Falling in and out of love with Sudan

Part of the difference and beauty of Sudan - henna-designed feet

Part of the difference and beauty of Sudan - henna-designed feet

I fall in love with Sudan because the people are proud

From the first moment, in the ferry from Egypt’s Aswan to Sudan’s Wadi Halfa I loved the fact that Sudanese were making a point of telling us how Sudan’s tap water is safe for westerners to drink. I loved the fact that the ticket lady at Khartoum’s National Museum let me in for free because it was near closing time and the ticket system had already shut down but she wanted me to see the country’s treasures. That the guards pointed me to the best bits – not for tips – just to make sure I saw them. Harassment, pleas for money and ‘foreigner prices’, which follow tourists everywhere in both Sudan’s neighbours of Egypt and Ethiopia, magically disappear at the border. Of course as a foreigner it is unspeakable relief and eases your travelling, but far more than this it is seeing local pride that warms and swells the heart.

I fall out of love with Sudan because the people are proud… and don’t like being challenged by a woman

As Steve recounts in the story of us getting arrested by the Sudanese army and police my refusal to cower to the men’s authority almost got me hit in the head with the butt of a rifle – and certainly caused me to acquire a few temporary enemies. Local pride has an unfortunate, albeit less dramatic, side effect too, in the fact that even absolutely wonderful, amazing people, who I would count as friends, would not want to hear about the difficulties I was facing as a woman in Sudan – or admit that the many layers of modern Muslim dress may be responsible for the fact that Sudanese women were less likely, and able, to walk long distances in 45-degree Khartoum heat than I.

I fall in love with Sudan because the people are amazingly generous and ask nothing in return

In Sudan we were constantly quoted the saying: “For three days you must help strangers”. It is utterly heartwarming to have people want to constantly help you, talk to you, even have strangers pay for your drinks in a shop and for them to want absolutely nothing in return except to show their goodness and how strongly their culture of hospitality has survived. These were not small favours. Maysra, who we met at a bus stop, went completely out of his way to make sure we got to our destination – and paid for our tickets. The next day we met him by chance on the street and again he went out of his way to help us – and bought us breakfast. Even after a whole day together all he would accept from us was one tea. Adil, who we met in the ferry from Egypt, invited us to his house in Khartoum where his sister treated us to a wonderful feast. What’s more, because I was a married woman coming to her house for the first time, she presented me with a gift of homemade perfume!

I fall in love with Sudan because the people are amazingly generous and ask nothing in return… unless you’re a western woman by herself

In an internet café I made the mistake of being the last one left at closing time. I thought the young man in charge was being nice by offering me five more minutes to finish my email. When I went to leave he offered me his hand to shake and then grabbed me and pulled me towards him. It wasn’t dangerous but it was very unpleasant and someone else in my situation might have panicked. I had been told by western girls that the men in Sudan were always harassing female travelers. I hadn’t experienced anything more than the usual until then but later in a bus stop  the difference between walking through the foyer with Steve and walking through the foyer without him was almost comical…almost.

I fall in love with Sudan because of its beauty

The grand sweeping sands of the Nubian desert, the dynamic banks of the Nile, palms, unusual flowers, traditional round huts inside walled house compounds in small cities, henna-patterned feet …difference, beauty.

I fall out of love with Sudan because of its lack of beauty

On highways around poorer cities a proliferation of plastic bags are caught on every shrub and every tree transforming the desert into a grotesque post-Armageddon landscape – it’s heart breaking.

I fall in love with Sudan because of its security

This is a pretty widely held view – there are few African capital cities as safe as Khartoum. Even late at night with limited street lights, walking through a huge square of sleeping homeless people. OK, that was slightly scary, but certainly not as scary as it would have been anywhere else. And late night walks in Khartoum are worth it to see the full moon from a bridge over the Blue Nile.

I fall out of love with Sudan because of its security

Sudan is a police state. Even putting aside our big issue with the spurious arrest. It’s not fun being challenged by the Sharia Police, asked to prove we’re married and produce our wedding certificate. It’s not fun having to register your movements everywhere you go, even bus stations. Worse still is when people pretend to be security, which happened to us once, but which we were protected from by the other Sudanese around us.

Confronting, conflicting Sudan.  What do I feel about you?

We have been in Ethiopia for a week now, travelling around the stunningly beautiful northern mountains, visiting ancient sites and mythical castles with other western tourists. The difference in experience is immense.

Even in my memories I am still confused. As a feminist I felt compelled to write this piece – to write about the experience as a woman which is of course different than the experience as a journalist.

I am still falling in and out of love with Sudan. But, I suspect, over time, my love for Sudan, for the proud, generous Sudanese people, and for the next generation – in many of whom I have hope, even from a feminist point of view – that will be the lasting memory.

Whatever the distillation of memories may present to me in the future, right now I feel privileged to have travelled through. To have seen and experienced and learnt – as difficult and as wonderful as it was.