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The village of clear light.

In the 19th century, on the banks of the River Nile, a Koranic school was founded. Nowadays, the school at Umm Dubban attracts 1,500 students. Chris Kutschera reports.

As often happens in the mystical world of Sudanese dervishes, it all began with a dream. Some time at the beginning of the 19th century, Sheikh al Obeid Badr, a holy man, was wandering by the banks of the River Nile, a few hours distance from Khartoum. He stopped to rest in the shade of a solitary tree which offered meagre respite from the heat of the day in that barren, arid region. As he slept he dreamed of starting a Koranic school and upon waking decided that he would establish just such a school in the exact spot where he lay. He dug a pool to store water and in time constructed a mosqu and a school. Thus Umm Dubban, the village of clear light was born.

Some 40 years after founding Umm Dubban, the sheikh died living his son, Sheikh Ahmed to become Khalifa, or successor. Three more sons assumed the mantle of responsibility before Sheikh al Obeid Badr's grandson, Khalifa Youself took over in 1948. It was during his 38-year rule, from 1948 to 1986, that Umm Dubban as transformed into the large and thriving community it is today.

At a cost of millions of Sudanese pounds, Khalifa Youssef was responsible for organising construction of a proper schoolhouse, a hospital, a post office and all the other usual amenities found in a large village. All were built by the community for the community. The sheikh provided the materials while the villagers provided the manpower.

Today Umm Dubban is ruled by Khalifa Youssef's brother, Khalifa Osman, and attracts thousands of visitors who travel their either to learn the Koran or to consult the Khalifa. The 1,500 or so students who are currently in the village to study, live in huts built around the old pool, the mosque and the graves of the five khalifas. Many of the students are from Sudan but others come from as far afield as Nigeria, Chad, Eritrea, Mali and Niger. To be admitted to the Koranic school, or khalwa, children must be at least five years, five months and five days old, but most of the taleb are in their teens though some are adults.

Some children go to Umm Dubban because of its reputation as a centre of learning, some because they have a relative already at the school, many more because their parents do not know quite what to do with them in hungry Sudan. As one student admitted, some students join "because here we have a comfortable life, foo, everything we need," and the location, relatively close to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum is also a plus point.

However, once accepted for the Koranic study course, students live a fairly ascetic lifestyle. Rising at 3 a.m., they are expected to read verses of the Kroran until 4.30 a.m., when they do their ablutions in preparation for the dawn prayer at 5 a.m. The second session of reading and study begins a 5.30 a.m. and continues for four and a half hours. The morning session of Dahawija is held between 10 a.m.. and 11 a.m. After an hour long break they prepare for the noonday prayer and continue with their studies again between 1 p.m. and 3.30. The students break then or their evening meal after which they continue with their studies until the sunset prayer. The evening begins with a session of Ratib -- sitting in a large circle around the khalifa, the students read verses for the souls of the dead sheiks. After supper at 8.30 p.m., the junior students are allowed to retire to bed. The senior students continue with their studies until 11.30 p.m. Study continues for five days in this way. Thursdays and Fridays are considered free time. The diet is very simple. Twice a day a meal of rice is eaten with a meat sauce. Twice a year, during Ramadan and then two months later, the students have two weeks holiday.

Modern techniques have not yet reached Umm Dubban, where, except for the use of electricity at night, everything is done the traditional way, as it might have been 100 years ago, or even five centuries ago. Students write the verses of the Koran with homemade ink on wooden tablets. They are washed clean and re-used once they have memorised the verses under the guidance of their teachers, who walk around armed with terrifying whips. "Some students learn the Koran in four years," says Mustapha Abbas, an assistant of Khalifa Osman who gained a PhD in geography from Khartoum university, "others take ten years ... and some just give up. It is difficult to learn the Koran by heart, but it is still more dificult to keep it!" The visitor, warmly welcomed in a modern guest-house, is immediately impressed by the humming of hundreds of students who repeat verses of the Koran day and night. It is still more amazing to watch a blind old sheikh listening to four or five students reciting the holy book together and correcting their mistakes. At night, the students sit in a wide circle around an "eternal fire" which it is said has been burning day and night since the khalwa was first established. Before electricity reached Umm Dubban, the students used its light to read their tablets ... today, this huge heap of ashes is a reminder of how many generations of taleb spent their youth in such a studious way.

After "graduating" from the khalwa, the Fakihs have the choice of joining the regular Sudanese educational system, going first to a finishing school and then on to a junior secondary school; others will go to a mahat (Koranic institute) and afterwards to a secondary school or to an islamic university. Others might open their own khalwa, white some go back home and become farmers.

Although Khalifa Osman often checks the work of the students, and leads the sessions of Dahawiya and Ratib he undertakes other activities that attract thousands of visitors to Umm Dubban. The khalifa is a miracle-worker. It is said he cures people with bakhrat, secret formulas written on a piece of paper; or with medicines of his own making and with holy water. Mustapha Abbas admits it has "a psychological effect: if you are not a believer, it won't work ... But if you are a believer, it works; and since there is a shortage of modern medicine in Sudan these days, there is a great deal of interest in traditional medicine."

Khalifa Osman treats muscle pain and headache with sesame oil, stomach trouble with local herbs; he also cures infections with red-hot irons. Sometimes, when he feels his visitors are beyond his powers, he tells them to go to the local hospital. He also gives advice to people who consult him on subjects such as marriage, inheritance, land problems and other personal questions. Usually his visitors leave a few bank-notes under the cushion on which he is sitting. Khalifa Osman accepts the gifts without any false pride. Although he is rich, owning a large estate around Gedaref, he has to provide the students with clothing, food, accommodation and everything else they require "and we do not get any help from the government or from any institution", underlines Mustapha. To help him run this institution, Khalifa Osman is assisted by a council of 40 elders, ahl al Hal wal Aqd, whom he consults on important political and social affairs. If needed, he can also meditate on a "Bayan", a place in the desert marked by stones: it is reputed to have been left by a sheikh who sat there four hundred years ago.

Quite remote from daily politics, Khalifa Osman, who claims two million followers in the Sudan, has little esteem for political parties. Reciting a zikr, communicating with the souls of sheikhs who died several hundred years ago, Khalifa Osman lives in another world, rythmed not by changing governments or economic shifts as much as by the humming of hundreds of children reciting the Koran all through the day and night.
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Title Annotation:the Koranic school at Umm Dubban in Sudan
Author:Kutschera, Chris
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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