Abstract

Suakin (Ar. Sawākin) is the second important town of Sudan and a port for Muslim pilgrims bound for Jeddah Its economy is primarily based on fishing. Long before the estabhshment of the present, new town, Suakin was an island town to which cargo ships from the Red Sea ports came and goods from India were transhipped via Jeddah In its heyday, the island town was populated by merchants and traders who came to settle there from African and Arab countnes, mainly Egypt and Sudan, and India and Europe. The majonty of the inhabitants who lived around the island town belonged to the Beja (Ar. Buja or Bujā) groupings, whose ancestry goes back centwies; they were, as they are mainly today, pastorahsts and cultivators. Around the late nineteenth century, members of a distinct Western Arabian ethnic group, the Rashayda (Ar. Rashāʾida; s. Rashīdī), came to Sudan to look for work and live in the hinterland and on the coast. Though the majonty were nomads and herders, several were involved in dhow trading, and a small number settled in Suakin. By the 1930s, however, many buildings in the island town started to crumble into rubble as its inhabitants abandoned the island for better economic prospects in other Red Sea port towns. Subsequently, a new town developed south of the island, including communities from the neighboring region, mainly Cushitic-speaking Beja groupings and other minorities such as the Rashayda, and in recent decades, they were joined by West African pilgrims who chose to settle there on their return from hajj (pilgrimage). Some members of the Beja groups follow occupations related to the sea; many come from the mountains to seek work as fishermen, or divers during the shell-collecting season, or laborers during the hajj season. Fishing activity is centered on the craftsmanship of the dhow builders: the dhows must not only be seaworthy but also specifically designed for fishing and shell collecting. This article will examine maritime activity on the Sudanese coast with particular reference to Suakin, past and present. It will discuss the level of involvement of the Beja and the importance of the role of the Rashayda in this multiethnic community from their arrival in the nineteenth century to the present time; further, it will show how they adapted their knowledge and skills and also show that the maritime terminology used is predominantly Western Arabian and not, as would be expected, Cushitic, as spoken by the Beja groups or linguistic registers of other ethnic groupings. The methodology applied in this research is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in 2004, together with consultation of primary and secondary sources.

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