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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”