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.