Letter From Khartoum

Etching of Khartoum, 1888.

It has been nearly 40 years since I was in Sudan for six weeks, producing an article on the famine in its Darfur province for The Village Voice, a poem about my trip to Darfur (now published by Counterpunch), and the “Letter from Khartoum” below. Conditions in Sudan are even worse now than they were in 1985. Civil war has riven the country, creating one of the greatest genocides of this century. Outside of Khartoum I once visited a well-to-do family and wrote about that sojourn. I think fairly often about it, and about Nur, whose story I tell in my letter. I knew that most women in Sudan were mutilated by genital cutting (I was advised by two friends familiar with the country not to mention it and above all not to condemn it) and I wondered if this tragic fate had befallen the beautiful Nur. Certainly she was not as happy in Sudan as she might have been elsewhere.. Where is she now? Is she still alive? Did she marry? Did she have the excruciating childbirth most women in Sudan, must endure? I will never know. Nor will I ever go again to Sudan, probably the most fascinating country I have ever visited. – EC

Cairo was only my way station to Khartoum, still sealed off from the press as the coup against the US’s man, General Gaafar Nimeiry, was still underway. At the Sudan embassy the ambassador received me and after a few courtesies invited me for a drink. He wore Harris tweeds. I recognized him from all of Doris Lessing’s stories about Africa and the several Ousmane Sembene films I’d seen about the African bourgeoisie. Very cultivated, westernized, charming, but African all the same, chivalry just the other side of a raging sense of male superiority and what I imagined he thought was the “easiness” of the Western woman. I refused his offer with a vague excuse.

I moved out of the General and stayed with friends in Zamalek, waiting. One evening they entertained me by taking me to hear Angela Davis address Egyptian feminists. The Egyptians came dressed in skirts and blouses with pearls, pumps and stockings – the sort of thing League of Women Voters might have worn in the 1950s. Angela herself was sleek, with short-cropped hair, enormous studious glasses, a graceful drop of long white beads over an equally graceful drop of coverall, long black sweater. “She’s lovely!” a pale beige Egyptian lady to my right exclaimed in English. “I thought she would be much darker.”

Angela spoke with a sort of British inflection, bringing “greetings from people all over the US involved in the struggle against Reaganism” – much happy applause. “We worked night and day, but were unable to prevent his re-election.” There followed a long incantation – “interventionist imperialist Zionist policies of the Reagan administration…” “I can’t be a woman without being black at the same time…” “standing in relationship to the working class…” Finally she mentioned an essay she’d been commissioned to do for an anthology about women visiting countries not their own. Her task seemed pretty convoluted. The editors had determined that the chapter on Egyptian women would be called “Egyptian Women and Sexuality.” They had decided on less loaded topics for other countries (the one on English women was “English Women and Politics.”) Angela assured her listeners that she disagreed with the premise of her assignment — that Egyptian women and sex went together hand in glove. Being black, female, ergo Third-World-identified, she was on the Egyptian women’s wave length. In the body of her essay she’d take care to rectify the distorted view of Arab women given by the title. This bid for the audience’s commiseration got mistranslated. Soon the Egyptians were on their feet, verbally assaulting Angela: “You must not write about Egyptian women and sexuality! It is very insulting to Egyptian women! We are not to be equated with sex! Etc. etc.” On it went throughout the evening, Angela declining into futile apologies. I promised myself that I wouldn’t stumble into any Ugly Americanisms; I’d make my senses as available to reality and as free from preconceptions as possible.


Compared with Cairo’s overcrowding, dirt and noise, at first Khartoum was a pleasure — apart from the brownish dusty heat that made my clothes cling to me as if I’d jumped into a swimming pool. The press said “middle-aged, middle-class people” had staged the overthrow of General Nimeiry so I spent a good deal of time wandering around the shady whitewashed compounds of Khartoum University meeting certain organizers of “the revolution.”

Professor Abul (not his real name) sprang up from his desk to greet me. He was a charming lively man in his fifties with polished oak skin and flyaway gray hair like Einstein’s. “Ah! So you’re a friend of Jill’s! Well. In that case I will invite you home to lunch. Come! We shall have a good chat there.” The professor’s English had the perfection usual in the Sudanese intelligentsia. The British pulled out of the Sudan in 1956, bequeathing an educational system with English mandatory from grade school on. Traditionally many intellectuals go to college either in Great Britain or the US. Professor Abul had studied at Johns Hopkins. He was chatty and charming.

Out in the blinding sunlight and dust stood two eager girl students. One was dressed in a tobe , a cover-all worn above other clothes when a woman leaves the house. Inside she can wear hot-pants for all anyone cares. The tobe  is a sari with a cowl over the head. Very pretty and graceful. It has the effect of Grecian drapery but it produces a small nervous gesture in all the women, one hand continually adjusting the tobe’s folds around the head and neck. After seeing it all the time I absorbed this nervous gesture and found myself compulsively doing up the top buttons of my blouses whenever I was in public places.

The other young woman was dressed in a dowdy long gray garment with a nun-like wimple. The only thing missing was black oxfords. The professor beamed fondly at the young women and chatted with them in his sprightly way. “They are both students at our girls’ college, Ahfad. It is the best, and these are two very intelligent girls,” he said. “She” – he inclined his head towards Wimple – “is not a Moslem Sister, no! You can’t tell the Moslem Sisters just by looking, you know!”

This cultural lesson accomplished, he whisked me off to his house. At lunch I was treated as an “honorary man” (I’d been prepared by other women journalists for this.)  Only men sat with me – Professor Abul, a man some 25 years younger named Ahmed, whom the Professor introduced as his brother, and Yasir, the professor’s son. We sat eating while Professor Abul lectured about the revolution, its background, Sudan’s religion and politics, the country’s extraordinary Arab-African character, and the penetration of Islam here. Meanwhile a dark-skinned lovely young woman padded in and out bearing plates of food. Occasionally the professor would halt his lively explanations to call out in peremptory tones, “Moia! [Water!] More water! More bread!” He clapped his hands while issuing these orders. The dining area and study were a single large expanse giving onto a brilliantly sunny garden with cacti and (miraculous in dusty Khartoum) grass. Lining the walls were bookshelves packed with volumes in English and Arabic. Most of these seemed to be about Africa, its economy, history, colonial experience, and liberation struggles. Hanging on the walls were African masks and brightly-colored cloth tapestries.

After lunch the professor stretched and took me back to meet the women of the family. They were seated on cots in a room with a bare stone floor, an expanse completely barren of any furniture but the cots and a few plastic-seated chairs. Two babies and a kitten were crawling around. Outside, a chicken clucked drowsily in the dusty heat. Later I was told that the living-dining areas of middle-class houses in Sudan are for everyone while the back rooms are for cooking, sleeping, etc. But at first glance it seemed as if the men dominated the western, sophisticated world of the front, while right behind was the female part, a tribal village.

None of the women spoke English except the youngest, 19, who was taking it at school. She frowned in deep bewildered concentration whenever I said anything more complicated than “I am Ellen. What is your name?” We spent a lot of time nodding and grinning at each other until Ahmed came in to translate. Everyone was charmingly patient with my density about family relationships. “But,” I persisted while everyone laughed cheerfully, “surely you’re not the professor’s brother?” “Our father married two women,” Ahmed explained considerately, as if to a two-year old. “My brother is the son of wife number one,  I am the son of wife number two.”

“How many wives does Islam allow?”

“Four. Not many men do that these days. It is not economically possible.”

“What about four husbands?”

Shocked silence. Then, “Not possible! The Koran says nothing on this matter!”

“But why?”

“Because” – this said patiently – “you wouldn’t know who the father was.”

Ahmed, it turned out, was an ardent Moslem Brother (the Brotherhood is Sudan’s right-wing fundamentalist Islamic group.) After lunch he had a shouting match with the professor, who had been a Communist when he was younger. Politics in the Sudan is mongrel family affair, people intermarrying across unlikely political divides. For instance the head of the Moslem Brotherhood, Hassan Turaby, is married to the sister of the head of the centrist Umma [National] Party.


One evening I visited Nur and saw the dervishes. A new friend told me Nur was one of the youngest daughters in a family where I could see something of women’s daily lives in this part of the world. My friend picked me up at my pensione on her motorbike and we swept through the hot brown outskirts of Khartoum into its twin city across the Nile, Omdurman, where Nur’s family lived. This was a middle-class family, the father an accountant or office functionary; the house was a single story of baked clay; a wall surrounded it. Inside the walls and once in the house I saw it was a series of rooms arranged in a rectangle, all the rooms looking into a central courtyard. In one of the rooms a group of six or seven women and I sat squeezed together on a single cot. We had settled in for an evening of chat, singing, language-swapping, laughter and body warmth, Nur holding my hand. Then we heard the dervishes’ drums, a deep, incantatory staccato that came to us through the tiny courtyard of the dirt-floored house. The drumming was hypnotic: my feet started tapping and my hands began an involuntary slap against my thighs. Like a shot, everyone made for the back door – Nur, I, her sisters and brothers (her mother stayed in the dusty courtyard while her father snored on a metal cot). Down the dirt road there was a very large circle of dervishes rocking back and forth in accelerating rhythm, twenty-five men dressed in white turbans and gaalabiyahs, the long gown men wear here.  Within the circle a chanter stood at a microphone while an odd figure in a green gown and a kind of fool’s cap with a dangling tassle turned around and around, fixing the others with a peculiar gaze suggesting he was the Divine Fool of the ceremony.

In this part of Sudan families hire dervishes for important occasions. These dervishes were commemorating the third anniversary of the death of somebody’s grandfather. The essential figure within the circle (besides the Divine Fool) was a kind of patriarch with a white beard who stumped methodically around holding a saber aloft. Every once in a while he would stop in front of one member of the circle making the saber quiver in a sort of happy benediction. The neighborhood women were lined up in the blood-warm heat against the sun-baked walls of the little houses wrapped in their tobes,  their dark faces shining with sweat. I’d been given a tobe (Nur had draped and wrapped it around me with quick, deft movements) and now I stood, twitching at my neck-and-arm-drapery while the others smiled benevolently. “Veddy byooteefool!” said Nur. “You Sudan woman now!” A pause, as we looked at my fish-belly-pale hand in her warm brown one. “…maybe Egyptian woman,” she tailed off.

Nur’s name – it means Light — was brilliantly apt. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful – tall, slender, with a chiseled mouth that kept breaking into smiles, the upward-slanting bold dark eyes that sparkled as she sang and joked with me in pidgin English. It wasn’t just the skin the color of dark polished chestnut, the hair woven into an exquisite tapestry of tiny braids. It was also her impulsiveness, humor, her cleverness at absorbing instantly the English phrases I’d been trading for her Arabic ones. It was the shimmy shoulder dance she’d performed smashingly for us for a few brief minutes, eyes glowing, face teasing, before she cut herself short recalling the Sudanese requirement. female modesty. She was 19, in her last year of high school.

Now I saw she was looking tired. She turned, holding my hand, drawing me after her. At the doorway to her house she leaned her head against the jamb. Two efficient sisters appeared, took her elbows, guided her inside to a cot in the courtyard. There she collapsed, eyes closed, and went into a long series of convulsive movements. “Get her water!” I yelled. Her brother shook his head, beaming at me: “No,” he said, “wait, it will pass. This happens to her, once, twice a year, when the dervishes come.” Meanwhile her mother sat at her feet, holding her legs, affectionate and knowing. Nur’s head twisted back and forth, her shoulders began to shimmy again. All the little English she had ever learned came together with great passionate pauses between the exclamations: “I am… NOT Sudan. I am….EHNGLEESH. I…am AMERRIKA. AMERRRIKA! I WEEL go Amerrikka! Frahnsss!” The nostrils flared, a subtle, proud, ironic expression crossed her face as if she were already far above the rest of us in this hot little neighborhood of wood, earth and dust. This incantation continued as one hand reached out and grasped mine.

There is a tradition among Sudanese women called “zar.” In Arabic it means “visitation.” Usually it’s a formal ritual in which a group of women surround a single woman. A sheikha  drums while all the women write, dance, and fall into trance. In this visitation the bad spirit in you is exorcised while you are in your rhapsody. In Sudan women don’t dance with men, have no socially licensed sexual expression apart from the zar . Nur had devised her own private zar where all her stifled longings could come out. She grasped the hand of the exotic foreign visitor  who incarnated her greatest ambitions, as if in our connection an electric charge would change her into me. In trance, anyhow, no one could punish or blame her for such longings.

Khartoum, March, 1985

Ellen Cantarow, a Boston-based journalist, first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. Her work has been published in Le Monde diplomatique, the Village Voice, Grand Street, Tom Dispatch and Mother Jones, among other publications, and was anthologized by the South End Press. More recently, her writing has appeared at CounterPunch, ZNet, and Alternet.