Suakin, Red Sea Coast, Sudan
As we drove towards the coast in the sandstorm, herds of camels roamed across the sandy wastes on both sides of the road. Sudan and camels are inextricably linked; the old camel route, the Darb al-Arba'een or 'Forty Day Road' used to link El-Fasher in western Sudan with Assiut in Egypt, where on arrival the camels and their cargo of ivory, ebony, ostrich feathers - and slaves from the African interior, were sold.
The route is long-forgotten – the camels used to arrive in such bad shape that they required care and feeding before they could be sold. Nowadays camels are still sold to Egypt, primarily for meat which I am told is mainly for the army, but they follow the shorter Nile route and arrive in better condition. Gulf Arabs apparently travel to Kassala to buy stock for their stables of racing camels, the Bishari and Matiaat being racing breeds, while Shallagea camels are exported to Saudi Arabia primarily for their milk.
Sudanese and their camels
The drive was long and the road again very bad due to being ripped by heavy trucks. Much of the country's cargo is unloaded at Port Sudan, and as the goods have then to be trucked clear across the country - it is almost 1200 kilometers to Khartoum - the trucks always pull a trailer truck because it is more profitable for the haulage companies. To his credit the driver drove well through an unending spectral brown sludge, although he liked overmuch to talk on the phone which drove me mad, not because I felt it was particularly dangerous but because he roared down the phone. When he wasn't driving he played a game on his phone that had a particularly irritating ping. I dreamt of monasteries and vows of silence, and longed for a total absence of technology with its tinny, rattling pings, rings and clicks.
This part of the country is inhabited mainly by the Rashaida and the Beja. The former claim Arab descent and are still essentially nomadic living in goats hair tents. The latter divided into five sub-groups; Hedendowah, Amar'ar, Bisharin, 'Ababda and Bani-Amir, are Hamitic and speak To-Bedawiyet, a Kushitic language. However the Bisharin claim Arab ancestry, the 'Ababda speak Arabic and not To-Bedawiyet, while the Bani Amir are the only Beja with a caste system, with those of Arab descent being the upper caste. The Beja were traditionally nomadic camel breeders and herders but the economic climate has changed even their way of life and many are now settled or semi-nomadic. Ibn Battuta wrote of them;
"A party of the Bujah came to meet us; these are the inhabitants of that land, black in colour, with yellow blankets for clothes, and they tie around their heads red bands as broad as a finger."
At the time of Ibn Battuta's visit the king of the Beja was called al-Hadrabi, leader of the Hadrabi, a tribe of Arab origin. Some scholars suggest this is a corruption of Hadhrami meaning people from Hadhramut in southern Yemen, and it is not in doubt that the Hadhramis were famous for their trading and settled in communities across the length and breadth of the Indian Ocean. In addition to this, and perhaps more applicable here, in the early days of Islam Hadhramis comprised a large part of the Arab armies who set out from the Arabian peninsula to North Africa in particular. The Beja are known as a warrior tribe who are not particularly friendly to outsiders who in the past were seen only as their potential enemies. Indeed it was due to a war between al Hadrabi and the Mamluks that Ibn Battuta was not able to cross the Red Sea from Aidhab to get to Mecca because the Beja had sunk all the boats. If this had not happened he might never have carried on traveling and simply gone home after having performed the Haj, in which case there would have been no rihla and my life would have also been quite different. So the Beja took on an importance for me that they probably would not otherwise have had. Whatever proportion of the Beja or Hedendowah was originally Arab, today Hedendowah men grow their hair into bushy Afros as a sign of manhood, carry swords and sometimes shields, while the women always cover their mouths.
Ibn Battuta wrote, "They are hardy and brave fighters, their weapons being lances and swords, and they have camels which they call subh, and on which they ride with saddles."
Suakin port today
During the time of the Crusades, the Sinai was off limits to Muslim pilgrims en route to Mecca, and thus Suakin became the port through which the pilgrims traveled to Mecca. It still performs this function for those who do not fly. The Beja did not miss the opportunity to furnish the pilgrims with what they might need in the way of provisions for the journey; this too remains the case as many Beja sell food and other items to the truck drivers setting out on the long journey from Port Sudan to Khartoum.
By the 13th century the Beja became Muslim and although they belong nominally to the Sufi Mirghaniyya or Majdubiyya orders, the nomads rely more on tribal law, salif, than Sharia law to settle family and inter-tribal disputes. Furthermore they generally do not observe the rituals; performing neither Haj, nor praying the requisite five times a day. They do however have a great belief in jinn and as there are a large number of settled Beja in Port Sudan, this city has acquired a reputation as a haven for jinn in the form of cats and ravens.
The Beja generally marry cousins for the same reason as do the Arab Bedouin; to keep the money in the family, so the daughter is not sent far off to an unknown family, and so they know the provenance of the bride. Unlike them however it is unusual for a Beja male to take more than one wife. Cattle or camels are the usual dowry, divorce is common, while women and children are 'protected' in the same way as are Arab Bedouin with strictly defined roles for males and females. Weddings are big events among the Beja. Prior to the wedding night, Beja women - in common with other Sudanese women - take hammams or what the guide called 'smoke baths'. Local wood from the white acacia tree called tafeh, is burned in a hole in the ground which is then covered with a grass mat which has a hole in the middle. Many private homes have a room for this purpose. The women sit over this until their skin is soft, after which they brush it with a loofah, called here leefah, which comes from a squash-like plant. They then oil their skin and hair which is plaited into thin braids, tied and knotted. The guide told me in some embarrassment that this sauna was to 'make the vagina small'. I wonder about this because Beja women and many other non-Beja Sudanese women are still subjected to 'female circumcision' or as it is more usually described, 'female genital mutilation', which can make sexual intercourse extremely painful. Although it was a Sudanese woman who first explained the sauna procedure to me, the subject is a difficult one to discuss with a stranger without talking obliquely.
The inhabited part of Suakin
The Beja have retained their ethnic identity for millennia, a sentiment reinforced by their struggle in a changing world where their traditional way of life is threatened yet they have few real alternatives. This manifested itself into political action in 1957 with the founding of the Beja Congress by Dr. Taha Osman. Its fortunes were mixed and in 1969 under the military dictatorship of Jaafar Numeiry, the party was banned. With his defeat and ouster in 1985, the Beja participated in elections in 1986 but won only one seat. In 1989 the Beja Congress was banned again in the wake of a military coup led by the National Islamic Front. In 1993 the Beja Congress joined with other rebel and opposition groups aided by the Eritrean government, and in 2004 joined with the Free Lions to become the Eastern Front. But later Eritrea offered to act as mediator between the rebels and the Sudanese government, and in October 2006 a peace agreement was signed giving the Beja access to political and military positions within the Sudanese government. Since then on the surface at least things in this part of the country remain calm, which is more than can be said for the south and west of the country.