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A Cultural Education in Khartoum

The taxi dropped us off in a cemetery outside of town. The gravestones, strewn about, were made of grey cement, and the bodies were buried under mounds of sand. A small crowd of men wearing white jallabiyas had formed a circle beside a giant tomb that looked more like a mosque.

This was the tomb of Hamed al-Nil, a 19th century leader of Sufi Islam. We were about to experience the weekly celebration his Sufi followers.

Khartoum was my first real taste of Sudan, thanks to all the paperwork we had to accomplish upon our arrival. But what could have been a three-night stay in Sudan’s capital turned into an extended ten-day visit, for Khartoum was an unassuming and pleasant capital with lots to see and do. Indeed, it was the perfect place to begin to grasp the seamless marriage of African and Arab that is Sudan.

The celebration started slowly. Three men in white walked counter-clockwise inside the circle formed around them. They beat tambourines and chanted in call-and-response. I understood a few words – hamdulillah (thanks be to God), allah-u-akhbar (God is Great), and la-illallah-illallah (there is no God but God) – so I knew their chants were an opening prayer to God. A few people in the audience, taken by the building momentum, jumped into the circle to dance. One old man had taken so long to remove his shoes that he refused to leave the dancing circle thereafter.

Hamed al-Nil

Hamed al-Nil’s tomb.

The opening prayer ceremony.

The opening prayer ceremony.

Spontaneous dancing

Spontaneous dancing

This was the old man who, once inside the dance circle, refused to get out.  He had us all in stitches!

This was the old man who, once inside the dance circle, refused to get out. He had us all in stitches!

Loud drumming and chanting became audible in the distance. We turned our heads and a large group of men, dressed in green and red patchwork clothing, advanced on us in marching-band formation. Their chants were loud and powerful.

A massive circle was formed beside their leader’s tomb, a space which became sacred. All the rubbish was cleared from the ground, and shoes were henceforth forbidden. The drumming picked up speed, and the repetitive chanting sent the patchwork-men into feverish spells of dancing. A few spun like whirling dervishes. They were losing themselves in the dance, the chants, Allah.

And that was the point of the celebration. Dhikr, the ritual we were experiencing, is the Sufi path to God – reciting his name creates a state of ecstatic abandon that brings them closer to Him. It reminded me of the Baayfaals of Senegal, another mystical branch of Islam.

The official start of the dhikr.

The official start of the dhikr.

Ecstatic dancing and whirling.

Ecstatic dancing and whirling.

I think he was the leader.

I think he was the leader.

The audience looks on.

The audience looks on.

The dhikr was my first real tourist experience in Sudan, but it wasn’t my first brush with Sudanese culture. I’d already walked around Khartoum’s downtown, and there had been much to see and note. On advertisements and store signs was the graceful scrawl of Arabic writing instead of the familiar English alphabet. On shady sidewalks and corners sat women serving shai (black tea) with mint and spices. Next to them, other women sold sweets made from sesame and honey, coconut and pistachio. Men, dressed in loose-fitting, ankle-length jallabiyas and skullcaps sat drinking the sugary shai. The women were covered from head to toe, with only the face – sometimes, only the eyes – staring out into the world.

This wasn’t the Africa I’d come to know over the past three years. I didn’t know quite what to make of it. I didn’t know what my role in this African-Arab country should be.

I was modestly dressed, I’d known that much. Following the adage, when in Rome, I always try to dress with respect in a foreign country. In most of Africa, that meant covering my knees, but here I felt more comfortable covering myself down to the ankles, wearing a high-cut long sleeve top, and wrapping a light scarf around my head. I was suffocating from the heat, but until I learned the rules for foreign women here, I felt it was better to dress on the conservative side.

I quickly noticed, though, that Sudanese men generally didn’t mind addressing me. Often, they shook my hand, made eye contact, and engaged me in conversation. This wasn’t according to the customs of a strict Muslim nation governed by Sharia Law (Islamic Law). It seemed I was being treated like an honorary man! My white skin was finally an advantage! I pulled the scarf down around my shoulders thereafter.

Arab sweets for sale!

Arab sweets for sale!

Shai be dawa and sesame balls!

Shai be dawa and sesame balls!

Who wouldn’t want to buy these gorgeous veggies?

Who wouldn’t want to buy these gorgeous veggies?

Bruno and I spent a few days drinking shai, changing money in the black market, getting the Toyota ready for our transit through Saudi Arabia, and stocking up on fresh produce from the glowing produce stands, until we felt ready to head into the Sahara Desert. But we received a surprise the day before our expected departure – the arrival of Josu and Ana! They’d been following us since Nairobi, but because of their visa issues were always a couple weeks behind. Their loathing of Ethiopia – and the continued diesel shortage in Gondar – pushed them to Khartoum just in time to catch us. I told you, dear readers, that we’d see them again soon!

Our friends’ timing was excellent as Christmas was upon us. We extended our stay in Khartoum to celebrate the holidays with them. Over the course of several nights, we dined like I hadn’t since France. A four-course meal one night, a five-course meal the next, the meals getting bigger, better, and more elaborate. The four of us sure do know how to eat together!

Prepping Christmas Eve dinner.

Prepping Christmas Eve dinner.

The master chef at work.

The master chef at work.

And this was just the appetizer!

And this was just the appetizer!

We also know how to do tourism together. My cultural education wasn’t quite complete, so a visit to Sudan’s largest market was in order. On the way, the four of us stopped at the Confluence of the Nile. Most people don’t know that the infamous Nile River is actually two rivers – the Blue Nile, originating in Ethiopia, and the White Nile, originating in Uganda. (We’d actually spent last Christmas on the banks of the White Nile!) The rivers meet in Khartoum before continuing as a single body of water through Egypt and into the Mediterranean.

Seeing the two Nile Rivers meet was a tad underwhelming, but you can’t go to Khartoum and not visit the confluence, even if only for a five-minute photo shoot!

In the taxi with Josu and Ana, bound for our day of tourism!

In the taxi with Josu and Ana, bound for our day of tourism!

At the Confluence of the Nile River.

At the Confluence of the Nile River.

The Omdurman Souq, however, was overwhelming. It was so massive we immediately got lost! We spent the morning wandering aimlessly through alleyways of exotic spices, blocks of incense that looked like gems, wooden prayer sticks, perfume sold in plastic bottles, and prayer beads of all colors. On display were the same oodles of cheap plastic-wrapped Chinese goods, used shoes, and plastic kitchen ware that I’d seen in markets all over Africa; but also mountains of dates, each mountain a slightly different hue, shape, and degree of dryness. I didn’t know there were so many varieties of dates! And of course, the ubiquitous shai ladies – and mobile coffee men! – were there, always ready to replenish your spirit with a kick of sugar tea.

In the rest of Africa, I would rarely have taken such pleasure meandering through a market. I’d been to countless of them, but always with the purpose of buying some needed thing. Wandering aimlessly would have brought begging children, pick-pockets, and young men offering their “help”. And it’s not that people ignored us at Omdurman Souq – there were countless hellos and offers for us to enter their shop. It’s that their greetings were genuine and disinterested. We were approached so that people could take photos with us, practice their English, or give us directions to a section of the market. In Sudan, tourists were a novelty to be interacted with, not to take advantage of.

Dates of all shapes and sizes!

Dates of all shapes and sizes!

Omdurman Souq

Omdurman Souq

The shai man, with his tin shai teapots.

The shai man, with his tin pots of aromatic coffee.

One of the many shop owners that wanted to have his photo taken with us.

One of the many shop owners that wanted to have his photo taken with us.

As we walked down the souq’s alleyways, I felt myself loosen up. I felt the outer layer of protection I’d worn my entire time in Africa slowly melt away. I felt my spirit open up, receptive to the approaches from strangers.

It seemed my cultural education was complete. I’d learned what I needed to in Khartoum and was ready to head into the desert of Sudan.

  • Micheline Grosjean - Magnifique… la prochaine fois je viens avec toi dans ce marché et nous devaliserons ces stands de dates, de fruits secs et d’épices….
    Bisous a vous deux
    MimilabelléjeunsoeurReplyCancel

    • Brittany - T’as encore la chance de devaliser des souqs si tu veux, car on en passera plein ici aux Emirats, Oman, Iran, et Turquie! Viens, viens! :)ReplyCancel

  • Elizabeth Sears - What a refreshing and positive experience for you! So happy you were able to spend a few days over Christmas with Josu and Ana. The culinary delights you all manage to put together amaze me.ReplyCancel

    • Brittany - It was a Christmas to remember, which I’m sure makes you very happy dear mom! Nice to hear from you on the blog! :)ReplyCancel

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