For the past several weeks, I have been struggling to write something new about my time in Khartoum. I have a number of half written snippets here or there, but nothing has quite come together. As I pondered the reasons, one of them finally came to me. After much consideration, I had to admit to myself that I was not, actually, liking Khartoum too much, and thus was rarely inspired to write.
The architecture, which is usually the first thing to catch
my eye in a new city, especially aged architecture, left much to be
desired. The ostentatiously large villas
that popped up here and there aside, most of which touted quite attractive,
shiny-new architectural features, much of the city looked like the aftermath of
a tidal wave that swept in plastic half-parts and stuck them across the surface
of the city like a disjointed jigsaw puzzle.
I also had to admit that I was putting Khartoum in an
impossible position – I felt the more modern parts of it were awkwardly
juxtaposed against the dusty roads, which also immediately reminded me that
they were not accessible to many a local Sudani. I thought I would like the more populously
lived areas, but when I got to any of them, I found that I also didn’t like the
seemingly random chaos of the small and big buildings, many a half-painted wall,
and the ubiquitous dirt. As I said, I
was putting Khartoum in an impossible position. I supposed if I could
understand any part of it, I would be able to catch that thread to liking it
more, but it has not happened yet.
Another contributing factor was the general prohibition on
taking photographs in public. I don’t know the reason, but it has been
confirmed to me by a number of sources.
One colleague providing the solution ‘just have a Sudanese person with
you’, which did nothing to explain the rationale. So there I stood: failing at hooking into an
aspect of the city that I liked, and denied my usual camera medium for
discovering such aspects. It practically
de-motivated me from walking around the city altogether, and thus slowly
distanced me from it.
I was also yearning for some exposure to real Sudanese
life. Working long hours at an office
can get you into a socializing rut that, you soon realize, seems to mainly
involve other internationals, who are wonderful, but they are not, by definition,
local. Besides, when internationals get
together, our main conversation usually focuses on our own lives back home (not
Sudan), or on how we are finding ways to adapt and adjust what is available to
us in Khartoum to best approximate things we liked back home (again, not
Sudan). The anthropologist in me was
getting frustrated that my experience was such that I could be living anywhere,
and since I wasn’t in Beirut with my sweet husband, family and friends, then I
didn’t really want to be ‘anywhere’.
I must have been sending out this message into the universe
because, shortly afterwards, I got invited to a concert commemorating the work
of a famous Sudanese singer. A day after
that I had a pleasant experience with a sweet local neighbor, and earlier that
same day, I’d finally been able to go on one of my random walks in the alleys
nearby and at long last got a glimpse of what draws me to communities. I’m so happy to have the excuse to remember
them today as they might very well be the start of that thread I’ve been
As I set off on that walk, dodging the holes and rocks on
the uneven sandy roads, I tried to keep an eye up at the extremely large houses
marking the area, and pretty much creating the road around them. It consistently surprised me to see the sand
stop suddenly at the edge of a carefully paved driveway with its grand gate,
and always made me wonder why the owner who invested so much into this home to
top all homes didn’t spend a little more to pour asphalt around it. If each of
these houses did that, most of the sandy road (if not all of it) would be
perfectly asphalted. I raised this
question to a couple of friends, and never got more than a sigh in
response. As I continued to walk,
however, my attention was frequently drawn to the carefully tended trees
planted around the houses. They are
lush, and a pleasant presence, and clearly required a lot of care to blossom in
their spot of fertilized dirt fending away the dry surrounding sand. They sit at the outside of the high wall
marking the contours of the house’s grounds, which reaffirms that they have
been planted here not for the residents of the house, but for us, to enjoy
their shade or beauty just so. How kind.
Other houses would have another welcome distraction outside
their walls; a set of three or more clay water gourds, possibly bigger than the
one that used to sit in my grandmother’s courtyard, sitting moist on a stand to
cater to any thirsty passerby. Some are
placed in honor of a late family member (men and women alike, I was happy to
note), others are just there as they are, and seeing them always moves me
immensely as I find it an infinitely kind gesture in Sudan’s heat.
Lightened by these observations, I walked on, trying to
carefully keep track of the heat, and zipping into any shaded alleys I
saw. Then, walking out onto a big side
street, I finally saw what I realized I was looking for all along. I saw a
mule-drawn flat carriage carrying its owner and a few urns of milk. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not that I was
searching for a ‘quaint’ image of the ‘locals’ – not at all. I was just
thrilled that these neigbourhoods that had exchanged orchards for big houses
were still of equal claim to the other Sudanis.
I was thrilled to have a genuine element of daily life, as it is plainly
lived, enter into this vista of polished signs on awkward shops, and plastic
flowers adorning shop windows. Sadly, on
all other days of my bumpy, dusty rides through the city, I find that the
plastic flowers are ever-present but the milk seller and his mule are not.
So now that I know the thread is there, I just need to hold
on to it tightly. One element that will
make it easier for me to bear the process is, no surprise, the people. The Sudanese are probably the kindest people
I have ever met, in word and deed. So much so that they can frequently
unknowingly put you to shame by their noble interaction. They are just indescribably sweet, enough to
make anyone seek out that thread and hold on to it – you figure that a country
that has bred such fine people must have many saving graces. Pity they’re not easier to find… I might have
to venture out of Khartoum to uncover more.