Thesis defence: “The wrestlers of Khartoum, Sudan: An embodied material culture of virility”

In July 2022, Paul Hayes was awarded a PhD in social anthropology from the Australian National University for his dissertation ‘The Wrestlers of Khartoum, Sudan: An Embodied Material Culture of Virility’. Paul conducted his ethnographic research among the wrestlers of Al-Hajj Yusif district, with the support of CEDEJ Khartoum, between 2018 and 2019, amidst the Sudanese revolution. 
Whereas popular and scholarly perspectives on the two Sudans often focus on what divides the peoples of these countries (Arab identities versus African identities, Northerners versus Southerners, Muslims versus Christians, Centre versus Periphery), this study instead spotlights the emergence of a new inter-ethnic configuration of Sudanese personhood which has subverted colonial-era ethnic polarities through the embodied material culture of a martial art. 

The thesis identifies and examines the emergence of the hyper-virile wrestler (ṣabī). The ability to become this ideal masculine figure, imbued with enviable qualities, is not predicated on one’s ethnicity, religion, occupation or political connections, but instead on one’s ability to master specific forms of bodily conduct. The thesis explores how and why ethnically diverse men choose to become hyper-virile wrestlers, and the effects that wrestling has on their bodies, selves and lives. It proposes an understanding of Sudanese wrestling as an embodied material culture of virility comprised of learned bodily conducts, embodied relations to matter, and mystical-religious practices, all of which provoke corporeal and moral changes within the wrestler’s self. 
The study further advances a literature that seeks to understand how bodily techniques and material culture shape human subjects, and highlights new configurations of masculine personhood and male corporeality in majority-Muslim Sudan.  

The thesis was supervised by Professor Francesca Merlan and Dr Azza A. Abdel Aziz, and examined by Professor Rogaia Abusharaf (Georgetown University), Professor Greg Downey (Macquarie University), and Professor Niko Besnier (University of Amsterdam). Rogaia Abusharaf commented that: “This is a superb and rare piece of scholarship that promises to expand the boundaries of Africanist anthropology and ethnographies of gender and sexuality… the most compelling of ethnographic studies carried out on the African continent.” 
The thesis is available online, and a copy will be available at the CEDEJ library in the near future.

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