Saturday, August 24, 2013

Top 20 signs you’ve been living in Sudan too long …

I recently returned to Europe for a five-week break during the summer holidays. Quite a few faux paus later, I realised just Sudan-ised I'd become in the last 10 months. Whallaiiiii!!!!! (note: some points may have been slightly exaggerated)
  • You annoy all your friends by turning up two hours late for EVERYTHING
  • You keep shouting into your mobile phone even though the connection is good
  • You greet everyone with “keyf, tamaam?” (how are you? Fine?) and become slightly confused  when no-one understands
  • You outrage shopkeepers by trying to negotiate the price
  • Nightclub patrons look at you strangely when you start clicking your fingers at them to encourage their dancing
  • You still can’t bring yourself to wear a halter-neck top
  • You arrive at friends' houses and promptly fall asleep on the nearest bed/couch
  • You still prefer to eat with your hand even at posh dinner parties
  • You pre-fix every sentence with “wallai….” (literally: “I swear to God” or “really?”)
  • You now prefer tea over beer/wine/vodka etc.
  • You keep boring friends with conversations starters like “When I was in Sudan…”
  • You keep wondering why no-one is noticing your existence anymore, in fact you’re even slightly disappointed when the marriage offers dry up
  • You constantly laugh out loud at your own jokes and then attempt to shake people's hands afterwards
  • You horrify everyone when you suggest making pasta sauce with peanut butter
  • You're confused when the bus doesn't stop no matter how loud you click your fingers
  • You half consider paying for the coffees and metro fares of random strangers
  • You constantly wander in to your neighbour's house for a friendly chat without calling ahead first
  • People think you're being aggressive when you greet them by whacking them on the shoulder
  • You keep interrogating random people about their marital status
  • After awhile, you even start missing fuul a bit
Taking my rest ... in every moment

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Invitation to visit a sheikh

The sheikh is sleeping when we arrive ...

We’ve come from Ed Damer, travelling in the back cabin of one of the garishly decorated white Toyotas that ply the village routes around the region. They look a bit like a version of the Australian police paddy wagon, but with more bling. 
Decorative village transport

Everything from the body of the car to the mud flaps is embellished with an ornate design or decoration, while on the bonnet something resembling a feather duster sticks upright.

At an unplanned stop along the way, the men suddenly disembark en masse and head for a distant, dusty field, already crowded by a ghostly gathering of men in white jellabiyahs. It turns out there’s a funeral in progress and as such the men, who are all familiar with the deceased, have gone to pay their respects. It’s another striking example of the interconnectedness of life here.

The sheikh’s village is called El-Hasaiya, located about 40mins from Ed Damer. As we leave the town limits, I wonder why I’ve never explored further afield before. The area has a tranquil feel, with pint-sized mud-brick villages, tempered by clusters of tall date palms and green vegetation. 
Outside view of the sheikh's house

While the sheikh is taking his rest, his wife Aisha takes us on a tour of the village. The sheikh’s house is a large, neat complex with three separate buildings and several smaller open air structures, surrounding a spacious courtyard. A number of people are taking shelter from the sun, with some stretched out on straw mats. We enter a cool, darkened room, with a number of open archways. Around 10 elderly women, resting on threadbare mattresses inside, rise slowly to greet us. Aisha explains her husband is providing basic shelter for the women, many of whom are destitute or suffering illness.

We leave behind the calm order inside the complex for the full force of the blaring sun outside. People stop to greet us as we make our way along a wide dusty street until we reach a striking conical shrine - essentially the centrepiece of the village - which houses the body of the former sheikh. 
The Sufi shrine at El-Hasaiya

The inside is empty save for a few trapped pigeons flapping frantically against the wall and the covered tomb of the sheikh surrounded by red sand. A few people filter in and out and press their hands against the tomb, reciting a mumbled prayer.  

Our companion Ja’maal asks us to come and pray with him. He closes his eyes, and spreading his arms wide, begins reciting his prayers. Not sure about the protocol of such a situation, I shuffle closer to the tomb and try to appear dignified and respectful. Ja’maal scoops up some sand and pours it into my outstretched hand. It’s a sacred offering I’m told and I must carry it with me, even back to Australia. I’m wondering how to manage such a task, having only brought with me a small bag, containing no pockets. As we continue on with our village tour, I find myself juggling the sandy offering every time someone stops to shake our hand. 

Next up we visit the local maternity clinic, which is funded by the sheikh. Lines of women wait patiently outside. Facilities are basic, but there’s a doctor on duty, who tells us that he returned to his home village from Khartoum to work in the clinic. He says that before the clinic opened many women gave birth in their houses or died as a result of complications during pregnancy. 

Finally we're seated in a cool, modest room with dirt floors, our companions a small group of shy, giggling teenage girls. People wander in and out to greet us and shake our hand before we are served with this enormous breakfast (pictured left).

A short pause after eating and it seems the sheikh is ready to meet us.

It’s been a couple of months since we last saw the sheikh, who we met in January at Mawlid celebrations in Ed Damer, marking the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday.

As part of the occasion, several large tents were set up in a vacant dusty field on the edge of town – each one dedicated to a particular sub-branch or tariqats. Devotional music, drumming and ritualised chanting emanates as we arrive.

The Sufi gathering has a carnival-like atmosphere, with followers displaying a rather eccentric and colourful approach to worship. 
Mawlid celebrations, Ed Damer

Some branches of Islam forbid the commemoration of Mawlid, but the Sufis embrace this celebration with a zeal and passion that is hard to ignore. There is an intensity, but also an infectious exuberance about this ceremony - both sacred and joyous.

The dress code seems to be anything goes, with dreadlocked Sufis in green-elf like suits and pointy hats, flared patch-work skirts, as well as garish leopard-print outfits.

Inside the tents, men rock from side to side in unison, repeating a hypnotic religious chant, while others careen about the ‘dancefloor’ with wild abandon or leap gracefully in the air on one spot.

Makeshift sweets stalls sell the sugary Mawlid treats, including bizarre dyed pink candies in the shape of birds and men on horseback.

In a striking gesture of generosity, fleet-footed men in white jellabiyahs and skullcaps move throughout the crowd delivering large bowls of rice and meat. Strangers promptly squat on the ground together to share a meal, followed by plastic cups of piping hot milk tea.

We receive a warm welcome as we move from tent to tent, with plates of dates, candies and soft drinks magically appearing before us wherever we go. 

Inside one of the tents we meet the sheikh, who is sitting resplendent receiving his followers. One-by-onethey  crouch before him and kiss the back of his hand. After a brief introduction we are immediately invited to see his village and so that’s how we came to be in El-Hasaiya on this scorching day.

The sheikh tends to a Rashaida woman complaining of back pain
As we re-enter the sheikh’s compound, we find a line of people extending from a small room at the side of the house. 

The portly sheikh, who is sat on a rope-strung bed receiving his followers, welcomes us to sit inside and watch the process. 

The elderly and the infirm shuffle in. Some of them are unable to walk freely and have to be assisted by relatives. 

Women hand over their sick babies, while others enter grimmacing in pain or baring disabled limbs.

Although, his consultations are brief, the sheikh is kindly and attentive, offering candies for the children and words of comfort as he dispenses 'remedies' to the sick. 

Using a black rubber whip, he lightly taps the point of pain, while murmuring a hurried prayer. 

I watch in fascination as he presses his hands to the head of a boy complaining of a severe migraine and spits his breath into a water bottle before handing it back to an elderly women suffering abdominal pain. 

As each one leaves a few crumpled notes at the sheikh’s feet or under his pillow, he hands over a small packages of bakhoor (incense) to be burnt in the home as a sort of cleansing ritual. 

At one point, a troupe of young men enter, dressed identically in jellabiyahs and skullcaps. They spread their hands in front of them and without fanfare their leader begins to chant in deep, resonating tones, filling the room, not only with the beauty of his voice, but with the remarkable conviction of his belief.
A troupe of men perform devotional chanting
Once finishing their performance, the men elegantly kneel in front of him and kiss his hand, before immediately taking their leave.

I’ve been suffering neck pain over the last couple of weeks and I’m keen to try out this Sufi-style of healing. 

I shuffle forward and crouch before the sheikh while Ja’maal translates my complaint. The sheikh presses his hand to each side of my neck, before lightly flicking me with the point of his whip on each shoulder. It’s over in a matter of minutes and I stuff a five pound note under the pillow in front.

I don’t know whether it’s coincidence or faith, but the next day my neck pain is completely gone.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Gatecrashing the Ed Damer boys’ club

Rooftop shisha den in Ed Damer.

Since returning to Ed Damer after an almost two-month absence, the time has passed in a whirlwind of social events, lunches, invitations and even a random wedding. I’ve barely had time to catch my breath.

While my visiting my friend Inayat today, we were joined by my teaching colleague Ahmed, who is also her relative.

As we sit down to a light meal together, Ahmed urges me to eat quickly as he wants to invite me for a coffee. I was slightly intrigued, but assumed he was bringing me to his family home as Ed Damer isn’t exactly over-run with cafes and the tea ladies that frequent the souq are off-limits to women.

Bidding Inayat farewell, we take off at a brisk pace towards the centre, with Ahmed’s small talk at almost the same speed. I’m having trouble keeping up on both fronts when we enter the gate of a nondescript white building. Ahmed pauses finally and explains that we are entering a Naadi (men’s sports club). He tells me that although Sudanese ladies cannot enter, it's no problem for me since I am a foreign woman. 

Although I’m hesitant, the idea of entering a forbidden zone is somewhat beguiling.

We climb a narrow, darkened staircase, arriving at a rooftop 'bar' serving juice and the usual assortment of tea and coffee. The only other women are two Ethiopian tea ladies. Men sit in large groups, smoking shisha and chatting. Inside a small adjoining hut, football blares from two TV screens.

It's decidedly downmarket; the outside bar furnished with little more than a haphazard assortment of plastic chairs, low tables and large, glass shisha pipes, positioned on the grimy floor next to each group.

Ahmed points out other neighbouring shisha dens from the balcony, explaining that such clubs operate under semi-legitimacy, as smoking shisha is periodically banned by the government and is still frowned upon by some sections of society.

The other men almost fall off their chairs when I enter. In fact, for a moment, I think some of them actually will. They look like they couldn't be any more surprised if a green alien had suddenly sat down in their midst and ordered coffee. Although it's not overcrowded, I cannot remember ever feeling more conspicuous or scrutinised than I do at this point.

None of the men make any pretence to hide their stares and when I move closer to the balcony for a moment to see the view, I feel every pair of eyes follow me.

Ahmed is one of the few male colleagues and acquaintances that I have met in Ed Damer that I feel comfortable around, with others tending towards veiled advances. In fact, if anything, he behaves with an almost exaggerated politeness and formality towards me.

I wonder aloud whether my reputation in Ed Damer will survive in tact after being seen in a place of such ill-repute, but he waves away my concerns.

“Anyway, you are a foreign woman. You shouldn’t mind for such things. You are quite free”, he says.

Foreign or not, I have to admit that it feels good to throw off the shackles of what I ‘should’ or shouldn’t be doing and, despite the intensity of attention I’m attracting, being in that half-forbidden place, suddenly feels liberating.

I tune out the eyes boring into me and start to enjoy the atmosphere around me. Although it is still light, the sun is beginning to dip below the roof tops and somewhere in the distance the guttural evening call to prayer rumbles to life. A mute Palestinian man with matted dreadlocks passes the tables, begging money with a bizarre imitation of a sideshow clown. As part of the act he tweaks his nose, earlobes and nipples, emitting a high-pitched squeak as he does so. I'm rather relieved when he moves on to the next group.

At the same moment, Ahmed conversely bemoans the lack of entertainment options in Ed Damer, saying the shisha bars are among the few social outlets available.

Although he’s a regular at the bars, Ahmed tells me it is the first time he has brought company. He says his close friends don’t approve of shisha smoking and that he prefers to sit alone from the other clientele – a rough and tumble mix of construction workers, desert nomads and camel traders.

Ahmed orders jebana for me - the sweetly spiced coffee sipped from tiny cups - and settles back in his chair to smoke.

“Since you are my friend, I want to speak freely to you, to tell you about my problems,” he begins by way of conversation, before launching into a detailed explanation of his latest marital woes.

Ahmed’s first wife and love of his life died in childbirth and he later remarried a second time to a woman he had three children with and is now divorced. He has another two children with his current wife.
Coffee with a lot of attention

Having recently reconciled with his second wife, he has decided he wants to remarry her so that he can bring his children together under the same roof. This news infuriated his third wife, who promptly packed her bags and moved back into her mother’s house with their children. He has not seen or spoken to her or the children in three weeks. 

He tells me he is shocked by her “bad” behaviour and angry reaction and asks for my opinion on the matter. As I explain to him that for most women the idea of sharing a husband is an untenable situation, regardless of what religion or tradition dictates, he listens intently, ruminating on my words as though I am offering him the holy grail of a happy home and marriage. But I wonder if he can really be that clueless about his wife’s feelings.

In any case, Ahmed tells me he still wants to forge ahead with plans to remarry in June, even if his idea to bring his families 'together' means the destruction of his existing relationship.

The story only adds to my general confusion about the nature of Sudanese relationships, which seem to be conducted at turns with an idealistic romanticism and a staggering business-like impersonality.

I sip the last of the coffee, feeling the delicious hot liquid go straight to my head, like an electric jolt. We head back down the same darkened staircase, leaving behind the men's stares and the billowing, perfumed smoke. On our way out we pass a uniformed guard asleep on a rope bed near the front gate still clutching a half-full cup of shai in his hand ...

Monday, February 25, 2013

Giving birth in Sudan: customs and traditions

This post is dedicated to my dear friend Inga who is going to become a mum soon and asked me to write something about Sudanese birthing customs and traditions. Inga is always telling me to write a book about my travel adventures and I’m always never getting around to it. But maybe one day I will and then she'll have a whole book dedicated to her instead of just a single blogpost ... With thanks for all you do xx

Leila is an effusive host, eager to please even though she is preoccupied with her new baby, who is just three weeks old and suffering from a fever and chest infection.  

She speaks English at a breathless pace, her words heavy with sentimentality as though I were already leaving Sudan.  

“When you go, you will forget us,” she laments. “But we will never forget you”... leaving me at a loss to explain the impossibility of me ever forgetting Sudan or the friends I've made here.
Mona, a mutual friend and teaching colleague has brought me to Leila’s home to meet her new baby Mohannad.

Leila gave birth at home and has four other children. Her baby was born premature and has been sickly ever since. She looks lovely, but exhausted in her bright orange house dress and gold jewellery.

Laid out on a fluffy green mat and covered by a baby-sized mosquito net, Mohannad looks tiny and fragile. His breath is raspy and he doesn’t cry, so much as squeaks.

Discussions over lunch are centred on marriage and childbirth traditions - two inseparable and central tenants of Sudanese society.

Prophet Mohammad extolled the virtues of large families and the Sudanese have definitely adopted the bigger the better approach, with women typically bearing five or more children. Twelve was not unheard of in the past.

Leila shows me photos of her wedding - a fresh-faced woman, with a large, open smile standing at the side of her handsome new husband.

Now married for seven years, Leila concedes the passing of time and multiple births have strained their looks and relationship.

After five babies, she says she’d like to take a break from child bearing to focus on her own health and raising her existing children.

Rich in customs

As the afternoon heat fades, the conversation turns to childbirth customs in Sudan, and the traditional beauty practices still oberved by new mothers for their restorative, purifying and aphrodisiac properties.

Sudanese women are typically confined to their home for 40 days after giving birth to help them recover their strength. They will usually be cared for by their mother or other close female relatives. However, this custom is now less strictly adhered to as women increasingly take on more responsibilities outside the marital home.

During this period, the semaiya or naming ceremony will take place – in which relatives and friends join the family for a meal and the baby’s name is formally revealed for the first time. Male circumcision is sometimes performed at this time as part of the ceremony.

After the confinement period, women perform dokhan (smoke baths), a beautification ritual giving the skin a characteristic colour and smell of musk. New mothers will remove their body hair using a homemade wax made from lemon and caramelised sugar.

Her skin will be decorated with henna as a sign that the woman is refreshed and ready to return to her everyday life and duties.

Healing properties

Fenugreek, dried straw and hagel used to make medicinal tea
Sudanese women also follow a number of traditional healthcare routines during and after pregnancy.

Particularly revered among the Sudanese for its healing qualities is helba (fenugreek), with Leila's older lady relatives quick to recite the old Sudanese proverb to me: “If you knew what was in helba you would weigh it like gold.”

The seeds are boiled in water to make a medicinal tea, which is said to improve women's overall health and wellbeing after pregnancy. Helba is also used to treat stomach pain and stimulate milk production in new mothers.

Another staple is a traditional herbal tea made from hamarayb (dried straw) and the medicinal dried green leaves called hagel to aid women's health and improve appetite.

Pregnant women eat madida helba for strength
During pregnancy, women eat a simple homemade supplement known as madida helba, made from flour, fenugreek, sugar and water.

Fenugreek seeds are added to water and brought to boil. Flour and sugar is added to the mix and cooked until it becomes a thick consistency. 
The dish is sometimes served with milk and butter and is said to improve women’s strength and help fatten expectant mothers. 

Unlike the West, weight gain is seen as attractive in Sudan and many women actively seek to add to their generous curves.

Beauty and birth

Sudanese women keep themselves attractive and refreshed after childbirth with a number of cleansing beauty rituals. Key among these are a variety of skin treatments, as well as the wearing of handmade fragrant perfumes, especially reserved for married ladies.

Traditional perfumes
The most traditional Sudanese perfume worn after childbirth is khumra mahlab, which takes its name from the fragrant kernels of a small wild cherry found in Sudan and used as a key ingredient. A paste is made from various powdered dried ingredients, including mahlab, cloves, nutmeg, dufra, sandalwood and musk. The paste is smoked in a charcoal fire with pieces of sandalwood and other local aromatic wood and later infused with various liquid fragrant oils to produce the perfume.

A key ingredient in many Sudanese perfumes and cosmetics, dufra rather bizarrely takes its divine scent from the crushed shells of sea molluscs harvested from Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Proper cleaning is very important as any residual flesh will spoil the perfume. Women clean excess fat or dirt on shell particles using a razor, before soaking them in a mixture of either Pepsi or sorghum and water.

Mizeek, another typical Sudanese beauty product, is a fine yellow powder extracted from crocodile glands and used by women as an underarm deodorant. It is also sprinkled on clothes when ironing to give garments a fresh, fragrant smell.

To cleanse and exfoliate the skin, Sudanese women use dilka - a dark fragrant paste, which usually takes 3-5 days to prepare. The dough is made by mixing a number of fragrant oils and spices with sorghum or durra (durum) flour. Small chips of finely ground fragrant talih (acacia wood) are also added. 

The paste is spread around the inside of a bowl and placed upside down over a small dug hole, filled with a variety of different woods that produce a fragrant, sensual smoke when burnt. 

The time-consuming process is repeated at regular intervals until all of the paste has been added. Perfumed oils are added at the end, with the dough kneaded into small balls before being stored in an airtight container.

Dilka and deeheen ready for use
Used as an exfoliant, women mix the dilka with a small amount of water and rub it over the body, removing any residual paste with deeheen – an oily cream made from animal fat and perfumed using sandalwood oil or orange peels dried and boiled until the water evaporates. Performed regularly, the procedure is said to help women maintain clean, supple, fragrant and healthy skin. 

Leila says perfumes and other beauty rituals are used by women after childbirth largely for rejuvenation purposes, as well as to mask the smell of breast milk and remain sexually attractive to their husbands.

The alluring musky smell produced by such beauty treatments, particularly dokhan in which women smoke themselves with fragrant wood is enough to drive the average Sudanese man “crazy” with desire, I’m told.
“Sudanese men like their ladies very much when they do dilka. This because it make their skin more soft and smell beautiful. The lady become even more lovely and the man he come to her,” Leila explains before they both collapse in a fit of giggles.

As well as cleansing their bodies, Sudanese women also purify their home after childbirth by burning bakhoor – a fragrant incense made from soaking small woodchips in sandaliyya (sandalwood oil). The wood is burnt over charcoal in a traditional incense holder, with the thick musk-scented smoke seen as a way of restoring purity and positive energy in the home, as well as give blessing for the birth of a child.