Monday, August 27, 2012

One Thread

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 searching for.

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.

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