Reckoning with colonialism: The British conquered my country — and built my school

My father was a devout Bedouin Muslim who hated British rule — but loved many of the things they left behind

Published September 18, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

The author (left) with his father and son, on a visit to his native village in Sudan, circa 2000. (Courtesy of Mohammad Ali Salih)
The author (left) with his father and son, on a visit to his native village in Sudan, circa 2000. (Courtesy of Mohammad Ali Salih)

I am an 80-year-old Sudanese-American journalist who has lived in Washington, D.C., since 1980. I'm now finishing the first draft of a long memoir about my journey from a small Muslim village to the capital of American democracy. The death of Queen Elizabeth II took me back to the first khawajat (white people) I ever saw in my village, around 1950: They were a British administrator and his wife, during the last years of Britain's half-century colonial rule of Sudan.

Whereas the husband, a symbol of Western power, and the wife, a symbol of Western beauty, were looked at as kuffar (infidels) who came from a faraway place, they also gained respected for visiting the elementary school, the post office and the "hospital" (actually a clinic), all facilities that the British had built and maintained. That's not to ignore the Nile River shipping network, one of whose craft had brought the couple to our village.

So begins my mixed reckoning about colonialism — and my father's.

My dad was a pious Bedouin who died 12 years ago. He had graduated from the village's Quranic school, known as a khalwa (or madrasa, a term more familiar to Westerners). He was able to write letters and read the Quran and other religious books. But he used to tell me: "Ya rait konta zaiyak" ("I wish I was like you"), because I got to study at the elementary school built by the British.

He was fascinated with the British, and nicknamed me —the eldest of his 15 sons and daughters — "Grainfeel," mixing an Arabic term for an elephant's tusk with Greenfield, the name of a local British administrator.

His gifts to my mother when they were married was a British-made kerosene pressurized portable stove and a kerosene lamp, a considerable upgrade over the wood-fired stove and oil lamp made of clay used by most villagers. 

A few years later, he bought a British-made battery-powered radio, partly to listen to Quranic recitation and explanation, but also to hear news from Sudanese radio and the BBC's Arabic-language service. About 20 years after that, he took his first haj — the pilgrimage to Mecca — aboard a British Airways de Havilland Comet, the world's first commercial jet airliner.

It was local British health officials who had given him a job as a health worker when he deserted his Bedouin ancestors' profession of rearing camels and carrying local goods. But for that matter, his father also had his British connection: He had signed contracts with colonial postal officers to deliver local mail with his camels.

Not to disappoint him, I excelled in that elementary school. To this day, old friends tease me about what my profession would have been if the British hadn't build that school. Their unanimous answer: a camel herder, in the steps of my Bedouin ancestors.

I proceeded to Wadi Seidna Secondary School, a boarding school near the capital city of Khartoum, which had also been built by the British and was known as "Eton on the Nile," after the famous English "public school."

The British also built my alma mater, the University of Khartoum, which was originally known as Gordon Memorial College, and included Kitchener Medical School. Those names loomed large in Sudan's colonial history.

The British built the university I attended in Khartoum — which was originally named for a colonial administrator killed by Islamist militants.

Charles Gordon was the de facto British ruler of Sudan in 1885, when a Taliban-like Islamist movement known as the Mahdists defeated several British armies, entered Khartoum and killed him. They controlled most of Sudan until 1898, when Horatio Herbert Kitchener, leading a massive multinational force known as the Anglo-Egyptian Army, led a methodical assault up the Nile River to Khartoum, ultimately toppling the Mahdists and beginning half a century of British rule.

For all my father's respect for the British achievements in Sudan, he joined the nationalist movement that ended British rule. Like many other such movements in Muslim countries colonized by Western powers, it was largely inspired by Islam. This wasn't only because the Western rulers were infidels. My father believed he was also following the Quran's call for Muslims to fight aggression. He used to repeat the Quranic verse that promises: "Those who are inflicted by injustice shall win."

Unlike French colonialism, which largely sought to assimilate Muslims in the countries it ruled, the British mostly advocated "self-rule," whereby local Muslims would rule themselves — with benevolent oversight from London, of course. French colonialism was also often more violent, as in Algeria, where perhaps a million Algerians were killed in the struggle for independence that ended in 1962.  

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In Sudan, as in other Muslim British colonies, there were relatively few military confrontations. The British left behind not only their schools, hospitals and railways, but at least the idea of democratic self-government. For many painful historical reasons, in most of those former colonies, including Sudan, Nigeria and Uganda, democracy didn't survive for long.

Long before the word "reckoning" had become commonplace in America, I visited my father in Sudan for the last time, a few years before his death. My son was with me. (You can see the three of us in the photo above.) My father was almost 90 years old at the time. I asked him about his early life and how he reconciled his attitude toward the British koffar with his appreciation for their products and the infrastructure they had built.

(I had in mind my own dilemma in America: trying to reconcile my village-rooted Islam with my current life in the greatest free country in history.)

My father answered: "Madam fi khidmat Al-Islam" (Roughly, as long as those products served Islam, they were a good thing.) He regrets about the British he summarized as: "Bas iza kano bigo Muslimeen" — if only they had become Muslims.

My father's reckoning with British colonialism was, of course, influenced by the Quran. I often heard him repeat the verse: "Wa in janaho ila alsilm fa ajnah laho" — if they, meaning non-Muslims, resort to peace, do the same.

Years later, near the end of his life, my father viewed the British legacy with tolerance: "If only they had become Muslims," he told me.

In 2010, when I returned to the village to attend my father's funeral, I wanted to find out about local people's attitude toward a more recent form Western aggression on Muslims: the U.S.-led "war on terror" that followed the 9/11 attacks. I attended a Jum'ah, or Friday prayer service, in the same mosque where my father used to take me as a child, holding his hand.

The imam's sermon that day was full of harsh against the "infidel" Americans, and promised them a final destination in the fierce fires of hell. After he finished, I saw a man who looked to be a local farmer approach him and ask: "Laih al-nar lay Al-Amrikan? Leh ma tad'o laihom bi al-hidaya?" (Why call upon God to throw the Americans in hellfire? Why not call upon him to guide them to be just?)

The current American reckoning with our nation's racial past, and the debate since the queen's death about reckoning with the British colonial past, whether in Africa, South Asia, the West Indies or the Middle East, seems to miss an important point: What reckoning do we mean? The negative, the positive or both?

In Kenya, a former British colony, opinions on Queen Elizabeth have varied widely, from those who talk about the bloody British suppression of the Mau Mau revolt during the early 1950s to those who talk about the British legacy of democracy — not to forget establishing all the schools, hospitals, universities and other features of a modern state. A few days before the queen's death, Kenya, for the tenth time, voted in a new president. It was a tightly contested election that was mostly free and fair — something that is still a rarity in Africa.

In America, amid the mourning over Queen Elizabeth's death among fans of the royal family, other opinions began to be heard. Major newspapers have featured headlines like: "We must speak the ugly truths about the queen," "Queen Elizabeth ll's death recalls pain of British colonialism" and "Cloud of colonialism hangs over Queen Elizabeth's death." An African-American professor at Carnegie Mellon University, in a tweet, wished the queen an "excruciating death" — and boasted that she would not be fired for it.

We value freedom of speech as a core American principle, of course. All the same, my father would have recited a few verses from the Quran about the importance of moderation, forgiveness and reconciliation.

By Mohammad Ali Salih

Mohammad Ali Salih has been a Washington correspondent for Arabic-language publications in the Middle East since 1980.

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