The air is hot, dry and full of dust. The omnipresent odor of exhaust fumes and litter mixes with the smell of fresh bread, onion and the heavy scent of incense. That’s the smell of Sudan- the place where time is not counted by clocks and the life goes on between one prayer and another. Days are divided by glasses of sweet mint tea and cups of strong coffee with ginger served by a chubby Ethiopian girl. In this country all important meetings happen bokra– tomorrow, if that’s the God’s will.
I am observing faces. Shiny with sweat, they seem to melt under the hot Sun and twist in wide, snow-white smiles. I look at women- their cheeks are covered with shuluh– traditional cuts on skin to make them look more beautiful. Children are running around them dusted with sand, chasing a stray dog or eating tahina– a local kind of halvah. They all look back at me. After all, khawageya– a white woman is a great attraction in Khartoum.
Chaos took over the whole city. Stalls, low houses, cafes and booths are scattered across the streets without any logic. Each neighbourhood at first glance seems shady, every bar looks lousy. Car horns howl loudly, mothers scream, children cry, someone laughs and each speaker wheezes another song. Local shopkeepers shout and try to persuade to buy mangoes, oranges and grapefruits. Shops expose huge wedding dresses of taffeta and tulle, embroidered with hundreds of zircons, waiting for their brides. Old ladies wrap tightly their curvy bodies with coloured scarves called thaub. Young girls allow their headscarves slip on their shoulders. Hands and feet of some bear traces of recently applied henna.
Nubian woman with traditional shuluh on her face
The feast starts and the table is stuffed with local foods. In front of me sits a bowl of crushed broad beans with egg, tomato and onion- Sudanese foul. It is followed by molokheya– a sticky green sauce made with local vegetable and kisra– a thin sour pancake. Next to it someone put a plate with aseeda– a porridge made out of corn. It shakes like a grey jelly and frightens all foreigners offered to try it. We are lucky to have also some chewy goat meat and fried chicken. There is shatta in a small dish, a spice for piquant food lovers and a flatbread for everyone- it replaces a spoon.
Left-handed people are having a hard time- it is compulsory to eat with the right hand. For dessert we have halvah with yoghurt, karkade ( hibiscus juice) and guava milkshake.
Same as all foreigners in the capital, I also attend the most popular events. In Omdurman I witness the Friday prayer of Sufi Muslims- dervish. Dressed in green, they spin around for hours, dance, sing and drum to worship Allah. After that I catch amjad- a Sudanese rickshaw, and head to the souk- the market place. If you know where to look, you can find there a very old jewelry, pots and tribal art. Prepared for long hours of negotiations, bargaining and many cups of tea, I stay patient and simply have fun. It always pays off.
Dervish in Omdurman
The other part of the city offers just as exciting attractions. Nuba wrestling attracts hundreds of men each week. It is hard not to notice that a white girl chewing roasted locust on a bench is for some of them more entertaining than the sport event itself.
Night doesn’t bring a respite from the swelter. The walls of the small hotel on the first floor somewhere in the city center radiate unbearable heat. In a tiny room with no windows even fan seems to be tired. It rotates, slowly cutting through the thick air but does not bring a relief. Clothes and hair stick to my hot skin. Mosquitoes feast. I fall asleep in the morning to wake up again with the first call of a muezzin. It’s alright that I haven’t slept a wink, it really does not matter. Soon I will see the real Sudan, the third cataract of the Nile and Nubia. It is time to go.
In the early morning I catch the bus. It will take me to Suakin- a sea side town with wide beaches and tasty fish. It’s a perfect place to be if you want to relax and enjoy rural Sudan.
Nothing compares though with Kassala. The rocky mountains there look like huge grey eggs and keep out of sight their biggest secrets. If you climb high enough you find a mountain café, ornamented with vivid colors and African tribal patterns painted on rocks. Sitting on huge cushions and drinking coffee from a tiny cup I feel like there is no better place to be. Local boys show me wild monkeys living in caves.
Later on I visit the oldest mosque in the region. It looks like a castle made of sand, ready to fall with the weakest wind blow. It is the most peaceful and beautiful temple I have ever seen.
I hit the road again to find out that not only Egypt has the pyramids. Only 400 km north from Khartoum in the town of Karima you can see Sudanese ones, as impressive and beautiful as those in Giza. From the top of Jabal Barkal- a small, flat mountain, I had a perfect view on pyramids as well as on the remains of the Amun temple sitting at its feet. This region belongs to Nubia and it’s situated between 5th and 4th Nile Cataract, not far from my destination.
Finally I reach Jawgul village located on the third cataract of the river, my home for the next few weeks. Conversations with Nubian women allow me to discover another face of Sudan. In the shady garden full of children and neighbours, Nubian girls behave freely and naturally. They take off their scarves, roll up dresses and show smooth knees. They lay down comfortably on beds and mats, totally relaxed. An old woman washes her feet in a tub scrubbing her heels with soap. Kalthouma, my friend and a teacher in local school, is sitting crouched and hulls the beans. We drink tea and I ask about local magic. They respond willingly and freely. Giggling, they argue and joke with each other and with me. Each of them is having her own opinion and a point of view.
Kathouma’s son- Muhammad
I meet Shaykha. She is a very old woman endowed with zar– the power of healing. As every healer she wears red. Her ears and nose are decorated with heavy, gold earrings and on her neck hangs a medallion- gifts from cured people. Her skin is as thin as parchment, one strand of her white, sparse hair is red.
Shaykha probably did not understand the purpose of my visit in her dark, secluded house and begins the rite of zar to heal me. She kindles incense, takes a sip from a bottle full of something that tastes like perfume. I know the savour because I have to drink it as well. She spits on me the mouthful of the smelly mixture and starts to hit herself very strongly with a long leather whip murmuring Nubian spells.
Red strand in Sheikha’s hair
Suddenly we can hear the muezzin calling for a prayer from the minaret. The atmosphere in the room changes dramatically. Women present in the room calm the sheikha, beg her to stop. Apparently it is a sin to perform magic in a prayer time.
Later on I was explained that those strong whips do not hurt, even though there are visible cuts on woman’s legs. They don’t come from the Satan so they don’t cause pain. It was my last day in Nubia.
I fell in love with the women from Sudan. With the Ladies who give birth to their children and bury placentas in the sand. With the ones who graduate from universities, travel far and come back. With all those with great passions and talents. With women who kiss the lips of their daughters and sons with their black-inked lips. With girls who wait; for a husband and for a child, for a prayer, for the sunset that brings relief, for the rain.