by Darah Ghanem
Like many young Arabs, my first introduction to Sudan was through the writings of critically acclaimed novelist Tayeb Salih. His depiction of Sudan was captivating. In his writing, Sudan was where richness came from simplicity and civilisation was based on human connection. Luckily for me, Salih’s writing wasn’t the only introduction I had to Sudan.
My deepest connection to Sudan began at university where I met my closest friends, Ahmed and Salah. They spoke so proudly of Sudan, always excited to go back, often making social commentary about Sudanese society over coffee. Fast forward 5 years, I am now a travel writer with an affinity to Sudanese culture and in awe of its people, its food, its arts. I finally decided to head to Sudan’s introverted capital, Khartoum, last January in hopes of getting the immersive experience I always dreamt about.
Unfortunately, stories of Sudan in the media tell little truth about its reality. Simply google “Sudan” and your results feed will flood with articles about political instability and NGOs calling for funding. Rarely is Sudan thought of as a place for exploration. But Sudan is the perfect destination for culture fiends. From the rituals of the Sufi believers in Omdurman to the vibrant arts scene in central Khartoum, Sudan is a culturally diverse place making it ideal for eager explorers.
In many ways, Sudan reminds me of my own Palestinian roots yet it’s so different. I am particularly intrigued by Sudan’s diversity — to what extent is Sudan “Arab” or “African”? — a question I continue to ask my Sudanese friends. I can only describe Sudanese culture as a unique mixture of what is African and what is Arab, making the end result special only to Sudan. It only makes sense for it to be a fusion — as history tells us, Sudan’s ancient civilisations were a hybrid of what is the Mediterranean and what is Africa — an analogy I believe to be perfectly fitting for modern day Sudan.
A brief Geography of Sudan
Just to give you an idea, I visited northern Sudan. Unfortunately, South Sudan seceded from present-day Sudan in 2011, a move that I believe chipped away part of its beautiful diversity. Historically speaking, Northern Sudan is characterised by its predominantly Arabic-speaking Muslim community with Khartoum as its capital. Often called the “Tripolitan Capital”, Khartoum is made up of three sub-communities, Khartoum (central), Omdurman (Sudan’s ex-capital), and Bahri (also called Northern Khartoum).
Present-day Khartoum is often painted to be the face of “Arab”-Sudan, the capital that represents the country in the League of Arab States. While this is not necessarily incorrect, it tells a single story about a capital that is steeped in a history of different peoples meeting at the confluence of the Nile. The diversity of Sudan is what makes it a remarkable place to explore, and I will be outlining some of the most noteworthy aspects of Sudanese culture that make it a place definitely worth visiting.
I. Khartoum’s Eclectic Architecture
Let’s start by looking at any traveller’s first introduction to culture: architecture. The architecture of Khartoum tells a very interesting history. It seems that over the years, Khartoum was very accepting of different communities, and this is showcased in its buildings. Although it is hard to ignore the influence of colonialism in some buildings, it’s interesting to note others.
Khartoum’s communities contributed a great deal to its architecture. This includes communities such as Armenians, Jews, Syrians, Greeks as well as other transnational communities that lived harmoniously for decades. For example, the single-story courtyard houses of nimra itnein (District 2) are a direct reference to the Mediterranean architecture influenced by Khartoum’s Greek community. Additionally, many contemporary Sudanese homes take inspiration from Sudan’s indigenous Nubian heritage, a point that many Sudanese architects advocated for post independence — a choice made as a reaction to colonial architecture which often dismissed local design. Many homes around sharie al-nil (Nile Street) opt for concave roofs and Nubian patterns, in stark contrast to the colonial architecture of prominent buildings in the same area. Islamic inspired design is also prevalent around Khartoum, particularly in mosques like Al-Neelain in Omdurman, a move made by local architects for the same aforementioned reasons.
The result is a culmination of eclectic design choices, as well as an opulence of colour — something I did not expect when picturing Khartoum prior to my arrival. Khartoum’s colourful neighbourhoods are indicative of the existence of different cultures, and it’s complex history, as well as its hot environment. In Khartoum, colour often acts as a shield to its direct sunlight. Architecture in Khartoum promises a story at every doorstep and I encourage you not to take a single building in Khartoum for granted.
recommendation: all over Khartoum
II. Sudan’s Vibrant Arts Scene
Before we explore the current Sudanese arts scene, it’s important to consider the history of art in Sudan. Cultural production in Sudan dates back to the Meroitic period of the Nubian civilisation around 350 AD and was not limited to visual arts alone. It included music, literature, fashion and other forms of cultural production. A quick visit to the National Museum in Khartoum will give you an insight into Sudan’s rich cultural history which is influential till today. Today Sudan is considered one of the pioneering nations of contemporary art in Africa.
Those that are aware of Sudan’s contribution to contemporary art will tell you of prominent Sudanese artist and painter Ibrahim El-Salahi (born 1930), one of Africa’s leading modern artists. Displayed in some of Europe and America’s most prestigious museums and institutions, El-Salahi’s work is highly regarded. You can find a tribute to him at Khartoum University Library, although the majority of his works are in London or New York and in the hallways of art collectors in the Arabian Gulf.
Apart from Salahi, a variety of Sudanese artists’ work is still in Sudan. While I was in Khartoum, I visited two galleries supporting contemporary arts in Khartoum: Dunia Dabanga and Mojo Gallery. Both institutions support local art and do a good job of showcasing a variety of Sudanese work. I made two main observations while exploring the galleries: the first was that Sudanese artwork often brings together elements from a variety of cultures, namely from indigenous African as well as Arabic and Islamic influences. The second observation is the focus on identity as a prominent theme in Sudanese work. Sudanese artwork often features traditions and rituals as a subject, an observation I felt made sense in a place where different ethnicities are so prevalent. Sudanese art historian Mohamed Abusabib, who has written extensively on art and its relationship to identity in Sudan, considered the question of identity to be pertinent to artistic production and explains:
“[Sudan] produced a unique type of art in comparison to neighbouring countries… Sudanese visual art is basically the product of urban life in central Sudan…and often revolves around national identity.”
Sudanese art is unique because artists use a variety of mediums to address identity, resulting in a vibrant community telling a story of a culture that’s often misrepresented. I encourage you to dig deeper and appreciate Sudanese work, particularly within the context of Sudanese history.
Recommendation: Visit Dunia Dabanga, Mojo Gallery and the National Museum of Sudan.
III. Sudan’s Culinary Experience
Food in Sudan is as interesting and diverse as it’s art and architecture. Sudanese cuisine is a fusion of sorts and is a direct result of communities passing through or settling in Sudan, and leaving a part of their heritage in the midst. For example, foul sudani (known as groundnuts or peanuts), which is a staple ingredient in Sudanese cuisine, came to Sudan from South America through West Africa. A lot of West African foods managed to make their way to Sudan too, often through pilgrimages to Mecca.
In addition to that, the diversity of Sudan’s tribes and their experiences also influences Sudanese cuisine. I spoke to Omer Eltigani, author of ‘The Sudanese Kitchen’, who gave me more insight into the diversity of Sudanese cuisine: “Food in Sudan is definitely diverse, and many parts of the country — like Eastern, Northern or Western Sudan — have their own distinct dishes. For example, mokhbaza (a banana-based dessert originally from Yemen) is eastern Sudanese while faseekh (a salt-cured fish curry) is indigenous to northern Sudan.” Omer also believes that Sudan’s western region, particularly Darfur, has the most interesting of Sudanese dishes since it had a notably rich food culture during the Darfur Sultanate (1650–1850) that is passed on till today.
To get an understanding of Sudan’s diverse cuisine, it is interesting to note Sudan’s staple foods. Sudanese families might consume or prefer a certain food over another simply due to their cultural heritage. A close comparison of asida, gurrasa and kisra is an example. All three items are Sudanese types of bread and are eaten alternatively. While asida often originates from western Sudan and is a very African type of carb, kisra is typical and indigenous to central Sudan. Gurrasa, on the other hand, is a northern Sudan speciality. Some Sudanese staple foods are also staples in other African kitchens. Asida can be found in Algeria and Libya, where it’s consumed with honey, and in Ethiopia and Uganda (called Posho in Swahili) and even in West Africa (called Fufu) and can also be made using cassava.
To make things even more diverse, many of Sudan’s Sudan’s national food consists of foods that are well known to an Arab traveller like me: for example, foul medamas (cooked fava beans) is a dish found in Egyptian and Palestinian cuisine, although historians consider the dish to have “often satisfied the Nubian pharaohs”. Turkish and Greek dishes also make an appearance — making moussaka and stuffing vegetables is not foreign to Sudanese culture. Sudanese food is a combination of different East African, West African, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean diets.
My most satisfying meals in Sudan, however, included eating grilled fish directly from the Nile and having agashe — Sudanese barbecue. Eating fish from the Nile was the perfect epicurean experience and the meat was always succulent. Agashe was also an experience, where meat is marinated in peanut butter, and then covered with spiced crushed peanuts, and finally smoked using charcoal. This method of barbecue is indigenous to Sudan and a bonus if you have it at a friend’s house or near the Nile.I consider food in Sudan to be “diversely diverse”, and I don’t think a short introduction to the experience is sufficient. You must truly immerse yourself to get a holistic overview of the cuisine.
Recommendation: Have fish at Saj Al-Samak, Sudanese breakfast at Karnak, and Agashe with friends.
IV. Sudan’s Preservation of Rituals and Traditions
Preservation of tradition is customary in Sudan. Prior to my arrival, many friends recommended I attend a Sudanese wedding or jirtig, as Sudanese weddings can give any visitor deep insight into local rituals, and witness true Sudanese partying. Although I did attend a Sudanese wedding, I want to share another experience that truly left an impression on me — the Sufi rituals at Hamed El-Nil in Omdurman.
Sudan’s Sufi community is one of the largest in the world. Sufism is a branch of Islam that focuses on meditation and inward practice as a path to God which arrived in Sudan in the 10th Century and is widely practised until today. Believers in the Sufi tariqa (path) are not prominent in Muslim societies, making their preservation of these rituals particular to Sudan. Often considered “mystical”, Sufi prayer or ziker consists of rhythmic singing, swaying, spinning and dancing. Much of Sudan’s interpretation of Sufi rituals also take from the indigenous religions of the pre-colonial era and has survived until today in total harmony with more orthodox Muslim practices.
We arrived at the Hamed El-Nil Mosque on a warm Friday afternoon just in time for the rituals to begin. At sunset, worshipers gathered in a circle in the front yard of the Mosque and began chanting and swaying. Sufi leaders blessed worshippers with bakhoor and gave encouraging gestures. The atmosphere was welcoming and tolerant of visitors who were allowed to join in the festivities. I spoke to one of the Sufi leaders who agreed to take a photo with me, and jokingly asked not to show the photo to his wife! Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by how joyful the environment was. I can’t recommend it enough to any traveller visiting Sudan, especially since it is not as widely practised anywhere else in the Muslim world.
Recommendation: Sheikh Hamed El-Nil Mosque in Omdurman
V. Sudan’s Historic Markets
Of course, I wouldn’t leave Sudan without doing a bit of shopping. On most trips, I like to bring back a souvenir or two, and my trip to Khartoum was no exception. I searched for interesting souvenirs and handicrafts at Soug Omdurman and Soug Al Arabi in Khartoum.
Both are historic marketplaces that are full of hidden gems and history in every corner. I found Soug Al Arabi to be particularly interesting, as it was very clear how much Khartoum had been through just from the look of the place. Situated just across from the Blue Nile, I headed there with friends to check out a few of the shops. We parked right across from a building that, to my surprise, had an old sign with the letters “B.A.R” at the entrance. There was a group of old men drinking tea right underneath, so I approached them to ask about it. They told me that the building used to be a bar that operated post-independence, but was then destroyed after the establishment of the Islamist government. Only a few yards down is a cafe called Papa Costa, historically known for the gathering of intellectuals. A man wearing a rasta cap smoking cigarettes and reading something on his phone sat inside, and I thought of all the remarkable history at the Soug, and how it has seen Khartoum go from colonisation to post-independence to more contemporary times. The Sougs in Khartoum is full of hidden gems, and I encourage you to explore every crook and cranky.
Recommendations: Soug Al Arabi (Central Khartoum), Soug Omdurman (Omdurman)
Travel in Africa has become popular in recent years. Images from across the continent are flooding social media, particularly colourful areas like Bo-Kaap in South Africa or the vibrant Maasai Mara in Kenya. Although these images tell a new story about a continent often stigmatised, there are parts of the continent that rarely make our feeds. Sudan is one I am glad I got to know.
In my opinion, Sudan’s most interesting attribute it’s diversity. It promises that you are constantly met with something different, and tells a history of the continent that is so important to acknowledge. Khartoum is not just an Arab capital — it’s an African capital that welcomed many communities making it an intersection of cultures in central Africa.
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