Book review: In-betweenness in Greater Khartoum: Spaces, Temporalities, and Identities from Separation to Revolution

reviewed by Eric Denis

16 Mar 2023, 10:01 a.m.

In-betweenness in Greater Khartoum book cover

A Franck, B Casciarri, and I El-Hassan (eds), In-betweenness in Greater Khartoum: Spaces, Temporalities, and Identities from Separation to Revolution. New York & Oxford: Berghahn, 2021, 341 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-180073-058-8, £117.00 (hbk)


With their edited volume In-Betweenness in Greater Khartoum, Alice Franck, Barbara Casciarri and Idris Salim El-Hassan offer a deeply grounded analysis of recent changes in the capital of Sudan. The book instates Khartoum within the cities important to consider for the urban world in the making.

They provide a nuanced and complex portrait of a giant metropolis – the largest of the Sahelian region with its 7 – 8 million inhabitants. In doing so, chapter after chapter, Khartoum no longer appears as the simple paragon of the city in crisis, but rather as a negotiated place where people cope with each other despite profound inequalities, massive waves of inflation, a regular lack of basic services and an oppressive regime.

First of all, the book offers an updated account of a vast capital region that has been radically transformed since the 1990s. The reference books on Khartoum date back to that period, notably with Gertel (1993) and Simone (1994) – the latter providing a unique and critical insider’s analysis of the urban justice ambitions of the Islamic regime in power since the 1991 coup. Since then, beside several outstanding unpublished PhDs and few articles, Khartoum is a non-existent entity within urban studies.

Not only is this edited volume reinstating Khartoum afresh, it pushes forward an original conceptual framework shared by the ten contributors. Promoting the notion of in-betweenness, they claim a relational approach to changes, whereas in the past Khartoum has always been seen through dichotomic lenses such as urban versus rural, traditional versus modern, North versus South, African versus Arab or Christian versus Muslim.

The paradigm chosen is an invitation to look at processes rather than boundaries and to consider limits as space of negotiation, sites of crossing, opportunities and the location of ‘porosity of spatial and social orders’ (p.3).

Based on in-depth ethnographic surveys and a continuous presence in Sudan’s capital since the 1990s, by sharing ordinary and daily lives, the authors are collectively able to overcome the dualistic conceptualisation often associated with Khartoum. They promote complexity and hybridity in-the-making against the temptation to adhere to easier understandings formulated in terms of fragmentation and segregation.

Nevertheless, they do not ignore the profound injustices that shape Khartoum: the forced evictions, the extreme poverty affecting a large section of the city dwellers or the racism (based on skin colour and tribe) that affects the daily life of thousands, from access to school, resources and housing plots, to employment opportunities. The authors claim that these contradictions and unequal positions are negotiated, producing a complex and fluid socio-spatial reality. The concept of in-betweenness, borrowed from Entrikin (1991) and Rey and Poulot-Moreau (2014), is interwoven with the notion of ‘thirdspace’ (Soja, 1998), while being also connected to the fluid concept of place as a constellation of relations, as developed by Massey (2011). It is a grounded theorisation based on extensive fieldwork and collective multi-disciplinary research. The contributions navigate and decipher the social and morphological transformation of Greater Khartoum during the period of radical change studied: from the 2005 peace agreement with the South to the Revolution in 2018 that, after weeks of unrest in the streets of the capital, ousted Omar el-Bashir who had been in power for 39 years. The intermediate period covered accounts for the relative prosperity induced by the flow of petrol revenues, its brutal end after the partition in 2011 and the creation of the South-Sudan State which claimed 70% of the crude rent.

The book provides precise insights on the ways people navigated this turbulent period, negotiating with each other to produce new urban extensions, coping with an authoritarian regime that played the division to reign but also tolerated popular arrangements that allowed people to cope with the disappearance of all forms of welfare and subsidised resources, following the IMF’s textbook. Doing so, the regime implemented a neoliberal economic agenda which served the elite that has dominated Sudan since Independence.

The volume starts with a prologue written by the Sudanese’s novelist Stella Gaitano. Her words on negotiating identity based on her own experience as a southerner, married to a northerner, who lived in Khartoum until 2012, navigating several languages and writing in Arabic, ground the debate on in-betweenness. Her narrative is related to the creolisation debates in the context of cities having a large share of relocated people and an ethnocratic regime reproducing a racial hierarchisation related to a colonial past. Through her own story, she explores the capabilities to adapt, to live in several worlds and to overcome the hierarchic and often violent assignations based on skin colour, regional belonging, tribe and religion which structure the city.

The first and key chapter by Franck and Casciarri situates the discussion within the margins, where Khartoum expands on highly coveted agricultural and pastoral lands. Written as a dialogue between two long term ethnographic researchers, it contrasts the peri-central orchards resistance on an island and the western bank of the White Nile with the acceleration of land transactions in tribal land. It opens the first section of the book exposing the ‘In-Betweenness as a Spatial Dimension’ with four chapters, followed by a section on ‘In-betweenness as a Temporal Dimension’ and the third section on ‘In-Betweenness as a Belonging Dimension’.

The first chapter shows how the conjunction of an increasing demand for plots to settle, the sudden flow of oil revenues nourishing an emergent real estate sector promoted by economic liberalisation, and the State apparatus seeking to gain revenues in land transaction and taxation has driven and still is driving urban sprawl. In doing so, the chapter does not adhere to the schematic idea of disappearing rural and tribal life overtaken by urban forces. Instead, the authors demonstrate that the fringes’ transformations are mediated by several ‘in-betweenness’ conditions such as the diversity of property regimes, registered versus common pastoral land or tribal land which complexify the rural–urban divides, as does the distinction between irrigated and dry land. They show, for instance, how the people of Tuti Island – who belong to the urban class and are well connected to governmental institutions – are in a better position to defend their agricultural spaces and their farmer status than the marginalised residents of Abu Said. The latter suffered from the formal registration of their land possession which tended to oversimplify the complexity of land tenure in a manner detrimental to agricultural labourers. The two authors also highlight how tribal conflicts are activated by urban interests, notably by the alliance of ‘the dominant political class and economic elite’ that are able to manipulate the property regime and contest tribal rights, reinforcing their sentiment/sense/feeling of legal insecurity.

The following chapter by Salma Mohamed Abdelmunim Abdalla pursues and refines the complex setting of the peri-urban context with the study of a village on the western bank of the White Nile. It shows how the Jammu’ya tribe navigates the entire urbanisation of their land and the accommodation of different tribes from all over Sudan driven there by a succession of crises, droughts and armed conflicts. If such villages initially developed organically without State interference, they became places of active State intervention in order to extend urban infrastructures and answer the local demand for services. There, people are able to make their claims heard and reject the planning decision promoted by engineers who understand those territories as rural, marginal and invaded spaces to cure.

Hind Mahmoud then exposes an original survey and studies of access to education in a remote area 40 km away from Khartoum’s centre, mainly a place of relocation of internally displaced populations after their eviction from less marginal locations. Working the notion of liminality, she demonstrates how deprivation of education reproduces the gender gap and how the unequal capacities of families to pay for semi-private courses consolidate a local hierarchy in the context of the State’s under investments in public education. Clément Deshayes extends the discussion, locating the genesis of the political dissent which led to the destruction of Omar el-Bashir’s regime in 2019. The author demonstrates that the disruption of the political order started much earlier, as in the 2010s new socio-political urban groups emerged, horizontally organised to grassroots organisations. They contested the classic political parties and the patriarchal norms they contributed to reproducing. Nevertheless, these new groups are composed mainly of activists with a higher education and social capital, often from elite families, working for international NGOs and/or militants of University Unions. The movement thus struggled to broaden, without being limited entirely to a class movement, but not being able to influence socio-spatial inequalities and to mobilise fully in the racialised peripheries.

The following chapters are equally rich. They provide a deep understanding of the roots of the current urban situation after the 2019 revolution. Idris Salim El-Hassan underlines the importance of the urban violence of 2005 after the accidental death of the southern leader John Garang a few weeks after the signature of the peace agreement between the North and South. Alice Franck exposes the constrained strategy of southern families during the separation of South Sudan, around 2011, a time when many left for the new country and sold their land in Khartoum. Then, when some returned a few years later, they found themselves further marginalised as foreigners. The variety of liminal experiences endured by the southerners in Khartoum is explored further by Azza Ahmed Abdel Aziz. She exposes the different ways forced migrants of Southern Sudan navigate the territorial questioning of Sudanese nationhood.

Katarzyna Grabska prolongs this discussion by studying the ways Nuers negotiated their belonging to Khartoum after the partition in 2011. As members of Nilotic and nomadic tribes they became destitute foreigners in North Sudan navigating a form of translocal citizenship at the margins. In that process, displaced Nuers – already in a very precarious and uncertain situation – reinvented themselves, crafting a parti-cularly fluid in-betweenness configuration. Continuing in the same vein, Mohamed Bakhit explores the liminal position of displaced and refugee populations occurring in the most underprivileged neighbourhoods, especially after South Sudan’s independence. Barbara Casciarri comes back with an analysis of changes in marriage strategies of pastoral tribes affected by Khartoum’s expansion and the intensification of socio-economic exchanges. Here again, it shows how in-betweenness works as an analytical tool to understand strategic adaptation of kinship and marriage to forge alliances appropriate for a changing environment, as well as their discourses of justification. Continuing this discussion on evolving marriage strategy, Peter Miller provides a rare anthropological incursion into an upper-middle class neighbourhood of Khartoum. It shows how inclusion and exclusion could be reframed and examines the limits of socio-ethnic porosity within which, for instance, young women from a distant ancestor’s village are still today considered a better marriage alliance, and therefore closer than those living in a neighbourhood 2 km away. The author highlights an adaptative combination of social and ethnoreligious endogamy.

Finally, as an epilogue, Stella Gaitano comes back in an interview that details the difficulties of living between several worlds, the social isolation that it entails, the trauma of the separation of Sudan and the meaning of places that are no more.

The book not only updates the studies of Khartoum’s social fabric, with the concept of in-betweenness, but also promotes an original relational approach. Exposing the changes, seen from the ground in various neighbourhoods and communities from the 2005 peace agreement to the 2018 Revolution, it introduces Khartoum as a place to think about the negotiation of a place to live by subaltern populations. It is significant to point out that this book brings together Sudanese and women’s productions that display young, new, original voices and research.



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