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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
Our man in the Sudan 12.I.2009 03:08
The story of my trip in the Sudan so far is a very interesting one. I arrived here a week or so ago, and have been without internet in the meantime, hence the lack of updates - only now is some sort of contact possible. Sudan really is my first experience with Africa - it may be part of the Arab League, but this is definitely a different continent, a world away from places like Egypt. This is, unmistakably, the third world, although its gentler, less desperate edge (at least here in the northeast). Anyway, on to the story, which begins with me boarding a packed ferry boat, and ends with me being packed onto a train by the security services and sent under escort across the State line.

The first adventure, actually, was not in Sudan but in Cairo: buying the tickets for the ferry in Cairo. I was told that the tickets sell out in the first few hours of being on sale (a lie; this happens a lot), so I duly showed up at 8AM on Monday morning to find a scene that I can only describe, especially given the bleary-eyed state for which I'm known at that hour, as shocking. Although Egypt can be described as anything but orderly, this was the closest thing I've ever seen to a proper free-for-all. Theoretically, people had signed in as they showed up in the small hours of the morning, then, after 8 o'clock, their names would be called, and they would be free to buy their tickets. In practice, it was an angry, desperate mass of humanity with its epicentre at the ticket window, and the names called out seemed to elicit little more than call backs of other names; no fewer than three times did this come to the edge of a fist fight between the name-caller and one of the potential customers. Luckily, as an agnabi (foreigner), I was allowed to fight my way to the office door, and a tourist policeman had them let me in to arrange my ticket. I don't normally use my clueless-foreigner priveleges this way, but there's no way to get a ticket without screaming fluent Arabic.

So, a week later, I am at the port in Aswan, ready to board the boat. This turns out to be rather painless, though complicated as nautical departures in such countries tend to be. Between one of the ten-or-so checkpoints where you need stamps of some sort, I notice three other Westerners coming back - I say hi, but ask apprehensively if there's a problem: apparently they didn't have one of the necessary stamps, but I had it, so it was okay. One of them had a shirt saying something in French, so I assumed that was where they were from. A few metres later, however, a few Westerners were standing by and I heard something that sounded vaguely Polish, so I asked where they were from - Poland, it seemed, all three of them, which was pretty random. I switched to Polish, but apparently this was unexpected, so I got a couple replies back in English before we all realised we didn't need to be speaking it. Slowly, moreover, several more came to join us, and I realised they were a group of six Poles, including the three I'd passed between checkpoints; that shirt was half-Polish, half-French; mostly Polish in fact. This was quite shocking, as I expected to meet no foreigners in Sudan, but a pleasant surprise, so I decided to stick with them for a while.

Turns out, they were an ethnological expedition from Poznan going to study some of the tribes near the Fourth Cataract. The leader, Piotrek, himself a doctoral student, had been in Sudan four times previous, and thus knew exactly what was going on, so we selected the spot on the deck that was least susceptible to the wind in the night, which turned out to be wonderful. The trip itself was great, though we wated in the port for about 8 hours, this is pretty standard, and there was a view of Abu Simbel from the Nile that was quite spectacular. The most amazing thing, though, was the night sky from the ferry deck - my God, it was full of stars. That was when I really knew I was in Africa, for though I'd been in some pretty empty places, this was the first time I remember seeing a sky that was truly pure, cloudless and populated by more points of light than I had thought possible, the familiar constellations being merely the foreground in an infinitely deeper pictures. The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.

Now, on the boat, Piotrek offerred me a chance to tag along with the expedition for a while, and I accepted gladly - what could be more interesting than an ethnological expedition for seeing things tourists never see? I signed up to share costs, and we were off. However, one must remember that Sudan is a classic African bureaucracy, with layers upon layers of stamps, signatures, and semi-official visits to functionaries of uncertain importance. The first order of business was to get registered, a morning-long and expensive slog through an office complex that, luckily, involved us getting breakfast as well. We were in Wadi Halfa, where there's pretty much nothing to do, so the rest of the day was spent trying to get out of there - we managed to rent a car with a guide, and were ready to set off the next morning, the closest town to where the tribes they'd be studying live. Before we could do this, however, we had to have tea with mid-ranking officials, both from the army and from several ministries, the most interesting of which was a local colonel named Abu Kadog, pretty much the stereotype of the friendly, semi-corrupt, luxuriously living African army man. He made us repeat his name three times so we remembered, told us a few rambling stories, asked us if he was a fascinating man (of course he was), and at the end he asked for some valium because his wife had 'trouble sleeping' - through his coming home late from his girlfriend's, no doubt. He also gave me the quintessential illustration of the dysfunctionality of personal bureaucracies - his phone rings, and he tells us - 'if it's an odd number, I'll answer; If it's an even number, I'll let him ring 'til dawn!.' He looks at the call display and laughs heartily - 'last number 514!' and we resume our conversation. Nevertheless, I gave him some diphenhydramine hydrochloride, and we could finally set out for Abu Hamed.

Perhaps, when I say we set out for Abu Hamed, you are picturing a lonely beaten road through the desert, maybe a gravel one; maybe you even imagine one of the brand-new asphalt highways that the Chinese have been building all over the country. It was none of these; it was just desert, pure sand with only the sand, the stars, and the faint remains of the last two or three cars to guide you. Many people think they have seen the desert - they go to places like Wadi Rum, or Siwa, or Yazd, and claim to have been in the middle of it. I, ladies and gentlemen, have seen the desert, have driven 500km through it down no visible road in the back of a pickup as the sand and the wind lashed my face and covered every bit of exposed skin in a fine layer of dust. I drove like this for ten hours, except for the time when it was mine and Kasia's turn to ride in the cab (Kasia is one of the girls on the expedition, with a very interesting course of study on developmental education that has also seen her spend a month in Mali - hence the half-French t-shirts). The road is actually very intelligently designed - there are ten lonely little outposts along the way, each known only buy a number, and when you leave Wadi Halfa, they call the next one to expect you, and each does this in turn as you pass by. If you fail to show up, search parties were sent out - our guide arrived in Wadi Halfa doing just this searching for some hawajia overlanders (in Sudan, you're not an agnabi but a hawajia - one who came on the air, i.e. on the winds from the North, from Egypt). The night became bitterly cold, but al-hamdu li-llah I had managed to buy a warm blanket in Halfa that saved me from the cold. 10 hours later - what can only be described as spectacular time - we arrived in the dusty town of Abu Hamed.

Now, after a gruelling full-day trek through the desert, you'd expect that we'd lie down, take a shower, and rest. Unfortunately, this was not the case, for you see our guide's family - a prominent one in Abu Hamed - had a wedding that day, and the thing about Sudan is that invitations of any kind are pretty much impossible to turn down. So, the rest of our evening was a traditional Sudanese wedding, which was great except for our fragile state of being. It was fascinating though; we were allowed to see the women's area, full of brightly-dressed women applying henna, which of course the girls all got done as well. Then we went to the men's area, complete with bagpipes, drums and dancing. They all dance with their arms raised shouting abshir, abshir - congratulations - and the evolution is an interesting one. They once danced with swords over their heads, and then (as the groom and a few other still do), with sticks, but now it is mostly an outstretched thumb in symbolism. The Sudanese felt, however, that since we had seen them dance, we had to put on a presentation of our own, and so we were reduced to the role of performing monkeys for a huge crowd of locals that had gathered to witness precisely this attraction. Since we were dead tired and not great dancers to begin with, we let the girls lead and pretty much cycled through every Western dance we could think of from the sixties onward, as every Sudanese pulled out his cell phone and filmed us in unconcealed amusement. Our attempts to stop were met with the single greatest admonition I've ever received - 'mister, please try to move' - and made us dead tired, humiliated, but having experienced something truly unique. To answer the most pressing question - is there now a cell phone video of Mike, covered in sand, doing some approximation of the Robot at a Sudanese wedding? Yes, yes there is.

Now, one thing I wanted to mention is that this is a land where the terrible practice of female circumcision, or female genital mutilation, is still practiced, and his wedding was one where the bride would be no exception. When she was a girl, around five or six, her clitoris would have been removed, and her labia sewn together with thread with only a small hole left open. For months before the wedding, the groom does not cut one of his fingernails, which, on the wedding night, he uses to tear open the thread and the flesh that has, over the years, grown over it; the bride, of course, does little but cry and scream. As painful an experience as the first night must be for many virgin brides, this is absolutely incomparable - in fact, copulation is sometimes only possible after months of pain an effort. One can only hope that international efforts to end this barbaric practice will be at least partially successful.

The next day, it was time to get down to business - registering with the security services so we would be allowed to move on into the tribal areas. Unfortunately, this proved to be a major problem; actually I proved to be a major problem, as I was on a tourist and not a scientific visa. Because Sudan is still one of those countries where tourism is tightly controlled, and tourists never go to Abu Hamed, it turns out the authorities in Halfa should never have allowed me to embark on this road in the first place. Of course, no one tells us this - they just say 'there is a problem' and 'he cannot be here.' Random rumours started to fly - had they found out I'd been to a certain country up north (illegal in Sudan)? Perhaps I was a spy? Was I going to be deported? Interrogated? Arrested. Eventually, they told us - the train was leaving in an hour back to Wadi Halfa, and I was to be on it, under escort. This was very sad for me - I'd really started to feel like part of the group, and when you're travelling alone and fine good travel companions, your heart becomes set on sticking with them at least for a while, and the sudden nature of the goodbye was especially jarring. Alas, dunya keda - such is the world. I'm definitely going to try to stay in touch.

The train ride was interesting, stopping at each of the aforementioned desert checkpoints - number Six is the best, they have a little store and tea - and it broke down in the middle of the desert for about six hours in the middle of the desert. Luckily, the girls had given me a bit of food for the road, and my minder and fellow-passengers were good enough to let me share in their dinner (some random extremely-fatty meet and a decent little salad), so I was all right for the duration; they gave me a cheese, tomato and tahini salad in the morning as well. So now, I'm in Wadi Halfa, and don't quite know what to do. I think I'll go down to Dongola, Karima, Meroe and Khartoum as I'd intended, but afterwards I may not go to Ethiopia - the finances are just a tiny bit too tight, though maybe we'll be able to change that around. Meanwhile, I'm stuck in Wadi Halfa for a useless day, so I guess I'll just relax and not do much, maybe get some laundry done. In the meantime, who knows when I'll have internet again, so I'll be continuing my adventures in Sudan and updating soon, insha'allah.

Wadi Halfa, Sudan Sd

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