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Published: April 14th 2009
My bus company for the leg to Khartoum has the threatening name of Kabosh, but their service levels give a good first impression when a car is sent to transport me the 300m from the lokonda
to their departure point. This is the first bus of the day but it doesn't leave on time, and I am able to watch Karima gradually wake up. A donkey cart bearing a surreal load of severed donkey heads passes by in the dawn light.
The journey to Khartoum is unremarkable, with desert once more dominating the scenery. The capital is truly enormous by the standards of the towns I have seen so far in Sudan, and in fact consists of three cities rolled into one. It takes us fully three quarters of an hour to progress from the first stop in Omdurman, the oldest part of Khartoum, to the second stop south of Khartoum proper. Here I disembark and have little choice but to accept the SP10 taxi fare for the 10 minute ride to my intended lodgings.
Abdul the vet from Dongola had recommended this hotel to me, though I had seen slightly less glowing reviews of it on the web.
9 out of 10 Khartoum barbers have Craig David in their advertising
My room is grotty but it's a single and has a fan and a sink. I only see one cockroach my entire stay, which is dispatched with a flip-flop - soon after, a column of ants emerges and starts carting off bits of the carcass until only a stain remains. The shared bathroom next door looks awful but the cold shower has good pressure and the toilet does not smell at all - not even a faint whiff. Thus the SP25 ($12.50) I pay per night seems eminently reasonable by Khartoum standards.
The hotel is in downtown Khartoum, an area consisting of nine parts scrattiness to one of modernity. I see taller buildings than I've seen since Egypt, and plenty of building sites. The traffic is atrocious - whereas there is some symbiosis between vehicles and pedestrians in Cairo, here the road-user is king. People cross the road in one movement rather than in stages, as to be marooned part way across is to ask to be taken to hospital. There is a different look to the population, with African features now outnumbering Arabic ones. I am still tall here, but certainly not the tallest, and I see many
Dinka men of my height, their foreheads intriguingly scarified. There are also non-Muslim women here, I'm guessing from the Christian south, whose uncovered hair and less demure fashions are a novel sight. I also notice for the first time that there are women drivers in Sudan.
Whether this is due to the usual big city syndrome, or if there actually is a little anti-foreigner sentiment in the wake of the ICC's verdict against El-Bashir, but there is a distinctly cool reaction from locals to seeing me. In fact my first interaction on the street, with a policeman whom I ask for the location of the registration office, goes badly. I am not sure what his gripe is but he directs a mouthful of Arabic at me that ends in "Imshi", a none-too-polite way of telling me to go away. It turns out that this is the only negative interaction of my stay, but the frequency of conversations with the locals is greatly reduced from that further north.
Back at the hotel I meet Ahmed, an Egyptian construction worker. He has just finished a 1.5 year contract and is flying out shortly. He is a relieved man - much
Hamed El-Nil tomb
Site of the Halgt Zikr
as he likes the Sudanese people, he says that life in Sudan has been hard and he can not wait to get back to his home in Alexandria. Beer and drugs seem to be the two main things he will indulge in once back on Egyptian soil. Other abstinences have been less of a problem, and he offers to show me a nearby street where I can find "sexy with Sudan woman" for $25. He invites me to his wedding in the summer, then for some reason goes off on an anti-Semitic rant. Politics and religion are two conversational topics I try to avoid when travelling but, sooner or later, they always seem to find me.
Khartoum was built at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, though the meeting point is a long trudge from downtown and is notorious for the sensitivity to cameras of the police nearby. I content myself with plodding along the tree-lined corniche, stopping every so often to sit on the embankment and enjoy the river breezes. During one such break, I am passed by nine leaf-sweepers in five minutes, their overalls exhorting the reader to keep Khartoum clean. A fleet of black
Mercedes also whooshes by, containing some government bigwig or other - maybe even El-Bashir himself.
Khartoum is by no means a premier tourist destination, not helped by its two most interesting events taking place at about the same time on the same day in different parts of the city. These are a display of Nuban wrestling, whose practitioners hail from the south of the country, and a ceremony at the tomb of a long-deceased Sufi holy man named Hamed El-Nil. I only have time to attend the latter, and it turns out to be a very interesting experience.
The ceremony, real name Halgt Zikr, takes place in a graveyard in Omdurman. I can't find a taxi driver who understands my pronunciation of the Arabic name, but I mime some ungainly dancing and this seems to do the trick. The graveyard is very plain indeed, with the headstones simple and the graves essentially bare ground. I pick my way across to the tomb and am immediately hailed by an English-speaking student. I ask him where the dancing is, and he tuts, saying that it is NOT dancing but an Islamic ceremony. Whatever, it turns out that I am over
Hennaed passenger, Karima->Khartoum bus
an hour too early so I potter around the area to kill time. Whole families have come from around Khartoum to pray at the tomb and I am an object of curiosity for men, women, and children, several of whom approach me to chat with varying levels of English ability.
My first conversational partner is a serious individual who looks in his early 50s but says he is 42. The fact that he has four wives and six children may be a sheer coincidence. He seems like a proud man who has fallen on hard times. His English is good but he rarely looks me in the face, and even more rarely breaks a smile. He says he used to be an English teacher but is now a "professional porter" at one of the markets. He explains to me the history behind the tomb and asks where I have been in Sudan. Out of left field, he then says "In England, if I have girlfriend, I can fuck?" This brings back memories of umpteen conversations in India. I point out that sex in the West is generally as a result of a mutual agreement between a man and a
Hennaed passenger, Karima->Khartoum bus
woman, so you can't just bone anything that takes your fancy, but I'm not sure if that's what he takes away from our chat.
Standing around in the sun has left me feeling slightly faint, so I ask if he would like to join me for some tea. We sit down at a tea stall in the shade and he tells me that he thinks converting to Islam would be a good move for me. This is a subject that will crop up repeatedly during the rest of the day. I find it vaguely insulting that someone can think that a five minute conversation with a stranger is going to convince me to change my mind on a topic that I've thought about on and off for 38 years, but I demur without rancour. He then abruptly says he wants to view the ceremony and, embarrassingly and despite my protestations, pays for the tea that I had invited him to have.
A man with astoundingly blue eyes then shows me a cell phone whose menus are all in English. I assume that he wants me to switch it to Arabic but after several minutes of searching through the
East meets Far East
options, it does not appear possible to change the language. I apologise and suggest he takes it to a phone store, but he then makes it clear that he would actually like to sell me the phone. I decline with thanks.
The ceremony has indeed started but before I can get closer I am collared by another man who wants me to see the error of my ways. He asks me what I will do on Judgement Day when it turns out that I should have been worshipping Allah all along. I tell him I'm sure I'll find some good company in amongst the hundreds of millions of other people that will also realise their mistake then, and he tells me I should read the Koran. I'm not lying when I tell him that I probably will do, but there are several Rough Guides I need to get through first.
The ceremony is as far from my perceptions of Islam as I could possibly imagine. A circle is formed, fairly small at first but then ever-widening over the course of the next hour and a half. One section of the circle is a group of men clad in
red and green robes that bear a distinct resemblance to Girton Hockey Club's strip. They, and the rest of the crowd, are chanting in Arabic, words which a bystander tells me mean "Allah is life" and "There is no god but Allah". A bearded man in dreadlocks and a blue robe, wearing multiple rings on his fingers and carrying a stick, seems to be the conductor. Within the circle are various other men, some in plain white clothes, others in more leopard skin print than you would see at a Rod Stewart concert. I am surprised at the number sporting dreadlocks. One man is spinning on the spot, a whirling dervish. Another runs around within the circle, leaping into the air at intervals. Two incense bearers slowly walk the circumference, blowing the pungent fumes into the faces of the congregation.
My attention is drawn away from the scene by more people who want to talk. A young student asks if I am a "geezer", a word that his British English teacher has taught him. Not for the first time, I am asked if I have information about emigrating - to the US, to Canada, to the UK. There seems
to be an educated generation here that is eager to get out, at least for a time.
When I transfer my gaze back to the ceremony, the circle has widened again and the number of dervishes has increased. The chanting is loud, incense clouds still drifting in the air. Some of the leopard skin-clad contingent have now started moving with sudden dashes and leaps, like a modern dance performance. This is more how I imagined a voodoo ritual to be, and I find it hard to believe that this is a drug-free zone. As the sun sets, the activity comes to an end. It will apparently continue later but I'm hungry and decide to head back to the hotel.
I've seen maybe ten whities in the crowd, and I fall into conversation with one of them, Ricky, who has been taking photos pretty much throughout the ceremony. He turns out to be working for the British Council in Khartoum, and suggests that we hit Ozone, an outdoor cafe that is one of the centres of expat and hipster life in the city. It's a couple of kilometres south of downtown, in a district imaginatively named Khartoum 2. The
crowd is mainly young locals, sipping cappuccinos and sporting distinctly Western couture. A misty spray from overhead pipes keeps the air fresh. Ricky describes Khartoum as "boring" but he has travelled extensively in Sudan and gives me some tips for how to spend my remaining time here. I take notes while eating some delicious icecream.
My taxi home is driven by a man from Wadi Halfa. He says that English people are very civilised, "But the Irish? Oh no."
My other tourist activity is to visit the dimly-lit National Museum, seeing again that the histories of Sudan and Egypt are inextricably linked.
My remaining time in Khartoum is an exercise in irritations. The city is an oven, and I am an unwilling roast chicken. Getting from A to B is never easy, as distances are great, traffic is slow, taxi fares are ludicrously high (especially for foreigners but also for locals), and the cheap minibuses are bewildering. It doesn't help that the various institutions I need to visit all have erratic opening hours that are subject to change. In fact, I plod to the Post Office five times during my stay and it is never open, despite
all my visits falling within the consensus of the building's opening hours. A man sits outside selling postcards, and he soon learns to recognise the tall foreigner who appears daily and starts swearing at the closed door. He shrugs each time I ask when it will open, and suggests I return "tomorrow". I am incredulous that I can spend nearly a week in a capital city and not be able to buy stamps.
I have better success with my permit application to visit the eastern city of Kassala, though this is not without its trials. First I am told that I need four copies of the information and visa pages in my passport, however there is no photocopier on the premises so I have to trudge 300m to the nearest one. On returning to the permit office, I am then given a form to fill in. Four copies are then needed of that so it's back to the copy shop again. I am then told they need four passport photos, which is more than were required when I applied for my Sudanese visa. Fortunately I have four left, but one is from when I was in Vietnam (i.e. lean
and tanned) and the other three are from just after Christmas (i.e. fat and pasty). The official initially refuses to believe that this is the same person, but relents before I start screaming in frustration. When I later return to pick up the permit, he is all smiles and even gives me his phone number should I encounter any problems when I reach Kassala.
By contrast, obtaining my photo permit takes minutes. The woman authorising my permit apologises when she catches me staring at her stirring her tea with a pen, explaining that she is a Bedouin. A colleague of hers helps me with various administration questions that don't really fit into his job description but which he is more than pleased to answer. The application process for my Ethiopian visa is also a model of efficiency, taking about 2.5 hours from initial "queuing" to obtain the application form to actually being given my passport with the visa in it. At the embassy, I bump into the young backpackers from Karima so will no doubt be encountering them in Ethiopia too.
The main bus station is a long way from downtown and would cost at least $15 to
visit by taxi, so I make the rounds of the local travel agents to see if anyone knows about buses to Kassala. I find an office with one chap who speaks extremely good English and he provides me with enough information to at least know what time to get to the bus station in order to find a service. On hearing that I intend visiting Ethiopia next, he begins to reminisce about the amazing sex that he once had in Bahir Dar. He then segues into further nostalgia, this time regarding eating cheap baguettes in Paris. Frankly, I don't see either activity in my near future, though the chances of me appearing with "cheap baguettes" in the same sentence are probably higher than with "amazing sex".
I had been expecting Khartoum to be awash in aid agencies but it doesn't seem that way, even taking the recent expulsions into account. I see a few UN vehicles but otherwise I would never have guessed there was much of a population of UN and NGO employees in the city (though I guess a good number of them are locals anyway). I see just a handful of other tourists. And this despite
visiting a couple of the areas where supposedly such people hang out.
I treat myself to a pizza on my last night in Khartoum at a pizzeria just over the road from Ozone. For my $4, I receive a saucer-sized offering containing, among other things, "green paper". I savour the taste, as it has been a couple of weeks since I had anything I could honestly describe as tasty.
The next morning, I'm moving again. Dull but possibly useful info
i. The bus from Karima to Khartoum was operated by Kabosh and cost SP30. It was supposed to leave at 7AM and took just over 6 hours.
ii. I stayed at Salli Hotel and paid SP25 for a single room with shared bathroom.
iii. You apparently do NOT need to register in Khartoum, assuming you have already registered at one of the land borders into Sudan.
iv. Applying for a photo permit is free and probably wise though I was never asked for mine - you will need to fill in a form, then provide 1 passport photo and copies of the form and the information and visa pages of your passport (there is a copy shop
over the road). The people in the permit office are friendly and very helpful.
v. To apply for a permit to visit Kassala, you need to go to the Humanitarian Aid Commission. Head south down Quasar street from downtown, cross the railway line, then turn right (southwest) at the second major intersection. About 50m down this road you should see a blue building housing several departments, one of which (the second on the building's sign) is the Humanitarian Aid Commission. The reception guys speak no English so walk through to the office behind them and to the left. Ask for a form for a permit to Kassala and fill it out - note that the leaving date section is the date you intend leaving Khartoum, not Kassala, though I got the impression no-one really cares about the contents of the permit anyway - it's more the fact that you have one. Next go to the copy shop - it's about 300m further down the road down a side street on the right hand side (it has Canon and various other electronics company names on its exterior). Get 4 copies each of the form, and the information and visa pages of
your passport. Return to the building and hand these in with 4 photos. You will then be sent upstairs two floors to an office, where a guy will take two of your copies, then you will be sent to another office where you hand in the others. With any luck, you will then be told to return in a few hours to pick up your completed permit.
vi. An Ethiopian visa costs $20 and can be done same day. Give 2 passport photos and your passport to the guy in the Information booth (i.e. the one with a scrum in front of it) and he will give you an application form. Don't worry about the Sudan sponsor and Employer sections (for those of us in the ranks of the unemployed and with no sponsor). Then join the scrum at booth 3 (the one on the far left) where a guy will scribble some stuff on the form, then pay at booth 4, then come back 2-3 hours later and pick up your passport from the guy in the Information booth.
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