Kassala, the author stayed with Amara and her two
You Can Cope with Bad Hotels, Cramped and Lingering Train
Rides, Tedious Days of Processing Paperwork, and the
Threat of 40 Lashes for Having a Beer, This Is the Trip
for You Because the Friendliness and Hospitality of the
Arab People Can Make It All Worthwhile
By Christina Henning
for The News Tribune
"Why are you traveling to Sudan? And why are you
without your husband?'' demanded the Egyptian customs
official. These two questions illustrated the official
Egyptian view of my trip to their neglected neighbor
, the largest country in Africa, with more pyramids than
and a nation of 500 nomadic tribes.
I was not prepared for the barrage of zealous officials
that preceded boarding of the
, to Wadi Halfa,
. The steamer is a human zoo and can be an intimidating
experience. Scurrying on and off the steamer were clusters
of men, bent over with the weight of 200-pound bags of
flour, their heads wrapped in bright turbans of lustrous
Egyptian cotton. Truckload after truckload of colorful
shoes and mats were loaded for
, causing a delay of five hours. One worker fainted, but
no one came immediately to his aid. Eventually security
officers escorted us through the congested mass of people
and to our cabins. We arrived in Wadi Halfa the next
must be prepared for countless delays, crowds and
bureaucratic red tape. There is also some danger; the
United States Department of State warns travelers to avoid
Sudan because of the risks of banditry, terrorism
(primarily due to the ongoing civil war in the southern
regions) and strict curfews, which if violated, can lead
to detention by authorities.
Despite these problems, I am attracted to
for its people. And even with the anti-Western propaganda
espoused by the government, an atmosphere of genuine
hospitality and friendliness prevails, surpassing all
other Arab countries I have visited.
For people traveling on the cheap to Wadi Halfa, there are
and Wadini Hotels. Women and men traveling together have a
difficult time finding accommodations. Even married
couples who don't have documentation are often refused a
hotel room because of the strict moral codes of the
the more affluent traveler, and for those in a hurry, it's
best to fly from
, which offers the Meridien and Hilton hotels and the
famous Acropole Hotel.
My next destination was
. We were told that the train, the Khartoum Express, would
take three days and two nights to
from Wadi Halfa. Our trip lasted five days and four
nights. Aside from scheduled stops, it came to a
screeching halt five times a day for prayer, broke down
numerous times, stopped so that desert sand could be
shoved off the track, stopped to hunt for lost wagons and
occasionally shut down when the conductor felt he needed a
couldn't help but admire the women in my eight-person
cabin. I never heard a word of complaint about delays,
breakdowns or the general discomfort of the journey. The
seats are uncushioned, there's no leg room and you sit
to-knee with the passengers facing you. But these
travelers seemed unconcerned, even when someone else's
feet ended up in their laps! At night two women slept on
the floor between the seats and the rest of us managed to
contort our bodies into shapes I never thought possible.
I was sitting in the desert during one of the train's
breakdowns, decoratively scarred tribal women walked over
and greeted me, extending their right arms and touching my
left shoulder with their hands, then moving that hand to
their hearts. It's the Sudanese national greeting. The
hand on the shoulder means I have no weapon; the hand on
the heart, I come in peace. They made a fire under a small
pot to boil water for tea or coffee to share with me.
As the hours passed, the circle of women and children
around me grew. Men usually kept their respectful
distance. If one decided to come closer to take a better
look at the howaja, meaning white person, the women would
quickly shoo him away.
desert around the broken-down train started to have the
appearance of a refugee camp, as hundreds of people
scattered around putting up temporary shelter. Being the
only foreigner, I was the center of attention and the
source of much amusement, especially when the women
discovered hair on my legs. Arab women remove all body
hairs with a paste made of lemon water and sugar.
Finally we rolled into the
station and the people, lulled into a stupor by the
constant lurching of the train, came alive with laughter
and singing. To everyone's amazement, we were told that we
couldn't leave the train because it was past curfew time.
Curfew starts at 11 p.m. and ends at 4 a.m. It was 11:10
houses one-fifth of
's total population. It's the meeting place of the Blue
and White Niles, described in Arab poetry as the longest
kiss in history. The
, with a total length of 4,000 miles, is the longest river
in the world and runs through the country from south to
British left their mark on
by laying the streets out in the shape of the British
flag. General Gordon's palace today is the People's
, office work stops and shops close at prayer time, and
the limited number of broadcast channels on radio and TV
make sure that the people never forget the importance of
Sharia (Islamic law) and general Islamic practices. For
non-Muslims, it can be a suffocating environment. On the
other hand, Islam unites people across class lines.
has been burdened with
political turmoil and economic chaos throughout history.
It's a country said "to change presidents and
governments every Friday after prayers,'' according to a
ticket agent for Sudan Airways who didn't want his name
"I do not make any decisions between Fridays and
Sundays, because if there is a new government, there will
be new laws and rules to follow,'' said the ticket agent
with a shrug of his shoulders.
however large, seem to be taken in stride by the Sudanese.
's present government came to power in a June 1989
military coup headed by 45-year old Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan
Ahmed al-Bashir. The government is still in the process of
transformation. Sharia has been established as the code
for public and private life.
which are seen as non-Islamic have been eliminated. For
instance, under the new Public Morality Act, women's
clothes must be loose-fitting, not similar to men's
clothing and must cover the whole body. As a foreigner,
you are exempt from the Islamic dress called hijab, but
you are expected to cover up.
alcohol is banned. The law states that any person who
drinks alcohol or gains possession of alcohol shall be
flogged 40 lashes. Foreigners are not exempt from this.
Leaving the train when curfew finally ended, exhausted
from sitting up four nights without any real sleep, I
collapsed on the desk of the El Sawahali Hotel in downtown
begging for a room. But first, the manager had to pause
for his daily prayer.
room had a small sink with a tap about two feet above the
basin, two beds without blankets, but with clean sheets,
and a balcony overlooking
United Nations Square
and heaps of stone rubble. When I turned on the tap, there
was no water. I found the manager in the kitchen, and he
was extremely apologetic. He told me that all of
was out of water at the moment. The Egyptians warned me
that I could starve or be shot if I went to
, but no one told me that I might not find any water.
"What about blankets?'' I whined. "I am sorry,''
he replied. "It is the new rule, all blankets in the
have been confiscated by the Minister of Health.''
water was found, buckets were carried up four flights of
stairs, food was prepared and extra sheets were brought to
use as blankets. I was touched by the concern of my hosts.
today, war, famine and natural disasters have played a
role in displacing hundreds of thousands of Sudanese
residents from the south
to the national capital of
. The majority of these are boys between the ages of 8 and
16. They roam the streets of
in packs during the day and in the afternoon gather around
the mosque where they wait patiently for trucks of food to
phenomenon of street children is a problem to be found
everywhere in the world, but the people of
cared for the children as best they could. The suggested
solution by the new government is to round them up and put
them into military service or similar institutions.
city itself looked distressed with unremoved debris from
buildings destroyed during the June 1989 coup. It was
especially desolate and eerie at night after curfew. The
general street life of a typical Arab city was absent.
country in the world open to foreigners likes to pride
itself on its hospitality, but in
it's for real. You will never be asked for a tip
(baksheesh, which is nothing but a petty bribe) as in
other Arab countries where hustling is an art.
you are looking for beauty, it's not in the temples or
but in the people's disarming kindness towards strangers.
eight days in
were occupied from 7 a.m. until the late afternoon at the
Alien and Security office were I had to register and apply
for travel permits. This involved numerous pieces of paper
to be filled out, stamped, certified and photocopied. Each
paper requires a passport photo.
are not allowed to leave
without travel permits. This means sitting in ill-lighted
offices with other worn-out foreigners clutching their
papers, outnumbered by bored-looking officials who will
demand a pen from you, use it to sign your permits and
keep it. I brought 25 pens, and left
year after the gulf war,
is still paying a high price for backing
. The average citizens have been hard hit by their
government's choice, particularly the large number of
merchants whose livelihood depends on the trade routes
established by their ancestors and which are now closed to
them. It's no wonder the Sudanese are uncertain whether
Allah laughed or cried when he created
, as an age-old proverb says.
spite of its negative aspects,
is an adventurous, fascinating and extremely safe place to
visit. Because of its checkered political history and lack
of conveniences, travelers have been kept away from this
unexplored country. The only paved road in
, via Wad Medani, Gedaref and Kassala (in
close to the Ethiopian border). The traveler can ride one
of the luxury buses that has windows, air-conditioning and
shock absorbers. The
trip takes eight to
lies on the Sudanese-Eritrean border. The city is famous
for its jebels, cone-shaped hills and a variety of fruits,
including oranges, grapefruits, dates, pomegranates and
melons. The main tribes in the area are the Hadendowa,
Beni Amir, Shukriyya, Halanga and the Reshaida. I stayed
at the Noor Palace Hotel.
Reshaida tribe came to
about 150 years ago by ship with their camels and goats.
Today, they are still unwelcome guests living in Kassala
and areas of
. They are known for their silver jewelry and for breeding
the best racing camels.
Kassala I befriended Amara, who took me to her village
where I lived among the Reshaida for five days. The 20th
century has not intruded inside the Reshaida's tents.
Colorful mats and thick tapestries covered parts of the
sand floor. But outside, the camels were parked next to
their trucks. The men spend their days with the animals,
while the women take care of the finances. Each has her
own hiding place for her jewelry and money (usually
traveler today may wish to travel to far-away Kassala or
make a day trip
's sister city
across the two
. It's the old part of
with mud-brick buildings and narrow streets.
the mad shopper,
's Souk is the largest market in
. You can watch craftspeople carving ebony and ivory,
goldsmiths and silversmiths shaping glimmering bits of
Souk is a meeting place for people from all over the
country selling and trading their local crafts. It's a
fascinating place to wander through, to see the people
from widely scattered cultures of
displaying exotic customs, from richly embroidered veils
to highly varied facial scars and intricate body
decoration focusing on the hands and feet.
is known to have the largest selection of camels in the
world, and whirling dervishes perform their ritual dances
at Hamad En Nil Cemetery every Friday.
with only two days left on my visa and went to Sudan
Airways to book a flight to Wadi Halfa to meet the
steamer back to
. Even after my four weeks traveling in
, I failed to remember that the words "hurry'' and
"speed'' do not translate into Sudanese. At the
ticket counter I was told that all flights to Wadi Halfa
were filled for three weeks and, scrutinizing my travel
permits, the ticket agent told me that he couldn't sell me
a ticket because I didn't have permission to be back in
. I did two things I advise travelers not to do: I became
hysterical and threatened to come back with an official
from the American Embassy. Several hours later I received
Having reached the
steamer, my traveling companion and I threw ourselves into
our first-class cabin and on a berth that still had
remnants of meals on it from the previous occupant. I got
up to hang my coat on the closet door, and a rat jumped
out and disappeared underneath a mass of steel pipes.
Pressing myself tightly into the berth, I screamed at my
companion to "do something!'' A few minutes later she
returned with the burly ship manager followed by a bunch
of laughing Sudanese.
manager, trying hard to look serious, demanded to know
where the rat went. I pointed to the steel pipes, and he
got down on the floor and nodded his head. "You have
nothing to worry about; it went to the next cabin, through
that hole. If you give me some paper I will block the hole
so he doesn't come back,'' he said.
It had taken me eight days to get my travel permits in
. This time I was able to do it in three. I found myself
habitually lost in the city, spending hours with a
250-pound taxi driver who tried to convince me that he was
the Minister of Health. I wasted another day with a driver
who took the scenic route to the Alien office and in the
process got lost himself. By the time he found the Alien
Office it was closed but, by then, the driver had me
convinced he was the Minister of Information.
days later, relaxing in the comfort of our hotel in
, my companion said, "Now that we know the system,
let's go back next year.''
© 1992, Christina Henning
Pictures © Christina Henning