“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.

Prayer.jpg

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.

Next chapter: Sudan

Map of Sudan from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASudan_regions_map.png
From Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASudan_regions_map.png

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.