Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cracking the meaning of Khawaja

Khawaja is the term Sudanese use to refer to foreigners, especially white people (I've seen some people look at Japanese aid workers with a very puzzled look). It is the 'Arabic' equivalent of Swahili's Mzungu. Throughout my time spent here I have tried to figure out the origins or even the root meaning of the term but have always ended up with conflicting, nonsensical or just obviously made up answers. That is until recently when I spoke to my favourite Islamic History Scholar and writer of the forthcoming paper, "The Rise of Early Sufism: A Survey of Recent Scholarship on the Social Dimensions of The Formative Period of Sufism", Harith Ramli:

The title khawaja (also spelt as khwaja, khoja etc.) is originally Persian, meaning 'lord' or 'master'. In Egypt and Sudan, usage of the term probably appeared under the Ottomans (maybe earlier under the Mamluks, but i dont think any earlier), whose officials often used Persian or Turkish (during this period a lot of Persian and Turkish words enter Arabic). Such an official might have been referred to as a 'khawaja' by a local. Then the word gets used to refer to any
high-ranking respectable person, like a rich merchant maybe. I'm not sure at which point it get used to refer to Europeans specifically, but maybe this happened in the 19th century, when a lot
of Europeans were hired as advisors and military officers in the Egyptian army of Muhammad Ali and his descendents. Since Sudan was ruled by Egypt at the time, its quite clear that the
word was transferred during this period, although in Sudan itseems to have more of the specific meaning of 'white person'. I remember some fair looking Sudanese being teased by their friends with the nickname 'khwaja' in Khartoum.

Mystery solved....
Now just 2 questions:
1) Would Sudanese continue to use this term if they were aware of the meaning?
If so,
2) How would awareness of the meaning affect the behaviour of Sudanese towards the international community working there? Would there be some sort of priming effect at play?

1 comment: