The Camel’s Crooked Neck – a Sudanese Proverb

 

Camels in Dar Kababish

Camels in Dar Kababish

 

الجَمل ما بشوف عوجة رقبته

 

aj jamal ma bishuuf ‘awajat ragabtu.

The camel does not see the bend of its neck.

This proverb is said about people who are very good at condemning others while ignoring their own faults and mistakes.

 

 

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A Sudanese Proverb With A Tale

شِن قطعك يا راس

shin gaTa’ik ya raas.

Oh head, what cut you?

When words are many, sin is not absent, and he who holds his tongue is sometimes wise. One has to be wise in what one says and how you say it. Sometimes it is better to keep silent. This saying has a story behind it:

 

There was an Arab who was travelling on his donkey in the desert. On his way, he found a skeleton. Motivated by his curiosity, he got off his donkey to investigate it. He found that the head had become separated from its body. 

“Glorification is to God!” He murmured to himself in surprise. As he went closer to the skull lying close to the skeleton he asked: “Who cut you head?”

The skull jumped from its place and answered: “It is my tongue that cut me!”

The Arab was filled with horror. So he repeated the same question many times and the skull gave him the same answer every time.

Now as this Arab was not a sober or self-possessed person, he rushed back to his village straight to the mayor’s house. There he found the mayor with all the village notables around him, and without pausing for breath he told them the whole story of the beheaded skeleton. They started to giggle sarcastically at what he said and the Malik rebuked him. Instead of leaving the mayor’s council meeting, he was persistent and insisted on the mayor and the others  follow him back to the skeleton’s place in the desert.

Because of the Arab’s boldness in asking, the mayor and his council agreed to follow. The mayor threatened and said: “By divorce. If I find out what you have said is not true, I will behead you like the skeleton you have seen.”

When they reached the place, the Arab asked the skull: “Oh head, what cut you?”

But to his bad luck the skull did not move or answer. He repeated the question many times, but still he got no answer. The mayor’s blood boiled in his veins and he felt that his reputation had been ruined for following such a mentally deranged man. He beheaded the Arab and went back with his men to the village… but before they moved further, the skull jumped of its place towards the head of the Arab which was still bleeding and said to it: “Didn’t I tell you that my tongue cut me?!”

Two villages by moonlight

While collecting Sudanese folktales it has always struck me how many references there are to the jinn and evil spirits. This traveller’s tale by my husband describes a trek he made through the Jabal Marra mountains shortly before the eruption of the Darfur conflict in 2003. He believes that the strange episode in this story was entirely in his imagination, but I’m not so sure…

“When some of the merchants in the market at Nyala heard that I was going to hike through the mountains alone they expressed concern. “There are lions, leopards and goodness knows what else!” they warned in dark tones. And as it happened, there was a reason later on to remember their warning.”

“Several days into my trek, I reached the floor of the Deriba crater under the ridge of the Jebel Marra mountain. Here horses grazed on the pasture while a troop of baboons entertained me with their quick agility on the steep mountainsides. In the middle of the crater was a salt lake that according to legend would suck into its depths any bird that flew above it. Inwardly I had scoffed at the tale recounted in a geographical article written by British officers who were the first to climb Jebel Marra after the 1916 invasion. However, as I watched the tranquil scene, I noticed that strangely enough there were no birds amongst the trees on the crater’s floor, nor soaring above the rocky mountainsides.

Moving down the mountain, I came to a series of hot sulphur springs next to which I relaxed for some time until the golden rays of late afternoon sunshine warned me that dusk was approaching. I had planned to spend the night at the village of Quaila but according to my map, which was entirely in Russian, it was still some distance away.” “Surprisingly, I was not perturbed at the thought of being benighted on an African mountain despite the chill of the evening air. Surely this is why I had come to Africa in the first place – for an adventure! With the last rays of sunlight, I saw a brown hare scurrying away while from further off came the haunting cry of a jackal. I watched a line of feral donkeys filing their way down into a ravine, their eyes glowing fluorescently in the gathering gloom. Following them, I came to a salt encrusted marsh that I squelched my way across before scrambling up the valley’s side and onto a plateau.”

“Here I saw in the moonlight a row of African houses surrounded by thorn hedges. There was no light coming from any of them so I decided to walk along the settlement’s perimeter in the hope that someone would come out and greet me. To my astonishment, the place was deserted without even the bark or snarl from one of the ferocious dogs that usually guard the Fur homesteads. As I walked back, I began to feel more and more uneasy. Turning round at last I saw that the houses had disappeared! All that now stood in their place were some thorny shrubs…”

“Fortunately, I did find the path down to Quaila, and a couple of hours later found myself standing in the middle of the deserted market place. From the middle of the village I could hear the merriment of a wedding celebration. If there was ever an occasion to gate crash a party, I felt that this was it, especially after my “hallucinations” earlier that evening. Within minutes, I had been seated around a blazing fire and a bowl of warm broth placed in my hands. Afterwards I rolled out my sleeping bag and stared at the stars that looked like jewels in the black night’s sky. Around the flickering fire a sufi chant had begun “la ilaah illa allaah!, la ilaah illa allaah!” (There is no God but God!). I hope that they don’t keep that going all night I thought to myself but within minutes I was lost to the world in the luxurious sleep of the exhausted. My warm reception that night was typical. The rural people of the Sudan justly deserve their reputation for great hospitality. There were numerous times when they offered me, a foreigner and chance-met traveller, a meal or bed for the night.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget those two very different villages that I encountered one moonlit night in the Jabal Marra mountains.”

(a traveller’s tale by Edmund Wyatt)