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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel

In Darfur

Muḥammad al-Tūnisī

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To purchase In Darfur

Title: In Darfur
Author: Muḥammad al-Tūnisī
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1845 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 219 + 253 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: In Darfur: volumes one and two - US
In Darfur: volumes one and two - UK
In Darfur: volumes one and two - Canada
  • An Account of the Sultanate and Its People
  • Arabic title: تشحيذ الأذهان بسيرة بلاد العرب والسودان
  • This edition published in two volumes
  • This is a bilingual edition, with the Arabic text printed facing the English translation
  • With a Foreword by R.S. O'Fahey
  • Edited and translated, and with an Introduction, by Humphrey Davies
  • First published in Nicolas Perron's French translation, Voyage au Darfour in 1845; Arabic text first published 1850
  • Previously translated as Travels of an Arab merchant in Soudan by Bayle St. John (1854)

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Our Assessment:

B : something of a ragbag mix, but lots of interest and parts nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       In Darfur arose out of Muḥammad al-Tūnisī sharing his stories of his travels to Darfur with a colleague and student, Nicolas Perron ((1797-1876; "the most brilliant man of his day in keenness of mind and understanding, the brightest of his age in industry and knowledge", al-Tūnisī lauds him in the book's Preamble), using them in al-Tūnisī's Arabic-lessons for the Frenchman. Perron published a French translation (in 1845), and then also the original Arabic version (in 1850).
       Muḥammad al-Tūnisī was born into a scholarly family in Tunis. His father left the family, and eventually wound up in Darfur (where he was: "regarded by the sultan as a very great man"); when the teenage al-Tūnisī found an opportunity to travel to visit him he did so. In Darfur is both an account of his trip, and a collection of observations and information about Darfur -- almost a gazetteer.
       A Foreword by R.S. O'Fahey provides a helpful introduction to and overview of Darfur and its history (to present times), while translator Davies' Introduction focuses more on the context of the book and the two men responsible for it -- as the intriguing Perron in various ways helped shape the text (not to mention brought it to a wider European public).
       The two-volume division of the book, as published in the Library of Arabic Literature edition, is sensible. The first volume contains the Prolomegnon, its three chapters consisting of al-Tūnisī's accounts of the background to his journey and then the journey itself, as well as a history of Sultan ʿAbd al-Raḥmān. The second volume consists of 'the book proper', three chapters describing various aspects of Darfur and and its people, as well as a fourth covering everything from the local fauna to the geomancy practiced there.
       Al-Tūnisī's account of 'The Reasons That Led To My Journey' presents some interesting family background, while 'The Journey' then covers the actual travelling, and his reunion with his long-absent father. Al-Tūnisī gets generous support from those who have high regard for his father -- including a falsely accused man who tells al-Tūnisī that, but for the intercession of al-Tūnisī's father: "I would have lost my life and all my money".
       The description of the journey here is quite interesting, with its details of the places, provisions, and logistics, if also a bit quick in its succession of events -- but al-Tūnisī goes into the more interesting greater detail in 'The Book Proper'. There, he discusses what he saw and encountered as he presents a Darfur-overview more thematically organized, beginning with the area's varied geography. There are a variety of illustrations to go with the text, including of many specific objects, and al-Tūnisī also has a go of making a detailed map of Darfur -- though acknowledging its inadequacy, due also to: "my ignorance of drawing and the small paper size". (A footnote reveals Perron's more blunt assessment of al-Tūnisī's attempt: "The shaykh had no idea of what a map was".) A later blueprint of the sultan's court and the capital is more impressive.
       There are also more episodes and anecdotes from the journey proper in this second part of the book, including light-skinned Arab al-Tūnisī's encounter with a group that: "refuse to accept that a man can be white or ruddy-complexioned" (and whose hypotheses about him worryingly include: "He isn't a man, he's an edible animal in the form of a man"). When the crowd becomes more threatening, the soldiers accompanying al-Tūnisī tell him to cover his face with a veil, leaving only his eyes exposed -- enough to confound the locals:

When the Blacks couldn't see me, because I'd veiled myself, they were puzzled and asked, "Where did the red man go ?"
       Al-Tūnisī describes the role and treatment of the head of state, the sultan, who is an unquestioned leader. Among the nice observations: how, if the sultan falls or is thrown from his horse while riding, then everyone around him immediately: "throws themselves off their horses' backs; it is unthinkable that any of them remain firmly mounted once the sultan has fallen". (And if anyone fails to do so servants immediately: "throw him off themselves and beat him severely".)
       Varying, often looser sexual mores and the different positions of women, depending on the tribe, are also considered in some depth. These also include rather detailed comparisons of female genital mutilation practices -- ranging from mild infibulation (as if it could ever be mild ...) to the truly horrific. (For gender-balance, al-Tūnisī also discusses eunuchs at considerable length and, yes, does describe the how-to of how they are gotten into that state.)
       In some places, the treatment of women and sex is much more enlightened than what al-Tūnisī is used to:
     Most of the men aren't jealous of their honor. A man will enter his house to find his wife alone with another man and not be angry, so long as he doesn't find the man on top of her.
       Forthright about the often un-Islamic sexual customs and behavior of the locals, al-Tūnisī generally manages to reasonably neutrally describe them -- but occasionally a reproving tone (and the ugly, ignorant racism of his times and culture) rises very much to the fore:
Rarely, though, is a chaste woman to be found among the Blacks, for such women -- given that they have no brain to restrain them, no fear to hold them in check, and n religion to observe -- do whatever they want.
       Al-Tūnisī also comes across unusual customs -- such as that, all other things being reasonably equal: "a woman mustn't eat in front of her husband or any other man" -- as: "for her to open her mouth and insert food into it in front of her husband is an abomination".
       From the local state of learning (he's very unimpressed by the low level) to prevalent sicknesses and the practice of medicine (more impressive: "They sew up wounds; if someone's guts come out they can even put them back in place and sew over them so that the man recovers"), al-Tūnisī ranges across both the natural and social world of Darfur. His discussion of plant life even extends to those used not just for medicinal purposes but nefarious ones as well -- including some which sound rather unreasonably complicated in their use:
     If one wants to make someone dizzy and nauseous, there are roots that are put on embers whose smoke is the captured, for example in the sleeve of a garment. This is then carefully folded and dispatched to the intended victim. The latter will then open the sleeve of the garment or the like close to his nose, the smell of the smoke of the root will fill his nose, and he will straightaway fall down, legs in the air. If not treated immediately, he will stay like that for days.
       Al-Tūnisī is rather self-confident about his own learning and abilities, taking time to criticize some of those he comes across, as in a letter from a faqīh he is given:
The Faqīh wanted to be reckoned a scholar, but committed an error and produced nonsense.
       Meanwhile, he promises already in his Preamble about his own account:
I've spared no effort to make it clear, and not gone diving after arcane words, to make it be plain to every ear.
       He's reasonably successful: the narrative jumps about in places, but most of the writing and description is straightforward, and given how much he tries to cover, he manages to navigate across all this material well. In Darfur is a bit of a melting-pot -- personal story, travel account, gazetteer, overview of local customs, historical account -- but engaging enough to still be interesting for the contemporary reader.
       At one point al-Tūnisī writes:
     The Fur have many such customs; to pursue them would be to diverge into verbosity, and so induce, among the intelligent, animosity; we have said enough.
       But he's selling himself short: his presentation is entertaining -- and the anecdotes and examples succinct enough -- that readers would surely have welcomed more as well.
       In Darfur offers an interesting glimpse of a (still) neglected part of Africa, and a surprising wealth of information. Allowances have to be made for the sometimes shocking attitude, but on the whole al-Tūnisī is agreeably unjudgmental, and provides a wealth of information (even though, of course, most of it must be treated with more than just caution; this is a not a definitive objective account of these times and people).

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 July 2018

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In Darfur: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Muḥammad al-Tūnisī lived 1790 to 1853

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