I landed yesterday in southern Sudan, where voters are scheduled to decide on Jan. 9 whether their semiautonomous region should split off from the north to form a new, independent nation. (A recent poll suggests the south will vote to secede.) The north-south narrative in Sudan is a complicated one, framed by decades of bloody war and ongoing tussles over a five-year-old peace agreement, yet it almost always gets simplified to "Arab north vs. African south," or "Muslim north vs. Christian and animist south."
The religious differences are just the beginning. To the traveler, northern Sudan feels like Egypt while the south is reminiscent of Uganda or Kenya. To the policymaker, the south is the friend of the United States while Khartoum is sponsored by the Arab world. You can drink with abandon (and many do) in Juba - beer, gin and whiskey trucked up by the case from Uganda - while Khartoum, the national capital in the north, enforces sharia law. It is easy to emphasize the disparities, which seem to make secession a foregone conclusion.
So I was somewhat surprised to see, riding from the airport into the boomtown southern capital of Juba, most signs and billboards printed in English and Arabic. I was even more surprised to hear my taxi driver answer his phone, "Marhaba? Tamaam." I got into another car that was blasting Lebanese pop music and heard cell phone busy messages in Arabic and I began to wonder why I never thought of Arabic as the lingua franca of the south just as it is in the north.
Arabic was taught in the government schools, of course, until war destroyed the education system in the 1980s and 1990s. Linguists have even defined a dialect called Juba Arabic, a local pidgin dating to the 19th century. A friend in Juba tells me that the southern president, Salva Kiir, often seems more comfortable speaking in Arabic than in English.
It was the simplest of impressions formed in my first hours in southern Sudan. Yet it offered a reminder that this has long been one nation, if just barely, and if that changes it will mean something is lost.