One if the things I like about walking about Khartoum is the many metal gates lining the city streets. A lot of people live in compounds with a high wall and several small buildings behind it which they share with family members. The gates often decorative, colourful and unique. Here is just a small example. Pinterist door lovers eat your heart out!
Take a look around you, what do you see? A golden sun collapsing into the dark dusty clouds below. A woman carrying a large plate on her head filled with tied plastic bags of popcorn, peanuts and seeds, her red and orange tobe flapping in the wind. Sudan is a place of beauty if only you take a closer look.
This is what photography teaches us. To look at the world as if you were capturing it forever on a piece of paper.
A growing number of people in Sudan are seeing photography as an art form. Aside from advertising, family portraits and weddings, Sudanese are not known to use the camera. Today, however, there are young photographers trying to show this country and it’s cities in a new light.
The annual 500px Global Photo Event showed some forty or so camera enthusiasts make their way to Manshia to take part in a photography event aimed at highlighting Khartoum’s burgeoning photography scene.
“I like to photograph weird things,” said Abdelrahman Hejjai (pictured above). “I want to participate in international events, to enter competitions, I want people to pay attention to us.”
If the international community is looking away from Sudan these days, the people are looking inwards.
“Photography is awesome. I take a picture every day, everything I see.” Mazen, a student using his phone to photograph patterns on a wall said.“Cameras are expensive, but everyone has a smart phone”.
Mazen uploads his images to online image sharing programs like Instagram. Without instruction, a decent SLR or even a computer, Mazen can share his ideas to the entire world without ever leaving Sudan.
“What we need in Sudan is a place to teach photography, and more events like this,” he said.
There is a different type of street art in Khartoum, Sudan. The bright, spray painted swirls and skulls smoking joints of the West do not exist here. Instead there is an abundance (if you look) of pencil sketches on buildings. I have started to document them, but alas only on my phone, which has bad resolution. Don’t worry I intend to go back to every nook and cranny with my Canon to show you all.
However, there is another phenomenon worth mentioning here. Hand painted children’s art adorns schools and day care buildings and is magical and creepy and wonderfully out of place (a sentence that essentially sums up everything I like.)
Here is a small example from a walk last week, including Khartoum cemetery and a pretty metal gate.
Shams is the Arabic word for sun.
It is also the name of a tiny, ramshackle art gallery owned and run by Misbah, his brother Mutaz and their friends Afifi and Hussein. In a country where art is not at the forefront of media discussion the quartet get by selling, framing, illustrating and painting in a leisurely sort of way. In fact when I was there Hussein was immediately offered a back rub and called an ‘old man’ and offered a seat. Their work does not reflect this attitude to life, however, it is alive with feeling, saturated in ambiguity and representative of a Sudan only locals would understand.
Above: Watercolour paintings stacked ‘neatly’ in a corner by Hussein Merghani.
Below: Getting that well deserved back rub.
Although the gallery is by no means a commercial success, each of the four artists exhibits and sells prints in their own style. From Afifi’s large abstract acrylics to Mutaz’s delicate pastels to Hussein’s detailed watercolour landscapes-Misbah frames their work, although I am not sure if he paints or not-they show a side to Sudan removed from the creepy souvenir shops and over saturated media infamy.
Ibrahim El-Salahi, the Sudanese painter and pioneer of ‘African Modernism’ said “African artists are working in a vacuum.”
African art has long been explored and venerated as traditional and tribal rather than contemporary. African artists often have very little funding, small circles of interest and have restrictions on a lot of subject matter. As Hussein explained to me, he cannot possible paint a nude or anything mildly political without getting into trouble. This means that artists such as those I met at Shams gallery continue on in relative obscurity, but the joy of creation is ever present and that is enough for any true art lover.
This is the story of how I ended up floating down the Nile in a leaky, wooden dinghy and had to be rescued by Sudanese fishermen.
Climbing down the steep brick steps to the muddy water of the Blue Nile below, the first thing I noticed was the floating jetty was neatly tucked away on the shore. The boats were still tied to it though and with a bit of clambering and a small jump it was still accessible to our party of six.
We were celebrating the breaking of fast one muggy Ramadan night, with a picnic by the famous waters of the river, Blue. Sudan has both the White Nile and the Blue, converging in the capital Khartoum.
Someone has the bright idea of climbing into one of the boats. We pick, amongst an array of motor boats, water homes and the like, a small, white, paint peeling dinghy. Immediately our shoes are soaked from the brown, murky water swooshing around inside the vessel and we laugh as it sways precariously back and forth, desperately trying to hold our weight.
Then someone has the even brighter idea of untying the boat. ‘Why not!’ we cry, and I think to myself, ‘What a great photo opp.’
As soon as the rope is untied the once sad, unassuming dinghy leaps into action. It pushes away from the ledge and catapults itself into the oncoming current. Still laughing we realise the paddles on the boat are actually just two long wooden sticks that fatten about two inches at the end. The guys heave and push and throw water about until we are spinning round and round like a ballerina, all the time rushing further away from the shore and faster along the Nile.
There is a point here, were the laughter fades away and we gaze around at the dark rippling waters sprayed with reflecting specks of gold from the lights on Tuti Bridge. The giant egg-like shape of the Corinthian Hotel (formerly Gadaffi Hotel, but recently changed) looms in the distance and the air is filled with the shrieks of tiny birds and bats. The full moon lights the dusty sky and for a moment a look of awe crosses every face huddled on the creaky, wooden dinghy.
And then, reality: ‘Shit! How do we get back? Guys row in time!’ More sploshing of water around, more spinning, desperate grabs at passing reeds and tree branches, more laughter, although this time there is a hint of anxiety in it. What we don’t know at this stage is that the jetty was tucked away because of a no-row policy in place. After rains the Nile expands rapidly, stirring the thick, gloopy mud to the surface. It is extremely dangerous to swim at this time as the mud weighs down on people and can pull them under. It is fortunate none of us got in the water, although it was heavily discussed. Turns out later, the reason for not swimming was due to my good friend wearing a thong. A thong may have saved her life.
The Nile is filled with sediment washing down from mountainous regions (the Blue Nile starts in Ethiopia, the White through Uganda, as far down as central Africa) and bringing with it nutrients and minerals that are integral to desert civilisations such as the Sudan and Egypt. It can be said, that these civilisations existed for hundreds of years purely on the fertile sediments flowing in from the Nile.
It is this, life-sustaining sediment, which could have easily drowned the lot of us.
A fishing vessel from Tuti Island, warned by our anxious picnickers back on the shore, hurries out to meet us. They have a large boat with a roaring motor, which still struggles against the heavy current of the Nile. We bring back our now water logged dinghy safely to shore and apologise to the owners, who accept with gracious good faith, our foolish endeavour.
Apparently next week we should prepare ourselves for transportation to our teaching destination outside of Khartoum. As this is the fourth week we have been told this, we are not overwhelmingly convinced of leaving the capital, but excited none the less.
Maybe I will miss the hustle of the chai stands at night, the ‘Tss Tss’ sound men make in the Souq when we walk by, the cries of ‘Money, change’ and ‘You, dollar, euro!’
Or maybe I will miss the plastic bags wafting down the street like a wave of jelly fish, the black, smelly liquid emitting smells only just able to ignore, but I don’t think so.
I will certainly miss the strange little plant I have watered daily and tenderly touched each tacky new leaf as it unfurls. I will, of course, miss the friendships formed with the other volunteers, our ‘in’ jokes-of which we have many, including: ‘traditional, Sudanese, Amazing.’
Laughing at the slight difference in pronunciation, spelling or semantics between the Australian, the English and the Americans.
I will miss all the hidden gems of Khartoum: The frog fountain at the Botanical Gardens, the Tammiya stall down the road, the forest of cracked earth and dead trees alive with monkeys early in the morning.
I will miss our Sudanese friendships; awkward, intriguing, superbly humbling and generous.
I will miss the flat, once despised, determinedly cleaned and now our home.