Sudan is a country that you are far more likely to see on the front pages of the newspaper – whether for the war in Darfur or the ICC’s arrest warrants against President Al-Bashir or the recent referendum where nearly 99% of southern Sudanese voters decided that they want an independent South Sudan – than in the travel section. But even in as politically volatile a place as Sudan, there is an incredible amount to see and do and learn and absorb, to enjoy and to engage with, to celebrate and to embrace.
At the end of 2010, I spent four weeks in the capital, Khartoum, working as a political observer for the US-based Carter Center, observing and reporting on preparations for the historic referendum, the unassailable results of which were announced in February and which will officially lead to the creation of the world’s newest country in July. Khartoum is in the North, where the prevailing sentiment was pro-unity, albeit with salient pro-separation pockets among Southerners living there. There was thus understandable anxiety in the capital about the impending fracture of the country, and trepidation about the potential for renewed violence after decades of civil war.
Khartoum itself is a hot, vibrant city, with such a mix of cultures and economies that it can be difficult to paint a cohesive picture. The blatant economic inequality that is the hallmark of much of the developing world takes on a particularly problematic character here as it often matches ethnic divisions. A half-hour drive from the grandiose Presidential Palace and the stunning Libyan-built 5-star Burj Al-Fateh hotel on the tree-lined Nile Road, are the sprawling, sandy, often bitter IDP camps populated by those who fled the fighting in the South during what is Africa’s longest civil war, as well as more recent entrants from Darfur.
The city is made up of three distinct areas, divided by the Niles and linked by impressively imposing bridges: Khartoum proper, the official and commerical downtown core; Khartoum North, a more industrial part; and Omdurman, the cultural heartland. Khartoum is home to a particularly interesting geographic landmark – Al-Mogran, where the White Nile and the Blue Nile meet. Arab poets have called it the ‘the longest kiss in history’, and it is a wonderful symbol of confluence and harmony in a city where so much history and so many hopes so passionately collide.
The people that I met and worked with in Khartoum are some of the warmest and kindest I have had the fortune to come across. The Northern Sudanese culture is very clearly marked by such generosity and hospitality that it can be overwhelmingly heart-warming. This could especially be seen by the way people, even strangers, greet one another – with the warmest smiles, handshakes and hugs all around.
The Sudanese are also known for being very honest and trustworthy. I witnessed this first-hand when a random labourer who found my mobile phone when I dropped it somewhere, went out of his way to first contact me and then to bring the phone back to me, despite barriers of distance and language. Another arresting image is that of seemingly abandoned stalls, as shopkeepers would go for Friday prayers, with their wares still out until they returned. It speaks volumes of a society that is characterised by such mutual trust and cooperation.
Although the Northern Sudanese speak Arabic, there is also something distinctly African about them, an earthiness that is quite different from their co-linguists in the Gulf (where I grew up). And there were many other unexpected and fascinating inter-cultural links I found. Khartoum is probably the last place I would have expected to be introduced to the magic of Bob Marley, but people there are ardent fans of reggae music, evident in the amount of playtime it got on the referendum campaign trail. Even more unexpectedly, I encountered many Bollywood fans; in fact, the only thing that could displace reggae in the car stereo was Hindi love songs! Aside from politics, there were numerous heated discussions about that other most divisive of topics – football, with the English Premier League having some seriously keen followers. Finally, the fact that we were staying in a Chinese hotel (quite a bizarre experience) further underlined how Sudan is not as isolated as it may seem.
Though social lives in Khartoum tend to revolve around families and food, there were a multitude of other activities for us to indulge in. The Nile provided great opportunities for boating and fishing, its glimmering waters a perfect foil to the sandy bustling streets around it. I also attended two very different concerts – one by a drug-abusing pop sensation that inspired near-frenzy in an outdoor amphitheatre; the other by a group of young people performing powerful spoken word poetry in a tucked-away café whose owner acts as a patron of the (often alternative) arts in the city.
I had the most amazing food in Khartoum. There are many different restaurants in the city, serving everything from chicken tikka to red velvet cupcakes. But the most memorable things were definitely the local ones – the hot fluffy bread, balady, that we grabbed from the corner shop each morning; the platter of fried fish just caught from the Nile that afternoon; the packets of ta’miyya, crunchy falafel buttons; and the freshly squeezed juices available everywhere, with the guava packing quite a punch.
The community aspect and down-to-earth nature of Khartoum society can also be seen in the ubiquitous tea stalls in Khartoum, which serve small glasses of shockingly sugary though deliciously customised (mint for me!) tea and coffee. Whether alone on a street corner or grouped with others in something of an outdoor cafe, these tea stalls provided relaxation, revival as as well as opportunities for lively conversation, another memorable hallmark of Khartoum life.
My best food memories were those that also reflected uniquely Sudanese social experiences. We often lunched on ful, cooked and mashed fava beans with sesame oil poured and crumbly Sudanese cheese added on top, eaten with local bread, with a side of boiled eggs. Although served in smarter establishments, this staple meal is also sold by street vendors, and we would often sit on multi-coloured plastic crates, under the shade of a tree, chatting away as we happily dug into the communal bowl of ful.
Contrasting with the simple food was Souq Omdurman, a huge bazaar, a hub of commercial activity and a fantastic place to wander around, soaking up the sights and sounds in the different sections – clothes, shoes, knick-knacks, and also ground hibiscus, gazelle bone jewellery and black henna. However, even the enlivening energy here was no match for what we witnessed at a weekly outdoor gathering of Sufi whirling dervishes. Dancing in circles, stamping their feet rhythmically and chanting repeatedly, for hours, participants were in a spiritual trance, a uniquely expressive and communal custom among these Sudanese Muslims.
Despite Khartoum’s political uncertainties, the obvious poverty and marginalisation, it is ultimately the rich culture and incredible hospitality that left the most lasting impression on me. I was fortunate to be there for work that involved travelling all over the city, focusing on local dynamics and talking to a wide range of people – the best way to be a truly authentic visitor. Travel is always a learning experience, and this is perhaps especially profound in the places you least expect it.