Siting Sudaneseness: territory, practice, and identity in aragi.

Author:Curley, Bjorn


The word "aragi" refers to a type of crude, distilled alcoholic drink brewed by Sudanese people throughout Sudan and bordering countries as well as in smaller Sudanese communities around the world. To the people of Sudan residing in neighbouring Egypt, however, aragi is more than a simple beverage; it is a cultural artifact whose value lies in its material and empirical embeddedness in social practice. This paper investigates the symbolic role that aragi plays in the production of identity among displaced Sudanese living in Cairo, Egypt. For Sudanese migrants in Egypt, aragi acts as a signifier, both linguistic and cultural, of their identity. This migrant identity is inhabited and generated through various practices involving aragi, within the social, spatial, and material spheres. In Egypt, Sudanese identity and aragi (as a cultural object) are ethnographically observed to be contextually and semiotically bound through their mutual signification in the word "aragi." Herein, I will explore how the word "aragi" reflects and articulates social domains of inclusion and exclusion within ah identity construed as distinctly Sudanese.


L'> est une sorte boisson alcoolisee distillee grossiere, brassee par des personnes soudanaises a travers le Soudan et les pays limitrophes ainsi que dans des petites communautes soudanaises dans le monde entier. Pour les Soudanais residant en Egypte voisine, cependant, l'aragi est plus qu'une simple boisson, cest un artefact culturel dont la valeur reside dans son ancrage materiel et empirique dans la pratique sociale. Le present article examine le role symbolique que joue l'aragi dans la production de l'identite chez les Soudanais deplaces qui vivent au Caire. Pour les migrants soudanais en Egypte, l'aragi est un signifiant, a la fois linguistique et culturel, de leur identite. Cette identite migrante est habitee et generee par les differentes pratiques impliquant l'aragi dans les spheres sociales, spatiales et materielles. En Egypte, on observe ethnographiquement la liaison contextuelle et semiotique entre l'identite soudanaise et l'aragi (en tant qu'objet culturel) a travers leur signification mutuelle dans le mot > L'auteur etudie ici comment le mot > reflete et exprime des domaines sociaux d'inclusion et d'exclusion au sein d'une identite consideree comine nettement soudanaise.


Dotted throughout Cairo, Egypt are places where "aragi," a crude form of distilled alcohol indigenous to Sudan, can be found. These places are typically rented flats in which aragi is produced, sold, and consumed. Aragi is familiar, and often dear, to people from throughout Sudan. Egyptians, on the other hand, tend to regard aragi, which they call "arag," with disinterest if not disdain. Many Egyptians describe aragi as they would describe something alien, distasteful, or immoral. Furthermore, Egyptian authorities view aragi with suspicion and, occasionally, hostility. After all, aragi is unlicensed alcohol and is thus illegal in Egypt.

Indeed, as the Sudanese of Cairo well know, brewing aragi in Egypt is not without its dangers. The production, sale, and consumption of this beverage are therefore treated by aragi's patrons with great discretion and respect. (1)

The anthropological significance of aragi lies in its artifactual quality as a cultural object. As a material form empirically embedded in Sudanese social life, the role of aragi can be ethnographically invoked and observed to articulate something about displaced Sudanese migrants in Cairo. (2) My assertion in this paper is that aragi is more than "just" an alcoholic substance: I intend to "reveal what a material, which is so mundane as to be taken for granted, is actually doing in social terms," (3) as Miller puts it.

To this effect, the semiotic character of the word "aragi" in the context of Sudanese social life in Egypt is instrumental. Upon analytical breakdown, the word "aragi," when articulated in this context, will be seen to correspond metaphorically to actual social and spatial demarcations. This correspondence effectively signifies in the referent, aragi, a potent symbol situated at the core of the activities and practices taking place within those particular demarcations. Therein, aragi takes on a symbolic role in the process of identity construction through social practice. (The work of F. Barth's Ethnic Groups and Boundaries provides a formative framework on the relationship between symbolism, identity, and practice relevant to the remainder of this discussion.) (4) The precise significance of "aragi" will be demonstrated in the following pages.

While the theoretical range of this paper is wide, its scope is not carved out to accommodate a substantive theoretical inquiry into any particular area, nor a critical examination of subjects such as "identity" or "displacement." Ultimately, this paper draws loosely on various broad notions, exemplifying the suggestion that there are observable correlations between semiotics, symbolism, space, and identity at the most mundane levels of social experience.

On a general level, this paper explores the significance of material objects as symbols, and their relation to processes of identity formation under explicit circumstances. Specifically, it seeks to illustrate the value of the former exercise by revealing the symbolic role of a particular cultural object in the construction of identity among displaced Sudanese in Egypt.

Ethnographic Context

This paper is the result of a thesis written towards the completion of a Master of Arts in sociology-anthropology at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, in 2002. Titled "Aragi: An Ethnography of Sudanese Displacement," the thesis was a comparative study of aragi's role in the social, cultural, and economic experiences of Sudanese communities in Egypt and Uganda. These communities are largely comprised of those forcibly displaced by Sudan's long civil war of 1983-2005, but also include some opportunistic social and economic migrants. Ethnographic research was conducted utilizing a long list of "research participants," which included Sudanese migrants and refugees, various members of host communities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and government officials. This list was broken down with as much parity as possible along lines of age, gender, religion, and ethnicity.

The study placed heavy emphasis on the significance of aragi in relation to identity construction, as ethnographically observed in Cairo and Uganda. Following the completion of the thesis, further fieldwork was carried out in Cairo, adding depth to the original investigation. Subsequent concerted fieldwork was conducted in 2005 with the help of Sudanese research assistants and my Sudanese research partners (some of whom were insiders to the aragi scene and were granted greater access into Cairo's physical spaces of aragi that I, as a non-Sudanese person, would have been). Information was gathered through participant observation in the form of open-ended interviews using a set of predetermined questions, which were memorized and recorded as "head notes" in order to minimize the perception of an ethnographic "gaze." However, the research-based intent of the exercise was always made explicit and participant-consent was granted upon the researchers' assurance of total anonymity.

In accordance with the established terms of ethnographic practice, aragi is considered an ethnographic "site," which I paraphrase to be a location, social group, practice, object, or process that serves as a thematic anchor from which to develop social analysis. As such, aragi is immediately situated because it is always part of a social context. Social life cannot be conveyed without context. But, nor can context alone, however interesting it is, be conveyed for its own sake (lest it negate its own meaning as a word). Context is something that only appears, only comes into being, through the object of focus that it accommodates. The context that surfaces during a study of aragi is an effect of focusing on aragi. It is my conscious intention to regard this context through aragi as the very "site" to seize for this study as aragi is only anthropologically interesting insofar as it has social context. And if aragi can only be registered as something socially interesting through its context, then it is indeed the social context that is of...

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