M.E. has made me super sensitive to any drugs – way back in Congo in 2013 when I started taking malaria prophylactic medication, I was unable to even take a ¼ of a doxycycline pill because they made me feel so out of it. Yet Sampson was cheerfully swallowing a whole one daily with zero side effects.
But these typhoid meds were next level. On day 5 Sampson said “It’s like having an E every day for 15 days. Even I never tried to do that!”. I’m 15kg lighter and a helluva lot weedier than him, so you can imagine the effects they were having on me…
Abd Alsalam took us to the restaurant of his good friend Mustafa Makky. Samakna means “our fish” in Arabic, is open seven days a week and serves “the best fish in Khartoum“. I wasn’t expecting the magical atmosphere engendered by the boma-like design, the rich red and turquoise walls, the purple and crimson floor cushions, the twinkly fairy lights and intoxicating fumes of scented bakhoor. I was enchanted by the display of black and white photographs which provided a fascinating glimpse into 1950s/60s Khartoum (post-independence, before an Islamic government was established) including shots of President Abboud visiting the Kennedys and jiving Sudanese youngsters looking fly!
The food was fantastic and the boys fell on it as if they hadn’t eaten in weeks. The delicious platter of grilled and fried Nile fish and warm flatbreads was complemented with tahini sauce, tomato relish and piles of fresh rocket. Best of all was the fresh lemon and mint juice which is what Zola and I will cherish most in our memories of Khartoum (though true to form, sweet-tooth Sampson preferred the choc milkshake).
Sampson attempted to return the hospitality by entertaining the staff with an impromptu magic show – Mustafa was so delighted by how he made his cigarette disappear without burning a hole in his shirt, he insisted he came back the next day to show the next shift!
After Abd Alsalam left, we chilled out in the astro-turfed café area. Samakna also serves the best stories in Khartoum! Mustafa’s great grandfather was the Emir Osman Azrag, a prince who famously resisted Kitchener’s campaign to retake Sudan and fought British and Egyptian forces at the Battle of Ferkeh in 1896, escaping along the Nile. In the 1930s, his grandfather Makky Osman Azrag was president of Khartoum’s most prestigious football club Al-Hilal ‘the Crescent’ – check the photo above.
Mustafa told us his fascinating life story: born in 1964, after studying chemistry he spent 3 years researching cottonseed oil before venturing overseas; 10 years as a taxi driver in New York, 3 years in South Korea importing cars, 3 years as an interpreter at a TV station and a volunteer translator at the Refugee Support Network in Manchester.
He told an horrific tale of his arrival in UK, how he bought a car and had the windows smashed repeatedly by a gang of local kids aged around 9 years old. His second child had just been born and he said at that point, as a brown-skinned man, he didn’t feel safe there. The facts were so appalling, I felt I should apologise. It was such a stark contrast to the effusive welcome we received at the hands of every Sudanese person; such treatment is the total antithesis of their culture and yet THEY are the ones villified internationally?
We slept parked on this main road and felt completely safe. In a Muslim city, no alcohol means no threat of drunken idiots messing about in the middle of the night, banging on the sides of the truck or climbing on the roof as we’ve experienced in other capital cities. It was most reassuring.
Mustafa is an unstoppable optimist. As well as starting a second restaurant in Burri a couple of years before, he’d just launched a travel agency and was about to marry for the third time. Like his forebears, ‘giving up’ didn’t seem to be in his vocabulary!
He took Sampson to do his stunts for his Syber Travel & Tourism staff. Nisreen Edris and Nada Khadifa were delightedly aghast at Sampson’s sorcery. After he’d performed all his tricks, making the red cloth, a pinch of salt and then a cigarette disappear, they were still wanting more. Sampson jokingly suggested “give me blood” and without hesitation, Mustafa offered to donate. That sums up Sudan – just ask, and they will give!
The next day we drove to the second Samakna for more waste vegetable oil and another wonderful meal. Mustafa’s sister-in-law Jamila took us to visit her house. Her superb collection of sofas – no less than 4 super plush suites – and bowls of sweets showed the central importance in Sudanese life of always being prepared to offer hospitality to extended family and friends. Such luxuriousness was a million miles from the truck!
Jamila’s son, Mustafa’s nephew, is the manager at Samakna 2; four of Mustafa’s seven siblings and many cousins are on his team. Greetings to supervisors Samah and Fatima!
As well as donating 180L of WVO, Mustafa spoiled us with 3 meals and dozens of juices. He even pressed carrierbagfuls of crisps and pot noodles on Zola. But the greatest gift of all arrived ten minutes after I had finished telling Mustafa the sad story of Lucky’s demise. We said goodnight, walked outside to the truck and there was a skinny kitten, just sitting waiting for us.
It seems even Sudanese cats are more loving and giving than the average. Never have I had a kitten walk towards me. When I crouched down, she came up and sidled along my thigh; when I nuzzled her head, she purred and lifted her face towards mine. It was like the spirit of Lucky was speaking to me.
Zola dashed to get the cat nibbles out and she did the same to him. We were all immediately besotted! Our stray kitty ate, drank, stretched out and went straight to sleep – immediately at home! We named her Little Miss Stripey Pyjamas or PJ for short. She was a bit sick at first, sneezing for 24 hours, but seemed resilient and definitely more tolerant to the heat than Lucky. No open-mouthed panting for this tiger.
At the time I wrote:
There is no doubt PJ is an African cat. French mademoiselle Lucky would turn her nose up if there was a speck of dust on the surface of her water bowl. PJ’s like “Is it wet?” and dives in. She also makes a lot more noise. A LOT. She reminds me of Ruby at 6 months, who couldn’t speak but had 15 different demanding tones depending on what she wanted: food, toy, poo.
We were due to do an interview at Vision FM to thank our sponsors and Nile Riders, but it proved difficult to find the radio station because there was no signage. Once we identified the building, the staff explained this was in case of a coup, to make it harder for rebel forces to take over. (A reminder, this was a policy of longstanding dictator Omar al-Bashir in March 2018; his overthrow a year later proves he was far from paranoid.)
Sampson had a 2 hour interview with dynamic and freakishly talented DJ Rawan Alzain (see pic!). She and her Sudanese/Mauritian colleague Sarah Hamid were beside themselves in the face of his disappearing cigarette trick; Rawan was determined to know the secret and wouldn’t be put off. Her bolshy persistence marked her as a soul sister – as did her adoration of Zola (the feeling was mutual). Off air, she shared that as a 3rd year medical student, she got kicked out of her first university for peeing in the back of the arrogant principal’s car!
I loved Rawan and Sarah’s questing minds – they told us about Afro-explorer Mario Rigby who had just walked across the continent, and the fascinating story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American mother of five who died in 1951 from cervical cancer aged only 31. Tissue samples taken without her consent led to the discovery of her immortal cell line ‘HeLa’ whose mass production – 50 million metric tonnes since the 1950s – enabled the development of the polio vaccine, research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation, IVF, cloning (and even Covid-19).
There is a book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and a movie, starring Oprah Winfrey as her daughter Deborah, revealing how her case was a turning point in the field of bioethics. While starting to write this up, I heard a BBC World Service Forum programme on her, as it was 100 years since her birth on 1st Aug 1920.
I don’t know how Sampson was managing to drive, and I don’t know how we did any school this week. I was so out of it that, until a calendar reminder popped up on my laptop, I even forgot that it was my birthday the following day.
Monte had turned up few days before Sampson’s birthday; PJ appeared a few days before mine and was the best present I could have hoped for. I was shocked to receive other gifts – a Sudanese cotton wrap from Hub, a birthday card in French from Zola apologising for some early morning stroppiness. Awwwww.
That Friday 16th March 2018, we’d been invited by Rawan to share a meal with her friends, but were delayed after some of the WVO we were picking up from the Burri branch of Samakna spilled on the roof. It was the 8th day of our meds and Sampson and Zola were feeling too nauseous to eat – an unheard of occurrence. It was ridiculously hot and I was feeling so uncomfortable already, never mind feeling awkward about being late. I was sweaty, almost hallucinating and embarrassed I couldn’t focus – I’d like to apologise to Rawan’s friends for being unable to remember anybody’s name.
I felt completely unequal to the task of social interaction but Sampson coped by immediately dubbing three highly educated and glamourous sisters sitting next to him, two of whom lived overseas, ‘The Sudanese Kardashians’.
Haitham Balla Saeed, lawyer husband to the eldest sister, told me a wonderful story of Sudanese “aggressive hospitality”. His car broke down in a rural area and ended up with two flat tyres. So a guy with a donkey cart gave him his wheel “because you need it”. Haitham returned two days later with a new tyre for him and was forced to stay for breakfast and dinner. He said such was the Sudanese way – that’s it’s completely usual for people to block the road during Ramadan, to stop and insist that you eat with them.
There was another conversation that stuck with me. One of the ‘Khartoum Kardashians’ who was olive skinned, described herself as ‘yellow’. In the face of our consternation, she went on to explain that Sampson’s complexion would be described in Arabic as ‘red’, Zola’s hue ‘green’ and Haitham’s (the darkest-skinned person at the table) ‘blue’. This seemed a bizarrely complex apartheid-era definition to me, and later I sought to understand why ‘green’ seemed to be the new black.
While documenting the pernicious influence of skin bleaching creams in South Sudan, this 2018 Al Jazeera article explains the historical basis of prejudice against darker, Christian southerners by lighter-skinned northerners of the Muslim ruling class since the time of slavery and colonialism.
This devastatingly illuminating paper Green is the Colour of the Masters by the venerable diplomat and scholar Francis Mading Deng confirms this internalised preference of ‘Arabic’ lightness over ‘African’ darkness. Deng quotes Al-Baqir al-Afifi Mukhtar, who provides an even more nuanced perspective on the complexities of Sudanese colour consciousness and stratification in The Crisis of Identity in the Northern Sudan:
“The first color in rank is asfar. This literally means “yellow”, but is used interchangeably with ahmar to denote “whiteness”. The second in rank is asmar. This literally means reddish, but it is used interchangeably to describe a range of color shades from light to dark brown. This range usually includes subdivisions such as dahabi (golden), gamhi (the color of ripe wheat), and khamri (the color of red wine). The third in ranking is akhdar. This literally means green, but it is used as a polite alternative to the word “black” in describing the color of a dark Northerner. Last and least is azrag. This literally means “blue”, but it is used interchangeably with aswad to mean “black”, which is the color of the abid (slave).
In order to avoid describing self as aswad (black), the collective Northern consciousness renamed them akhdar (green)… Whereas a very dark Northerner is only akhdar, an equally dark Southerner is bluntly aswad (black).”
In his book War of Visions, Deng explains that “Sudanese passports never describe the holder as “black.” The description used for the overwhelming majority of the holders would be “green,” the standard color of the nation in official Northern eyes. Indeed, green is seen as the ideal Sudanese color of skin because it reflects a brown that is not too dark, giving associations with black Africa and possibly slavery, and is not too light, hinting at gypsy (halabi) or European Christian forbears, the infidel Khawajas.”
Phew. Akhdar brings a whole new layer of meaning to greenwashing. I found it unutterably sad that historically the Sudanese have been made to feel as painfully at the mercy of status through skin colour as South Africans. Moreover, stories like Simon Deng‘s show that the effects of slavery and prejudice are far from in the past.
Back at the table, we were being treated to a birthday feast by our generous hosts.
Rawan’s friend Rawan el Gurashi (married to the Kardashians’ brother Ahmed) was an amazing artist, who drew the design of the Sudanese queen on her T Shirt. If you want to order one, contact rawang at hotmail.co.uk!
Before we left, Sampson bonded with Cockney-accented boss Big Mo a.k.a. Mohamed Elin. His story sounded like a movie script waiting to happen: his Dad was a sugar merchant, so Mo was born in UK but grew up in Khartoum. His teenage shenanigans were causing his parents to pull their hair out, so after attending a wedding in London, they dumped him there aged 16 with nothing but his passport. He was homeless for 3 months, didn’t speak English, didn’t understand about signing on. He finally got a cash job with an Egyptian working in a storeroom. Within 6 weeks he was given the keys to the shop and became manager. By the late 80s, he was working as a City and Guilds painter and decorator and became a Sudanese Loadsamoney: bish bosh, “living it large” with more than £2000 a week spending money. After spending 23 yrs in UK, he came back to Khartoum to fulfil his dream of opening his own restaurant: Alasyad.
That evening, I ate plain popcorn for supper because I couldn’t face food. Sampson was up 6 times in the night with violent diarrhoea, and looked very pale and clammy. All of us had passed black stools the last couple of days. His Google search induced mild panic – was it internal bleeding? Did we have drug-resistant typhoid? Or worse, already perforated spleens? (Looking back, it was more likely Sampson was paying for the dodgy chocolate icecream I caught him bolting in a shop on the afternoon of my birthday!)
We arrived at the Soba Medical Hospital on a public holiday so all the doctors were away. It was 50˚C outside so we decided not to charge round trying to find an alternative but just wait in the relative breeze of the open carpark. Mustafa and Abd Alsalam came riding to the rescue like a cavalry of Sudanese Supermen in a 4×4: the delivery of another meal and Samakna’s fresh limonana juice was an absolute lifesaver.
Mustafa had offered to change some money for us, but when he gave me 1000SDG, was reluctant to receive his due. I had to force $30 on him, saying “Please, take it – you’ve done so much for us already! And England owes you!”
Sampson was in the clinic at 8am, then took Zola back in for a double check – the lad turned out to have the highest typhoid load. I spent the rest of the day fixing his dreads – it gave Zola an excuse to crumple on my bed and doze off like when he was little and I’d work on his hair in front of a BBC ‘Women and Hats’ TV drama.
The prolonged assault of the antibiotics meant my organs were no longer coping, including my skin – I had a raised heat rash across my stomach. The boys were topless inside the truck but it was too risky for me to do the same, so we headed back to Vision Radio as Rawan had offered access to their aircon and pool table anytime.
While I sat under the huge fans in the pool room, posting the Albanian blog, Sampson spent hours in icy 16˚C aircon chatting to producer Waleed Wadidi, a supertalented multi-instrumentalist born in Saudi. Waleed has since provided both the music and production on this brilliant hit video ‘Tamees‘ (which means ‘bread’) by Sudanese rapper and comedian Flippter. After the Khartoum massacre, Flippter performed a moving tribute in English and Sudanese Arabic to those killed called Blue.
Vision Radio staffers Sarah, Moaied, Moneer DJ Moe and DJ Aboshama shared their brunch plates of eggs, beans and salad with the boys. I had to go to the truck to cook the last packet of gluten-free pasta from Italy – and within minutes I was dripping. It was proving impossible to keep my heat rash dry and aired.
On 21st March, after an insanely hot night, it was 40˚C at 6.30am. I walked up and down the alley in the shade, deliberately avoiding catching sight of those sleeping on mattresses in the basements of half-finished buildings. I didn’t want to be witness to their private wakings.
The Big Green Truck parked opposite the radio studios next to a tiny shack belonging to a family with five children: Mona aged 18, Awaan 14, Ali 12, Abdullai 10 and Mohammed 8. Each morning, they and their friends Iman 13 and Sito 4 would come and watch us do our exercises. Eventually they started joining in with me and playing games with Sampson. On our final day there, Mona had to go to school early to write an exam so she left us a letter in English and a gift of 2 biros in a sparkly case. I found this utterly humbling.
I dug out the jewellry I’d brought with me from SA to give as gifts and chose earrings and bracelets for Mona, beaded brooches and keyrings for the little brothers. After giving out the presents I asked for a group photo to remember them by, when a man drew up in a big car and shouted at Iman and Sito to go home. I tried to explain that we’d been hanging out together for days but he blanked me and drove off – fair enough, I looked like an exploitative white tourist taking a snap of cute brown children. Was I not?
At what point does a photograph become a tribute to a precious moment, culture or memory? Is it the amount of time or care taken to build a relationship with the subject that prevents a picture from taking liberties? Or is it intention alone that makes it respectful? I’m not sure I can articulate the difference, but you can feel it when you see it.
I saw Sand in my Eyes in Mustafa’s office and was mesmerised: at once a book, an exhibition and an exquisite artistic, poetic and historical record of Sudan before the 2011 separation of North and South, it took Eniko Nagy 5 years to complete. It is a beautiful love letter to the country and its people and I salute her extraordinary effort.
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