muslims may not share the same relaxed attitude.

In addition, at least 19 major ethnic groups live in Sudan, divided into nearly 600 subgroups, and only 40 percent of them identify themselves as Arabs. In Khartoum itself, the many students from South Sudan or Darfur (in the far west of the country) follow Christian or other religions, and far different customs. In such a diverse country, knowing where the boundaries lie can be very tricky.

Gillian Gibbons & the teddy bear

I thought of these things when I returned to Vancouver last August, and the Gillian Gibbons affair flared up shortly afterward. Gibbons was the British teacher who went to Khartoum to teach English to the Sudanese and ended up in jail for blasphemy ­as the consequence of allowing her kids to name a teddy bear Mohammed. After an international outcry, she was released after eight days in custody and flew back to Britain.

I left Khartoum shortly before Gibbons arrived, but passed the school she taught at regularly, rattling by in a crowded minibus on the way to Souk el Arabi. Unity High School was hidden almost entirely by high brick walls, with a classy sign noting it was founded in 1902, and the protected air of keeping out the riff-raff.

My key thoughts were that Gibbons was very unlucky. Teaching in different cultures, you are pretty much bound to make some gaffes, and usually students or fellow teachers correct you laughingly or quietly forgive you.

Previous Job Teaching in an Islamic part of China

My first overseas teaching gig took me to Urumqi in China’s remote northwestern province of Xinjiang. Most of the kids at the language school were Han Chinese–the largest ethnic group in the world–and what we in the West think of as Chinese. But in Xinjiang, at least half the population is Uyghur (pronounced Wee-gur in English), and the school also had Uyghur kids. These people are Muslim, speaking a language more in common with Turkish than anything else, writing in Arabic script, praying to Allah, the men wearing traditional skull caps and the women, shawls.

I was more careful to avoid talking about religion in China than in Sudan. Most of us working in China knew that discussing religion was a sensitive issue with the authorities. Our teaching contract even stated that discussions about religion and politics should be avoided unless specifically requested by students. The fact that many missionaries disguised as teachers did work in China made me even more determined not to discuss religion.

Occasionally, religion was difficult to ignore, however. One day, I was teaching from a textbook that included a picture of an English church.

Baffled, one of my Han Chinese students asked: “What is a church?”

We were living in a city full of mosques, used by the Uyghurs, and there was even a Catholic church in Urumqi. But the Han Chinese appeared to have no concept of religion at all. I carefully defined a church and a mosque, wrote up a list of the world¹s major religions, and added the countries where each religion tended to be practiced. I never had any comeback from either kids or parents.


Fruitsellers in Souk el Arabi, Khartoum

An Unwitting Faux Pas in Sudan

In Khartoum, I was in Muslim territory again, but this time teaching adults and in a country where the government enforced Sharia (Muslim) law. A very different feeling. Alcohol was banned, live entertainment virtually non-existent, and my women students were divided about whether it was even acceptable for them to go to the movies with family members.

I made other cultural gaffes. I had seen female office staff playing solitaire on the computer. One of our teaching textbooks covered entertainment, so I took a pack of cards in to class and proceeded to teach students the English words for hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds, explaining the meanings, and getting the students practice their numbers.

“Do you play cards?” I asked Rana, one of the women.

“Women are not allowed to play cards in public,” she told me. “It is OK to play on the computer, but not with people. Only for men.”

Needless to say, I quietly dropped the cards from my box of teaching tricks.

Perceptions and Misperceptions

After about three months of teaching, I was asked to help run an English club at the language school. The more advanced students were very curious about how Sudan was perceived in the West. I felt very sad to report that most people in North America had only heard about Darfur, thought all of Sudan was a very dangerous place to live, and had a very negative view of the country.

In turn, it was fascinating to hear their perceptions of the West. The Sudanese view of the U.S., in particular, appeared schizoid to me: They loved watching American TV shows beamed in by satellite from the Middle East, and many wanted to live there, enticed by watching soap operas, thrillers and a supposed world of riches. But at the same time, many thought the U.S. was a corrupt society, and were especially critical of George W. Bush¹s invasion of Iraq.

The U.S. government brought in trade sanctions against Sudan in 1997, but while I was there last year, cranked up the pressure on Khartoum, banning 31 Sudanese companies from American and international financial systems.

Discussing these sanctions and the U.S. role in Iraq, two of my students said they thought the American government was as bad, if not worse, than the Nazis. Many Sudanese certainly did not trust the U.S., and saw the United Nations – headquartered in New York – as an extension of the U.S. government. Now that Sudan is the third largest oil producer in Africa, they also saw the West’s preoccupation with Darfur as both neo-colonial interference and a transparent desire for control over potential oilfields.

While the West regards Sudan as a very dangerous place to live, some students had similar views about the U.S.

“Chicago is a very dangerous city,” one Sudanese man informed me very seriously. “U.S. cities are very dangerous to live in, not like in Sudan. We are much safer here.”

“What about Darfur?” I said gently.

“That is different. That is fighting between tribes,” he said firmly.

If we suspend our thoughts about the tragedy of Darfur for a moment, ­ the student had a point. The streets of Khartoum did feel safe, and the Sudanese were so hospitable it was very difficult to imagine them fighting anyone.

Growing up in England, I felt far more aggression from teenage bikers gathering outside the Co-op each night in rural Somerset; from Friday night boozers in Durham City; or while walking home from Tooting Bec underground station in S.E. London. Since immigrating to Canada, I’ve also felt the need to watch my back far more in Vancouver’s downtown eastside than in Khartoum and its sister cities.

Whether you approve of Sharia law or not, living in a controlled society based on strict religious tenets is likely to produce less street crime.

Should capital punishment be abolished?

For another discussion in the classroom, I had carefully planned a debate about capital punishment: comparing Canada’s ban on the death penalty since 1961 with the situation in the U.S., where the majority of states have capital punishment.

Should the death penalty be abolished, I asked?

I stepped back and waited for a lively discussion to begin. Instead, baffled silence filled the air. Finally, one of the bolder students said that of course the death penalty was necessary as a deterrent. All of the other students agreed. In Sudan, capital punishment is allowed, with death by hanging the most common method. And for them, this was not an interesting debate because it was so obvious that capital punishment was necessary.

Forced to play devil’s advocate, I quoted statistics showing that the Canadian murder rate had not increased after the death penalty was abolished, and neither had the U.S.’s murder rate decreased in states where executions were allowed. They were supremely unimpressed.

“If there is no death penalty, families will take the law into their own hands,” one student insisted.

They also told me that in Sudan, if someone is murdered, the family of the victim decided whether the murderer should suffer the death penalty, pay compensation, or be pardoned. A practice many victim’s rights groups in North America might prefer, I would venture.

Final Thoughts

Life in Khartoum is very hard. Unemployment is high, and those who do have jobs typically work six days a week. Electricity and transportation costs are very high relative to income, numerous power cuts plague the city, scorching heat numbs the brain and the men who work all have huge family responsibilities.

But daily life goes on. Most of my students were in their early 20s and had a degree. When I asked them about the biggest problem facing Sudan, they nearly all said: “Unemployment.” Occasionally, a student from Darfur would say: “Darfur,” but it was primarily their inability to find work that bothered them.

North Americans tend to focus on Darfur, in the far west of Sudan, where feeding those in refugee camps is still a humanitarian crisis. But the major fighting and atrocities were carried out four or five years ago.

As I write this, the uneasy peace between South Sudan and the Sudanese government in the north seems very fragile once again and poses a far more serious threat. The last civil war between the mainly black South Sudan and the northern Arab government ended with a peace accord in 2005 after twenty years of fighting. But the unresolved dispute over who owns the lucrative oil fields on the border near Abyei threatens to plunge the nation into civil war again.

Sitting safely at home in Canada, it is easy to forget that most Sudanese just want to carry on an ordinary life without fighting. Government wishes are not the same as those of their citizens. I can only think of all the welcoming faces in Khartoum and their willingness to look at the person in front of them and not just their politics or religion.

First published in Transitions Abroad in October 2008