Khartoum, Berlin, and Change

I can’t say my life isn’t filled with lovely parts. I know fantastic people and I have fantastic opportunities to experience much of the strange stuff that this world offers. I’m not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but I have people who can lend me a sofa in times of need and at the end of the day that gets me by.

A little less than 2 weeks ago I came back from Berlin. Before that I was in Khartoum for a few months working on my Arabic (which I can now report no longer has the Japanese accent it apparently mysteriously acquired). These two places are wonderfully different, but in them both there was a chance to do some reflecting on what it is I want out of life and out of myself. On that list is pursuing further study and to live in somewhere other than the UK during my 20s. I’m not sure when exactly these will happen but the machinations are already in progress so that it doesn’t just become another idle “one day”.

*

My trips were worthwhile. Khartoum was so huge and stretched out. Days there seemed to all merge into all the others making time quite a pointless formality. I got to hear interesting stories and met lots of new people who all greeted me the first time as if we were long-lost cousins. It’s those parts of Sudan that people always forget about when they leave it for too long. There are stories I feel it is almost wrong to try and share because only other Sudanese people would understand why they are quite so special. For too long I only saw Khartoum as a child, that seeing it as an adult has given it an far more nuanced shape that I can actually say I appreciate it.

Berlin, in contrast, was an organised cliché and when I stayed there the winds felt like ice shards. There people were also warm and welcoming, but in a more reserved manner than the Sudanese, and I appreciated the opportunity to just wander around the streets at night alone without getting hassled by drivers. Berlin feel like I had always been waiting for it.

Coming back to London after these two trips I’ve also had to acknowledge that though I always say I am somewhat tired of this city, it is so familiar and easy to be in. I get wanderlust very easily, yet London shelters me a lot from that temptation. All these fashionable essays writing about how London being too much made them have to leave miss the specialness of that “too much”. I enjoy being another face in the crowd because it means that each day you get to play a different role until you figure yourself out a bit better. Being in a city where everyone knows you and where you know everything traps you far more. London I can now recognise as my home and not just a wait station for a grand return or a new adventure.

So Khartoum, farewell.

Berlin, I’ll see you again.

London, I’m glad to be back for now.

Catching a Rickshaw in the World’s Largest Waiting Room

It better perhaps to frame the transport as not so much a very expensive bike ride but rather a very cheap Arabic lesson.

I hope Ahmed does not understand the meaning of “FUCK”.

We are threading through the city on three wheels, crammed into a vehicle which – like all Khartoum back-seats I have been in – has too low a ceiling to fit my height and so I am hunched over trying not to be flung out the doorless side. Somehow my de-pigmented knuckles, white from vitiligo, are even whiter gripping the thin black bar that separates me from Ahmed the Rickshaw Driver. After a week back in the country I am finally confident enough to practice my atrocious Arabic with someone and now I risked his lasting impression to be one of a foul-mouth foreigner.

Ahmed either does not hear my yell or chooses to politely ignore it, instead wanting to know which of the local football teams I supported; Hilal or Merrikh? Fumbling for words I tell him that I don’t know which one is the right one. His furious head shaking tells me this is definitely the wrong answer.

I stare out at the empty side. Khartoum still feels so unfamiliar even as the sights match those of my childhood – a city covered in dust and streets blooming with multi-coloured plastic bags.

He shakes his head again.

I don’t understand how you can come back to Khartoum and not pick a football team

*

When I say ‘rickshaw’ to someone back in London they think of the pushcarts, pedalled by disinterested young men who cluster in the city centre, cigarettes hanging from lips as they yell to drunken tourists. And then I have to explain that yes, those definitely fall under the dictionary definition of rickshaw, but in Sudan rickshaws (or rasksha as my Arabic practice has taught me) are not glorified bikes, but rather small motorised tin cans. Usually black, and sometimes pasted with Disney cartoon characters and random English words – items signifying a certain coolness motivated by the belief that this will win more fares – they buzz through Khartoum, piercing across traffic. For just a few pounds you too can risk safety for a quick journey.

Although it is not as cheap as when I stopped living here five years ago. Sanctions in the country have led to inflation; a journey previously costing a single US dollar now costs about seven. When I last visited there was the inevitable rush of development that affects a city after a peace agreement, then the global recession and US/EU sanctions hit. Now the rush still goes on, but it is slower and hidden, no longer reflected in new, shiny soaring buildings. Price increases mean the first instance I am required to travel down the road I take the mature approach of not wanting to “waste my money” and 10 minutes later all exposed areas of my skin are the same shade as Jessica Rabbit’s lips.

It better perhaps to frame the transport as not so much a very expensive bike ride but rather a very cheap Arabic lesson.

*

IgoStreetSixtyNowNearMosque?I ask.

The rickshaw has spluttered up alongside me. Inside is a man about my age, a slight red tinge under his black skin suggesting that he too was suffering from the last of the summer heat. His eyebrows raise themselves at my accent – regularly described as sounding Japanese for reasons I still have yet to figure out – and, after glancing down at my colourful Western clothes, he opts for gesturing with his head that I should hop in.

I foolishly undermine the authority I want my garbled Arabic to carry by asking how much it will cost.

It is a universal rule in a barter economy that you do not ask for the price if you have light skin and are obviously a foreigner. The second rule is if the rickshaw driver quotes you an acceptable price and you have light skin and are obviously a foreigner it is definitely not anywhere near an acceptable price.

Ten” he says, gesturing again.

No! SevenDollarsFinished”

He laughs. No sale.

He is a generous man and anything less would basically be paying me to travel.

Unfortunately I know the third rule. The third rule is that when you are dealing with a rickshaw driver in Sudan and you are a bit Sudanese you may get some success by telling them this.

NoSevenOnly – SudaneseFather!”

He laughs again, though this time he nods his head and we are off, dashing through crossing lights. We pass by the ladies who sit on the edges of empty spaces selling tea and packed restaurants selling too-expensive meat, him eloquently discussing his education and football and the idyllic vision of London he’s seen in films, I replying in my faltering grammar-less speech to the questions I understand.

Khartoum has been described as the world’s largest waiting room – there is a languid atmosphere and meetings start and end late, much to the frustration of foreign workers. But it is homey too, full of people who will fold you gently into their lives and rickshaw drivers who praise every piece of your broken Arabic as if it were great poetry.

The mosque looms near and eventually we reach the point where I can handle over the crumpled note and stumble into the air-conditioned coolness of the living room.

Remember” he says gravely as I slide out of the rickshaw, “you support Hilal now.” 

Back to the Desert

The last time I smelt rain following a storm of dust was five years ago when a whirlwind of sand passed through Khartoum. There is something sweet and comforting in the smell, a small section of yourself you never realised was there beats faster. It is the same kind of remembrance that greets me whenever I carve open pink grapefruit, hurled back to childhood breakfast with my grandmother at her Northampton table.

I’m going back now, running to a country I left in 2010 to learn a language I failed to grasp fully when there.

*

Three weeks ago I turned 23. I feel exceptionally young in some ways, like I’m on the cusp of proper adulthood and soon everything will start to get very serious and so I’m trying to stave off what I envision to be a boring normality. Of course this is ridiculous, normality is by its nature completely fine, but I seem to conceive of it as something a little bit gauche. Adventure, a lot of the time, is only what people think they want.

Anyway I’m 23 and asking a whole lot of questions about where I am in my life, where I want to be in my life and – most importantly – who I am and who I want to say I am. And these are questions I have come to the conclusion that I can’t answer without going back, no matter how briefly, to a place that I will forever find etched into myself. So this is why I find myself, 23 and (just under) three weeks old in Khartoum, Sudan.

Even if I haven’t quite grappled through my complex thoughts about considering myself Sudanese I want to feel closer to it. And everyone here thinks I’m utterly mad; perhaps because I am, perhaps because it is a little strange and offensive to be a white girl trying to find herself and her future path in Africa, but so far it feels right.

For example; things I have remembered this week include aleela means today, bariid means cold, and that bey is with. Things that I have learnt this week include that haguul laek is I’m going to tell you something and agguul laek haiga is a more informal way of saying the same thing, and that masoora which means tap or, alternatively, a person that always says they are going to do something then they don’t do it, must come from the Arabic maa meaning water. I had never twigged because in Sudan water is moya.

I have also learnt that I am masoora*

So far my productive holiday has been spent reconnecting with old friends and family, frustrating them with my incessant new curiosity for the language that I never displayed before. The air feels more attuned to my nature – people like to talk about the quirks of Sudanese Arabic and everyone wants to educate the foreigner (up to a point). Still I have yet to test out willingness to grapple with more ridiculous parts of my discussion tendencies, and whereas before I would have certainly said that Khartoum was home, now I can see just how much I have been altered by the past five years in London.

Home it seems, isn’t just a bout of nostalgia, but where you can feel comfortable in your skin. It’s not fixed to a particular language or a set group of people, but the sense of disease abandoning your body. I haven’t quite got there yet, not with London nor Khartoum.

For now though, the desert is enough.

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*A friend told me this because I turned up at their house at the later end of a time frame I gave. I live in hope that it was a circumstantial description rather than an accurate portrait of my character.