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.
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.
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.
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.
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.