- Khartoum at Night: fashion and body politics in imperial Sudan by Marie Grace Brown
Khartoum at Night is a great title for an elegant book, authored by feminist historian Marie Grace Brown. The book’s focus on the meanings of Sudanese women’s body wrap (taub or tobe) brought back some of my cherished childhood memories. When my grandmother, Sitana, took me with her to our village in Korti, at the bend of River Nile in northern Sudan, I was excited about the adventure of taking the train and the ferry for the first time in my life. What I remember most is our return at night. For a young girl, this was the first chance to venture out of the confines of one of Khartoum’s neighbourhoods. The glittering lights of the city, my grandmother’s intimate grasp of my little hand, and the colour of her humble blue and white striped taub remain with me to this day.
Khartoum at Night ignited these intimate memories but does more by providing a multi-layered history of how Sudanese women refashion a modern perspective of [End Page 974] public engagement to insert themselves into the politics of the city and the nation. This is not the sort of story that one would read in the pages of The New York Times’ fashion section, like the one that celebrated the activism of Alaa Salah, who became the iconic image of the Sudanese revolution that toppled president Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. Indeed, the image of the young Sudanese activist, wearing a white taub and adorned with Nubian jewellery, grabbed people’s attention. It made the Sudanese revolution more visible in a world plagued by so many distractions. But the story of Alaa and her white taub could benefit from a deep analysis of the long history of women’s activism in Sudan that Khartoum at Night closely examines.
This accessible book, supported by archival material and thorough interviews, offers a fresh perspective on how the taub carries in its entangled threads valuable historical knowledge told by Sudanese women themselves. These ‘body stories’ urge the reader to value textile as text as women narrate the shifts in the history of Sudan and their place in it. Body wraps come in different colours, patterns and styles, and each one of them marks important historical changes that women commented on through their taub naming practice. Whether it is the ‘Post Office Pen’, ‘Asia and Africa’, the ‘Russian Satellite’ or my grandmother’s humble body wrap, taub names tell myriad stories of women’s involvement in the making and remaking of history. Cotton exported from Sudan came back in taubs of varied quality manufactured in Manchester (and elsewhere) during colonial times. These taubs later encompassed novel ideas and political vocabularies that defy static constructions of womanhood. They speak to global transformations that have long defined the boundaries of colonizer/colonized and engendered new perceptions of gender, class and national belonging in Sudan’s changing landscapes.
The story of the white body wrap, like the one worn by Alaa, the idol of the Sudanese revolution, is part of this entangled history of colonialism, modernity and change in Sudan. It marked the emergence of a new class of educated Sudanese women who entered the new medical domain of midwifery and caregiving embedded in the British notion of the civilizing mission, and who just, and on occasion, visited ‘the post office to send a letter to a friend’. But beyond the emerging professional publics for women in Sudan, the taub also serves as a symbolic gesture in other intimate social spaces: it denotes difference among age categories and cements romantic and marital relations in the form of bridewealth and other kinds of gift-giving.
Khartoum at Night details these myriad meanings in five chapters, four of which bear the name of a fashionable body wrap in its title. The first three chapters of the...