Kassala, Eastern Sudan
Khartoum is not especially a tourist destination; meaning 'elephant's trunk', a reference to the Nile becoming one river from Khartoum, the city is not wholly unattractive, but little effort has been made to take advantage of the quiet beauty of its flat riverine setting. Founded in 1821 as a military settlement, the city became the capital of Sudan in 1834 when it grew in wealth and importance with the burgeoning north-south slave trade. The 'posh' part where the embassies and ministerial buildings are to be found is elegant, but large parts of it are like most cities in developing countries (and quite a few developed ones); an unregulated, traffic-clogged, polluted shambles of unfinished, trash-ridden streets, flanked largely by ugly, cheaply-constructed buildings, further disfigured by the post-modern detritus of jerry-rigged wiring, cables, strip lights and unsightly signage.
We left for Kassala, a market town only kilometers from the Eritrean border. In 1330 Ibn Battuta visited Suakin – the only place in Sudan he did visit with the exception of nearby Ras Dawa'ir where he landed inadvertently after being blown off course by monsoon winds. As in Kenya, I did not want to visit Sudan just to visit the one place Ibn Battuta had mentioned, so I decided to see something else of Sudan besides.
Having read that Kassala was a charming, colorful market town I set off with the driver and guide. I had asked not to have a guide because inevitably when you are a solo traveler with a driver and a guide they do nothing but talk to each other. And thus was it to be here........
I was told the drivers could not speak English and in any case it was better to have a guide because it would distract the driver if he had to give explanations while driving. In the event the guide sat in the front seat with the driver to whom he spoke either Arabic or Nubian all day long – apparently it was only in English that distraction occurred - the driver liked his music loud which meant that both he and the guide had to shout, and the guide was under the impression that he was being paid to travel the country and take photographs. After traveling Kenya's coast with the delightful Sketty, an hour into the trip I decided this trip was not going to be quite so jolly. Given however that I was the one paying for it - disappointment or not - I asked the driver to turn the sound down and asked the guide to begin his dispensation of the history of Sudan, since that was the sole purpose of his presence..........
The tomb of the Khatmiyya sufi saint, al-Megrani, Kassala
From Medanie, the road to Kassala was bumpy; the road though asphalted was potholed, the result of heavy truck use which had broken down the bedrock. It took almost 8 hours to get there with a brief stop for lunch at Gadaraf which I was informed is infamous for its women having children before marriage which they frequently abandon. I understood though could not quite ascertain, that this was to prove to prospective husbands that they were fertile and it did not seem to be something that was overly frowned upon. It is also, and perhaps relatedly, famous for bango or marijuana which is grown amongst fields of maize and thus invisible to passers-by. More prosaically, it is one of the largest markets in Sudan for cattle and sorghum.
I ate well throughout Sudan in the most basic of roadside shacks; foul, fasooliya, liver, arugula greens, red onion with lime juice, lamb kebab, lentils, a green chili paste called shatta khudra, and a spongy sorghum bread rather like the Ethiopian enjera called kisra – the food was always simply prepared but hot and fresh. Meals were always followed by tea or coffee; the latter prepared similarly to 'Turkish' coffee with cardamom which in Sudan is called habahan, and cinnamon or girfeh. The tea was similarly brewed with the addition if one wanted, of sweetened condensed milk.
En route to Kassala we drove past lots of villages of round, thatched huts. The roof frame is made from a kind of bamboo found in Blue Nile state called gannah, the roof itself thatched with a grass called saf, while the walls were constructed using dried maize or sorghum stalks.
This part of Sudan had become home to the Umbararo tribe who are originally from what is now Chad. In the 19th century they arrived as farm laborers, but in order to ensure their support, the Mahdi bestowed citizenship on them and they have remained to this day. The men of the Umbararo wear make-up, oil their skin with cow ghee and wear lots of beaded necklaces. The women wear only a skirt until they are married after which they may cover their breasts, but it is not mandatory and many do not. Neem trees from India, ostensibly introduced by General Gordon, lined the roads in parts, as well as eucalyptus trees, the leaves of which are crushed and used as a treatment for asthma. (I am not certain that the story of the neem trees is accurate as the Indian government gave neem trees to several African countries as a gift to mark their independence from Britain in the mid 50s, and Sudan which gained its independence in January 1956 may have been one of the recipients.)
We drove to the tomb of the Khatmiyya sufi saint, al-Mergani, located at the foot of the Taka Mountains, a picturesque background late afternoon with the rock burnished reddish-gold by the setting sun. A short distance away was a sacred well of sweet water said never to run dry. A shrine had been built up around it that reminded me more of a Hindu or a Buddhist shrine than an Islamic one, with cafes, music, shisha, painted rocks, flags, and banners; honeymooners came to Kassala, and to the shrine to have their marriages blessed; they were easily identifiable because aside from their youth, the women were all wearing gorgeously patterned, bright-colored sari-like dresses, and their feet and hands were still freshly-hennaed. We sat down for coffee and shisha and watched the 'passegiata' of brides brilliantly-clad like the plumage of exotic birds clatter up and down the steps in their stiletto heels.
The next day we set off for the coast driving through the infamous seasonal haboob, sand storms.