Absent Fathers and Missing Camels: Notes on Sudanese Sand Divination

Mali geomancer

(A geomancer or sand diviner from Mali traces geomantic figures in a prepared bed of sand)

A few days ago a member of a Geomancy study group that I am a part of on Facebook posted some interesting links to 19th century material that mentions geomancy. Many of the links this person posted included accounts of geomantic procedures that European colonial explorers like Sir Richard Burton had observed during their travels through parts of Africa. One of the links was a little different however: it was a facsimile of Voyage au Darfour (Journey to Darfur), the 1845 translation into French of a travelogue written in Arabic by Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Omar El-Tounsy (Al-Tunisi), who served as chief reviewer of translations of medical texts translated from European languages into Arabic at the School of Medicine in Cairo. This particular source thus jumped out at me, not only for its content but because rather than yet another white colonist’s account of native culture, it represented the reflections of a colonized non-white foreigner observing cultural practices that were both different from and cognate with his own.

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The Red Wind of Memory: A Review of Susan Kenyon’s ‘Slaves and Spirits of Central Sudan’ (2012)

kenyon book cover

I thought I would re-post a review that I wrote some months ago of anthropologist Susan Kenyon’s 2012 longitudinal study of zar possession practices in Central Sudan, Spirits and Slaves in Central Sudan: The Red Wind of Sennar. A slightly edited version of this review appeared in print in Anthropology News, and was also featured on the periodical’s website. Since the online review appears to no longer be accessible, I am re-sharing it here so people more people read it and learn about zar and Susan’s book.

Zar spirits and ‘healing cult’ phenomena are compelling for many reasons. Zar is distinctly transnational in both its cosmological scope and actual practice, yet it is also tied to specific regional histories and experiences, to very specific lives and biographies. With its layered and cosmopolitan spirit cosmologies, zar possession reveals beautifully how history lives in the body, how legacies of colonialism and violence, of upheaval and encounters with the culturally other, are intimate, living presences that may come as afflictions but also as lovers, friends, helpers, and teachers in disguise. Zar provides material for the study of religious pluralism, it presents rich examples of the tense back-and-forths between affliction and accommodation, oppression and opportunity that have fascinated and challenged anthropologists (and well, everyone else) for generations. Zar’s particular approach to placating and accommodating spirits is a distinctly gendered phenomenon. Zar has been described both as a women’s ‘cult of affliction’ and as a form of women’s resistance, an empowering spiritual club for women and gender misfits (or in the language of more contemporary, internet-assisted identity politics maybe, for ‘femmes’) which sits at times parallel and at times perpendicularly to mainstream Islam and its institutions Continue reading