The princess and the tea: how Darfur's royal family fell from grace
A small woman with greying braids sits under a tree in front of Khartoum’s Ombada prison, looking tired in the stifling afternoon heat.
It’s hard to imagine that this 70-year-old woman is the princess of a territory the size of France. Or rather, she would have been, if her great-grandfather, Sultan Ali Dinar, hadn’t been killed by the British army 100 years ago.
Despite her royal heritage, Suad Fadul has spent the past 20 years selling tea and dumplings outside the prison, one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, and sharing a home with her eight children and grandchildren.
“I sell tea because I don’t want to ask people for money. When you have your own money in your pocket, it’s the best thing,” she says, speaking on the 100th anniversary of the events that changed her family’s future forever.
As leader of the independent state of , Dinar’s increasingly close relationship with the Ottoman Empire – and his ban on European visitors – prompted the British to launch a preemptive invasion in 1916. The Sultan was killed and his rebellion against Anglo-Egyptian rule quashed.
Dinar’s children, including Saud’s grandfather, Saif al Dain, were forced to flee for fear the British would target the heirs to his dynasty. Ismail Karbino, a Sudanese historian, says many were forced to live quietly and that “in some cases they even changed their names, otherwise they would be killed”.
The British incorporation of Darfur marked the beginning of a volatile union, which in 2003 culminated in a brutal civil war between Arab tribes loyal to Khartoum and local groups, leading to the deaths of an estimated 500,000 people, many from Dinar’s own tribe, the Fur.
When gained its independence in 1956, Fadul’s family hoped the years of marginalisation would come to an end. But they were subjected to persecution by the successive national governments in Khartoum once again.
Karbino explains: “All the governments that ruled Sudan following the British avoided Dinar’s family because they were aware of the power and charisma Dinar’s family still has, which could have led them to rule Darfur away from Khartoum. They did not want that.”
Sulieman Ali, one of Dinar’s sons who remained in Darfur, was given a position as a manual labourer by the British, a way to “demote Dinar’s family”, according to Sudanese historian Abdullah Adam Khatir.
“The national governments are an extension of colonialism,” Khatir says. “They all kept ruling Sudan from Khartoum to humiliate others and value whoever they want just like the British general governors did in Sudan.”
Fadul herself was born in North Kordofan. Unlike some of her cousins, she didn’t go to school. “I used to be a rebel in my childhood. I didn’t like going to school and my family didn’t insist on it. But now I regret it – my life could have been different,” she says.
Fadul stayed with her family until she married her second husband, Rabih, who worked as a solider in Khartoum. She went on to have six children and set up her own small restaurant at the Souq Libya market in Omdurman.
Then, as old age approached, she switched to selling tea, joining a legion of other so-called tea ladies who sell snacks on the city’s roadsides, most of whom are also from Sudan’s war-torn areas. “The most difficult thing about this job is the sugar is really expensive and the prices are always going up, so I can’t make a profit,” Fadul explains.
But despite living away from her homeland, she has stayed closely connected to Darfur. “As the family of Ali Dinar, we usually meet at funerals and weddings,” she says “and we’ve got a WhatsApp group now to exchange our news and events.”
Fadul says she has been deeply affected by the war in Darfur since 2003, and has lost many family members. This includes her son-in-law, who was killed for rebel activity in Minwashi town in South Darfur when the conflict first broke out.
Her widowed daughter, Aisha, now sells homemade breads too, which helps with raising her two children and providing rent for her mother.
Fadul explains that the recent referendum in Darfur on whether the region should be joined into one state or remain as five separate ones, was her last chance to see the region unified, as it had been under her great-grandfather.
“If it was fair and they had given people a chance to vote for one unity, it would be as if the power of our grandfather had returned,” she says.
The referendum was boycotted by rebels and activists, with very little participation from local people. Analysts suggest the vote was merely a way for president , who was indicted by the international criminal court for war crimes in the region, to begin to rehabilitate his image.
Fadul is no supporter of Bashir. “He’s failed to rule the country, he’s killed many people, displaced many more, and our children cannot get jobs because of the [Arab] favouritism in Sudan,” she says.
Though she has accepted her fate, Fadul says she can’t help but think about how things might have been different. “I am a princess, if Dinar were not killed and Darfur was not incorporated into Sudan I could have been a real princess with many palaces in Darfur and actual power.”
Instead, she goes back to selling her tea and dumplings in the shade of the tree.
This article is part of the . For one day we’re handing over the reins to a group of young Sudanese and South Sudanese journalists who have been reporting on the issues facing their countries today. From clubbing to beauty politics, police crackdowns to the ongoing war in Darfur, their stories offer a new way to understand this under-reported region