Six weeks in Sudan


Artist showing his work outside the national museum, Khartoum, Sudan.
Artist showing his work outside the national museum, Khartoum, Sudan.

We lived in Khartoum for six weeks. It was supposed to be six months, but as they say, life happens.

When we signed up last year for the Sudan Volunteer Programme, it seemed like an ideal choice as part of our three-year plan to live and volunteer in cultures unfamiliar to us. We’d been reading for a while about SVP, a nonprofit organization that’s been placing volunteer English teachers in Sudanese universities for more than 20 years. We liked the idea of staying in Sudan for months, not just weeks. Alan had wanted to live in an Arabic-speaking country for some time; I wanted the chance to get to know people in a culture wholly different from any I’d known before; and we both wanted to do something purposeful and helpful. We figured that being part of an organized program, and part of a university community, would give us the chance to do all of that.

This turned out to be true, and our experiences actually surpassed our expectations. While we found the first days in Omdurman and Khartoum bewildering, we soon got used to getting around by bus and masallat, figured out where to buy groceries, and discovered interesting places to visit and for our daily walks. We got to know our housemates and other SVP volunteers, and enjoyed their company. We visited a couple of English classes taught by the Khartoum director of SVP, and soon after began to work at our respective universities. It was great getting to know our students, fellow faculty members, and some of our neighbors in Morada, the district of Omdurman where the SVP house we lived in is located.


What we couldn’t reckon with was the bureaucracy. Every foreigner who wants to live or work in Sudan for an extended period of time must have a residency permit, and we hit a bureaucratic snag with our residency application. It brought our time in Sudan to a sudden and sad end. (There’s a longer, more detailed story of what happened, but I’m not going to get into it now.)

I wish we’d had the full six months in Sudan. I was just starting to get to know my first-year and fourth-year students, to understand what type of material they could read and enjoy in English, and which topics were fun for them to discuss. I had some wonderful discussions with the fifth-year students who were assigned to help me with my work, and some great conversations with the other faculty members in the English department. I was settling into a companionable, productive working relationship with my “boss,” the head of the English department. Alan was working with first-year students at his university, and was impressed with their intelligence and diligence.

The pyramids at Merowe, Bajarawiyah, Sudan
The pyramids at Merowe, Bajarawiyah

We were also looking forward to seeing more of Sudan. We’d already been to Bajarawiya to visit the Merowe pyramids, and when we got the news we had to leave Sudan immediately, we were just about to leave for a weekend visit to one of our fellow volunteers in Merowe near Karima (“the other Merowe” – there are a few Merowes in Sudan). We’d hoped to see Dongola, especially Old Dongola, and the holy mountain of Jebel Barkal, and other interesting locations. We had hoped at the end of our volunteer gig to travel overland to Egypt via Wadi Halfa.

Though there is so much we didn’t get to do in Sudan, the six weeks we did get to spend there were just packed with wonderful experiences. We got to explore Omdurman and its amazing souk, see the Sufi worship at Hamid El Nil (twice), enjoy some beautiful music and meet lovely people.

A couple of merchants in Omdurman Souk.
Sufis at Hamid El Nil, Omdurman
Oud player and drum player at the Youth Cultural Center in Omdurman.

Here are some things I can say about Sudan, even after such a short time.

Sudanese people are incredibly hospitable and warm

Sudanese people are some of the most open, warm and welcoming I’ve ever met. Traveling in places where we look really different from the local people, we’ve received a lot of stares. Sometimes this gets uncomfortable. In India, before we came to Sudan, I learned to turn that around by smiling warmly at anyone staring at me, and offering them a greeting. This usually shifted the mood from unfriendly-seeming scrutiny to friendly interaction. Not 100 percent of the time, but often enough that I did it more and more as time went along.

In Sudan, that shift from curious scrutiny to warmth and friendliness happens really fast. In fact, we often didn’t need to initiate it; people would just walk over and greet us, welcome us to Sudan and ask us where we were from. Instead of shying away from these approaches, we welcomed them. Especially during our long daily walks in Morada and Omdurman, we felt we were guests in people’s living rooms, and strove to behave accordingly. After all, a neighborhood really is a little village, with public spaces where people gather to chat, play football or backgammon (depending on their ages), shop, drink tea, share food, and hold events like weddings or funerals. So when people called out to us, we made sure to take the time to stop, answer their questions, extend the conversation – and generally, assure people that we were friendly, and happy to offer our names and reason for being there.

But we didn’t do this just to reassure people we were okay. We got a lot out of these conversations. Alan’s Arabic became rapidly more fluid, and he was able to expand his active vocabulary. While I don’t speak much Arabic, I did get to learn a little more this way, and I really enjoyed watching people indulge their curiosity about us, laugh and exclaim at the wonder of a foreigner speaking Arabic. As conversations got longer, we began to learn things about the places and people around us from those whose world we had entered – and that they so kindly welcomed us into.

Sudanese care deeply about education

Despite being warned by a few people (all Sudanese) that “Sudanese students are lazy,” our experiences were the opposite. For example, Alan had one very early morning class at his university – it started at 7:00 AM – and he told me that several of his students had to wake up at unthinkable hours to arrive on time. One student had to travel so far from home, she was getting up at 3:00 AM. “With students like that, you really feel you need to do your best for them,” he said.

My students were all training to become teachers, so they were particularly interested in education. Many came from families where they were in the first generation to even consider getting a university degree, and they wanted not only to educate themselves, but to educate others. “A teacher changes lives,” was something quite a few students said to me, in one way or another.

My fifth-year friends: Suhaila, Huda & Ebtihal
My fifth-year friends: Suhaila, Huda & Ebtihal

I found my students were very supportive of each other. They studied together, shared notes, and praised each other’s accomplishments to me (while the praised one would look embarrassed and pleased). They were curious about me, so I answered their questions about my own education, my children and my life in America, without any hesitation. And I asked equally personal questions of them, as carefully as I could – only to discover that my students were eager to share the details of their lives, to share their beliefs, their hopes for the future, and their frustrations. I had expected to have to step carefully around topics like religion, politics, love and marriage, and family dynamics, but even with that care, I was lucky enough to hear a lot of fascinating personal stories. I’m grateful to have received so much.

Sudanese know how their country is perceived in the world

Something that really touched me over and over again was people’s responses when they asked us what we thought of Sudan. They’d ask the question, and you could see them almost bracing themselves to hear something negative.  After all, Sudanese are well aware of the economic sanctions imposed on Sudan by the United States, and of their country’s designation as a sponsor of terrorism. They know their country is poorer than many in Africa, and certainly poorer than Europe and the United States, and you can feel in people a sensitivity, a feeling of being regarded as lesser.

So when we’d answer enthusiastically, “Sudan is beautiful. It’s a wonderful place. We are so happy to be here,” it was both heartbreaking and lovely to see faces light up with pleasure. Smiles would break into wide grins, handshakes would be exchanged, and invitations to drink tea would pour forth.

Sudanese love to share food, opinions, and confidences

Just in our first few days, we observed that sharing is a core part of Sudanese life. When you order ful (deliciously prepared fava beans), for example, you get a big bowl of it placed on the table, along with a stack of round breads. Everyone eats from the same bowl, breaking off pieces of bread to scoop up the food. And if you seem to be eating less than your share, people urge you to eat more.

It’s completely normal for people to call out to you as you pass them on the street, and invite you to eat with them, or join them for tea or coffee. “Tfaddel,” they call out “Welcome” – and they mean it. You actually have to stop and give people a reason you’re not eating with them right now, in order to avoid seeming rude. We used to simply say where we were going, and then wish people their good health.

One lady enjoying an after-work tea at a teashop near our house offered us some biscuits to go with our drinks. We accepted, and Alan chatted with her in Arabic. When it was time for us to leave, I paid the tea lady for her customer’s tea, as well as ours – “Talata,” I said (“three”) gesturing to indicate the customer, Alan and me. Both ladies looked very pleased, and from them on, that tea lady was always very happy to see us, whether we stopped to buy tea from her or not.  I felt that finally I had done something culturally correct. MoradaTeaLady.PNG


One of our most interesting conversations happened when three young medical students invited us to join them for lunch. We had just finished our lunch of ful and salad, and were standing at the cash desk, trying to order juice. One of the young women had excellent English, and helped us understand that one of the juice options was a local fruit, one we’d never heard of. “It’s healthy,” she said. “Full of iron.”

Once we’d ordered, the young woman invited us to sit down and eat with her and her friends. We’d already had lunch, we explained, “but we will be happy to sit with you.” As they ate, and we drank our juice, the three young women told us they are in their final year of medical residency. After that, they would go into another residency for whatever specialties they chose.

Medical residents, Omdurman, Sudan
The three medical residents who invited us to join them at lunch in Omdurman.

The young doctor with the most English was also the boldest with her questions. Like many people we’ve met, she wondered if we were married, and we explained that yes, we’ve been married for more than 30 years, and “our children are older than you.” This quickly veered into the students’ own views on marriage, and their prospects.

“Sudanese men say they want a working wife,” the young doctor said to us. “But they don’t want to do the work of home.” A near-universal complaint, I think. What got even more interesting was the topic of multiple wives. “Men are allowed to have a second wife, even four wives,” the doctors told us. “But women do not like this. They do not want to share a husband with anyone.”

This very frank conversation wasn’t unique while we were in Sudan. I made friends with a young woman who works close to the Morada house, for example, and she shared a lot of confidences with me about her love life. I should not have been surprised to discover that young people in Sudan want the same things as young people everywhere: to have a happy life with the partner of their choice, to have fun, and to enjoy some ease and affluence. But I did have some surprise that romance was such a huge topic for my young friend, and for the students at my university. I had expected that a conservative, religious society would constrain people’s actions, and to some extent, it does. But it does not constrain their hearts.

Always expect the unexpected

This isn’t just about Sudan, but about traveling in general…and really, about life in general. We make a lot of plans; we make reservations, we compare timetables and prices, we plot out timelines for length of visit and arrivals and departures. We make these plans hoping for and expecting good experiences, and mostly, that’s what we’ve been lucky enough to have.

We planned our Sudan volunteer gig as carefully as possible. We had all the recommended injections, we brought Arabic books and purchased laptops for teaching. We studied the teaching resources provided by SVP, and prepared to ramp up quickly as teachers, since neither of us had taught for a number of years. Once we arrived in Omdurman, and discovered that neither of our universities could provide us with a curriculum, we collaborated with other SVP volunteers and with each other to create lesson plans.

What we didn’t expect – and did not plan for – was to have it all cut short so abruptly.  In the days between learning we had to leave and actually going, I felt dazed. We didn’t know what “immediately” meant, so we packed nearly everything, leaving out only what we’d need for the next day or two. Day by day, we waited to hear what we had to do next to comply with the authorities. We took long walks (always carrying our mobile phones), and I told myself to just enjoy everything, because this was the last time we would see or do it. We continued to answer people’s questions about what we were doing here in Sudan – “we are English teachers” – because we didn’t know what else to say. The hardest part was hearing from a few of my students who knew what was going on. They sent me urgent messages on WhatsApp – “Why do you have to leave? When will you come back?” Some of the messages were very affectionate, touching me and making me sadder.

Selling firewood, charcoal, clay pots and other necessities at the small souk at Al Kabajab, Omdurman.
Selling firewood, charcoal, clay pots and other necessities at the small souk at Al Kabajab, Omdurman.

When we left the United States in September, we had committed to each other that we’d travel for three years, looking for opportunities to do meaningful things, opening ourselves to each culture we arrive in. We chose the volunteer program in Sudan because we hoped for the chance to stay for a long time, and to learn about a place entirely unknown to us.

Even in the short time we stayed in Omdurman, we did get a lot of what we wanted. Alan got a lot more facility in conversational Arabic. I got to know people I would never have met otherwise. Hard as it was to leave, those experiences are forever part of us. Now that we’re here in Siwa, I see that Alan’s comfort with Arabic continues to grow. And I see that I have learned to be more open and receptive to people’s invitations, to their offers of friendship. That is Sudan’s gift to us. I hope we gave something equally good to the people we met there.

Two boys on a bike in Omdurman, Sudan
Two boys in Morada, our neighborhood in Omdurman.

Seeing beyond the veil

Illustration of niqab, hijab and burqa courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corp.,-niqab-and-hijab/5785816
Illustration of niqab, hijab and burqa courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corp.,-niqab-and-hijab/5785816

Hijab, niqab, burqa: The issue of women’s bodies, and how much it’s okay to show – or not – resonates with almost everyone I know, no matter what their religion, nationality or gender.

As for me, I have always felt it’s important to respect every woman’s choice, even if I’m not sure just how much choice she actually has. And personally, I have never wanted to show much skin, even growing up in sunny beach-culture Southern California.

The one thing I have always cared about is connecting with other people. That happens with a smile, a greeting, and especially with the meeting of the eyes.

Recently in Sudan, I had the chance to make friends with several women who wore niqab – the face veil that conceals everything but the eyes. I quickly discovered that I could see each of these women smiling at me, and that we could connect easily, because the eyes are such a powerful channel for reaching and touching each other. That said, I was so pleased when each of these niqab-wearing women chose the moment for me to see her face. It was an act of trust and friendship each time, one that touched my heart.

Arriving in Siwa Oasis a few days ago, I noticed women wearing a full face covering. These Siwan women wear a distinctive gray patterned shawl draped over their heads, with a long piece of black cloth hanging right in front of the face.

Women wearing full face coverings in Siwa Oasis

The sight of these fully veiled women startled me in a way that niqab-wearing women never have. I felt I was looking at ghosts, that inside each gray shawl was an eerie non-presence – that the real person inside the veil had been obliterated.

Almost immediately, I pushed back against this feeling. No, I told myself. She can hide herself if she wants to, but I am not going to ignore her. She is a presence; she is there.

Everywhere I have gone on this trip so far, people have stared at me, sometimes with open curiosity (especially children), but often with a still, blank look on their faces. At first, this made me uncomfortable, but I quickly decided I would respond with a smile straight into the person’s eyes, and with an appropriate greeting. I started out with “vanakkam” in Tamil Nadu, then “namaste” in Andhra Pradesh, then “salaam aleikum” in Sudan and Egypt. Everywhere I have done this, the result has been the same: A sudden, startled smile, a light springing into the eyes, and a return of my greeting. And quite often, the person or group of people will stop, ask us where we’re from, and chat for a few minutes. (Especially true in Sudan and in Siwa.)

So I decided to do the same thing with the fully veiled women here in Siwa. Now as I pass a woman, or women, I smile not only at the babies and children, but at each woman, too. I look straight into where I feel her eyes are, as if my eyes and my smile could penetrate that dark blankness and connect to her eyes, looking out at me.

Today, for the first time, I received my reward. Three fully veiled women passed us below the Shali this morning, each carrying a small child. I smiled at the adorable toddler in one lady’s arms, and at her older child, and then I looked straight into her face, as if to tell her: Your children are lovely, and so are you. “Sabah al kheer,” I said – “good morning” – and raised my hand in a wave.  She waved back.

Asserting the right to wear hijab in France, with thanks to Al Araby:
“This is not provocation, just my freedom of conscience.” With thanks to Al Araby:

Tour of Siwa, walking edition


Traditional pigeon houses in Siwa Oasis
Traditional pigeon houses with their own distinctive Siwan design.

Today, our third full day in Siwa Oasis, we decided to take it easy and walk a short loop through date groves to the temple of the oracle, located in Aghurmi village, then on to Cleopatra’s Pool and back to town. It is indeed a short loop – just 7 kilometers – but with all the stopping to look at ruins and springs, to take photos and enjoy a cup of tea along the way, we were out walking and looking around for almost five hours.

Walking the back roads in Siwa Oasis

It’s fun walking on the small roads in this part of Siwa Oasis. Despite all the motorcycles and motorcycle-trucks, the morning was quiet. We heard and saw a lot of birds of various types. The only one I recognize so far is the palm dove. There are loads of these beautiful mauve-and-blue doves in the palm groves, and their soft cooing adds a gentle note to the atmosphere of the oasis.

The temple of the oracle is just 2.2 kilometers from where we’re staying. This is the famous oracle that Alexander the Great consulted in 331 B.C. – the one that told him he was the son of Amun, an important god of the time – but the temple is considerably older than that. It’s said to have been built in the sixth century B.C. Parts of the temple are blocked off to visitors, but there are great views of the oasis all around.

Guide in the oracle temple in Siwa Oasis
Guide in the oracle temple
View from oracle temple across Siwa Oasis palms to mountains to south of the temple of the oracle.
View from oracle temple across Siwa Oasis palms to mountains to south of the temple of the oracle.
Temple of the oracle, Siwa Oasis
Temple of the oracle

Before we got to the temple of the oracle, we stopped at a beautiful spring called the Bride’s Spring. Mahdi Hweiti, the guide who took us on a car tour of the oasis yesterday, told us that this is where brides used to bathe before their marriages, but now the tradition has been somewhat abbreviated to include just a simple face-wash. It is certainly a beautiful location, with palm trees all around, interesting rock walls visible below the surface, and bubbles rising from the pool’s azure depths.

The Bride's Spring, Siwa Oasis

Next, we stopped at a building that looked official, and Alan translated the sign (roughly) as “the administrative center for nature.” We went in, and in fact, he was exactly right: This is the center for administering the protected areas of Siwa. We chatted with Ali, who works at the center, and he gave us a nice short guidebook to Siwa Oasis that includes information about the indigenous animals of the oasis. (It’s called Siwa Protected Area and the Old Town of Shali, by Gabriel Mikhail.) The environmental agency also has an office in the center of Siwa Town, close to the bank and the tourist office, and you can pick up the same little booklet there.

After the temple of the oracle, it’s just a short walk to the temple of Amun, or the temple of Umm Obeidah (which translates as “the mother of Obeidah”).  There’s been a little bit of restoration here, so you can see some of the pharonic carvings that have survived, but there isn’t a lot left. As at many ancient sites in the oasis, well-cut stones have been carried away over the centuries to provide strong foundations for people’s building projects.

Temple of Amun in Siwa Oasis
Temple of Amun, or what remains of it.
Two old graffiti: E. Webb 1941 and Patraga Khphakos 1931.
Two old graffiti: E. Webb 1941 and Patraga Khphakos 1931.

The next landmark was Cleopatra’s Spring, a place that’s apparently popular with tourists for bathing. Unlike the other springs we’ve seen so far, this one has several souvenir shops and a couple of restaurants surrounding it, and the local shop owners keep the surface of the pool free of algae.

The shops offer colorful rugs, clothing and other items – all very attractive and decorative, hung in the bright sunshine – and the restaurant where we stopped for tea is also beautifully decorated with traditional basketry, rugs and old Siwan agricultural tools. We tried Siwan tea, quite different from normal black tea, and talked with Omaima, a young woman from Alexandria who’s been living in Siwa for about a year. Like lots of people here, both Egyptian and Siwan, she caters to the tourist trade with handmade and traditional items (she showed me some nice-smelling homemade olive oil soap).

Relaxing in a cafe next to Cleopatra's Bath, Siwa Oasis
Relaxing in a cafe next to Cleopatra’s Bath
Cafe next to Cleopatra's Bath, Siwa Oasis
Omaima and friends at cafe.

There’s a real movement here towards building ecologically sensitive lodges and hotels, often drawing on the soft, organic lines of traditional mud-plastered Siwan houses. The owners furnish these places with beautifully made palm-wood furniture, rugs and blankets of Berber design, and other traditionally crafted touches. It makes for a warm, inviting aesthetic.

As we walked on from tasteful Cleopatra’s Spring, we circled the Gebel al Dakrour, where people go to get hot-sand treatments for all kinds of conditions, apparently including rheumatism, erectile dysfunction, arthritis and hemorrhoids.

Sayd Haroons Sand Baths in Siwa Oasis We soon entered the outskirts of Siwa Town. This is the less tourist-pleasing part of Siwa. Houses here are either in the old style construction of kersheef (chunks of salt mixed with rock and mud) with palm-log beams and headers, and a finishing coat of mud plastering. This type of construction is very strong, until there’s a period of heavy rain, which happens once a decade or so. A good soaking can melt a kersheef house into unusability, which is what happened in 1926, when the central old city – the Shali, Siwa’s most famous landmark – became uninhabitable.

Old mud houses
Old kersheef brick houses on back street of Siwa Oasis.
New house old pigeon house
New construction next to traditional old pigeon house.

Many of the old-style houses are crumbling away, and are being replaced by houses made of a newer material – white limestone bricks. These bricks have become popular throughout Siwa Oasis, because it’s inexpensive and lasts well. It doesn’t have the organic beauty of the older materials, though.

Old kersheef house, newer limestone brick house behind.
Old kersheef house, newer limestone brick house behind.

The streets in this part of Siwa Town haven’t been remade with asphalt yet, and like all earthen streets, they are riven with ruts made when vehicles drive over wet soil. Here in Siwa, that doesn’t usually mean rain; the ground normally gets wet when it becomes soaked with seepage from the oasis’ near-the-surface water table.

Despite being less pretty than other parts of the oasis, the humble town streets are fun to walk, because the people we encounter here are friendly, and enjoy a little interaction with the foreigners. They enjoy it even more once they figure out that Alan speaks some Arabic, and the conversation can go beyond, “Where from?”

We finished up our walk feeling a little tired and hot. It was a pleasure to enter the garden where we’re staying, to wash some cucumbers, carrots and fruit for lunch, and rest in the shade of the palms. There’s also plenty of entertainment to be had from the resident kittens and the hotel manager’s children and their cousins, who use the large garden as their playground.

Garden in Siwa Oasis

Orange kitten in garden at Siwa Oasis


Catching up in Cairo

After our abrupt departure from Sudan, we were glad to land in Cairo, a city we’ve enjoyed since our first visit in 2013. We’ve been walking around some of our favorite places, remarking on what’s changed and what hasn’t. A big highlight of this visit was the chance to see our friends Tom and Linda, who spend three months of every year here in Cairo.

Tom's photo of Linda, me and Alan
Lemon-mint, Nescafe, Arabic coffee and good conversation. Photo by Tom:

We met up in Khan el Khalili, a famous souk located by El Hussein Mosque and Al Azhar Mosque. After dinner, we ambled down to one of the pleasant pedestrian streets in Khan el Khalili to enjoy tea, juice and more chat. Plus, of course, Tom’s humorous interactions with the vendors who frequent the coffee shops of Cairo. Here, Tom is negotiating for a new wallet. I do admire his bargaining skills, honed by years of living in Cairo.


Tom negotiating for a new wallet  in Khan el Khalili, Cairo
Tom gets the wallet he wants, at the right price — and both parties are happy.

We first got to know Tom and Linda when we started planning our first trip to Egypt. It was not long after the Egyptian revolution of 2011, and we wondered whether conditions were safe enough to enjoy Cairo, and to travel in other parts of the country. I got online and looked for blogs in English, and found Tom’s Travel Blog **. It was full of detailed posts about Egypt (and lots of other places, too), and the entries were recent. So I wrote to Tom, and after some back and forth, Alan and I felt confident that it would be perfectly okay to go forward with our plans.

Tom and Linda invited us for a day out during our March 2013 visit – and what a wonderful, memorable day it was! We visited the Ibn Tulun mosque, one of the most beautiful and atmospheric I’ve ever seen; the Gayer-Anderson Museum next door to the mosque; walked up to the Citadel for incomparable views of Cairo; toured the Northern Cemeteries; and finally ended up at Khan el Khalili for a lovely dinner at El Ahd El Gaded, a well-known restaurant located in an ancient building, and filled with interesting modern art.

It was both fun and comforting to meet up with Tom and Linda again. They have a deep love and appreciation for Egypt, and they’re both frank and funny about the glitches and obstacles that crop up from time to time as you live and travel in this wonderfully complex country. (Plus, Linda is an avid reader and has provided me with many excellent recommendations over the years.)

Friendships formed through travel are special. You feel you’re part of a tribe – the Tribe of Travel – and that your fellow tribespeople understand, like no one else, the attraction of living in places that test your patience and resourcefulness. Of course, the pleasures of new sights and sounds, and of experiencing different people and cultures, are a big part of why one travels, but travel always brings some unexpected twists and hurdles. At such times, it’s these precious friendships with other travelers that can remind you to laugh and relax again, and to be grateful that you get to live this life of change, motion and vitality.

** If you’re at all interested in travel – or even just in reading the observations of two insightful people leading an interesting life – you should follow Tom’s Travel Blog. It’s really the production of both Tom and Linda, reflecting both of their interests. The pictures are great, and Tom provides links back to his Flickr account, where most of their photos live. The Flickr account is also a great one to follow if you enjoy excellent photography and a wide range of interesting and unusual subjects.

The Sufis of Omdurman

Ecstasy at the Sufi worship at Hamid El Nil, Omdurman

We rarely see other foreigners in Khartoum or Omdurman. Our two Friday evening visits to the Sufi shrine of Hamid El Nil were the striking exceptions.

The first time we arrived at the Hamid El Nil shrine a couple of weeks ago, we saw a group of four or five Italians (we surmised from their clothing and hair) making their way through the graves toward the shrine. Once we were at the shrine itself, we spotted a few more khawadjas (foreigners) in the gathering crowd of between 200 and 300 Sudanese. Most of the khawadjas were clutching long-lensed, professional-quality cameras.

It’s easy to understand why. The Sufi worship at Hamid El Nil is, to the unaccustomed eye, highly exotic. People who arrive for the worship gather in a huge open circle in front of the shrine, clapping and chanting la allah ilaha’llah – there is no god but God – to the accompaniment of rhythmic drumming. The men – and they are mostly men – are nearly all clad in traditional long white robes, sparkling clean and bright for the Friday holiday. This ring of white-robe men providess a contrast to the Sufis inside the ring, some wearing green, others green-and-red patchwork robes, and many sporting dreadlocks or thick ropes of prayer beads. One Sufi wears a leopard-print robe with colorful patches.

This man welcomes people and watches out for any problems.
Sufis marching inside the circle of participants.

It’s not just their clothing and hair that set the Sufis apart: While the people in the surrounding circle sway backward and forward in unison, pumping their arms like pistons and chanting in unison, each Sufi inside the circle does his own thing. Some hop up and down, some jump back and forth. Some spin in a circle, and one small athletic man skips around and across the circle at high speed. Some blow shrill soccer-coach whistles, while others brandish ceremonial knives. One Sufi wears a blatantly fake rifle made of rough wood.

This weekly Sufi worship is one of the most-photographed, most-videotaped, most written-about sights in Sudan. The event starts at 4:00 PM, and by 5:00, the crowd grows to hundreds of participants and observers. The first time we went, at least two dozen foreigners were eagerly shooting photos and videos, pushing forward and kneeling to get good shots. One even climbed on a small shed roof to get a good perspective. The second time we went, however, the temperature had climbed to 41°C, and there were not so many foreigners. We did see a lot more children and babies, which surprised me, and I noticed one of the Sufis encouraging the younger children to line up inside the circle, so he could lead them in learning to chant la allah ilaha’llah.

The ceremony starts with a few Sufis beating drums, walking around the inside of the circle (not yet as huge as it will get), chanting and encouraging others to participate. The men who start things off have warm, welcoming faces, and as they circle, they stop in front of individual people or families, singing with those people for a few minutes before they move on.

People are in a warm and loving frame of mind at the Sufi worship. Friends meet and embrace as if they haven’t seen each other in years. People who look like respected clerics or teachers clasp the hands of people who approach them to offer respect, and give them blessings. Ladies kiss each other on the cheek, and smiling adults make way for little children to move to the inner circle, where they can see all the action.

Outside the circle, at the edge of the open ground where the graveyard begins, a crowd of brightly-dressed Sufis assembles at about 4:30. Accompanied by drums and flag-bearers, they march into the circle of worshippers.

Sufis marching inside the circle

Once inside the circle, the Sufis begin their different activities – joining the drummers in making the rounds of the cirle; leading different sections of the crowd in their chants; telling people to move back to keep the circle big and open; encouraging children to chant; and generally keeping an eye on things, I suppose to make sure no one faints or gets out of hand.

Though it’s loud and active, to me it seems this worship is largely about joy: both the joyful worship of God and the joy of worshipping in company. The second time we went, I stood next to a pair of young parents with their little daughter and baby son. We smiled together at their children’s adorableness, then swayed together in prayer. There’s a lot of affection and happy energy at the worship, and being there filled Alan and me with energy. Never mind the heat, never mind the sweat collecting on my neck and soaking into my shirt. With others, we move, we chant, and we are filled with the drumbeat, the glowing evening light, the energy of the careening Sufis and the energy of those around us.

Then suddenly at 6:00, it’s all over. Instantly the chanting, drumming, leaping and swaying cease, and it’s time for the traditional evening prayer. Some men move to the green mats spread on the ground here and there beside the graves. We see small groups of people wandering the graveyard, stopping when they find the headstone they are looking for.

Evening prayer at Hamid El Nil, Omdurman

Did I mention the tea ladies? They are there too, serving their spicy cups of tea or coffee, and offering zalabiya, the small donuts that are sold morning and evening on the streets of Khartoum and Omdurman. Those who aren’t praying or visiting the dead sit down in plastic chairs, order drinks and look at their mobiles.

Tea after Sufi worship at Hamid El Nil, Omdurman

We drink tea, too, and check in with each other. “Feels good, doesn’t it?” “Yes, it’s amazing.” “We should come back again…maybe in a couple of weeks.” “Maybe next week.” “Yeah.”

We go in search of a rickshaw to take us back to Morada. La allah ilaha’llah la allah ilaha’llah la allah ilaha’llah keeps circling in my head. And after all, it is true. In any religion, in every religion, there is no god but God.

Little girl at Sufi shrine of Hamid El Nil, Omdurman

“There is no thanks between brothers.”

It’s an indoor sort of day today in Omdurman. The sky, or what I can see of it now, is yellow. The view from our rooftop – normally encompassing a wide swath of the Nile from Ingaz Bridge to Shambat Bridge, plus Tutti Island and downtown Khartoum – reveals only faint outlines of buildings that are within easy walking distance.

It’s a dust storm, the first we’ve experienced since arriving in Khartoum a month ago. Not a dramatic Hollywood whip-dust-into-your-face-till-you-bleed sandstorm, but a dust storm nonetheless. We first noticed the wind was up when we left the house just after 8:00 this morning, setting out to find the bus station we’ll need to depart from when we visit Karima. We weren’t sure where to find the correct bus station, so we walked to Shouhada, a transport center just 25 to 30 minutes from our house. We hoped we’d find someone there to tell us whether the right place is called Souk Shabi, or whether we needed to go somewhere else, and to direct us there.

The wind felt refreshing as we walked toward Shouhada, a touch of coolness after a hot night. After a while, though, I had to keep pulling at the front of my kurta, trying to keep it from binding up in front of my legs, while with the other hand I held my headscarf taut along the sides of my face as a dust shield.

By the time we arrived at Souk Shabi, women’s tobes and men’s white jellabiyas were billowing around them, as full as sails on the Nile. Plastic bags whirled, caught in dust devils. Smoke from trash fires blew into our clothing, scenting it with a renegade variety of incense.

Souk Shabi

Alan stood at a metal ticket booth, surrounded by curious bystanders, and gathered travel information: Which buses go to Karima? What time should we arrive? How long is the trip? What does it cost? Here in Sudan, where bus stations don’t post timetables and buses leave only when they’re full, we’ve found it’s easiest to get the details before the day you hope to travel.

As we moved away from the buses, a tall thin man wearing a dark purple shirt caught up with us. His name was Mohammed, but he asked us to call him Abu Nazir,  or “father of Nazir.” It’s a way of naming people we first discovered in the Middle East, and it’s commonly used here, too. Abu Nazir was curious about us – where we come from, what we were doing in Sudan – and fortunately for me, he spoke English quite well. A few words missing, as is often the case, but the flow of ideas and emotions was completely clear.

“Welcome to your country,” Abu Nazir said. “Your country, not my country. This is your own country.” This also is a common way of expressing welcome: “Please, welcome to your office,” my boss’s boss said to me yesterday as I arrived at his office for our first meeting.

We walked with Abu Nair towards the main road, chatting together, and he asked if we’d like to drink tea. We didn’t feel we needed any, but he was a pleasant man, and, in the most graceful way, insistent: “Please don’t say no. We are brothers; you do not say no to your brother.”

At the opposite side of the road, Abu Nazir scrutinized one tea lady’s array before leading us to another whose setup clearly looked superior to him. He pulled out two plastic chairs, discarding a third that was broken, made sure whether we preferred tea or coffee, and then surprised us by paying the tea lady 10 Sudanese pounds – enough for just two teas. “I must work now,” he said, showing us the pointed iron rod in his hand, and gesturing to where a man stood waiting no more than 15 feet beyond the tea lady’s stall. “I will get one hundred pound for this work. Come and tell me goodbye before you go.”

We sat in two plastic chairs, rooted by our surprise, unaware at first of the dust blowing straight into our faces. Alan noticed a sheep being pulled out of a rickshaw between the tea lady’s stall and where Abu Nazir stood, pounding a hole into the ground. A man dragged the sheep by one leg, and in vain it hopped to keep up. I realized what was about to happen in the next 90 seconds, so we got up and turned our chairs toward the road, to keep our faces out of the wind and our eyes from the sight of blood.

Ninety seconds after I took this photo, the sheep was dead on the ground to the right of the Toyota and in front of the tea stall you see at the right edge of the photo.
Ninety seconds after I took this photo, the sheep was dead on the ground to the right of the Toyota and in front of the tea stall you see at the right edge of the photo.

We sipped at the tea when it finally came, not wanting it but equally not wanting to refuse the hospitality we’d been offered. We walked around a parked white van, putting it between us and the blood and entrails on the ground, and went to thank Abu Nazir.

“No thanks, no thanks,” he said. “There is no thanks between brothers.” He urged us to take his phone number, and to make sure we called him when we want to go to Karima. “These people will charge you big price,” he said, gesturing to the row of dusty travel shops where we stood. “I will make small price. You are my friends, you come to my family home, you eat with us.”

Alan offered his hand, but Abu Nazir wouldn’t let him take it, showing the dust-coated palm. Instead, he offered the back of his wrist, and Alan touched the back of his wrist to Abu Nazir’s, so I did the same. “Remember, you come to me. Everyone knows me here, Abu Nazir. You ask for me.”

We walked a few paces and then caught a bus for “Stad” – very lucky, we thought. Stad is a downtown Khartoum stadium, so the bus should pass very close to our house in Morada. We settled onto seats that were even more dingy and threadbare than usual, and the bus bounced its way south through a long street of concrete sellers and steel sellers – stacks and stacks of bags of concrete, like bunkers built from sandbags, shored up by heaps of rebar. “All the cement that’s being used to build the city, it all comes from here,” Alan said, reminding me of the many buildings we see under construction in Omdurman and downtown Khartoum.  We proceeded from building materials to a street of perfume stores; the acrid odor of burning plastic was replaced by wafts from a boudoir world. Open-fronted mirror-backed shelves turned rows of shapely glass bottles into ranks of courtesans clad in transparent Egyptian dress.

Presently the bus arrived at a small stadium we didn’t recognize, and all the passengers descended. We’d made a mistake; it was the wrong Stad. We caught another bus to Khalifa Square, got out and walked home on familiar Morada Road. There was little trash to be seen in the yellow dust-storm light, nor any trash fires at this moment. The road was nearly empty of traffic; it was still early, just 10:00 AM on a Friday morning.

A man bought us tea for 10 Sudanese pounds, then excused himself politely to go earn one hundred. A sheep had its throat slit and its body carted away to be cut up into food. A bus took us the wrong way, and we found the right one after all. Now we sit in our Morada house, with our fellow volunteers all doing their Friday things: showering, preparing lessons, playing guitar. The sky is deep yellow. The birds are calling, as they do every afternoon around this time.


Daily devotions and a moment of grace

Everywhere we stay, we take daily walks through the neighborhood, wanting to get to know the layout of the streets around us. Our neighborhood in Omdurman, called Morada, is compact, the streets tracing an irregular grid with occasional curves and diagonals thrown in. Mosque towers dot the neighborhood; no one has to walk more than five or six minutes to get to a mosque for prayers.

At prayer time, wherever we happen to be – Morada, Souk Omdurman, or downtown Khartoum – I often see men washing at long troughs ranged around a mosque yard. These troughs are usually tiled, with elevated seats at intervals, giving each person plenty of room to swing a leg to the left or right as needed. Women normally wash in a separate area of the mosque, indoors and out of sight of the public.

A row of plastic washing jugs, one man filling them and two men having a wash before prayers.
These plastic washing jugs are everywhere. People keep them filled so others can wash themselves before prayers.

Because prayer takes place at least five times per day, and people are at work, at school, doing their errands, many people end up praying not at the mosque, but wherever they are. People pray on the street, or in a special prayer room at their workplace, in a corner of the shop where they work – I’ve even seen women kneeling on their shawls in a corner of the ladies’ restroom at the Al Waha Mall downtown. You often see men roll out a long green mat or two on the sidewalk, or on the raised porch that runs along a row of shopfronts, or even on a parking lot, so they can pray together in rows, in fellowship.


People always wash before prayers, wherever they happen to be when prayer time comes. There are special plastic jugs for washing, with long thin arched spouts – the shape is graceful, and the long spout makes it easy to pour water carefully, without waste. I’ve seen people seated on a low stool, box or even just a roadside curb, going through the thorough process of the pre-prayer wash.

Washing Feet.jpg

I love watching people do this. There is a slow, deliberate, careful quality to their preparations, as if they’re making a transition into a different space. They rub between their toes, wash the bottoms of their feet, around the backs of their heels and all the way up to the ankles. They wash their hands to above the wrists, paying close attention to each nail. They wash their faces carefully, without spilling on their clothes, and pass some water over the tops of their heads, then pat dry with a handkerchief. This attentive washing feels reverential, a turning inward in preparation for prayer. I am moved when I see a line of men bending down, prostrating to the East, their attention focused, the clean pink bottoms of their feet turned up to the sky.

Prayer isn’t the only thing we see as we walk our neighborhood. People stand in front of their gates, chatting to neighbors. Laundrymen bring bundles of clean clothes to their clients. Children chase each other down the street. Women tear bread and cut vegetables into big steel bowls at the corner shop, then wait their turn for hot meat broth to be ladled in. Tea ladies sit on low stools, their charcoal braziers and boxes of tea, coffee, sugar and spices at the ready, and fast-food sellers package meals to go. Men emerge from their house gates with pots of water for the trees and shrubs they’ve planted outside.

Food stand
Local fast-food place. They make delicious foul (fava beans).
Local tea lady
This lady makes tea and coffee in front of our local souk (market), Souk Morada.

Our local mosque has a beautiful little garden running along one side of its enclosing wall. The garden creates a kind of buffer zone between the mosque and the rubbish that piles up in the street, keeping the precincts of the mosque separate and clean – a refuge.

Mosque & garden.jpg

A Qur’an lesson

We were admiring the mosque garden yesterday morning when a middle-aged woman stopped to talk with us. She was wearing a black burqa and a niqab, or face covering, leaving only her eyes visible. This is not typical in our neighborhood, nor is it unusual. All women keep their heads covered, some loosely, some with their hijab wrapped tight, but the face covering is an extra item we don’t routinely see.

“Where from?” she asked in English. Alan answered her in Arabic, and her eyes lit up. They chatted for a few moments, then she asked if we were Muslim – a very normal question from people we’ve met since we arrived two weeks ago. We always answer that we are Christian, as that’s easy for people to understand, and people here generally regard Christians as “people of the book” – people who honor God and God’s word. So it’s an understandable alternative to Islam.

The lady told us she lives close by – she’s a neighbor! – and that her name is Sara. I told her that’s our daughter’s name, and she was pleased by the coincidence. She asked if I was interested in Islam, and I said, “Yes, I find it interesting.” Sara said she was on her way to her Qur’an study class, and urged us to come with her. “You will like it,” she said. Alan asked if it would be okay to leave after five or 10 minutes, and Sara said, “Of course!” She hustled us along up the street, very happy to have us as guests.

We entered a building and followed Sara downstairs into a large basement room, with a classroom set up at one end of it, with a blackboard, a desk in front of it, and rows of seats. No one was there. “Oh, we are late,” Sara said, meaning, of course, that we were early, or everyone else was late. “Sit down, I will read you from the Qur’an.”

And she did. Her voice was just beautiful. I recorded her, so you can listen too.


After Sara recited, we chatted a little more. Her husband, she said, is working in one of the Arabian Gulf states. I got the impression that this means Sara can get her housework out of the way a lot more quickly, so she can come to her Qur’an class as often as she likes. The more complex things she had to say, she said in Arabic (and Alan translated for me). Learning from the Qur’an, Sara said, teaches her and the other students about the place above, a garden full of beauty. She looked upward, and gestured with her hands. “We can think about all these beautiful things as we do our daily duties,” she said.

We thanked Sara for the lesson, and told her it was time to be on our way. As Alan walked towards the door, Sara held my hand and said a few kind things. I said in return a phrase I’ve been learning: “Allah yadeek al’affiyah,” or “God give you health.”

It had a completely unexpected effect. Sara seized me in her arms and hugged me close; her heart pressed to mine. She pulled away, her eyes warm, and reached behind her head. Suddenly, the black face mask was gone., and her face was fully exposed to me: her round rosy cheeks, her curving red mouth.

“I show you my face, so you can know me,” Sara said. “When you see me, you will know me. Not for your husband, only for you. Not for men, not in the street, but for you.”

The smile of her whole face was as sweet as the smile of her eyes above the niqab. The transformation, so sudden, startled me: the sudden opening of a black theater curtain, an act of trust. I didn’t know what to say; I could only thank her, and again stammer out a wish that God should bless her, as she pressed my hands between hers.

As we walked into the bright sun and down the dusty street, I felt light, full of energy and the surge of this love that had entered me so suddenly from another heart. We humans love to connect; we connect across widely divergent cultures, with little language in common. It takes only a loving heart and a press of the hand.

Local Qur'an school
The Qur’an school in our neighborhood.

A trip to Tutti Island

Viewed from the bank of the Nile in Morada (the district of Omdurman where we live), or from the bridge we cross into downtown Khartoum, Tutti Island is a beautiful spot of green agricultural fields right in the convergence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile. It looks peaceful and serene, an irresistible draw if you’re growing weary of the dusty, busy city.

Tutti Island viewed from Omdurman
Looking over to Tutti Island from the banks of the Nile in Omdurman, where we live. The foreground is actually Omdurman, but it’s very much how Tutti itself looks when you’re standing on the bridge just south of Tutti Island.

Yesterday we walked from Nile Street in downtown Khartoum to the bridge, over the Blue Nile, and onto Tutti Island for a bit of exploration. Just under the bridge, we found a curious little scene: an outdoor pool hall. I’d love to include a few photos here, but according to the rules of my photography permit, I’m not allowed to take photos of bridges (or government buildings, etc.). I figure pictures of pool tables under bridges might be too close to the edge of what’s acceptable, so you’ll just have to imagine it: Huge concrete pylons supporting a bridge high above the ground, with cars and trucks passing overhead. Below the bridge, a tangle of small trees, bushes and shrubs, and hardpacked earth with the usual layer of fine sandy dust. There was a rectangular area enclosed by a wire fence, much like the fences that enclose school playgrounds in the United States, and inside, two pool tables, end to end. Early as it was, several teenaged boys were playing pool.

From the two pool tables in the enclosure, a narrow asphalt road branched to the left, with a couple of snack stands (closed at this point) and stacks of red and white plastic chairs, ready to be set out at the right time.  Branching to the right was a dirt path leading to a row of smaller shops and more pool tables. These weren’t substantial shops – just a row of lightweight frames made of pipework, supporting roofs made of plastic tarps. Below these roofs were boxes, tables and two-burner gas stoves for cooking food. And beyond all this, the glitter of the Nile, a huge blue sky arching overhead, and the riverbank opposite fringed with big old trees and boats waiting for customers.

We walked to where the bridge road dropped down to ground level, and followed the curve of the road around onto a two-lane main street, fairly empty on this bright Friday morning. (In case you haven’t lived in a Muslim country, or don’t know much about Islam, Friday is the weekly day of rest.) A few shops were open for the early morning, allowing people to buy a few necessities for the holiday.

We stopped at a small storefront for some fresh bread – so fresh it was still warm and fragrant – and bought a bunch of bananas at another storefront. Then we started looking for an open tea shop. We saw a couple of men chatting over tea, so we asked if we could buy some. “You want tea?” asked a middle-aged gentleman. “Yes please,” we replied. He gave an order to a young girl, and she headed down the street. The tea drinkers explained that the shop was closed, but said, “Welcome, welcome,” bringing out chairs and a small tea table for us. In a moment, the young girl appeared again with two glasses of tea, and one of coffee. We thanked her, thanked the men, and chatted with them as we enjoyed our tea and makeshift banana sandwiches.

The middle-aged gentleman, it turned out, is from Ethiopia, and he introduced his wife, who had a bit more English. The two of them have been here on Tutti Island for twelve years, they told us, and the shop next door to the tea place is theirs. They welcomed us to the island, hoping we’d enjoy it. “It’s a peaceful place, Tutti,” the lady said, and the two of them said goodbye and vanished.

After we finished the tea, we tried to pay the two men sitting beside us. They smiled and shook their heads, gesturing to the shop next door. The Ethiopian couple had simply had tea brought to us, possibly from their house, because we wanted it. This is just one small example of the hospitality and generosity we’ve experienced since arriving here less than two weeks ago, and it’s typical.

We resumed our walk down the road, hoping to get to the green crop fields that we admire from the riverbank just a few steps from where we live. We turned off the road at a promising place, heading for what we thought was the riverbank. There we met a tall athletic-looking man who was working in a half-ruined building in a field with a few other men. He came over to ask us if we needed any help. His English was very good, and once he understood that we were looking for the riverbank, he walked us along to a good spot, and explained which banks we were looking at from this point, drawing a map in the sandy soil. He showed us where we could walk to see the part of the island we were looking for.

Looking across the Nile River to Bahri, a district of greater Khartoum, from Tutti Island.
Looking across the Nile River to Bahri, a district of greater Khartoum, from Tutti Island. Photo by Alan.

He also pointed out how much the river has eroded the island at this place; there was an orchard to our left that was literally being washed into the river. It’s a terrifying prospect for people who’ve been living on the island for years, planting fruit trees and other crops and making a living from them. There are areas where buildings have been started and abandoned, because these areas have flooded and may well flood again. The man who was talking with us was taking over one of these abandoned buildings, and planning to use it for animals – chickens or goats, I think he said. I imagine these animals will be easier to evacuate than people and all their possessions, the next time the river rises.

As we continued to walk along the river bank, the more rural scenes we were seeking began to unfold. We found a farm area that also had a mud-brick factory. It was interesting to see the bricks laid out in the sun to dry, and to spot the kiln where they get fired. I also enjoyed looking at the deep holes dug out for water, to mix with the clay soil and form into bricks.

We ran into a few more people as we walked along, mostly men standing about in their bright clean white robes, fresh for the Friday holiday. We had a few conversations along the normal lines – where are you from? What do you think of Sudan? What do you think of Tutti Island? We always say very positive things about Sudan – all true, as we’re enjoying being here, and grateful for this amazing opportunity to live in such an interesting place, so different from our prior experiences.

One gentleman cautioned us, “Yes, people in Sudan are good. Not all of them are good – you should be careful, just like with people in any country of the world. But most of them are good and honest.” It seemed like a fair comment; most of the people we’ve met here have been warm and open, but as experienced travelers, we’re always careful. Still, it’s nice to be in a place where people are interested in foreigners and enjoy talking with us. It’s also great how often people want to help us with things like finding places we’re looking for, or the correct bus to get there – usually before we even ask. It must be the lost looks on our faces. 😉

Here are a few more photos from Tutti.

Tutti has plenty of agriculture, but it’s also a small town. We wandered up and down the residential streets, which are really just narrow defiles between rows of houses, nearly all surrounded by high walls. I particularly like the gates to these domestic compounds.

We spent a couple of hours walking around Tutti Island, and really, we could have spent a lot more time. But the sun was getting to its maximum brightness, and the heat, too, and we’d been wandering around long enough. (We’re aware that it’s still winter, by the way, and not really hot yet!) We’ll come back to Tutti another time, that’s for sure.

The mogran: confluence of the Blue and White Niles

View of downtown Khartoum from Tutti Island, taken from near the mogran
View of downtown Khartoum from Tutti Island, taken from near the mogran.

We arrived in Khartoum very early the morning of Tuesday 16 January. I am surprised how busy we’ve been since then. Between getting to know our immediate neighborhood, setting up internet service on our phones and laptops, and figuring out where to buy food, we’ve also been trying out our Arabic (Alan’s is pretty good; I have about 12 words of Arabic right now.)Alan and I woke up earlyish this morning – not as early as we usually wake in England and India, but much earlier than the other volunteers living in the house with us. We ate breakfast and went out for a walk to the mogran, the Arabic word for “place of confluence” – in this case, the confluence of the White Nile and Blue Nile. The White Nile flows north into Sudan from Uganda; the Blue Nile flows west into Sudan from Ethiopia.

As we walked along Nile Street, feeling the fresh morning breezes, enjoying the sunshine and the mild chill in the air, we overtook a man walking along in a white jellabiya (a long traditional robe), walking with his two young sons. He greeted us, and he and Alan chatted for a while. He said he lives on Tutti Island, across the Nile from where we live. We could see easily across to Tutti; there were a few people scattered, working, across a patchwork of green fields.

We said we wanted to go to the mogran. The man, whose name was Saddam – “But not Saddam Hussein,” he said, and laughed – lives on Tutti Island. He’d been buying fish at the famous (in Khartoum) Morada fish market, and was heading home. Each of his kids had a little bag of nehbak, the dried berries  that are sold all over the streets of Khartoum and Omdurman, and they nibbled on these as they walked. (Nehbak taste a bit like doum, a dried fruit sold in Egypt, only doum are much bigger.)

Saddam told us he was getting on the ferryboat to Tutti Island, and said we should come and see the island.  We asked if the ferry could take us to Mogran Family Park, which we’d read about in the Bradt Guide to Sudan. Saddam didn’t seem to know about the Mogran Family Park; we realized later he thought we were asking to be taken to the mogran itself, so that’s what he told the ferryman.

The ferry was a simple motorboat with a fabric roof. There’s enough room for 20 to 25 passengers, seated on the benches around the edge of the boat, more if you crammed people onto the benches that span the boat, and serve as stepping places.

This early in the morning though, it was just us, Saddam and his boys, and the ferryman, a cheerful young man with a ready smile. He turned on some music as we pulled away onto the water – an African pop song with reggae overtones and English lyrics – and joked back and forth with Saddam. He included Alan in the jokes once he realized Alan could speak some Arabic.

It didn’t take long to reach the confluence itself, just north of a small island that lies to the southwest of Tutti’s curving belly. The ferryman guided the boat slowly and carefully into the place where the waters meet, then killed the engine so we could enjoy the quiet.

I realized we were right in the middle of something unusual: the meeting of two powerful rivers, flowing together from sources thousands of miles apart. The surface of the water looked thick, with most of the movement going on beneath it, like the taut hide over a big cat’s tensely rippling muscles. I hadn’t expected to feel so much power.

I lifted my eyes from the mesmerizing waters, looking up into the vast blue sky with its tatters of cloud.  All around us, birds were diving into the thick turbulent water. Tall green grasses fringed the riverbanks, swaying in the wind, their plumed tops adding a separate little motion, like a hand waving atop a waving arm. The churning waters threw a spray of droplets into our faces, and the ends of my scarf rippled in the wind. The mogran is ceaseless, eternal movement.

(Added 25 January 2018) Huda, one of the fifth-year students at the Faculty of Education, asked me what I’d been seeing since I arrived in Sudan. I told her about the mogran, and tried to describe how it felt. “The mogran is a holy place for us, one of the holiest places in all of Africa,” Huda said.

Image of churning waters from - Many thanks to Deborah Anne Quibell and the House of Yoga.
Image from – Many thanks to Deborah Anne Quibell and the House of Yoga.

NOTE: If you’d like to enjoy some really good images of the river in Khartoum, and how people earn their living on the river, go to


Next chapter: Sudan

Map of Sudan from Wikimedia Commons:
From Wikimedia Commons:

Tomorrow we fly from London to Khartoum, Sudan. This is the piece of our three-year sojourn we planned the most intensively. We will be part of the Sudan Volunteer Programme, a 21-year-old nonprofit that places native (or fully fluent) English speakers around Sudan to teach English conversation to Sudanese university students.

A lot of people have asked us, “Why Sudan?” Now is a good time to answer that question, before we jump in and get so involved that the answer changes, and becomes something else.

We had two very different (but compatible) motivations for this choice. Alan has been studying Arabic for about 10 years, finally obtaining a degree in Arabic from Portland State University. We’ve made a few short trips to Arabic-speaking countries – Syria, Jordan and Egypt – and Alan spent three months studying at Damascus University in 2009, before the war began. He’s always wanted to spend an extended period in an Arabic-speaking country to become more fluent, so he did some research on programs that would allow us to do some useful work and live for a few months in a country where Arabic is the primary language.

The Sudan Volunteer Programme was the one we chose, in no small part because it’s a country neither of us has visited. Going somewhere that’s totally outside of my prior experience was important to both of us. The feeling I got when considering Sudan reminded me of when I decided to go to India, back when I was still an undergraduate student at UCLA. I was scared of things I was reading: the heat, the diseases, the poverty, and the sheer size of India all intimidated me. And at the same time, I was drawn to Indian religion and culture: the art, the craft, the literature. For both reasons – the fear and the attraction – I was compelled to go.

This time around, I’m not fearful. Okay, that’s not strictly true…extreme heat is something I’m still not certain I’ll handle well. I’m fine at 34°C, but how will I feel when it gets to 50°? Also, I recently discovered I can be allergic to the bites of mosquitos in a new region. That was not fun, so I’ve obsessively acquired every possible form of mosquito repellent I could find.

I’m actually pretty excited about teaching, about learning Arabic, about being in a culture that’s completely new to me, and making new friends. But at the same time, I know how little I know, especially after spending three months in India, which is very much my comfort zone, and then another month in England, swathed in the coziness of a family visit. So I’m nervous about going outside of what’s comfortable and known – and I’m eager to go there.

So off we go, vaccinated, equipped with all the anti-mosquito equipment you can imagine, with freshly stamped visas in our passports. I’m ready to have my mind (and sweat pores) opened.