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date: 22 April 2019

Urban Society in Colonial Sudan

Summary and Keywords

As in the rest of Africa, the establishment of colonial rule has accelerated the pace of urban growth in the Sudan. During the period of British colonial rule (1898–1956), a number of new administrative centers, ports, and railway stations were established and metamorphosed into full-fledged cities. Among the most important towns and administrative centers were Khartoum, the capital of the Anglo-Egyptian administration; Atbara, headquarters of the Sudan Railways; the port city of Port Sudan; and Khartoum North, the headquarters of the steamers division of the Sudan Railways. These towns grew from small administrative headquarters into major urban centers and became the home of a diverse population that included Sudanese as well as immigrants from the Middle East, Europe, and neighboring African countries. The inhabitants of these towns engaged in a wide range of economic, social, and political activities that shaped the character of these towns and developed a distinctive urban culture.

Keywords: Urbanization, Sudan, colonialism, Khartoum, Atbara, Daims, leisure, slavery


Sudan has an old urban tradition dating back to the ancient kingdoms of Nubia and the medieval states of Dar Fur and the Funj. Towns such as Sinnar, al-Fashir, al-Ubayyid, Berber, and Swakin functioned as administrative centers, trading posts, and ports. However, as in the rest of Africa, the establishment of colonial rule accelerated the pace of urban growth in the Sudan. European colonizers in Africa either used preexisting towns and villages, or established settlements near trading areas, with easy access to natural resources and food supplies. In some cases, however, Europeans did establish new garrisons, administrative centers, ports, and railway stations that metamorphosed into full-fledged cities. In the Sudanese case, this was exemplified by the towns of Khartoum, the capital of the Anglo-Egyptian administration; Atbara, headquarters of the Sudan Railways; the port city of Port Sudan; and the Khartoum North, the headquarters of the steamers division of the Sudan Railways. These towns grew from small villages into major urban centers that were inhabited by people of diverse backgrounds, who engaged in various economic and social activities and created a dynamic urban culture.

The Evolution of Colonial Towns in the Sudan

From Turco-Egyptian to Anglo-Egyptian Khartoum

The evolution of Khartoum reflects the uniqueness of Sudan’s colonial history in the sense that the country had experienced two phases of colonial domination. The first was the Turco-Egyptian (1820–1884), which was overthrown by the Mahdists, and the second was the Anglo-Egyptian (1898–1956). Both colonial regimes made Khartoum their capital. Located near small farming and fishing villages at the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, Khartoum became the headquarters of the Turco-Egyptian rule in the 1820s, and by the late 19th century it had grown into a cosmopolitan city with a diverse population that included Europeans, Egyptians, Middle Easterners, and Sudanese. Khartoum was the headquarters of commercial firms that were active in trade in the Upper Nile regions. A major part of this trade was in ivory and slaves. In 1883, the slave population in Khartoum was estimated at twenty-seven thousand people, or two-thirds of the total population.1

In 1885, Khartoum fell into the hands of the Mahdist rebels, who established their capital across the river in Omdurman. Many of Khartoum’s residents, particularly the foreigners, had fled during the chaotic period of the siege, while the rest of the population moved to Omdurman. A year later, Khalifa Abdullahi, the Mahdi’s successor, ordered the destruction of the remaining buildings in Khartoum. The Mahdist regime was short lived, defeated in 1898 by the joint forces of Britain and Egypt. The Anglo-Egyptian regime swiftly moved to establish its capital in Khartoum and the city was revived and became the political and social hub of the country. The new towns of Khartoum and Khartoum North became the home of a growing number of the employees of the colonial government, on the railways, while Omdurman was neglected and remained a native town that did not fit the colonial model of an orderly city. Khartoum became the center of the newly emerging working class that included freed slaves, immigrants, and other marginal groups who were employed in the service, transport, and the public works sector of the colonial economy.2

Atbara: The Rise of a Railway Town

While Khartoum became an administrative center and the capital of the colonial government, Atbara evolved as a railway center company town. In view of its position as a railway junction, Atbara was chosen to be the headquarters of the railway department in 1905. The city grew around an old village named al-Dakhla, located at the confluence of the River Atbara and the Nile. During the subsequent years, several railway divisions and workshops were established. By 1914, Atbara had begun to take its shape as a railway center and a colonial town. From the beginning, it was highly cosmopolitan. The railway work force included British, Egyptians, Italians, Greeks, Albanians, and Syrians. The Sudanese community consisted mainly of former Mahdist war prisoners captured during the Anglo-Egyptian campaign, runaway and liberated slaves from the neighboring areas, and a few West Africans.3 However, with the expansion of railway employment, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, a large number of Sudanese from the neighboring region and from the northern part of the Sudan migrated and settled in Atbara. By the end of World War II, the number of Sudanese employed in the railway department was estimated at 16,580.4

Organization and Occupation of the Urban Space

Urban settlement in the Sudan during the colonial period reflected the dualism that prevailed in colonial towns in other parts of Africa. While Europeans officials and other foreigners lived in the modern sections of the city, the overwhelming majority of the local population, most of whom were low-income people, settled in the “native” quarters.

Urban Space in Khartoum

Among the oldest residential quarters in Khartoum were the Daims, huge slums on the outskirts of Khartoum. These native quarters did not conform to the standards that the colonial officials were trying to establish. Labeled “Native Lodging Areas,” the Daims fell outside the official scheme, which classified residential neighborhoods into first-, second-, and third-class areas. This classification reflected the plot size and type of building materials. In 1902, municipal officials moved the Daims to the south side of Khartoum.5 These quarters did not fit into this scheme, and were therefore not entitled to any health or social services such as running water or electricity. Residents lived in small houses of about thirty to sixty square meters. These had low ceilings, and the only means of ventilation were usually one or more small openings, stuffed with rags to keep out light and the cold air. The houses had no latrines, and the inhabitants had no alternative but to use the open area adjoining the neighborhoods.6 It is not surprising, therefore, that the inhabitants of the Daims suffered from outbreaks of diseases such as tuberculosis, which became the leading cause of death in Khartoum in the early years.7

The Daims continued to grow and became the home of a diverse group of people from different parts of the Sudan. This diversity was reflected in the names of these neighborhoods. For instance, Daim Banda, Daim Kara, and Daim Jabal or Kreish refer to groups whose original home was southwestern Sudan and the eastern part of the Central African Republic. Similarly, Daim Berta was named after the Berta of the Sudan-Ethiopian border region, while Daim Tegali or Nuba alluded to the inhabitants of the Nuba Mountains. Daim Ta`isha and Daim Jawam`a relate to the Ta`isha and the Jawam`a of Dar Fur and Kordofan. The presence of these people in Khartoum amply illustrates the scale of social dislocation and demographic shifts that occurred during the 19th century. For example, the presence of the Ta`isha and the Jawam`a in the capital was associated with the Khalifa’s policy. However, the presence of the Banda, Berta, Kara, Kreish, and Nuba was linked with the 19th-century slave trade, which created a vast southern and western Sudanese diaspora.

However, ethnicity was not the only binding force in the Daims. Shared historical experience, occupational cleavages, and corporate ties also played a major role in the formation of the new communities. For example, former slave soldiers (bazingir) who were employed by the slave traders in the south, and their descendants, settled in Daim Al-Zubairiyya. They named their quarter after Al-Zubair Rahma, the northern Sudanese slave trader, under whom they served. Occupational cleavages were reflected in Daim Al-`Attala (porters), Daim Al-Gashasha (grass or fodder sellers), and Daim Telegraph, which was inhabited by the workers of the Posts and Telegraph Department.

During World War II, Khartoum and other Sudanese towns received an influx of immigrants from the rural areas. The population of Khartoum reportedly rose from 44,311 in 1939 to 55,933 in 1944.8

Urban Space in Atbara

The physical layout of Atbara reflected its colonial character. One year after its foundation, a number of native quarters emerged to the east of the railway line and near the railway cantonment.9 One of the oldest native quarter in Atbara was Hay al-Darawish (the Dervish Quarter), which was established by former Mahdist soldiers, many of whom were Baqqara from Kordofan and Darfur or West Africans. Another old settlement was `Ishash, in the southeastern part of town. It was called `ishash (straw) because it consisted mainly of straw huts and hovels that provided accommodation for the poorest segments of the town’s population. The majority of those were ex-slaves and West African immigrants who were known locally as Fellata. Some immigrants, particularly the Ja`aliyyin and Rubatab, preferred to settle among their kinsmen at al-Dakhla. Not far from al-Dakhla, hospital workers and dressers established a quarter called Hay al-Tamargiyya (Hospital Workers Quarter). As in Khartoum and other towns in the Sudan, these informal urban settlements where the majority of low-income people lived fell outside the official classification and were dubbed “Native Lodging Areas.” Since they were considered illegal, the municipal authorities could evict tenants and remove these settlements at any moment.

In the 1ate 1930s, colonial authorities in Atbara launched a big scheme for the reorganization of the urban space in the city. Residential quarters were classified as first-, second-, third-, and fourth-class areas. This classification was based on the size of plots and the building materials. The reorganization of Atabara involved the removal and relocation of several residential neighborhoods.

The urban space in Atbara remained segregated. Europeans lived in their exclusive quarter in the western part of town, the Egyptians and a few Sudanese in the central area near the market, while the overwhelming majority of the Sudanese settled in the eastern part of town. With the exception of servants and gardeners, Sudanese were not allowed to wander in British Quarter.10

Surviving the Urban Environment

As indicated, during the early years of colonial rule a large number of runaway and liberated slaves, socially dislocated groups, and other immigrants flocked to Khartoum. This “floating” population was considered a source of much-needed labor for the colonial economy. Hence, Khartoum became a reservoir from which workers would be deployed to perform unskilled agricultural tasks in different parts of the country. People left the countryside to the city to escape slavery, famine, and other disasters, and found themselves redeployed to the rural areas as laborers. At the same time, many of the city’s inhabitants found employment in various government departments. Those who could not find government employment engaged a wide range of economic activities such as petty trading, blacksmithing, barbering, and tailoring. Other worked as porters, wood and grass sellers, water carriers, and so on. A large number of women, particularly liberated slaves sold locally, made alcoholic drinks or engaged in prostitution.

As elsewhere in Africa, urban residents in Khartoum created extensive social networks that were based on ethnic or regional backgrounds, neighborhoods, work, and mutual aid organizations, just to name a few. Early literature on this subject advanced the adaptation theory, which stressed that these associations represented immigrants’ efforts to “adjust” to urban life. According to this thesis, regional and kin-based associations illustrate the persistence of rural culture in the city. Recent writings, however, have argued that beyond the coping strategy, mutual aid societies and village associations reflected the multifaceted world of African urban dwellers, a world that encompassed both the town and the countryside. By incorporating their rural culture into the urban cultural milieu, rural immigrants created a new model and thereby shaped the city itself.11

One of the most important examples of social networks that developed in the poor neighborhoods in many Sudanese towns was the sanduq or rotating saving association. According to this system, several individuals would contribute a sum of money at specific intervals to such a savings group; at each interval, one of the contributors would take the whole amount. Such associations first appeared in the Three Towns in the 1940s.12 The sanduq included both males and females, bachelors and married. It was usually based on localities, although members from outside were often allowed to participate. It was the main way for working-class families to achieve a surplus so they could meet important expenses incurred regarding house repair and ceremonies surrounding birth, circumcision, engagement, and marriage.

Other important networks were the mutual aid and charity organizations that flourished in the Sudan, particularly during the depression. One of the oldest urban-based charity organizations was Malja’ al-Qirish (the Piastre Shelter), which was founded in Omdurman in 1931, and which established branches in other towns such as Atbara, al-Ubayyid, Wad Medani, Sinnar, and Port Sudan.13

Of all Sudanese towns, Atbara had the largest concentration of mutual aid, charity, and village associations. Unlike Khartoum, the overwhelming majority of Atbara’s residents were railway workers, which enabled them to develop solidarity and strong communal bonds. Atbara residents established rotational credit associations as well as cooperative societies and mutual aid organizations. In addition to helping individual members, one of the primary goals of these organizations was to improve material conditions in rural areas and provide financial assistance to relatives at home in emergencies such as flood, fire, or crop failure. Rotational credit associations in particular helped their members save money and borrow against future contributions to meet unexpected expenses.

Among the oldest cooperatives in Atbara was Umbakol Cooperative Society. It was established in 1933 by immigrants from the villages of Umbakol and al-Ghorayba in Meroe District.14 The main function of the society was to provide financial help to its members in times of need.15Another society with similar goals was the Kuri People Society, which was established in 1934 by people from the villages of Hussain Narti, Kuri, al-Takar, Moura, al-Rikabiyya, and al-Naf`ab.16 In 1936, immigrants from the town of Kosti established the Kosti Youth Association. Despite its name, its efforts were directed mainly at helping the poor in Kosti. By World War II, there were fourteen other regional and village associations in Atbara. They included the Nubian Cooperative Society, Berber Boys’ Society, Dongola Men’s Society, Mahas People’s Society, Kordofan and Dar Fur Society, Mograt Cooperative Society, and the Bawag Men’s Society.17

These associations fostered communal bonds in the city and strengthened links with rural areas. It was through these institutions that railway workers were connected to the larger community and found common language, familiar cultural symbols, and support. Old residents of Atbara still reminisce about the simple way of life in the city. They report that the overwhelming majority of Atbara residents lived on credit. Workers obtained everything from groceries to newspapers on credit. Typically, a worker would maintain accounts with retail traders, butchers, barbers, and tailors, and would repay them at the end of the month.18 The first week of the month was, therefore, the busiest time for businesses in Atbara.

Communal organizations and mutual aid societies were also prevalent among foreign communities in Atbara. Among the most important of those was the Egyptian community. The majority of Egyptians in Atbara were Coptic Christians. Of all the Coptic communities in the Sudan, the one in Atbara was the best organized. The overwhelming majority of the Copts were railway employees. Since their settlement in the early years of the 20th century, the Copts had taken the lead in establishing communal organizations, most of which revolved around the Church. In 1912, the Coptic Benevolent Society, affiliated with the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in Cairo, was established. The society ran a Coptic school, a Bible Society, and a Christian Girls Society.19 Although the primary function of the society was religious, it also provided important social services. One of its most important contributions was the establishment of a blood bank.

Although most Copts in Atbara were immigrants from Egypt, they gradually adopted Sudanese cultural norms. But, as a Christian minority in a predominantly Muslim society, the Copts strove to maintain their distinctive identity. They clustered in particular residential neighborhoods and formed a close-knit community. Nonetheless, the Coptic community was not monolithic. In addition to Orthodox, there was a small group of Evangelical Christians, who were affiliated with the American Presbyterian Church. They numbered about twenty-three people in the late 1940s.20 Moreover, there were major cleavages within the community along occupational and social lines. It was reported that there was major tension between the artisans and the educated elite who occupied senior posts in the railway department.21

The Greeks were another important foreign community in Atbara. Since their early settlement in Atbara, the Greeks had established a local branch of the Hellenic Society, which was based in Khartoum. However, with Sudanization of the railway posts, the number of Greeks declined sharply. In the mid-1940s, the Hellenic Society in Atbara had about eighteen members, the most eminent of them Savas Marketto, Christo Antoniadis, John Diamandopulos, and Nicolas Mavrikious.22

Leisure and Social Life

The subject of leisure and recreational activities in African cities during the colonial period has attracted considerable attention in the 20th century.23 Most studies have stressed the fact that leisure activities were closely linked with the official attempt to inculcate African workers and urban residents with industrial concepts of time and discipline. Leisure and recreational activities, these authors have argued, were used as instruments of social control and were closely supervised by colonial officials. The provision of this “supervised” leisure was designed to counter political mobilization and to check development of autonomous social and cultural activities among colonial subjects. But as was so often the case, colonized people reshaped and refashioned these forms of recreation to suit their own needs.

Leisure and Social Life in Khartoum

With a diverse population, Khartoum became a major center of leisure and recreational activities. It was in the Daims and other working-class neighborhoods that people from different cultural backgrounds encountered each other and produced a new dynamic urban popular culture. Among the most significant aspects of this culture were music and singing.

Until World War I, Sudanese music and performance were limited to folk songs and the traditional dances from different parts of the country. The most common type of singing in the northern Sudan was the madeih, a religious chanting that praised the Prophet Muhammad and local holy men. Another type was the dobait, vocalized singing in which a romantic theme or praise was communicated. Following the establishment of colonial rule and the rapid growth of urban centers, new forms of music and new styles of performance began to emerge in different Sudanese towns.

The period after World War I saw the development of a new style of singing called haqiba (Arabic bag), which flourished in Omdurman and Khartoum. According to the Sudanese musician and musicologist Jum`a Jabir, this new style first appeared in the Three Towns in the early 1920s.24 The haqiba singing was performed by individual vocalists accompanied by a chorus, and the main musical instrument was the tambourine. However, in this particular form of singing the main emphasis was on the lyrics rather than the tunes.

Just as in southern Nigeria, the first generation of haqiba singers was drawn from the working population of Khartoum. They included artisans, tailors, mechanics, and many ex-slaves.

The first generation of Sudanese musicians faced many challenges but were able to overcome tremendous social pressures. This was particularly the case with female singers, who had to contend with the additional burden of gender discrimination. Singers performed mainly at weddings and other social occasions. However, the first commercial recording appeared as early as 1921, when an Egyptian record company opened a branch in Omdurman.25 A few years later, two other Egyptian companies—Audion and Misiyan—established branches in Omdurman. The production of phonograph records played a major role in popularizing haqiba songs, as did the political climate of the early 1920s. Slogans of the White Flag League and pro-Egyptian groups—such as Unity of the Nile Valley—became major themes of haqiba songs.

However, the most important role in the dissemination of urban music was played by the Omduran radio station, which was established in 1941.26 This was accompanied by the introduction of new musical instruments such as the mandolin, violin, accordion, trumpet, and piano. This represented a major shift in haqiba singing, as many performers began to rely on these instruments rather than on a chorus. Discharged soldiers had played a major role in popularizing Western musical instruments, which combined with urban stylistic influences and Sudanese rhythms and dance to lead to the rise of a new form of music which set the standard for urban music.

By the end of World War II, a new form of popular culture in Khartoum began to appear in working-class neighborhoods such as the Daims, where people gathered for social recreation. The new means of mass communication—such as radio, television, and newspapers—exposed all segments of the urban population to European and American popular music, including jazz. Electronic instruments became a common feature of Sudanese music. By the 1960s, a blend of Sudanese, European, and Afro-American music began to emerge in Khartoum.

The Khartoum Daims and other working-class neighborhoods not only became the home of many musicians and performers who had a lasting impact on Sudanese urban music, but they also produced many athletes who became stars in al-Hilal, al-Mareikh, and al-Mawrada soccer clubs. Residents of these quarters were highly cosmopolitan. They developed unique styles of dress and attitudes which distinguished them from other urban residents. Arabic-speaking northern Sudanese associated residents of the Daims, `Abbasiya, and Mawrada with social deviance and servile origin. These quarters remained enclaves in which the cultures of ex-slaves and non-Arab Sudanese groups thrived and became an integral part of Khartoum popular culture.

Atbara: Leisure in Company Town

Like Khartoum, the residents of Atbara also engaged in a variety of leisure activities and developed a vibrant urban culture. However, social and recreational activities in this company town reflected its highly regimented industrial environment. The tight discipline and control of the railway department also permeated every aspect of life in Atbara. Daily life in the city was organized by the suffara (sirens) that were blown several times during the day, to signal the beginning and the end of the working day, meal times, breaks, and so forth. The suffara signaled not only when people went to and left work but also how they organized their social activities.

The fact that the working day in Atbara began very early in the morning had a great impact on how people spent their leisure time. For instance, municipal laws regulated everything from vagrancy to the opening and closing hours of clubs, cafes, and beer houses. These regulations limited the evening hours of coffee houses, restaurants, cinemas, parties, and so forth.27

Social life and leisure activities in Atbara were centered in social clubs. These clubs were pioneered by European and other foreign employees of the railway department. One of the oldest was the Atbara Club, established in 1907 and affiliated with the Red Sea and Port Sudan Clubs. Atbara Club remained an elite club, limited to senior British railway employees and administrative staff.28 Another British club was the Atbara Sports Club. It was founded in 1910 for sport and social activities. The club had tennis, hockey, and cricket teams. Tennis was very popular in the early days, followed by golf and hockey. Atbara Golf Club was founded in 1914 and in 1933 it affiliated with the English Golf Union. At that time, it had about ninety members. Golf tournaments were held regularly among various railway clubs in Khartoum North and Port Sudan.29 However, these tournaments were limited to Europeans. The establishment of social and sport clubs at this early stage has set the pattern for leisure activities in Atbara. Clubs proliferated in the 1930s and 1940s and became one of the most distinctive features of this railway town. By the mid-1940s, Atbara had about thirty registered clubs. The proliferation of these clubs became Atbara’s hallmark. Nearly every resident belonged to a club.

These clubs had multiple functions. Most of them were sports clubs that provided recreational and cultural activities as well. Clubs also became centers of political mobilization, networking, and organization. Since most clubs were located in residential neighborhoods, they provided convenient and affordable entertainment to the majority of the working people in Atbara. Railway workers went to clubs in the evenings to socialize with fellow workers and neighbors, to exchange news, to play cards, to read newspapers, and to listen to the radio.

Social and sports clubs reflected the socio-economic status and interests of their members. The most elitist clubs in the town were the Atbara Club and the Atbara Sports Club, for their membership was restricted to senior British officials.30 However, members of the Atbara Sports Club included junior officials, many of whom were members of the Hammer and Sickle Club. Little is known about this club except that it was established by European artisans who had socialist leanings.

Some clubs had purely religious functions. These included the Catholic Mission Club and Evangelical Club. The former had about forty members in the 1945, most of whom were Italians. Its main function was to provide Christian education to the youth. The Evangelical Club was affiliated with the Evangelical Church and its main function was to provide a venue for young men to study and socialize.

that the Old Boys of the Technical School Club played a pivotal political and social role in Atbara. Sudanese artisans of the railway department founded the club in 1935. The club membership was limited to graduates of the technical schools of the Sudan Railways.31 The Old Boys of Technical School Club devoted great energy to social programs such as adult education and literary activities. It offered classes in technical subjects in English and Arabic. It organized lectures and debates as well as theatrical events. In addition to social and educational activities, the club had a soccer team that was affiliated with the Atbara Football Association.

One of the most important leisure activities in Atbara was sport, particularly soccer, which became the most popular game in Atbara. The city had the first soccer stadium in the Sudan, the Parker Stadium, which was established in 1928.32 It was named after A. C. Parker, who was general manager of the Sudan Railways for many years.

Numerous authors have stressed the link between athleticism and colonial service.33 Imperial governments considered athletic abilities an essential quality for competent administrators, and believed that athleticism would enhance responsibility, initiative, and integrity. Sport activity was particularly important for railway work. It was considered an essential ingredient for molding railway employees and helping them internalize the norms and values of the industry. It is not surprising that the railway department regularly organized tournaments among its various divisions. For instance, soccer matches were held between engineering and mechanical divisions, and between the suffragias (restaurants workers in the catering department) and the muraslat (messengers).34 Heads of divisions led their teams, and tea parties were held after games. These inter-departmental tournaments were seen as means of promoting esprit de corps among the railway employees. According to one official, these internal competitions would lead to understanding:

Understanding means sympathy and appreciation, and mutual appreciation is the keystone of departmental life. These inter-departmental meetings will re-act in no uncertain manner an office and workshop, and it is by such means that we can best foster and maintain that ideal of which we are all proud. The Atbara spirit.35

Hence, railway employees should view themselves as a team and should reproduce workplace connections in the outside world.

Soccer spread rapidly throughout Atbara and generated great enthusiasm among residents. By the mid-1940s there were at least a dozen soccer clubs in town. Annual tournaments were organized in the Parker Stadium. In 1945, the stadium was expanded and admission charges were instituted. The most prestigious cup for which teams competed was Parker’s Cup, and the main rivalry was between al-Nil and al-Shabiba clubs.

As elsewhere in Africa, sport activities created a venue where colonizers and colonized met and interacted. Most important, it offered opportunities for the youth of Atbara to pursue professional careers in sport and enhance their social standing. Sport clubs created new loyalties as each club attracted its own supporters. Moreover, given the rigid stratification of railway employment, sport clubs fostered development of social networks that cut across occupational lines.

Other venues for leisure activities in Atbara were bars and anadi (beer houses). There were seven bars that sold imported liquor. Bar owners were mainly Greeks and Copts, and the main customers were senior railway employees and well-to-do citizens. The majority of low-income workers attended the anadi where less expensive, locally made drinks were sold. As in other Sudanese towns, the bars and the anadi continued to exist until the early 1980s, when Ja`far Nimeiri imposed the so-called September laws that made the selling and consumption of alcohol illegal.

Atbara residents exhibited keen interest in literature, poetry, music, and theatre. Artistic activities in Atbara were pioneered by the small class of intelligentsia, most of whom were junior government employees. They included railway employees, teachers, army officers, and civil servants. Following World War I, these groups played a leading role in the development of early Sudanese nationalism. Their activities culminated in the 1924 uprising, which was crushed by British authorities.36 Following the defeat of the uprising, the colonial regime tried to marginalize the intelligentsia and promote traditional authorities such as tribal heads and religious leaders. However, this policy was reversed in the mid-1930s, when the colonial government began to co-opt the Western-educated class to counter sectarian influences. This strategy was associated with Sir Stewart Symes, who became the governor-general of the Sudan in 1934 and adopted a more liberal policy toward the intelligentsia. Moreover, since the defeat of the 1924 uprising, the educated elite focused their attention on literature, poetry, theatre, and music, and established literary societies and social clubs in various Sudanese towns.

As a cosmopolitan town, with highly diverse and relatively educated population and numerous clubs, Atbara created conducive environment for cultural activities. A corpus of Sudanese, Egyptian, and Syrian railway employees, administrators, and teachers took the lead in the development of a vibrant cultural life in the city.

One of the most influential Sudanese was al-Tayyib al-Sarraj (1894–1963), an Arabic language teacher who taught at the Atbara intermediate school in the 1930s. Al-Sarraj was an accomplished linguist, translator, and a poet, who wrote in classical Arabic as well as in Sudanese colloquial Arabic. While in Atbara, al-Sarraj educated and influenced a whole generation of young Sudanese artists such as Abu Sharaf, Muhammad `Umar Idris, Khalifa `Abbas, Muhammad `Uthman `Abd al-Rahim, Hasan Muddathir, and many others.37

Another prominent intellectual in Atbara was Ibrahim Hasan Mahlawi (1898–1977). Mahlawi’s ancestors migrated from Egypt in the 19th century and settled in Swakin and Kassala in the Red Sea region, where they became leading merchants. After completing his intermediate education in Atbara, Mahlawi joined the Sudan Railways in 1916. From an early age he developed keen interest in European languages and literature. It was reported that he spent one-third of his six-pounds monthly salary on a private tutor to learn French. He also learned English through correspondence with a college in London and obtained a diploma in economics from Columbia University.38

By the 1920s, Mahlawi had become a prominent figure in Atbara’s social and cultural circles. He was a leading member of the Literary Society and gave a series of lectures on the development of Arabic poetry from the pre-Islamic era to the modern period. He also published a several articles in Hadarat al-Sudan and was a regular reader of the London Times, the Manchester Guardian, and Egyptian newspapers and magazines. In the 1930s, Mahlawi began to learn German and developed a strong interest in socialist ideas, particularly the Fabian strand. His lecture on the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1936 at the Sudanese Club drew the attention of British officials and prompted the general manager of the SR to entrust him with the task of training new accountants. However, in 1939 Mahlawi was replaced by a British expert. Mahlawi then devoted his attention to the study of Fabian and socialist ideas. Following a series of lectures he gave during World War II on fascism and communism, Mahlawi received a letter from the civil secretary, commending him for his vast knowledge and intellectual abilities.39

After the war, Mahlawi adopted a more radical and activist stand as he began to advocate for the establishment of trade unions and played a key role in organizing the railway workers. In 1948, he led a demonstration to protest the establishment of the Legislative Assembly, which had been introduced by the colonial administration in the same year and opposed by many nationalist groups. Consequently, Mahlawi was dismissed from the SR and imprisoned. Following his release, he became heavily involved in the anti-colonial struggle and joined the unionist groups. In 1954, he joined the first nationalist government as the minister of mineral resources, but he resigned as a result of disagreements with unionist leaders. Since then, Mahlawi devoted his life to the exploration of mineral resources in the Red Sea region and the promotion of education in Atbara and Sinkat. In his final years, he lived a modest life and continued to pursue his interests. Neither age nor economic hardships could hamper Mahlawi’s quest for knowledge and learning. He began learning Italian when he was in his sixties. He died in 1977 at the age of seventy-nine.

Another prominent literary figure in Atbara was Joseph Latif Sabbagh, a Syrian Christian who was born at al-Nuhud in Kordofan Province. His grandfather came to the Sudan in the 19th century. After a brief stay in Omdurman, Sabbagh moved here he became a trader and then went to Atbara. Joseph attended Atbara intermediate school, the Coptic school, and then went to Egypt where he studied at Cairo University. He returned to the Sudan in 1939 and settled in Atbara, where he taught Arabic language at the Anglican School for girls and later transferred to the Coptic School to teach English.40

From an early age, Joseph exhibited his interest in poetry and music. His poems were published in such magazines as al-Sudan, al-Nil, al-Fajr, and Omdurman. His companions in Atbara included al-Tayyib al-Sarraj, Mahmoud Abu Bakr, Muhammad `Utham Mahjoub, Muhammad `Abd al-Rahim, and Mustafa Abu Sharaf. His first collection of poems, titled al-Khatwa al-Ula (The First Step), was published in 1938. It was filled with romantic themes and gained great notoriety, particularly among Egyptian literary critics. However his second collection, dhura al-Zikrayat (Of Memories), had a more political and nationalistic overtones. In addition to poetry, Sabbagh was an accomplished musician.41

Sabbaqh played a major role in promoting literacy among the railway workers. He held English classes at the workers’ club and encouraged those who had an interest in literature and poetry. He was also a political activist who became heavily involved in the political activities of Graduate Congress. In 1944 he delivered an anti-colonial poem in Atbara, as a result of which he was banished to Wadi Halfa. However, owing to growing factionalism within the nationalist movement, Sabbagh became disillusioned in politics and moved to al-Ubayyid, where he established a business.

Literary activities in Atbara received strong support and encouragement from the railway department. In fact, the Sudan Railways Bulletin was a major forum for creative writing. The bulletin’s editorial board included such figures as `Abd al-Majid Maher, `Ali Hamu, Shatir al-Busayli `Abdel Jalil (a prominent Egyptian historian), Khalifa `Abbas, Muhammad Sinada, and Muhammad Siddiq. As an incentive to contributors, the editorial committee offered prizes for the best four articles. The scope of articles ranged from history and literature to railway work and international affairs.

However, the railway bulletin was designed to promote the railway work culture among employees. For instance, in the September 1948 issue, a whole page was devoted to the train. A few articles celebrated the train as a symbol of modernity and compared it to the camel, which was considered a sign of backwardness. Another article spoke about the train as a source of grief because it separated children from parents, husbands from wives, and lovers from one another.42 The editors reprinted a lengthy poem on the train by the famous Egyptian poet, Hafiz Ibrahim, in which he expressed great fascination with the train’s speed, comparing it to lightning.

Besides these official publications, there were several other popular avenues for literary activities: clubs and bookstores, magazines and newspapers. One of the oldest bookstores in Atbara, which still exists, was Dabora Bookstore, established in 1923. In its initial phase, the bookstore specialized in Muslim religious texts. However, after finishing his education, `Awadalla took over the responsibility of running the bookstore and brought a wide range of books, magazines, and newspapers. Dabora Bookstore is located in the central market and has become a meeting place for artists, poets, and singers.43

In 1955 the municipal council of Atbara opened a public library. Within two years, the library had a collection of seven hundred books, in both English and Arabic, and an array of magazines and daily newspapers.44

Other arenas for cultural and literary activities were social and sport clubs, where public lectures, drama, and performances were regularly held. Atbara clubs attracted prominent Sudanese poets and writers such as Muhammad `Umar Idris, Muhammad al-Amin Musa, Mubrak Zarruq, Muhammad `Uthman Mahjoub, Salah

Mustafa al-Tahir, Mustafa Muhammad Hasan Sharaf, Khalifa `Abbas, Makki al-Sayyid, Mahmoud al-Fadli, and others, as well as singers such as Ahmad al-Mustafa, Ibrahim al-Kashif, and Hasan `Atiyya. For instance, on June 28, 1945, the Sudanese Club invited a speaker from Khartoum to lecture on the relationship between science and religion. Two days later the Coptic Bible Society held a lecture on gender equality. The lecture was followed by a very lively debate.45 Moreover, many railway artisans were accomplished poets and writers. Examples were al-Tayyib Hasan al-Tayyib and al-Hajj `Abd al-Rahman. Most clubs had dramatic societies. In 1944, a drama society known as Atbara Native Actors Society was established.46 The Old Boys of Technical School also had an active drama society.

Although the railway management encouraged this form of leisure, it also felt threatened by development of autonomous cultural activities. On July 26, 1945, the Old Boys society produced the play of `Antra ibn Shaddad. A descendant of an Ethiopian slave mother in pre-Islamic Arabia, `Antara appeared as the hero of a famous romance play of chivalry, involving wars against Persia, Byzantium, the Crusaders, and so forth. According to al-Tayyib Hasan al-Tayyib, when the society tried to perform this play in 1945, the railway manager prevented the performance because he considered it politically enticing. The cast performed the play in Omdurman and the proceeds were given to malja’ al-Qirish, a charitable association.47

The end of World War II sparked a wave of celebrations, encouraged by the British authorities, in Atbara. Government employees were given a two-day holiday. Following the news of Japan’s capitulations, Atbara Club held a big celebration to which it invited members of various clubs in the city. A few days later the Sudanese Club organized a big celebration and invited the general manager of the SR and members of the Egyptian Club and the Old Boys of Technical School. After refreshments, a play was performed. One of the play’s scenes was a court-martial in which Hitler and Mussolini were tried. Following the play, al-Tayyib Hasan al-Tayyib read a poem celebrating the German defeat in North Africa.48


During the colonial period, urban life became an integral part of Sudanese society. Urban life in colonial Sudan reflected the country’s remarkable diversity and its complex history. The cities and towns that emerged during the colonial period were pioneered by people of diverse ethnic, regional, and social backgrounds. They included former slaves, migrants, and other marginalized groups. These people established their own neighborhoods and communities and drew upon elements of their culture to face the challenges of urban life. They constructed a new urban identity, with multiple dimensions, and constructed a vibrant urban popular culture.


  • NP:

    National Record Office Classification

  • NRO:

    National Record Office, Khartoum

  • SAD:

    Sudanese Archives, Durham University

Discussion of the Literature

The past four decades have witnessed a growing body of literature on the history of cities and urban life in Africa. The works of Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, Bill Freund, Frederick Cooper, Janet Abu-Lughod, David Anderson, Richard Rathbone, and several others have shed significant light on the evolution and the nature of African cities.49 Considerable attention has also been given to the development and the characteristics of colonial cities. Bill Freund has argued that the growth of urban centers in Africa during the colonial period must be linked to the larger colonial project, which was geared toward the extraction of African resources. Colonial rule led to the decline of old towns such as Ibadan and Omdurman and to the emergence of new cities such as Lagos, Casablanca, Port Sudan, Khartoum, and Nairobi, just to name a few. These new administrative, commercial, transport, and port cities were linked to production areas and became sites for the processing and the export of cash crops and other products.50 Colonial towns in Africa developed distinctive features. They were hybrid cities inhabited by Europeans, other foreigners, and the local population. Their residents were separated by race, class, and residence. The urban space also became a site in which the colonial regimes displayed their power. The local population, most of whom were immigrants from the rural areas, were people of low income who established their own residential neighborhoods that did not conform to the colonial notions of an orderly and organized city. Hence, these neighborhoods became the target of intensive intervention by colonial authorities who were determined to create a uniform and well-structured urban space. The new literature has also emphasized the way in which African urban dwellers have shaped the colonial city. They engaged in a wide range of economic activates, maintained links with the countryside, established extensive social networks, pursued various forms of leisure activities, and created a vibrant urban culture. Several studies have explored the social history of African cities by focusing on the life and culture of ordinary Africans such as workers, non-wage workers, women, the underclass, and other marginalized groups.51

Primary Sources

The study is based on a range of primary and secondary sources. Archival materials were gathered in the Sudan and Britain. In the Sudan, the National Records Office in Khartoum (NRO) is a rich source of information on all aspects of pre-colonial, colonial, and postcolonial Sudanese history. The most important materials used in this article are the records of Civil Secretary Office, the Intelligence Department, the files of Khartoum Province and Northern Province, the archives of the Railway Department. Archival sources in Britain include the British National Archives in London and the Sudan Archives of the University of Durham. At the National Archives, the Foreign Office Files cover many aspects of the Anglo-Egyptian administration in the Sudan. The richest source of information on Sudanese history in Britain is the Sudan Archives at the University of Durham, which includes the papers of officials, soldiers, missionaries, and private individuals who served or lived in the Sudan during the Anglo-Egyptian period.

Further Readings

Abu Salim, M. I. Tarikh Al-Khartoum. Beirut: Dar Al-Jeil, 1991.Find this resource:

Barbour, K. M. The Republic of Sudan: A Regional Geography. London: University of London Press, 1961.Find this resource:

Fawzi, Saad ed-Din. “Some Aspects of Urban Housing in Northern Sudan.” Sudan Notes and Records 35 (1954): 91–110.Find this resource:

Fawzi, Saad ed-Din. The Labour Movement in the Sudan, 1946–1955. London: Oxford University Press, 1957.Find this resource:

Henderson, K. D. D. Sudan Republic. New York and Washington: F. A. Praeger, 1965.Find this resource:

Hill, R. Egypt in the Sudan, 1820–1881. London: Oxford University Press, 1958.Find this resource:

McLoughlin, P. “The Sudan’s Three Towns: A Demographic and Economic Profile of an African Urban Complex,” Part III. Economic Development and Cultural Change 12.1 (October 1963): 286–304.Find this resource:

Perkins, K. J. Port Sudan: The Evolution of a Colonial City. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Rehfisch, F. “A Sketch of the Early History of Omdurman.” Sudan Notes and Records 45 (1964): 35–47.Find this resource:

Santi, P., and R. Hill, eds. The Europeans in the Sudan, 1834–1878. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.Find this resource:

Simpson, R. “Town Planning and Development during the Condominium: Two Extracts from a Memoir.” Modernization in the Sudan. Edited by M. W. Daly, 73–84. New York: Lilian Barber, 1985.Find this resource:

Stevenson, R. C., “Three Impressions of Khartoum during the Turkiya.” Sudan Notes and Records 41 (1960): 101–106.Find this resource:

Walkley, C. E. J. “The Story of Khartoum.” Sudan Notes and Records, 19.1 (1936), 71–92.Find this resource:


(1.) R. C. Stevenson, “Khartoum during the Turco-Egyptian Occupation,” in Urbanization and Urban Life in the Sudan, ed. Valdo Pons (Hull, U.K.: Development Studies Center at Hull University 1980), 115. See also, Ahmad Sikainga, “Slavery and Social Life in the Nineteenth-Century Turco-Egyptian Khartoum,” in Race and Slavery in the Middle East; Histories of Trans-Saharan Africans in 19th Century Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Mediterranean, eds. Terence Walz and Kenneth Cuno (New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2011), 147–170.

(2.) Ahmad Sikainga, Slaves into Workers: Emancipation and Labor in Colonial Sudan (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), 73–95.

(3.) Ahmad Alawad Sikainga, City of Steel and Fire: A Social History of Atabara, Sudan’s Railway Town, 1906–1984 (Portsmouth, U.K.: Heinemann, 2002).

(4.) Ibid., 47–49.

(5.) Sudan Reports, 1902, p. 312.

(6.) Sikainga, Slaves into Workers.

(7.) Sudan Reports, 1912, p. 144.

(8.) NRO, 2Kh.P. 32/1/1, D.C., Khartoum to Governor, Khartoum Province, January 16, 1945.

(9.) SAD 50/1/6: Storrar Diary, November 12, 1907.

(10.) Sikainga, City of Steel and Fire. See also “Atbara,” Al-`Arabi Magazine, No. 154, September 1971, p. 106.

(11.) Kenneth Little, “The C Urbanization,” American Anthropologist 59 (1957): 579–596; and A. L. Epstein, Politics in an Urban African Community (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1958).

(12.) F. Rehfisch, “A Rotating Credit Association in the Three Towns,” in Essays in Sudan Ethnography Essays in Sudan, eds. Ian Cunnison and Wendy James (New York: Humanities Press, 1972), 189–200.

(13.) NRO, NP 1/12/68, History of Clubs and Societies in Atbara.

(14.) NRO, NP 1/12/68, Petition to District Commissioner, Atbara, November 13, 1933.

(15.) Ibid.

(16.) NRO, NP 1/12/68, Committee of Kuri Society to D.C., Atbara, January 1, 1934.

(17.) NRO, NP 2/34/401, Societies Functioning in Atbara, 1945.

(18.) Ibid.

(19.) Ibid.

(20.) NP 2/57/586, Evangelical Church Atbara, to Director of Education, February 7, 1947.

(21.) NRO, NP 2/34/384, Societies Functioning in Atbara.

(22.) Ibid.

(23.) Phyllis M. Martin, Leisure and Society in Colonial Brazzaville (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Frederick Cooper, “Urban space”; and Remi Glignet and Maureen Stark, “Modernization and Football in Cameroun,” Journal of Modern African Studies 12.3 (1974): 409–421.

(24.) Jum`a Jabir, al-Musiqa al-Sudaniyah: tarikh, turath, hawiyah, naqd (Khartoum: Sharikat al-Farabi, 1986), 33.

(25.) Ibid., 29.

(26.) Ibid., 89.

(27.) Sikainga, City of Steel and Fire, 78–79.

(28.) NRO, NP 2/33/386, D.C. Atbara to Governor, Northern Province, December 8, 1945.

(29.) SAD 294/7/ 1–56.

(30.) Ibid.

(31.) Ibid.

(32.) Ibid.

(33.) Terence Ranger, “Pugilism and Pathology: African Boxing and the Black Urban Experience,” in Sports in Africa: Essays in Social History, eds. William Baker and James A. Mangan (New York and London: Africana Publishing Company, 1987), 196–213; see also in the same volume, Anthony Kirk-Greene, “Imperial Administration and the Athletic Imperative: The Case of the District Officer in Africa,” 81–113.

(34.) SAD, APK 1500, The Atbarabian, July 1927, p. 12.

(35.) Ibid., vol. 2, August 1, 1927, p. 3.

(36.) This was an uprising led by the Sudanese battalions of the Egyptian army and other Sudanese nationalists against the British colonial regime.

(37.) Mahjoub `Umar Bashari, Ruwwad al-Fikir al-Sudani (Khartoum: Dar al-Fikir, 1981), 88–90.

(38.) Ibid., 15–18.

(39.) Ibid.

(40.) Ibid., 114–118.

(41.) Ibid.

(42.) Ibid., September 1948.

(43.) Sikainga, City of Steel and Fire, 92.

(44.) Kamal Hamza, Murshid Baladiyat Atbara (Khartoum: Tamadun Press, 1958), 52.

(45.) Sudan Railways Bulletin, September 1945.

(46.) NRO, NP 2/23/384, Clubs and Societies Functioning in Atbara, 1945.

(47.) Al-Tayyib Hassan Al-Tayyib, mudhakirat `an al-Harka al-`Ummaliyya (Khartoum: Khartoum University Press, 1989), 5.

(48.) Sudan Railways Bulletin, October 1945.

(49.) Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, “The Process of Urbanization in Africa (From the Origins to the Beginning of Independence),” African Studies Review 34.1 (April 1991): 35–36; Anderson & Rathbone, Africa’s Urban Past (Oxford and Portsmouth, NH: James Currey and Heinemann, 2000); Frederick Cooper, ed., Struggle for the City: Migrant Labor, Capital and the State in Urban Africa (Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE, 1983); and Bill Freund, The African City: A History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

(50.) Freund, The African City, 65–107.

(51.) Paul Maylam and Iain Edwards, The People’s City: African Life in Twentieth-Century Durban (Portsmouth, U.K.: Heinemann, 1996).