The weight of feelings: Khartoum’s revolutionary moment

The weight of feelings: Khartoum’s revolutionary moment

Image Credit: A sit-in in Khartoum. Photo by Zaher Omareen

Sara Abbas

In December 2018, Sudan was gripped by revolution. The protests started in the cities of Ad-Damazin and Atbara but soon spread to the rest of the country, reaching the capital city, Khartoum. For the months that followed, millions of Sudanese took to the streets in defiance of the Islamist-military dictatorship of Omar Al-Bashir, whose rule spanned nearly three decades. In a country where 61% of the population is under the age of twenty-five, this was a revolution of youth [1]. It was also a revolution of young women, who engaged in protest in numbers and ways hitherto unseen.

Iman Osama is from the Shambat neighborhood of Khartoum North. Like many of her generation of urbanites, who had grown up only under authoritarianism, the twenty-four-year-old was drawn to the protests. “I wasn’t politically active” she says, “I just watched things from afar. I mean, I went out in the marches, but I wasn’t politicized. I was really going out more for the sense of release, to release the many things that had accumulated inside me over the years” [2]. A pivotal moment for Iman was April 6th, 2019. On that day, after months of marches and strikes, protestors battled their way to the area in front of the Military General Command in Khartoum. Despite the tear-gas and bullets that met them, they refused to be moved. What followed was nearly two months of a sit-in which, like the city itself, grew rapidly. Cooking, barricade-building, security, education, street art and healing were only some of the activities that took place at the site. The emotional labor was also apparent. As Sara Ahmed has written, “emotions play a crucial role in the ‘surfacing’ of individual and collective bodies… [this] challenges any assumption that emotions are a private matter, that they simply belong to individuals and that they come from within and then move outwards towards others.” Rather, “emotions are not simply ‘within’ or ‘without’, but…define the contours of the multiple worlds that are inhabited by different subjects” [3].

The relationship of these bodies, both individual and collective, to the spaces they inhabit- in Iman’s case, to a city that she intimately knew but never experienced in this way, is critical. “During the revolution,” she told me, “my relationship with the city became stronger. It got heavier- the weight of the feelings between it and I. I found a Khartoum that was not the one of family, of others, of the regime, but that was mine.” While Ahmed describes emotions as being “sticky” [4], for Iman, her emotional relationship to the city became fuller, weightier, in the process of inhabiting it as part of a collective that she was not born into but actively built and nurtured with others.

On April 11th, shortly after the sit-in began, Al-Bashir was deposed and a Transitional Military Council formed to replace him. Negotiations began between this Council, populated by members of the Bashir regime, and the civilian opposition. The protests continued unabated however, calling for an end to military rule. Iman, for whom the sit-in had become a home, was unaware at first of the negotiations. Over time, as the sit-in expanded- swallowing ever larger areas of the city, Iman’s wanderings within it increased. “Most of the time I felt afraid but also safe. I remember a day when there was an attack on the protestors; I can’t remember which one exactly…. I was walking from one barricade [erected by the protestors] to the next, checking them. I was afraid all the time, but the feeling of safety was there too. I was in the right place, doing the right thing. Actually, there was nowhere else for me to be, and that made me feel safe.”

The political revolution was also a social one. The presence of women- their gendered bodies in public space outside of sanctioned hours and in such numbers, was unusual. According to Iman, her wanderings stemmed from boredom, or were a way to deal with anxiety and the desire to be useful. But the act itself of “girls” (as young women are often referred to in Sudan) walking wherever they wanted and at any time, was a political one. While women of various economic classes had taken part in Sudan’s 1964 and 1985 uprisings, spending the night at the site of protest, as Iman and many others did, was new.

Things came to a head early on June 3rd, 2019. In the days prior, there were attacks on the margins of the sit-in, at an area that the protestors called “Colombia.” Protestors at sit-ins in Darfur had been met with brutality in the weeks prior. On that Monday, just before the end of Ramadan, a campaign of terror to empty-out the Khartoum site unfolded, resulting in more than a hundred deaths. For days after, bodies were being recovered from the Nile’s waters. A close friend of Iman’s, Abdel-Salam Kisha, was martyred. For her, as for all those who sustained the protest, June 3rd is one of intense pain. What the state aimed to end that day was not only the human lives in its way, but their collective project of the sit-in, its practical imagining of what the revolution’s slogan: freedom, peace and justice, might look like.

Ahmed asks us to be attentive to how the collective body forms and is shaped through the impressions made by “bodily others” [5]. Iman’s reflections on the revolution also suggest that we be attentive to how this collective body shapes urban landscapes. Her conception of the sit-in, the geography of it, is simultaneously physical – traced by her feet as she wandered, and emotional. The experience changed her relationship to Khartoum through binding her to others in a collective body that emerged briefly, only to be erased. When she passes by the sites where the sit-in had once stood, the place itself is not what she remembers. “It’s the people,” she says. “I heard so many stories; people carried so many things with them; I wondered how they could live. I feel empty now when I pass by because those people are not there. Now it’s a bit like entering a forest alone.”

The places she recalls include the metal passageways above a road leading from central Khartoum to the Burri neighbourhoods. Mostly young men stood there, drumming on the metal and animating “The Republic of the Upper Tunnel” as it became known. Another is the clinic which the daring “girls who smoked,” to use Iman’s words, claimed. Or the corners where seemingly constant debates took place. Or those spots along her route from one barricade to another, where she met people who had traveled from all over the country to yi’suebbuha (loosely translated, “to pour themselves like concrete on the space”, “stick it out”) until the regime fell.

There have been reports of the mass rape that took place by armed state agents during the sit-in’s dispersal. Details are scant however, since the issue of sexual violence remains a source of stigma for the victims. The threat of more terror did not seem to deter the hundreds of thousands of women who turned out for a march on June 30th. Jalila Khamis Koko, an activist and former political prisoner who supports the work of the Union of Women Food and Tea Sellers, is still dealing with the aftermath of June 3rd, however. Many of the union’s members had participated in the sit-in and worked on its site. Most of these women had been displaced from the war-affected regions of Sudan, ending up in Khartoum working in its streets and markets, often as “tea ladies” – selling coffee, tea and a doughy fried snack called “zalabia”. Their customers, who come and go throughout the day as with any café, are typically unemployed or marginally employed young men.

While middle class women also clashed with the regime, it is these working-class women, racialized others within Sudan’s ethnic and racial social order, who have been for decades on the frontlines of the battle with the state in urban centers. The notorious Public Order laws, introduced by the Bashir regime, policed women’s presence, behavior and dress in public space. These laws were especially targeted at poor women, whose work requires long stints in public spaces with little protection.

In a voice message, Jalila tells me of the devastation wrecked on the lives of some of the union’s members during the raid and since.

“We had one member missing” says Jalila, “…she was found after three months. They found her on her street, completely out of her mind, not aware of anything and speechless.…We took her home but she was not in an conscious state of mind. I called [a psychologist I know] … god bless her …. [The woman is better], but until now we don’t know where she was exactly because she doesn’t remember. The other problem, there is another woman…. She was [raped and] impregnated so her family kicked her out.” Jalila, the union’s founder Awadiyah Koko (“Mama Awadiyah”) and others are helping her now [6].

Like Iman, Jalila’s comrades are “lost” but in a more devastating way – estranged from their families, their livelihoods and the life they knew before. In the case of one of them, estranged even from her own memories. Recently, the new transitional government set up a committee – composed only of men – to investigate the sit-in’s dispersal. It is unlikely that Jalila’s comrades will see justice served any time soon [7]. What they find instead is what women battling racism, patriarchy and capitalism often rely on when times are especially hard: the sisterhood, solidarity and care of women like themselves.

[1] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2019) World Population 2019: Wall Chart (ST/ESA/ SER.A/434).
[2] Interview with Iman Osama, 20 February 2020.
[3] Ahmed, S. (2004). Collective Feelings Or, The Impressions Left by Others. Theory, Culture & Society 21(2), 25.
[4] Ahmed. S. (2014). The Cultural Politics of Emotions (2nd Edition, pp. 16, 89-92). Edinburgh University Press.
[5] Ahmed, S. (2004). Collective Feelings Or, The Impressions Left by Others. Theory, Culture & Society 21(2), 27.
[6] Voice message from Jalila Khamis Koko, 21 February 2020. The quote is deliberately written to obscure names and identifying information.
[7] Jalila noted in another voice message they not only surveyed the bodily damage done to survivors, but also loss of property. Such loss (of tea and food-making equipment, stools etc.) is devastating to the livelihoods of women food and tea sellers. During the long years of the Bashir regime, police often raided women sellers’ stalls and confiscated their equipment, only to force them to pay fines to get the equipment back.


Sara Abbas is a researcher and scholar who is actively supporting Sudanese feminist and women’s movements. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the Freie Universität Berlin. She researches and writes, amongst other things, on the discourses and practices of Islamist women members of the Bashir regime and their relationship to the regime’s state-building project.

Image Credit: A sit-in in Khartoum. Photo by Zaher Omareen


The articles in this special issue of Discover Society were written and are based on research conducted before the COVID-19 outbreak, and thus do not engage with the new lived realities of urban youth in a global pandemic. Yet we hope and believe that the discussions presented here will continue to be relevant in rethinking urban futures in the years to come.