Languages: Arabic (official), Nilotic in the south
It was a real struggle to get a visa from the Sudanese consulate in Cairo. I had to go there three times, I needed a letter from the canadian embassy, they made me wait for hours and I finally had to pay 50US$ for a seven day visa. I had to fly in because Sudan's land borders with all of its nine neighbouring countries (Egypt, Libya, Chad, Central African Republic, Zaire, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Eritrea), had been closed for some reason or other in January 1995. There was a lot of tension, and it was not a good time for visitors.
Sudan is a huge country, its 2.5 million kmē make it the largest in Africa. It became a british colony after Kitchener defeated the Islamic Mahdiya regime in 1898. The north is dry, populated by Arabs and Islamic while the south is marshy and the population black and Christian. When the British left in 1955 it rejected the demands for secession of the South and left that artificially delineated country in the hands of the Islamic Mahdiya.
Naturally, civil war ensued and did not stop when the communist backed Colonel Jaafar el-Nimeiry took over in 1969. Nimeiry was deposed in 1985 but chaos continued and war was still raging in 1995 between the South under John Garang and the North under the Islamic dictator Omar Hassan Ahmed-el-Bechir. I can't help thinking that the British are responsible for setting up the conditions of this endless conflict which might have been avoided if they had granted the South the independence they had demanded in 1955.
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I was not too lucky in Khartoum there was no bus from the airport. I took a taxi to the center but I had to walk around with my bag for quite awhile before finding a hotel I could afford. I did manage to visit the small ethnographical museum but the more important and interesting Sudan National Museum was closed for repairs.
I would have liked to take a lot of photos here but I had been warned that photography permit was required and that even with a permit, a picture taking infidel would almost certainly get in trouble in this city. I walked all over town and saw only two other western infidels at the Acropole Hotel who were here on business. They also counselled me against using my camera. I was careful and took this shot of Khartoum from the roof of my hotel (the Asia on Sharia el Baladaya). At the end of the street you can see a yellow bus in the UN square and the mosque behind that. The tall buildings further away in the center are the Metropole and Acropole Hotels.
I was not impressed by Khartoum. There were shortages of everything in January 1995. Even food, falafel and bread was all I could find to eat in the restaurants near my hotel.
The next day I went to Omdurman to see Mahdi's tomb and the famous Omdurman Souk. On the bus, I sat next to a young man who had a lot of questions to ask me which I gladly answered until he brought up the subject of religion in Canada and my own beliefs. I was careful not to offend him for he obviously had a chip on his shoulder. At one point he said quite calmly "you know, those who don't like Islam, we kill them". I was shocked, not by the statement for I know that extremists occur in practically every religious, political or ethnic group, but by the plain, matter of fact way that he expressed his fanaticism, as if it was quite normal. I walked around the interesting Omdurman Souk looking at individuals in the crowd and wondering how each of them interpreted the teachings of the Coran. I observed the way they looked at me, the western stranger in their midst, and the vibrations I got were not good. I had my camera but did not get the chance to take a furtive shot of that colourful market. I did not feel comfortable there so I left.
After visiting the Souk, I went to the Botanical Gardens Park, bought a pepsi and a falafel sandwich from a vendor and sat in the grass to relax and digest my experience. Next to me was this family out for a picnic. The man spoke a few words of English and said hello. I responded cautiously and after a while we were gaily chatting about the superficial aspects of life in Canada and in the Sudan, both of us being careful to avoid potentially conflictual topics. The women and the boy did not speak of course, they just watched and smiled. Naturally, I asked him permission before taking this picture. It was a friendly encounter but I felt that our exchange could have gone much further had it occurred in a more liberal country.
Well, I had wanted to see what Sudan was like and now I had seen a little bit of it. I would have seen much more If I had been able to get here by the train from Wadi Halfa near the Egyptian border and leave by bus by the crossing into Eritrea at Kassala as I had planned. I probably would have met some really nice people and would have come away with a better impression. As things turned out however, I was glad to get away and fly to Asmara.