"It's a dangerous business, going out your door.
You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet,
there's no knowing where you might be swept off to..."
--J.R.R. Tolkein

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Time for a Story

I do not want to work. So let's reminisce...

December 10, 2008
Omdurman Souq, Khartoum

I opened the door and stepped out of the tiny blue car. It was just about noon, and I felt the unforgiving sun immediately beating down on my head. Even though it was December, it was HOT.

Our guide, Omeran, climbed out of the driver’s seat of the car. “Do you guys like fish?” he asked.

“Yes!” I answered. “I love fish.” The other two also said they liked fish, but less enthusiastically. They seemed a little drained.

“Then come with me. This restaurant has the best fish in all Khartoum.” He motioned for us to follow.

“Restaurant” was certainly a stretch. Omeran led us to a dusty section off the road. Several men in white robes hovered around a vat of hot oil atop a charcoal fire as an army of flies made repeated attacks on the food. Nearby a few card tables and plastic chairs sat under a makeshift shelter. We walked through the dust to the table that looked cleanest while Omeran pulled one of the men aside and ordered. He joined us at the table. “The fish was just caught this morning,” he proclaimed. “We’re in luck.”

I looked around at the other people while I waved the flies away. My traveling companion Elyse and I were the only women there. I pulled my headscarf tighter over my red hair. I wondered if we were breaking a cultural norm. Was it inappropriate for a woman to eat in a restaurant? No, Omeran wouldn’t have brought us here if that were true. Still, I could feel eyes on me.

A young man wandered over with a stack of fried Nile perch and a few plates. He set them on our table and plated up the fish until everyone had one.

“Isn’t there silverware?” My other friend, Nathaniel, asked, a little nervously.

“No,” said Omeran. “We eat with our hands here.”

“But won’t we get…sticky?” Nathaniel asked with an uncertain look at his hands. He took a small piece and gingerly tried it.

I hid a smile in the folds of my headscarf—Nathaniel had spent the whole time we were researching the trip mocking me for being nervous about coming to Sudan, and he couldn’t even handle eating with his hands without a complaint.

I attacked my meal without a second thought—I’ve never told anyone this before but I love eating with my hands. Please forgive me, I was raised by wolves. And the fish was worth getting sticky for—it was so fresh and delicious. I broke off flakes of the white flesh and meticulously picked the entire thing clean until there was nothing left but a stack of bones on my plate.

“Ready to go?” Omeran asked. “We still have a lot to see. Go wash your hands at the sink in the back and then we’ll go the Souq.” I walked to the back and ran my hands under the lukewarm water. There was no soap or towels. No matter. I dried my hands on my jeans and joined my group at the front. Then we walked back into the sun and over to Omeran’s car. Elyse and I got in the back seat (as is proper for girls in Sudan) while Nathaniel got in the passenger seat.

We drove along the rutted road to the famous souq (means “market” in Arabic) of Omdurman. As we went, the streets got narrower and more crowded. We reached the souq and parked on the side of the road.

Omeran explained that the name Omdurman came from a woman’s name “Umm Abdul-Rahman,” but it later got slurred together into Omdurman. I could see how that happened. The whole place had a slurred feeling to it. Crowds of men in white galabeyas wandered through the streets and stood by stalls, while women dressed in the brightest colors haggled and shopped. I had made a point to wear dull, unnoticeable colors—blue jeans, a khaki tunic, and a burgundy headscarf--but the women in the souq dressed like brightly-plumed birds. I had never seen so many shades of neon blue, orange, purple, and pink in the same place before! And instead of tightly concealing their hair like I did, the women draped their bright colors loosely around themselves like Indian saris, except with the end twisted over the head. Meanwhile, in my boring colors I felt like a nun. As we walked people stared at us and said “beida,” which means “egg” in Arabic and in Sudan is slang for white person. I walked with my fellow egg people through the slurred, bright colors of the souq, following our guide closely.

We followed Omeran around a few corners and past a few more vender awnings until he stopped in front of yet another charcoal fire, this time with a woman sitting next to it. He shook hands with her and greeted her warmly. “This where you get the best coffee in the whole city,” he said to us. All that was there were a few low stools, a stack of cups, and some empty coffee cans clustered around a charcoal fire off the road in the dust (again). The woman smiled at us and shook our hands, then motioned for us to take seats around the fire. I noticed that her front two teeth were missing, but she smiled unabashedly at the three beida people. She sat close to the fire and tended the silver coffee pot that was sitting atop the charcoal, pulling her wrap out of the way of the coals. The coffee boiled quickly and she poured the thick, potent mixture into small cups and served them to us. I took a sip and immediately caught the taste of ginger. I like ginger.

“Is there any extra sugar?” asked Elyse in English, looking at Omeran to translate. He turned to our coffee lady and repeated the question in Arabic. She laughed merrily and picked up a sugar bowl from the ground near her stool. Elyse smiled in thanks to her and then dumped five spoonfuls of sugar into her tiny cup. Omeran and the lady looked at each other and laughed. “She’s the sugar girl!” Omeran proclaimed.

I sat on my low stool with my knees up by my chin, smiling at my friend. Life is funny. I sipped my gingery coffee as the world slurred by.

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