You may also like
The Beja people are a distinct social and cultural ethnic group in Sudan and Egypt that have suffered from neglect and marginalisation.
Yousef M. Sharqawi
The Beja people are a distinct social and cultural ethnic group in Sudan and Egypt. The Beja possess a unique cultural identity and hold a significant historical presence. They constitute the most extensive non-Arab ethnic group inhabiting the regions that stretch from the Red Sea to the Nile.
As articulated by the researcher Masoud Shoman in his book Folk Poetry in Beja Society, Beja culture encompasses a framework of values, customs and traditions, as well as various forms of artistic expression such as prose, poetry, dance, visual arts and music.
Furthermore, “the Beja language is celebrated for its richness, featuring diverse linguistic structures, phrasing methods and aesthetics.
The Beja people are one of the primary ethnic groups within Sudan’s intricate societal framework. Their present homeland spans from the region between the Red Sea in the east to the Nile River in the west. Geographically, their territory encompasses the northern slopes of the Ethiopian Highlands in the south and extends northward to Aswan, Egypt.
As of the early 21st century, the Beja population numbered approximately 1.9 million individuals. However, according to the most recent official population census in 2008, the Beja people account for roughly 10 per cent of Sudan’s total population, approximately 45 million at the time, equating to around 4 million Beja individuals.
Historians hold varying perspectives regarding the origins of the Beja people. Nevertheless, some sources indicate a lineage tracing back to Cush, a descendant of Ham (son of Noah). These ancestral Beja people purportedly migrated to the Beja’s current locale following Noah’s flood, as noted in Andrew Paul’s book, A History of the Beja Tribes of the Sudan.
Several Arab historians concur with Paul’s assertions. For example, Ali bin al-Hussein al-Masoudi, in his work Muruj al-Dhahab wa Maadin al-Jawhar, mentions that the Beja people “settled between the Bahr al-Qulzum [the Red Sea] and the Nile of Egypt. They were divided into groups and appointed a king to govern them. Their land is known for its deposits of gold and emerald.” It is worth mentioning that this account corresponds to the description given by Ibn Battuta during his visit to the Beja’s lands.
A conflicting perspective suggests an origin closely tied to ancient Egypt. Proponents of this interpretation uphold their claim based on the Beja people’s physical attributes and their linguistic characteristics. They contend that these features suggest the Beja as the indigenous inhabitants of the region, who, throughout their history, have interacted with and assimilated into various cultures and civilisations, including those of the Arabs, Romans, Greeks and Turks.
The Beja people are organised into four main tribes, each presided over by a leader known as a “Nather.” These tribes are the Bisharis, Amarar, Hadendoa and Beni Amer, as detailed in the book Peoples and Tribes of Northern Sudan.
According to this book, authored by Muhammad Awad Muhammad, the Beja people primarily communicate using an Afroasiatic language known as Bidhaawyeet or Tubdhaawi, which falls within the Cushitic linguistic branch.
Notably, the southern Beja tribes, including the Beni Amer and a few neighbouring tribes, speak a different language called Tigre (also spelt Tigré), which belongs to the Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic family. This language is prevalent in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia.
Additionally, a considerable proportion of the Beja population can speak Arabic. Some Beja claim Arab ancestry. The Beja people maintain a lineage document that traces their lineage back to the Quraysh, a prominent Arabian tribe.
The Dictionary of Colloquial Dialect in Sudan, by Awn al-Sharif Qasim, includes vocabulary from the Beja language. An example is “Kahnoub,” signifying love or adoration. In expressions of affection, a Beja individual might convey their feelings by saying “Ikhan.”
Older Than Ancient Egyptian
Sheikh Muhammad Taher Sadu, a prominent Beja leader in the Halaib Triangle, stated that the Beja language predates the Ancient Egyptian language, which he suggests might have been derived from Beja. He further explains that the term “Beja” has an Arabic connotation, meaning “fighters” or the “fighters of the Pharaohs.” Additionally, Sheikh Sadu asserts that the Beja people were the first to refer to Egypt as “Egyp Hash,” meaning “Copts.”
Sheikh Sadu also claims that the word “Pharaoh” is pronounced as “Pharaians” in the Beja language, denoting “Our Great Father.” Similarly, he suggests that “Nefertiti” has Beja origins, her name meaning “beautiful twin.”
Sheikh Sadu claims that all ancient Egyptian names are rooted in the Beja language, citing “Haman,” the vizier of the Pharaoh mentioned in the Quran, as an example. According to his interpretation, “Haman” derives from the term “ham-an,” signifying a request for a specific action, akin to saying, “Do such and such.”
Sheikh Sadu also believes that some countries’ names have Beja origins, an example of which is Palestine. In Beja, its root can be traced back to “philsit,” which conveys the meaning of a narrow passage in Arabic.
The book The Great Tribes of Sudan mentions that, in Beja culture, when a child is born, the entrance to the mother’s house is lit up in celebration for 40 days. At seven years of age, a Beja child is deemed eligible to become a shepherd and receives a dagger. Upon reaching 15, which signifies maturity, they are armed with a sword.
During Beja marriage ceremonies, a red veil is placed on the groom’s head as he enters his tent, which is set up in the vicitiny of the bride’s family home. Once the veil is removed, his companions gather to circle the tent, striking it with sticks while chanting praises and expressions of joy. It is common for the groom’s friends to playfully dismantle parts of the tent.
In response, the groom “flees” to the home of his or his wife’s relative to spend the night. He spends each night thereafter at a different family member’s house. As the groom leaves in the morning, the relative will offer a gift, typically a goat or sheep. This custom continues for a month or two, during which the husband remains separated from his wife. He then returns to her with the gifts to start their life together.
The status of women is rooted in the Beja’s ancient faith and veneration of the goddess Isis. This is particularly notable in terms of their ability to halt conflicts between tribes by passing through the battlefield.
Additionally, Beja culture commemorates famous figures like the renowned horsewoman Todai, the commander of the Beja warrior group that broke the English square in the battle of Tamai against British troops in 1884.
The Beja in Kipling’s Poem
In the verses, the British poet praises the Beja warriors, recounting tales of their robustness and exceptional abilities. He further praises the Beja people’s fearlessness and distinctive fighting style, something hitherto unfamiliar to British soldiers. The opening lines of Kipling’s poem read:
We’ve fought with many men acrost the seas,
An’ some of ’em was brave an’ some was not:
The Paythan [Pashtuns] an’ the Zulu an’ Burmese;
But the Fuzzy [a derogatory term for Beja warriors used by British colonial soldiers] was the finest o’ the lot.
So ‘ere’s ~to~ you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan;
In the second stanza, Kipling adds:
Then ‘ere’s ~to~ you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ the missis and the kid;
Our orders was to break you, an’ of course we went an’ did.
We sloshed you with Martinis [rifles], an’ it wasn’t ‘ardly fair;
But for all the odds agin’ you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square [a military combat formation].
Indeed, Kipling’s words reflect the Beja people’s notable martial prowess.
Numerous works by orientalists and historians have been dedicated to the Beja people. Muhammad Salih Dirar’s The History of Eastern Sudan, the Beja Kingdoms, Their Tribes, and Their History is one of these publications. Additionally, Andrew Paul of the Sudan Political Service authored the book A History of the Beja Tribes of the Sudan. Both writings contribute to an understanding of the Beja people and their historical legacy.
During Omar al-Bashir’s rule in Sudan, which spanned nearly three decades, the Beja language, culture and music suffered suppression. In response, some Beja musicians have sought to rejuvenate their cultural heritage through music. One such musician is Nour al-Din Atta al-Mawla Jaber, aka Noori, whose album Beja Power is particularly significant.
The Beja inherited the Basankob musical instrument, which plays a significant role in accompanying their traditional dances, the Hossiet dance in particular.
In his research on Beja rhythm, Dr Muhammad Adam Suleiman Trneen pointed out the intrinsic connection between Beja music and the Basankob. This connection arises from the lack of other musical instruments capable of producing similar sounds.
Consequently, the Beja have relied on it as the primary instrument to accompany songs and the performance of musical compositions. The Basankob has five strings. Therefore, it operates on a pentatonic scale.
Political History and Calls for Secession
The Beja people have suffered substantially from neglect and marginalisation. Efforts to secure political representation and address this marginalisation in Sudan date back to the late 1950s. The endeavours came to fruition in the organisation of the first Beja conference under the leadership of Taha Osman Bileya.
Subsequently, as part of this initiative, a political party led by Bileya and Muhammad al-Saeed Idris and composed of leftist activists was established.
At present, several political parties, including the al-Sharq Party, the Popular Front Party and the Democratic al-Sharq Party, represent the Beja community. Additionally, several federal parties – e.g. the National Unionist Party – favour the continued integration of the Beja regions within Sudan.
Abbas Saleh, a researcher specialising in African affairs, underscores that the Beja people’s demands and challenges have been present since the end of the colonial era, remaining relevant throughout the tenures of subsequent governments.
In recent developments, at the end of 2022, the Supreme Council of the Beja Tribes announced the establishment of self-government in eastern Sudan. Through the declaration, the council conveyed it would recognise neither the Khartoum government nor any other authority trying to control the region’s wealth and resources.