Umm Dawban, a close-knit community

by Hervé Pugi.

One needs only to pull out of Khartoum and drive about 40 kilometers to arrive at a cluster of buildings, like so many in Sudan. And here, several shimmering, aquamarine green mausoleums stand around a simple mosque surrounded by open space. Their facades stand out against a deep blue sky. Under a relentless sun, haunting chants can be heard in sequences of time that languish, like the ones that will follow. This is the heart of the Qadiriya Badiriya brotherhood of Umm Dawban. 

Several steps through the packed dirt alleyways are enough to reach the heart of the madrassa, the koranic school. This is the center of life in a sufi brotherhood that has its roots in faraway iraq. Gathered in small darkened rooms or spread out along the covered ground are dozens of children and youngsters immersed in long tedious koranic lessons. Normally they number in the hundreds, but during the height of the summer heat, many have gone home to their families. Those without the possibility of doing so are carrying on their studies.

The koran is certainly a sacred text, but learning conditions are very basic. Worn and torn pages are handed down amongst some, while others study from wooden planks on which the words of the prophet have been scrawled. Crouched over, their eyes focused on the texts, whether eight or sixteen years old, they repeat the same words over and over, and then the same sentences, all while bending up and down from the waist. “it is learning by heart,” admits one of the tea- chers, who explains, “they learn from end to beginning.” The explanation: the suras are increasingly shorter as the reading of the koran continues. These students come from Darfur, Central african republic, Somalia and from Chad, among other countries. These are often crisis-filled regions. It is important to note that.

At Umm Dawban, they are given above all a roof and simple meals… And they are grateful. Living conditions are modest, even spartan. Every moment is shared with their brothers. In this communal mindset, open and kind-hearted, life is set to the rhythm of the five daily calls to prayer. Learning the koran fills the daily routine and can reveal certain talents. This was confirmed by one of the sheiks: “some of them spend a year with us; others stay a bit longer. We orient those who show potential in their lear- ning towards higher studies, especially those with an apti- tude for understanding the koran. The others return to their routines in life…” 

When night falls, the entire community gathers in the mosque. They sit in a circle around a fire. A deep silence reigns. Time stands still. Their faces are serious, like closed doors. They are united in their fervor, a mix of meditation and reverence. Suddenly, the name of god fills the dusk, spoken as one by all the faithful. The words, the dikhr, are repeated in a striking melody over and over, until silence takes over the gathering. The ceremony has ended. While the elders return to their business at hand, the youngest have more work to do. In single file, under the feeble rays of a lamp-post and the mosque lighting, the shebab, the youth, return to their studies. Can these lively children be good students?
 A teacher is quick to respond, saying: “it depends, but you know, they are children…”

And in that short moment, distraction set in. The rowdiest children in the line are using their korans to disrupt the others. What can be more sacred than youth?

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