Waiting

The morning stretches and yawns into the late afternoon heat. Then the rush:

“What do we do?”

“I’m hungry.”

“Who called?”

Sometimes it is swimming at The Green Club-a last vestige of mixed gender semi-nudity frolicking in warm, greenish waters. Pulling off my damp dress under the eyes of the Sudanese staff is a little unnerving, but the chance for normality, to swim with my brothers, to feel my body is not entirely a sexual oddity, is worth this slight disrespect. If we stay long enough the setting sun may even create goose bumps on our flesh. We relish the idea of ‘cold’.

Children bathed first in sunscreen, goggles, floaties, insect repellent and kisses learn to swim from the overweight Man with the Whistle. Unsure of whether he works here or not, the pool experience is not complete without the harsh cries from the Man with the Whistle keeping everyone under control. Russian women in tiny bikini’s bathe in the oppressive heat, a few French families skyping home, seriously overweight young men pound the water with their fists in an attempt to surge through the unrelenting water.

The chlorine is so strong our hands and feet wrinkle within minutes. Straw hair and tight skinned faces emerge when we do. The gazelles with their glassy black eyes full of malice, watch sweetly from the shore.

After dinner at the Yemeni restaurant near the pool, Dominic points above our heads to reveal two roosters, heads bowed between their legs, in a deep slumber. Perched upon a large iron gate with supreme rooster balance they silhouette the half constructed concrete building in front of our own. A Caravaggio painting in modern Sudan.

“So that’s where they are!” We exclaim, after being awakened by these two alarm clocks every morning before rolling over in our sweaty sheets and falling back asleep. We think we are alone in our business district, which empties of it’s chaos around 11pm every night, but the longer we stay in the souq the more inhabitants emerge from around us. The men who sleep on roofs, the overcrowded pension rooms, the great construction sites with hidden families, roosters and even goats.

And us. Five hawaja, a sheesha and a struggling fern by the toilet.

‘Season of Migration to the North’ by Tayeb Salih.

A Sudanese friend, upon seeing my interest for a spread of colourful books basking in the sun’s rays, selected and purchased for me Tayeb Salih’s “Season of Migration to the North.” A classic Sudanese novel I have been told nearly a dozen times.

Authors name corrected with trusty White-Out.

Authors name corrected with trusty White-Out.

My battered, roadside bought, stapled copy did not have a publisher, nor publish date, nor translators name, but the internet says (1966) Heinemann, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies.

Apart from the initial misgivings I had before I started to read, misgivings formed by the misspelling of the authors name on the front cover and the ambiguous and clearly inaccurate blurb on the back “Tayib Salih was born in the Northern Province of the Sudan in 1992” (he was born in 1929)-I was enamoured by the first few pages.

“It was, gentlemen, after a long absence-seven years to be exact, during which time I was studying in Europe-that I returned to my people. I learnt much and much passed me by – but that’s another story. The important thing is that I returned with a great yearning for my people in that small village at the bend of the Nile.”

The story follows our narrator as he returns to his village to find a new face among the familiar faces of his family and friends. He discovers that very little is known about this new inhabitant, Mustafa Sa’eed, and suspects foul play. He is not far off the mark. After hearing Sa’eed recite poetry in English when he is drunk (everyone drinks in 1960’s Sudan, and women smoke ‘gasp!’) he confronts him and gets the full story.

It turns out Sa’eed also studied in Europe and was a brilliant, cold and calculating economist in London. He was the pride of his schools, but the bane of every English father, whose daughter he seduced. A modern day psychopath, he was obsessive in his pursuant of women only to drop them at his fancy.

Unfortunately every woman he sleeps with during this time kills herself.

And he kills his wife-an Englishwoman much like himself, who is obsessed with sex and destruction.

“I leant over and kissed her. I put the blade-edge between her breasts and she twined her legs round my back. Slowly I pressed down. Slowly. She opened her eyes. What ecstasy there was in those eyes! She seemed more beautiful than anything in the whole world. “Darling,” she said painfully, “I thought you would never do this. I almost gave up hope of you.”    

He goes to jail, is released and returns to Sudan.

He marries into the village, but after telling our narrator his story disappears, drowns or kills himself. Our narrator is haunted by his memory and falls in love with his widow who is then forced to marry a much older man whom she won’t sleep with, so she kills him and then kills herself.

In fact only one female character in this novel DOESN’T KILL HERSELF.

Ahem.

Salih’s novel combines beautiful descriptions, like that of the crippling heat of the Sudan, the way the waters of the Nile shapes the land (the inspiration for my blog’s title came from this book), thoughtful metaphors and a historical backdrop of post-colonial Sudan.

“There is no shelter from the sun which rises up into the sky with unhurried steps, its rays spilling out on the ground as though there existed an old blood feud between it and the people of the earth.” 

If we see this novel as a haunting expose of human frailty or a historical look at the misguidance of colonisation then it works quite well. However it also works as an erotic, somewhat misogynistic and self indulgent thriller.

Take your pick.

“Seeing the bank contracting at one place and expanding at another, I would think that such was life: with a hand it gives, with the other it takes.”  

Khartoum

The smell of dust grows heavy on the setting sun. A gust of warm, thick air brings with it other smells, of ginger, gasoline, frying oil and garbage. We live in a concrete box high above Souq Al Arabi, glimpsed between the hanging scarves on the balcony. Hawkers crying out, honking cars, distant Sudanese rhapsodies played on metallic speakers, the calls of the faithful, chatter, a splash of water and the humming of fans makes up an afternoon in Khartoum.

One block down on a sandy patch of garbage or a garbage dump of sand, young men sell deep fried falafel rolled into balls and squashed into morning baked bread rolls. Add a boiled egg, lime and chilli sauce and a handful of chopped coriander and 4SDG makes for an addictive lunch. across the road a turbaned man in white takes our order for mixed juice greeting Dominic with his usual “Emrikki! Salam!” and politely ignoring me.

Climbing the stairs back to our apartment with buttocks aching, the door handle lifted rather than turned, we communally sigh entering the relative cool and darkness of our sweaty plastic armchairs and dusty floors.

I live in Sudan now.

Although I haven’t begun teaching in the village-something that will, with a certain amount of patience, eventuate; Khartoum has become a series of small pleasures, won victories and irritations. From the man who refused to shake my hand and touch a woman, to the joy of  filling the air with cherry smoke and stories around the sheesha. From walks along Nile street with my beloved, a fleeting touch of the hands acting like the other young Sudanese lovers who dare to make intimate gestures in public. To bumpy rides with sweat soaked thighs along dark passages of train-tracked bus stations. The constant crying of “Hawaja!” whenever we walk past, the children discovering hawaja live in the flat and knock on the door for money, the smiles of shy women catching my eye, sometimes the crinkle of the eye between the niqab and the hijab, letting me know they are smiling back. Laughter. At us, with us, from us. Countries are challenges. Like learning to walk again, you must have some humility when you fall, some humour to laugh at yourself and the patience to get back up and try again.

Alakum es Salam-Go in peace

 

Sudan May-June 040 Sudan May-June 036 Sudan May-June 039

Transit

Sudan May-June 004 Sudan May-June 006 Sudan May-June 016 Sudan May-June 008 Sudan May-June 015 Sudan May-June 017

Sex before dawn in the white cotton sheets of two singles pushed together. The sound that is to become the background to my life, the whirr and hum of the air conditioning unit, the only audible frequency behind the the thick set windows of Dubai’s Imperial Hotel. My eyelids feel prised open although the body is as sluggish as sacks of flour lugged up a hill. This is a beginning and an ending at once and together. The end of my life in Fremantle, Western Australia and the start of something with my American sweetheart in the open waters of the world. Unable to live in either of our home countries we have created a new home-wherever on the alluvial plains.