Sudan's `Islamic Renaissance'

The West sees a haven for Muslim extremists, but the image of a harsh Islamic dictatorship doesn't quite fit - a letter from Khartoum

ESPECIALLY during Ramadan, the month-long Muslim fast that ended last week, a lot of people in Khartoum spend a lot of time sitting on the dusty sidewalks or by the banks of the Nile doing not very much. Among them, though, are a class of petty entrepreneurs who are more purposeful than they look.

They are known as shamaze in Arabic, "sunners," because they sit in the sun all day. But if you know how to recognize them, they can lay their hands on goods for you that the average citizen cannot acquire.

Gasoline, for example. Critically short of foreign exchange, the Sudanese government is having trouble buying oil, and car owners are rationed to two gallons a week. Up the street from most gas stations, however, or around the back, you can usually find someone who will take your money - four times the official price - walk off with your jerrycan to his friend at the pump, and come back with as much gas as you need.

The government knows about this, of course, and every so often a truckload of plainclothes security men will drive up to haul away anyone filling illegal jerrycans. But with inflation and economic hardships fueling popular discontent, the authorities seem to have concluded that the black market serves as a useful safety valve.

The nature of the Sudanese authorities is not easy to discern. Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir came to power in a military coup almost four years ago, in June 1989, and many key government officials are also Army officers. Others are earnest young revolutionaries with strong Islamic strains who appear genuinely to believe that their vision of a popular direct democracy, unencumbered by political parties, independent of the West, and strictly based on the edicts of the Koran, can serve as a model for the A rab world.

It is not a model that the Christian and animist people of the south have any faith in, however, after suffering bitterly at the hands of Khartoum's Army over the last 10 years of civil war, and opposition figures who have fallen afoul of the ever-watchful secret police have their doubts, too.

But Sudan's image as a harsh Islamic dictatorship, imposed by fanatical mullahs in consort with Iran, does not exactly fit either. The regime's "eminence grise," Hassan al-Turabi, is no Ayatollah Khomeini. Urbane, charming, and immensely well-read, he presents the kinder, gentler face of Islamic fundamentalism - which he prefers to call the Islamic renaissance - and enjoys debating American and European academics.

But those scholars are not always convinced by his suave, open style, and US officials make no bones about their fears that Sudan offers safe haven to such enemies of the West as the radical Palestinian leader Abu Nidal, and the Iranian-backed Hizbullah (Party of God). Whether this amounts to exporting Islamic terrorism, a perennial charge against Sudan, is not so clear. But one surprising export from a country threatened by famine on the scale of Somalia is food.

Encouraged by the government's efforts to boost self-sufficiency, Sudanese farmers harvested a bumper crop of sorghum last year - so much, in fact, that Khartoum sent food aid to Somalia and began to take advantage of a special trade deal with the European Community to export sorghum duty-free to Europe.

The harvest underlined Sudan's long unfulfilled potential as the breadbasket of Africa, but also served as a cruel reminder of how the denial of food to the citizens of the war-ravaged south has been used as a weapon by both government and rebel forces. Angry at seeing their market flooded by cheap Sudanese sorghum at the same time they were funding food aid for southern Sudanese, European governments persuaded Khartoum to release another 150,000 tons onto the domestic market at the end of last year.

The goal of self-sufficiency that the Sudanese government has set for itself, of autarchy and independent development, seems a distant dream in a country that has long been dependent on foreign aid. But in one respect, the Sudanese have turned the tables on the West.

In Khartoum's souk, amid stalls full of cheap imported clothes, tired-looking vegetables, and simple handmade footwear, one shady arcade is carpeted with strings of colored beads. Some are locally made, from wood or clay or stone, but a few - intricately patterned in red, blue, and yellow - come from another world.

They are the notorious trading beads manufactured by the thousands in Venetian glassworks that European traders once obliged Africans to take in pitiful recompense for slaves, cacao, or any other resource they fancied.

Today, as foreigners browse in the market, the natives are selling the beads to the white man.

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