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Old 17th July 2012, 11:33 AM   #1
Rumpel
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Default Modern Sudanese 'Arm Daggers'

I've just come back from a 5-week embed with the SPLA-N rebels of Sudan's Blue Nile state, and was surprised and gratified to find the traditional Sudanese 'arm dagger' is still very much a current accoutrement to war.

In truth, few soldiers wear them on their arms; those that do seem mostly to come from the nomadic, Muslim Ingessena tribe from the Baw mountain range in North-Central Blue Nile. Most wear them in their webbing, tucked away with their AK magazines.

The knives I saw were all made in the market town and refugee camp of Bunj, in Maban County, South Sudan, by Blue Nile refugees. The steel is recycled, apparently, from railway sleepers 'borrowed' from the Sennar-Ed Damezin-Khartoum railway, deep in government territory. The blades rust quickly in the dampness of rainy season, and are restored with a vigorous rub with charcoal.

Sheaths are either of hammered aluminium or orange-dyed goatskin with lizard-skin detailing. Prices vary between $5 and around $8, depending on size. The largest I saw, about the size of a yataghan, belonged to a Jumjum tribal chief and rebel officer (unfortunately, no photos).

They are called either 'siqin' (Arabic) or 'kantal' (Uduk), in both cases meaning simply 'knife.' They are used as general purpose tools, from chopping kindling and slaughtering and butchering goats to fixing broken electronics (stripping wiring, and as inefficient screwdrivers).

I bought a couple (actually, I bought three, but my colleague lost one in the confusion of an aborted ambush, annoyingly). Photos to follow.

I wore one (faintly ridiculously) on my belt the whole time, to universal approval. "Tamam (good)," one soldier said, "when you wear a siqin you feel like a man."

The point of the post is, partly, to illustrate that crude, modern versions of traditional knives aren't necessarily purely for the tourist market...
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Old 17th July 2012, 11:39 AM   #2
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More photos.

The first is of a knife dealer in Yabus-Bala suq in Blue Nile: the knives are actually made South Sudan's Bunj/Doro refugee camp, and imported for sale by traders affiliated with the SPLA-N.
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Last edited by Rumpel : 17th July 2012 at 01:40 PM.
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Old 17th July 2012, 11:45 AM   #3
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"I've just come back from a 5-week embed with the SPLA-N rebels of Sudan's Blue Nile state, and was surprised and gratified to find the traditional Sudanese 'arm dagger' is still very much a current accoutrement to war."

Which makes you officially the most committed researcher of Sudanese arm daggers in the world ever!


Seriously though. Interesting pictures and info thanks for sharing.
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Old 17th July 2012, 12:47 PM   #4
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Atlantia: thanks!

Below are my daggers (cigarette for scale...).

The symbols are makers' marks but- so the smiths say- "mean nothing."

Note incipient rust: tsk. The daggers were bought on the day of manufacture, in late June. Damp place, Blue Nile.
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Old 17th July 2012, 12:52 PM   #5
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Hi Rumpel,
What are they making them out of> What's the source for the steel?
Is it just a guy with a few basic tools and a fire or are they made in little workshops?
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Old 17th July 2012, 12:58 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Atlantia
Hi Rumpel,
What are they making them out of> What's the source for the steel?
Is it just a guy with a few basic tools and a fire or are they made in little workshops?


The steel comes from railway sleepers, so they say.

They're forged in little outdoor ateliers in Bunj suq. Two or three smiths, each with a teenage apprentice or two. Then they're handed to two sheath-makers, one who hammers the metal sheaths together, and one who sews together leather/lizardskin sheaths. They also make fearsome-looking barbed spearheads from (I think) old steel oil drums, though unfortunately i didn't bring one back.

Officers tend to carry axes instead of daggers, as a mark of status. I'll dig up some photos.
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Old 17th July 2012, 01:17 PM   #7
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Very interesting reading and photos. Thanks for posting this.
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Old 17th July 2012, 02:32 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rumpel
The steel comes from railway sleepers, so they say.

They're forged in little outdoor ateliers in Bunj suq. Two or three smiths, each with a teenage apprentice or two. Then they're handed to two sheath-makers, one who hammers the metal sheaths together, and one who sews together leather/lizardskin sheaths. They also make fearsome-looking barbed spearheads from (I think) old steel oil drums, though unfortunately i didn't bring one back.

Officers tend to carry axes instead of daggers, as a mark of status. I'll dig up some photos.



VERY Interesting! Those are very reminiscent of Jerz axes.
Where's Stu?
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Old 17th July 2012, 04:33 PM   #9
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Really amazing. This is the stuff that makes being here so addictive. A little scary?
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Old 17th July 2012, 06:29 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tim Simmons
A little scary?


Only the millipedes. Horrible buggers. We got bombed and shelled a few times, but SAF are awful shots, alhamdulillah.

The SPLA-N are incredible guys- a confederation of tribal warriors who believe in magic amulets, witchdoctors, sacred rivers and so on.

Watching them dance a war dance before wiping out a government garrison was quite something; a western army could roll them up in a day, but I was privileged to observe a traditional African tribal confederation at war before a) missionaries and b) modern technology could wipe them out as a culture. They won't last long, in the same form, but in so far as they still exist they're a magnificent sight. The best of luck to them.

Last edited by Rumpel : 18th July 2012 at 08:46 AM.
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Old 17th July 2012, 06:33 PM   #11
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Wonderfully educational post and photos. Thank you.
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Old 17th July 2012, 06:38 PM   #12
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The chaps with the axes. They are officers? Top brass? They follow a traditional form of status axe, also weapon axes. I am very keen on status weapon like objects. Do modern western military still carry swagger sticks and batons?
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Old 17th July 2012, 06:46 PM   #13
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Sorry just read that they are officers. Here is an old 19th century status axe from the same region.
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Old 17th July 2012, 09:01 PM   #14
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Tim, the odd thing (I'm ex-Army) is how they utilise the old British Army rank structure. Only Lt Cols and above are allowed axes...

They're 1/3 British Army, 1/3 Ethiopian Marxism and 1/3 tribal warfare: fascinating, doomed and utterly romantic...

Edit: axes are exactly equivalent to swagger sticks/riding crops in the British Army.
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Old 17th July 2012, 09:36 PM   #15
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Wow, Very interesting thread. It is fantastic to see traditional blades still being used versus some mass produced factory made blade in some other country on the other side of the globe. Thank you Rumpel for sharing!
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Old 18th July 2012, 12:48 AM   #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rumpel
The symbols are makers' marks but- so the smiths say- "mean nothing."
may be, to avoid to give a long explanation, and more specially to a foreigner (may be not Muslim)
who hasn't been initialized about "talismans and charms"

for time being, I'm reading a book, title
- Pagan survivals in Mohammedan civilization by Edvard Westermarc - (1937)
Professor of Sociology at London University - the book is in French, after been translated

but what I'm seeing in your pic, is (according with the book) ;
- a human representation, with; arms and legs opened
- 2 x 5 fingers, talismanic evocation, to combat the "evil eye"
5 being, as his multiples, a "sacred number"
- cross, possible to be a "charm" to attract the attention of "evil eye", also, to help the dispersion of forces malignant

the "logic" in all that, it's to avoid to be under target of "Jinns" - evil spirits

all what is on above, it's pure speculation from my part, and absolutely subjective

otherwise, very interesting report about the propagation of same edged weapons,
by new fabrications through centuries, even at era of AK47

ŕ +

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Old 18th July 2012, 07:48 AM   #17
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Hi Rumpel,
Thank you for shering this photos and very interesting remark about SPLM/North fighters !
Regards, Martin
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Old 18th July 2012, 11:48 AM   #18
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Very interesting! certainly great to see these people still maintaining a part of their cultures.
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Old 18th July 2012, 02:53 PM   #19
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Absolutely phenomenal!!! Nicely done Rumpel, and glad to see you returned from these regions safely and thank you for such a fascinating view into troubled areas with tribal cultures prevailing still. We have long tried to asset that not all traditional weapons made in modern times are 'tourist stuff', and here is the proof.
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Old 18th July 2012, 06:22 PM   #20
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Hi Aris,
very informative, thank you.
typically the troubles in the Sudan are rarely reported in the UK or, I suspect, the US ..... why ? Sudan's lack of oil perhaps

All the best
David
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Old 22nd July 2012, 02:20 AM   #21
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Thanks chaps...

Dom: that was utterly fascinating, and I strongly suspect you're right. Unfortunately, the smiths seemed genuinely quite irritated by me asking the meaning of the marks, and my 'minder,' a product of American missionary education, was quite keen to dismiss any evidence of pre-monotheistic belief... until it became too undeniable.

Tim, I've fallen in love with that axe... do you know whereabouts it's from, and when exactly? Mahdist or later? Increasingly, I think all of Sudan is a single culture area, weapon-wise, but I don't know for how long that"s been the case.

The semi-hunter-gathering Maban tribe, who splurge across the border, make some beautiful spears, but I don't have photos... but if anyone can point me to an interesting resource on Sudanese weapons, I'd be awfully grateful.

One interesting thing, as a long-time admirer of Sudanese weapons (BM: Durham University Collection; Pitt Rivers), was the wooden analogues to the fearsome, almost fantasy-like steel weapons seen in 19th c collections.

The wooden versions, at least, are called sarfraq or safrag, depending on thickness of dialect. Most peasants carried them; one colonel did, from a minority Muslim tribe, an old polished one, hanging from his shoulder. They use them as sort of boomerangs, to kill the plentiful Guinea fowl- or as threats in drunken arguments.

I'd be very surprised if the metal versions didn't descend from the God-knows-how-old wooden versions, at least considering Sudan's very ancient, Egyptian-influenced Neolithic culture.
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Old 22nd July 2012, 03:51 AM   #22
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rumpel
Tim, the odd thing (I'm ex-Army) is how they utilise the old British Army rank structure. Only Lt Cols and above are allowed axes...

They're 1/3 British Army, 1/3 Ethiopian Marxism and 1/3 tribal warfare: fascinating, doomed and utterly romantic...

Edit: axes are exactly equivalent to swagger sticks/riding crops in the British Army.

Hi Rumpel
Don't forget that the Brits held sway in the Sudan amongst most other Middle Eastern countries during colonial times. The army ranks are no doubt a "hand me down" from those times, and to be honest the "graduated" British rank structure is quite a simple one to follow.
Gene----yes I am here and those axes do look a bit like the so called Jerz. I will let our "more learned friend" take up on this...............no doubt he will..........
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Old 22nd July 2012, 09:12 AM   #23
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Rumpel, this axe in the Pittrivers museum Oxford is assigned to the Nuer but as you can see from the ethnic map link this is rather a broad statement. Different ethnic groups may also carry very similar stvle of axe.

http://southernsudan.prm.ox.ac.uk/d...1946.8.91_b.jpg

Map

http://www1.american.edu/ted/ICE/im...-groups-map.jpg
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Old 27th July 2012, 07:18 PM   #24
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rumpel, very nice post......................jimmy
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Old 27th July 2012, 09:40 PM   #25
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Rumpel, thankyou for these posts. I will look at some of the stuff at arms fairs with different eyes now.
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