Posts in Letters from Sudan

Red scarf and sunglasses

“Oh, come on! Why do people have to stare at me everywhere we go?!”

I wondered this several times on our second visit to Sudan.
Abaya? ✔️ In black!
Scarf? ✔️ And an undercap!

In addition to the inevitably obvious fact that I was the only white woman within a radius of 100 m, Tamer reminded me of another thing:

“You’re wearing sunglasses.” Because I had no idea where he was going with this, he continued: “Nobody wears sunglasses here. And you’re basically screaming for attention with your pair, like you’re some sort of a rock star.”

“But I can’t see without them! The sun is totally blinding me,” I was in shock, trying to explain to my husband, who already knew all this very well and could only laugh at my embarrassment.

“Sudanese don’t know that. Sunglasses are only worn here for the show,” he replied with a smile.

And so, over the next few days, I watched passersby on the road more closely. Riding a minibus I observed the next scene which is only imprinted in my memory, since I was unable to take a picture of it.

A young Sudanese woman in a black abaya and a bright red scarf stood on the edge of the sidewalk, where a young man with a motorbike came to a stop. She sat behind him, in a lady-like manner, riding the bike sideway in her long skirt. She clung to him around his waist and as they started to ride into traffic, it seemed like something out of the movies, when the edge of her red scarf fluttered behind them. The motorcyclist wore sunglasses, although the late afternoon sun was already losing its light. The smiles of both riders shone brighter.

Sudanese Menu

Sudanese Menu

Breakfast food

FUL

Ful is a dish, that will never be missing from a Sudanese breakfast. Made from cooked fava beans (sometimes completely mashed, other times in clumps); there is only salt and sprinkled fennel over it.

TAMÍA

Similar to falafel, main ingredient is chick peas, which are cooked and then minced with added variety of herbs and watered bread. Different shapes (from round to sticks) are sometimes coated with sesame seeds. Deep fried. I was told they on occasion substitute chick peas with fava beans.

BREAD

Sudanese do not play around when it comes to bread. It goes with every meal and there’s always plenty of it.

Sudanese Menu
Bread with breakfast dishes. The host or hostess always offer more when your hands appear to be empty.

MADÍDA

Sudanese style porridge: main ingredients are flour, milk and sugar, fenugreek seeds give it a special taste. This dish is usually served warm, early in the morning during winter.

Sudanese food
Madida — porridge with fenugreek seeds.

Main dishes

RÍJLA

Tasty savoury dish of cooked purslane with red lentil. One of my favorites.

Rijla - Sudanese food
One of my favorites: rijla.

FÁTA

It’s a combination of rice and bread; once they pour soup over it — it becomes a whole new, yummy mushy dish. Soup can be from lentil, or just plain chicken/beef stock.

Fata - Sudanese Food
Soup soaking the rice with bread: fata.

DÀMA

Simply put: it’s a one pot stew, made from meat and veggies. Lots of fried onions to start with, then added beef and veggies, that you have on hand. Usually potatoes, carrots and zucchini, sometimes string beans … Yum.

Yummy one pot stew — dama.

ASÍDA

Famous in other regions as well, but Sudanese take their pride in their very own asida, which is not made every day, rather on special occasions like Eid, or when your daughter in law, who by chance loves it, comes to visit. Rye flour and yeast are to be cooked and mixed in salted water. Once thick, the mixture is poured into a bowl to cool down. It is served outside of that shaping dish, always with the side of either okra sauce, minced meat or yoghurt.

عصيدة - asida
Asida in a pool of okra sauce.

KHOODRA MAFROOKA

Green sticky dish made of cooked jute/mulukiyah; spinach can serve as substitute. Usually served with kisra.

Very messy dish: khoodra mafrooka.

KÍSRA

Thinly fried batter of wheat and rye flour, mixed with water; depending on the ratio between flours, it can be very sour in taste.

Sour kisra.

RIVER NILE FISH

Tasty by itself, simple frying of the fish coated in flour; squeezed lime over it upon serving.

Fried fish.

SHÀTA

Very spicey condiment: peanut butter with chopped chilli pepper. Goes with anything and is served on regular bases.

It may look like only peanut butter, but it hides a lot of spice.

BREAD

Goes with every lunch too. There isn’t a single meal without bread, since it is customary to eat with one’s hand and reach for food with a piece of bread.

Family eating together, sharing with bread.

Salads

SALAD ÁSWAD

Fried or cooked eggplants dressed with peanut butter, lime, pepper and salt.

Made by Tamer back in Saudi, because I didn’t manage to take a picture of this delicious eggplant salad in Sudan.

TOMATO SALAD

Upon asking Tamer and his family, how they differentiate between salads — I did not receive a definitive answer. This one for example can just be called a salad, but it presents such an interesting twist! It was my first time tasting peanut butter with fresh tomatoes and onions, and I must say … I loved it!

Another one of my favorites: peanut butter gives it such an interesting twist, amazing taste!

MIXED SALAD

Simple mix of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions; dressing of salt and lime.

Always with a simple dressing of just salt and lime or lemon.

ROCKET LEAVES SALAD

Sometimes combined with mixed salad; salt and lime for dressing.

Rocket leaves on top of tomatoes, cucumber and onion.

Sweet dishes

SHA’ARÍA

A single dish, that is not considered a dessert. Pasta nests which get fried and cooked, coated with sugar in the end. Served for breakfast and sometimes dinner.

Sha’aria. Not my favorite.

ZALÁBYA

Simply put, these are Sudanese fritters, made out of yeasted dough, fried and then coated with sugar. Sometimes they add some spice or ginger in the dough mix for a special twist. Zalabya is usually served with milk tea in the morning, but can be a delicious snack in any other time of the day.

Delicious zalabya with morning milk tea.

Dinners

Last meal of the day usually consists of similar dishes that were served in the household for breakfast or simply put: anything storred in the kitchen fridge.

Dinner food is similar to breakfast.

Festive food

After Ramadan (Eid Al Fitr) and for Eid Al Adha there are more meaty dishes than usual. It is also customary to share all the rich foods with the less fortunate. There is more mutton and beef on the menu, unlike the rest of the year when chicken is more common.

Rich serving of meaty dishes in time of celebrating Eid Al Adha (2019).

Disclaimer:

Since I am not an enthusiastic carnivore, I paid more attention to vegetarian dishes and lucky for me – there are plenty. Because of my taste in veggies, my family in law served more salads and rice, but in the first days of my stay I noticed, that is not something usual and it was very different from habits of my own family back home, since we eat A LOT of salads every lunch. I try not to eat large quantities of bread myself, so Sudanese meals presented another different challenge for me.

Secret of my Mother-in-law

“I’m hungry.”
Tamer looks at me in astonishment: “How can you be hungry? We’ve had a big lunch.”

A big lunch or any other meal in a Sudanese household means two or three dishes with an unlimited amount of bread. Every bite of vegetable or meat sauce, every time they reach into the plate for a piece of omelette, meat or falafel, they do so with bread.

“I can’t eat that much bread. It’s not good for me, I feel it’s not,” I try to explain quietly so that no one else in the house would hear me and be offended.

“And that little plate of salad? I’d eat it on my own like it’s nothing if it weren’t for 5 other family members sitting around the food tray.”

I can see how confused he is, because home cooking always leaves him with a full belly. At the same time, I see shock and sadness in his eyes. He wants to put my well-being first, and for a few days he didn’t dwell much on his wife’s annoying complaints. He thought I’d just rather eat something else. He didn’t understand, and I didn’t know how else to explain it to him.

“Just don’t say anything to your mom, please. I don’t want her to be offended. I wouldn’t want to hurt her for anything in the world!”

He promised me he wouldn’t say anything. Instructed me that I just be more vocal on what I need. Some more bananas and tomatoes from the market No problem.

In the last week of our visit I ate really well in my Sudanese in-laws’ house. There was even more rice and vegetable sauces on the menu. My dearest mother-in-law, who supposedly doesn’t understand more than a few words of English, made sure that her daughter-in-law’s occasional crankiness miraculously disappeared.

Tamer swore to me that he had not revealed anything to her. And so it happened that, with more and more frequent surprising exchanges, when she addressed me with ever-increasing admixtures of English, I was forced to conclude that Mamma Niemat had a secret.

Turns out that she, in fact, had not forgotten English from her years at the university, or that her memory of it came back while her daughter-in-law from abroad was visiting again for three weeks.

I could only guess, however, whether she really heard my complaints, perhaps from another room or perhaps from outside the window in the backyard where she might have been washing the dishes. How embarrassing. Or just lucky?

sudanese food

Colorful homes and beds of Sudan (2 PARTS)

This afternoon we’re going for a visit to Aunt Árafa. Of all the aunties we are to visit, Árafa lives the closest. We don’t even need a rickshaw, we’ll just take a walk down the street.

“You don’t need to put on anything special. Just throw one of your abayas over what you’re already wearing,” my sister-in-law advised me. No drama.

We knock on the big rosy iron door. They are opened by Mohammed, the eldest of the sons in the family. We follow him across the yard and despite the fact that daylight is already slowly fading, I notice the pinkish hue of the inside walls. The two daughters then emerge from one of the rooms, loosely wrapped in a long cotton cloth, a traditional Sudanese outer outfit – thobe/toub. Greetings and pleasantries follow.

– Salaam aleykum.
– Aleykum salaam.
– How are you?
– All is well. Alhamdulillah. How are you?
– Alhamdulillah.

To an outside observer this exchange between the Sudanese takes unusually long. When I was first introduced to Tamer’s relatives and neighbors last year, I must have looked like a deer caught in headlights, the opposite of confident with my replies. Every time there was a new visitor at the door, I kept checking at the notes in my phone and tried to remember something more than just “I’m fine, how are you”. I did so much better this year. Touch the left shoulder with your right hand and then reach for a handshake. The Sudanese ladies do the latter quite lightly, so I had to be careful not to squeeze any auntie or cousin too hard. We are taught to have a firm handshake back in Slovenia.

Then we all entered one of the rooms together. We sat down on beds covered with colorful bed linens. Yes, really. And no, it wasn’t a bedroom.

Sudanese receive their guests on beds.

Last summer, when I first came to Sudan in the middle of the night and was hosted by the family of my soon-to-be-husband, I found myself in a frontyard, which was occupied with beds. “Okay, obviously I’m sleeping under the stars tonight,” I told myself with a pinch of surprise. And that’s how it really is in this country: in the summer heat, many Sudanese simply sleep beneath the starry sky. Large iron bed frames are arranged across the yard in front of the house behind a higher wall, which provides privacy to the household. Another surprising realization, however, awaited me in the morning. I sat and drank tea on the same beds with my hosts. When it was time for lunch, they brought a small table between them and placed a tray with the daily meal on it.

Frontyard with bed frames.

At Aunt Árafa’s there was also a set of small tables in front of us, and first they served us with glasses of water. Sitting on the beds, we waited for auntie, who had recently returned from the market, and our visit was, as per usual, unannounced.

As soon as she joined us in her beautifully patterned thobe, greetings followed again, a touch to the shoulder, a handshake. “Alhamdulillah.” Then it’s time for at least a round of tea or coffee. This time I enjoy sipping the famous Sudanese milk tea and dipping homemade cookies in it. To my delight, there is sugar in a special container next to the teapot on this occasion. In other households, there is a big chance, an overly sweet drink can be served and then you find yourself in a dilemma: to drink or not to drink. They even add sugar to a freshly squeezed fruit juice quite often in the Sudanese kitchen.

Milk tea with traditional Sudanese sweets “zalabya”.

We don’t stay too long, we have to go to the far end of town tomorrow. According to the unwritten Sudanese rule, we have to return a visit in kind to another auntie who came a few days ago and brought her home-made poundcake. I can’t wait to see what color her house is and what kind of beds will be waiting for us there.

***

“Do you think I’ll be able to take some photos of Aunt Alawía’s place, too?” I ask my husband and sister-in-law as we’re sitting crammed in the back seat of the rickshaw that whizzes through the dusty streets. I really want to document a bit of this Sudanese phenomenon of beds.

“Yeah, it probably won’t be a problem. I’ll ask her. But, Misha … Why are you so fascinated by our houses?” visibly confused, Malak replied. “Where do you seat your guests?”
“We have a living room with a big couch and armchairs,” I reply to her.
“What do you mean? Where do you have beds?” At this point, my sister-in-law is practically in shock, but I find it really funny, and since we communicate in English, I can’t help but smile and tell her with a touch of irony: “In the bedroom.”

Just like in any other Sudanese household, guest are invited to sit and have tea on beds.

The rickshaw stops by the road, where mini buses are parked. Once we’re boarded, we have to wait for the vehicle to fill up. Fortunately, this never lasts too long. The debate over Sudanese beds is not over yet. Tamer joins us in the conversation, explaining why in fact every Sudanese house has so many beds, not only in the private sleeping quarters, but also where they receive guests and even outside in the yard.

“This dates back to when people had to travel longer distances, from one village to another. When they arrived at their destination in this Sudanese heat, the hosts always offered them a bed to rest. Visitors were able to stay for several days even and there was no embarrassment whether there was room for them as well. Although we might travel and visit each other less these days, we preserved this side of traditional hospitality. If you are tired, you may lie down without hesitation, even in the company of others who sit and drink tea at the time.”

Room where we had tea with the family and then Malak and I spent the night in these beds.

Malak then alerts him that we have reached Aunt Alawía’s neighborhood. Tamer snaps his fingers, as it is customary, so the driver would stop by the side of the road. Then we have to walk a short distance and soon we arrive to the house, where we knock on the great green iron door.
As we are waiting, Tamer quietly asks me, “What if we also had a few beds in our living room?” He looks at me mischievously and continues: “We have a lot of space, we could add a bed or two, or even replace the couch.”
“Not a chance” I blurt out, because I know he’s just messing with me. We already talked about the beds and sofas about a year ago when we started furnishing the apartment.
“So basically we have a European home, don’t we?” Steps are approaching behind the door, so I don’t think long and playfully conclude the debate: “That’s right. Our home is designed by its Mistress.”

Even where there were couches, the lady of the house had us sitting on beds.

In Sudan they do things differently (3 PARTS)

“You know what? You’re so incredibly upfront. Sometimes even too much. You always say what you think. What you like and what you don’t.
We don’t do that here in Sudan.”

I first heard something similar in Saudi Arabia from my Egyptian friend, who says she likes this trait about me, but my Sudanese sister-in-law is a little less enthusiastic about it. The remark surprised me a bit, because I have always placed myself among polite and diplomatically skilled people. At the same time, I’m sure I’ll never hide my honesty about things that really aren’t my cup of tea. I believe that kind words and a smile can go far without sacrificing one’s own and other’s dignity.

Do you perhaps have such an experience, when a cultural difference might have been pointed out to you by your foreign friends, but you weren’t even aware of it?

***

“You really do say please and thank you for everything,” my sister-in-law told me again in astonishment this year. “For the slightest thing, even when you’re addressing Tamer … And me. Well, we’re family, you really don’t need to ask in such a manner.”

Again, I found myself in a situation where I wasn’t quite sure if this was cultural or just a difference in character. But I really have no problem saying please. Or thank you. I’m really honest in having this such a habit. Both out of courtesy to strangers, as well as with closest friends and family.

“So you don’t say please to your friends,” I asked her.
“No, why? We’re close, we don’t need to be so formal,” she tried to explain.

Then I shared my point of view: This year, when I’m no longer the bride, I’m no longer a special guest in this house, because I’m “part of the family” … I sometimes get a strange feeling when they tell me “bring this … you’re going to slice the onion etc.” I admit to her that this kind of interaction seems completely foreign to me when I don’t hear a please and it makes me want to reply childishly:” What’s the magic word?”

Isn’t it curious and marvelous at the same time, how different everyone is?

***

“So we can’t spend the night at the hotel?” My nightmare was becoming more and more real. Fine, I’m exaggerating a bit. But I really just wanted to go to bed. I would sleep like the dead.
“No, the owner doesn’t want to rent us the rooms for just one night. Maybe if we paid for at least 3 nights,” Tamer explains to me, just as tired from a full-day adventure in the desert.
“Do these people hate money? How can they turn down customers and have an empty hotel,” I frowned and despaired in the back seat of the car.
“Don’t fret, we’re going to Saif’s relatives. He’s already called them, they know we’re nearby,” my husband tries to reassure me, oblivious to the fact that this alternative was exactly what I was afraid of.

Sudanese hospitality. Anyone who visits Sudan hears about the friendly locals and the incomparable hospitality with which they receive anyone, be it a relative, friend or stranger.

I was having a one-woman-show in my head and she was rambling on:
“When we get there, it will be 10 o’clock in the evening. We got up at 5am so we were able to reach the pyramids in the desert. It’s too late for the bus back to the city, we have no choice. But I know what awaits us. That damn hospitality. When you are tired to death and your ankle hurts cause you hit a rock while awkwardly climbing a camel, you are simply not in the mood for the socially dictated smile, even though you know, you should be grateful that a stranger’s family will accept you into their home, they will even offer you a meal. But they also want to chat with you and introduce you to every single one of their playful children and the aunties and possibly a grandmother.”

“You can lie down and rest,” my sister in law Malak translates to me from Arabic the kind words by the hostess a good hour later when, as I had anticipated, we had dinner and ended up sitting on beds with the grandma and a few kids. The beds again. Just like in any Sudanese household.
“Thank you, but I’d rather sleep in peace when we all turn in. I can’t sleep otherwise,” I reply visibly tired but still forcing a smile, hoping they will understand my hint and won’t be offended at the same time.
After a few minutes, Malak and I were finally left alone. We fell asleep quickly, and Tamer’s promise to leave early in the morning was also bringing me a peaceful mind. I made my request in advance because I didn’t want to “be right” again the next day when, at the benevolent but intrusive request of the hosts, we would have to stay until breakfast. This meant, that at best, we would head towards the bus station at noon. Sudanese get up very early, and first thing they drink tea and fill their bellies with biscuits or other homemade cake. But the “real breakfast” doesn’t follow until around 11am. “No, no, no. I can’t. My leg hurts. I just need to go home,” I was having another inner monologue as I played out the possible scenarios of the following day.

I woke up on my own just a few minutes after 6am, because I already got the hang of the early morning routine after only a couple of weeks in Sudan. Tamer was also awake and the three of us with Malak started the “we really have to catch the bus, so unfortunately we can’t stay much longer” protocol. Despite my ill-concealed bad mood and fatigue the night before, the mistress of the house, the children, and the grandmother all greeted me warmly and wished us a safe journey. Still, they expressed their surprise with: “Why are you leaving already … You could stay a bit longer. Why don’t you stay for breakfast?”

Before Tamer’s friend Saif took us to the bus station, we said our goodbyes and as a foreign guest I received a parting gift. They handed me an ordinary transparent bag, which I sniffed with pleasure, because I already knew what was in it. “Oh, bakhour!” Because I recognized the special type of incense, I made an even better impression on our hosts. They were very pleased I accepted the gift with such genuine enthusiasm. And I truly was grateful to them. For the bakhour and for the bed to sleep in. For the late dinner and the morning milk tea. For sincere hospitality, which I still don’t comprehend quite well. It will remain in my memory with this letter. Maybe I’ll read it before the next trip and look on everything they do differently in Sudan with a much better understanding.

Nubian pyramids

One month ago:

-Then it’s decided? We’re going to Sudan?
-Yeah, but this time you’re taking me to the pyramids!
-We’ll see if we can make it. Inshallah.
-And the camels. To the pyramids with the camels!

Last week:

After 4 hours by car, and before that, a ride with 1 rickshaw and 2 buses to the outskirts of Khartoum … We arrived. And at the last turn towards the old royal tombs on the horizon we were spotted. From one side a rider on a white camel, from the other a group of Bedouin boys running with all their might towards our car and shouting with their treasure for sale – handmade sandstone souvenirs – small pyramids in their hands.

Camels were also waiting for us and with great joy and admiration I was able to ride the white male camel, which was the first to greet us and accompany us on the way to the parking lot.

And then there were scenes of the ancient pyramids, which still stand against all odds and, despite the partially damaged image due to the ruthless treasure hunters, still manage to take your breath away. In the saddle high above the ground, you approach them with enthusiasm and a kind of awe, as these majestic Nubian tombs leave you speechless.

The late afternoon sun was our companion just high enough that we could enjoy the most beautiful views of the Saharan dunes, and the heat wore off towards the end of the day. Our “movie like” expedition wouldn’t be complete without the wind. So many thoughts and feelings filled me. I’m really here. So far away from home. Among the resting places of ancient queens and kings. They are called Great grandparents of the descendants who are still among us. Their villages are here in the north of Sudan along the river Nile. – Where’s your family from, Tamer?- From Dongola, in the north.

Into the sunset without any words. Just a smile on my face.

P. S.: I will write more on the history of the pyramids soon.

Sudanese winter

– How’s the December weather in Sudan?
– Oh, it’s cold! Such dry cold that cracks your skin.
I check the weather prognosis. 30 degrees Celsius during the day, 20 at night.
Cold, my ass.

Day 3 in Sudan: I apply thick layers of raw shea butter on my face, hands and feet every day.
I wear socks in the morning and in the evening. Sometimes even long sleeves. AC remains turned off.
Never in my wildest dreams I would have imagined such dry air, if I haven’t experienced it with my own skin. Literally.

Sudanese market

Vivid colors of the market.

A diverse range of scents that evokes fascination while passing by the stands with oily fragrances, incense and spices, and disgust in other places where one encounters inevitable piles of discarded waste.

Loud bargaining at every turn. Vendors in traditional white “jalabíyas” and unearthly women figures wrapped in all colors of the Sudanese “thobe”.

Daytime: constant noise and the omnipresent smell of petrol from the roads, where rickshaws, taxis and the often seen pick-up trucks with a group of passengers sitting on the edges of the trunk reign supreme.
Nighttime: tranquility and clear skies adorned with stars.

Fleeting moments from Sudan bring a unique experience that either changes you or at least how you see the rest of the world.

Sudan floods

These are the streets of Khartoum a little over 1 year ago. I came to Sudan as a bride for our wedding.

As mentioned in one of my previous letters, I arrived just for the rainy season. “It’s normal, every year the streets are muddy and filled with water at this time,” they told me. We stayed at home for a few days, but then we simply had to go out: to the municipality, to another office, to the court, and to the ministry (also to a few other pointless checkpoints, cause why not) … Countless bureaucratic stations for all the necessary permits for our marriage. We had to walk from our neighborhood to the nearest main road if we weren’t lucky enough to catch a rickshaw before that.

Streets of Khartoum in August 2019

Many times we could not avoid the mud. One evening, I remember, it was pouring again and I was returning home with him and his sister in knee-deep muddy water. I had sports sandals on, but he had to take off his flip-flops, otherwise they would have stayed at the bottom of the muddy street lake. I was so scared he would step on broken glass and cut himself. Just the day before, we received news that exactly that happened to one of their relatives and she landed in the hospital. My then still fiancé was lucky.

El Kalakla district (2019)

Then on another occasion I went with my future mother- and sister-in-law on a family visit. I don’t know how all three of us even managed to climb up and stay put in the back seat of the rickshaw, and at some point we got stuck in the water on the main road. We were wearing traditional long abayas, and I panicked, “Oh no, do we have to step down into the water?”
There was no need. The driver stepped off, started the engine a few times and pushed us out of the quagmire on the road. What an adventure! After two weeks the water finally went away, the sun and heat must have also helped.

El Kalakla district (2019)

The situation is very severe in Sudan these days. So much so, a state of emergency has been declared in the country after record floods, the biggest in the last century. More than 100 people lost their lives, 100,000 are left homeless. It really hurts me when I look at the footage of streets, that are just like the one in front of his home. My husband’s family is safe, the floods have not affected them. But I remember last year when I was bothering him to go for a walk with me, even if through puddles, how we saw a man sitting in front of his half-ruined house. The water took away his home, the brick construction with mud didn’t survive. Heartbreaking.

My first trip to Sudan

It was August 2019 and I’ve been in Khartoum for a few days already, visiting his family. As luck would have it, I came just in time for rain season which also meant floods.

“The one time I come to Africa, and there’s too much rain,” I’ve been texting my friends back home.

We stayed inside the house in the beginning, it was Eid time anyway. But I was longing to go out, at least for a walk. So with his eyebrows raised and the never fading smile, for I was there with him, we went. Slow and premeditated pace in muddy streets was definitely a first for me, but Sudan brought many firsts in my life that month.

Rickshaw rides through flooded pools rather than streets. Showering with a bucket. Wearing hijab. Traditional Sudanese dishes. Sudanese henna. A wedding …

One year later I find myself across the Red sea in Jeddah where I miss the rain too much. I look very fondly on that month in Khartoum, when Toto’s song was stuck in my head for days on end. You know the one.