Khartoum, the capital of Sudan and located where the blue and white Niles greet each other and travel northwards towards Egypt and the Mediterranean. With a population of over 5 million the city is friendly and very manageable.
I spent Christmas and New year in Khartoum. One Friday I decided to do some siteseeing. First stop was to be Osama Bin Ladens old home.
Located in the wealthy Khartoum district of Al Riyadh, Bin Laden lived here between 1991 and 1996. He lived here with his four wives, four sons and one daughter. It is said whilst Bin Laden was in Sudan, he was involved in experimental farming. Apparently, Bin Ladens farms employed thousands of people. The farms grew white corn, sesame, soybeans, sorghum, and peanuts and also cattle and horses. After investing millions into Sudan and building roads, apparently Bin Laden left the country due to his dismay with the political developments of the country.
My next stop on the Khartoum unofficial tourist trail was the Al Shifa medical factory that was bombed in August 1998 on the orders of Bill Clinton. At the time of the bombing, the factory was producing anti-malaria drugs and not nerve gas that Clinton claimed it was producing. There was no evidence of chemical warfare production when 14 cruise missiles destroyed the factory and killed hundreds of innocent people.
Next stop was the confluence of the two Niles, white and blue. The taxi took me to Tuti Island where I walked to the islands northern tip, passing through fields and boys making mud bricks.
Leaving Tuti Island I headed over to Omdurman to watch some Sufi dancing, the highlight of Sudan for me.
Outside the Hamid Al-Nil mosque, a crowd of around 400 people with a few western tourists, gathered to watch the dervishes of Sufism perform the ritual of zikr.
Drums beat, feet stomp, the air grows thick as the hum of the chanting grows steadily louder.
Dust begins to rise along with clouds of incense smoke as the practitioners dressed in patchwork robes of green, red and gold begin to swirl into the night.
The followers of Sufism are known for there tranquility and a desire to avoid confrontation. The al-Qadiriya al-Arkiya sect of Sufism based here in Khartoum believe that Sufism is a philosophical discipline that governs all aspects of life, with its principal foundation coming from Islam.
The spectacle starts around 4pm every Friday and ends with the sun setting by which time many of the participants are in a trance like state. The ritual performance felt like a blend of African and Arab cultures and I would recommend it to anyone visiting Khartoum.
I spent another week in Khartoum doing lots of stretching exercises and eating good food. Due to the current situation in Syria, many of the restaurants I frequented were run by Syrians. They were very friendly and the food was tasty and cheap.
Every Saturday at the YHA, a group of local men gather to play and sing along to the sound of the Oud instrument.
In the Arab world, the Oud is considered the ‘king of instruments’. The instrument has a pear shaped body with a fretless neck. Most Western stringed instruments descend from the Oud.
My last Friday in Khartoum, I decided I would visit the Nuba wrestling on the other side of the city. I went with a lovely couple from Malaysia who are travelling the world on a BMW motorbike. They are both retired and mad as a box of frogs. My kind of people.
Enroute to the wrestling, we noticed a group had gathered by the side of the road. Women were dancing and wearing lovely colourful dresses and a handful of men were playing instruments.
We walked over and were informed a wedding was taking place.
The locals warmed towards us, encouraging us to take photos. The women clapped and swayed to the beat, as the men, dressed in white, danced in a circle.
At different times, individual women would step forward and do a kind of Bez dance from the Happy Mondays.
It was all very vibrant and friendly. No airs or graces, no fancy food nor big stretch limos. Everyone was having a ball.
From the wedding, a nice man kindly offered to take us the remaining 2km to the Nuba wrestling stadium.
We arrived at the stadium and it was packed to the rafters. We paid a 15sdp entrance fee and granted a front row view.
Nuba wrestling is the national sport of Sudan. Big Nuba men covered in ash and dust, circle each other with the aim of toppling his opponent. It didn’t happen often in the many bouts I witnessed, but when a wrestler was successful, the crowd went crazy.
Each bout lasted approximately 4 minutes. In some bouts the wrestlers did nothing more than look each other. When a wrestler did manage to flex his muscles and win a bout, a member from the crowd adored the champion with bank notes.
Even though the sport is popular in the country, outside the ring, a dark reality exists for the Nuba people. The Nuba Mountains, 500km south of Khartoum have been at the centre of a civil war between the Sudan Arab government and Nubian Rebels.
The Sudan government have been accused of ethnic cleansing the Nuba people by bombing hospitals, schools, homes and markets. Many of the Nuba tribe have fled to South Sudan and Ethiopia. The Nubians who have remained in Khartoum believe they are treated as second class citizens and suffer from racial prejudices by the lighter skinned Arab establishment.
For centuries, the dark skinned Nuba people served as slaves for the Arabs in Sudan. Over time, in this unnatural modern complex hierarchy society we live in today, the Nuba people find themselves at the bottom of the ladder.