So I was reading this book, Emma’s War by Deborah Scroggins. It’s about the Sudanese civil war and I came across the Sudanese term for white people-Khawaja.

In Singapore and Malaysia, the slang term for white people is Ang Mo (which literally means redhead in Hokkien). In Swahili, they use the term ‘mzungu’ to refer to the same.
I found the Sudanese Arabic term particularly interesting  because that’s my family name. Khawaja. And I have no Sudanese or Arab lineage. 

My family traces their lineage back to a group of settlers in the valley of Kashmir.  My ancestors were the guardians of the many passes that served as entrances to the valley. ‘Khawaja’ was an honorary title bestowed to these guardians.

The same title is used across the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia, particularly for Sufi teachers. The word comes from the Persin word khwāja (New Persian khājé) and translates as “master”or “lord”. Different spellings such as hodja or hoca in Turkish, hodža in Bosnian, hoxha in  Albanian, hodža,  hogea in Romanian and al-khawaja are also used.

It’s interesting how over time this term was assimilated into Sudanese Arabic and used to refer to the colonial masters, the lords of the time, the White man 

According to 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, in Egypt and Sudan, usage of the term probably appeared under the Ottomans whose officials often used Persian or Turkish. 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. The term may have been used to refer to Europeans specifically around 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. 

It’s amazing how colonial experiences have had such enduring linguistic influences. Makes me want to dig deeper.


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