Typical campsite. This photo was taken just before sunset about 10 days earlier not in the Nubian Desert not far from Wadi Halfa in the North.
We drove 50 more meters to immigration, a building surrounded by people, presumably Ethiopian who were trying to get into the Sudan. Inside the walls were lined with more waiting people, almost all women, who looked like they had been there a long time. There were no smiles. No one was talking. Some had their chins on their hands and elbows on knees. Some tried resting their heads against the walls, some rested on each other. They were the faces of the exhausted. Whatever their situation, we wouldn’t find out. We hoped that it wasn’t a foreboding sign of a long wait to come. We had no way of knowing how indigenous peoples of neighboring countries were being treated. We were certain we were being treated differently, though not necessarily better. There were always different lines, different signs, and when officials saw coming they’d wave us in different directions. At every Islamic country, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Sudan border officials dipped into our pockets for just about any sum they wanted. Rarely did an individual request exceed $100 but when all requests were added up it cost up to $250 to get into a country and sometimes $50 to $100 to get out. The process was also complex and often required a good fraction of the day. It was so complex that there were “handlers” needed to guide us through the process. At the end, we would not only have our pockets picked by the government bureaucracies, but also but the handlers themselves who expected good size tips for their services. Getting out of an Islamic country was also a lengthy, detailed process, but not quite as long as upon entering and the fees, though usually significant, were less. Besides tips there were other requests of a different nature. I remember the nice looking, affable guy from customs in Aswan Egypt who said in his broken English, “Ok, now, all bags there.” He pointed to the x-ray machine at the side of the road. “Everything?” I asked. “Everything.” Then I opened up the back which was full of boxes and bags,containing food, spare parts, clothes, water, books, etc, and pointed. “Ok. You help me. No x-ray.” I put $20 into his hand. “Mabsoot?” I asked. Happy? He had a big smile. “Don’t tell anyone,” he said emphatically. Then turned his eye towards the other Kickabout vehicle. “That’s for them, too,” I said. He looked momentarily disappointed. “Habibi (lover,literally), don’t worry.” He smiled widely. We both drove on to the next office.
Anyway, at the Sudani immigration office there were was a big, mean, ugly looking guy behind a barred barrier. He looked like he was in jail but he had a uniform on. He stuck his hand through a gap in the iron barrier and wiggled his fingers. “Passports?” we asked. He nodded without a smile. We tried to loosen him up with some salutations. No dice. He just grunted. We gave him all five passports. He did his paper stamping dance. Ten minutes later he handed them back, then looked away. We stood there, a bit stunned. No fee request? We looked at each other. “Halas (finished)?” I asked, somewhat loudly to get his attention since he was already on to new business. “Halas.” He grunted, as before, and waved us out the door.
Amazingly getting out of the Sudan cost us only10 dollars, a customs fee, which was the least we paid leaving any islamic country. We were going to get out of the Sudan for only $10.00. Wow! We felt a bit ecstatic, almost disoriented, like we got away with something.
We drove our vehicles up the 45 degree dirt embankment to reach the tarmac, passed a final checkpoint, and entered Ethiopia. We had left the Sudan.
As much as we enjoyed, indeed, we were ecstatic, over much of our experience in the Sudan, the ponderous, uncomfortable and repetitive experiences with officials, the suffocating heat, the constant haze of dust in the air that blots out the sun as it rises and falls in Khartoum and in eastern Sudan weighed on us. There is a sense that this is a world under heavy scrutiny and control. The few women who publicly show themselves rarely smile. Indeed you can’t see the faces of many of them anyway because they are covered. They are like ghosts, spirits of the dead, who walk about the living, mute, expressionless, passive and non-interactive. The only exception were the Nubian women. Not all, but many, would smile and engage us. At first, I found it so odd I was concerned. “Should I give them a hush, warn them of their indiscretion to prevent any repercussion?” I wondered. Perhaps the Nubian woman, like Nubia itself, never fully embraced the suffocating premises of Islam. I’ve talked about this in another though unreleased blog, “Getting to Wadi Halfa,” so I won’t repeat the details here. Suffice it so say that Nubia’s resistance to Islam has hundreds of years of history to it. It was also interesting that in two trips to Nubia I received four proposals of marriage from Nubian women. They were strange, out of the blue and impromptu, but the recurrence of the experience brought a sense of seriousness to what seemed whimsical, jocular insanity. In a world where a woman feels restrained, repressed and controlled, she would do anything to escape, even offer herself in marriage, quite randomly to a passing tourist who is as different from her as night is from day. The first time it happened, I thought it a cute and flattering joke. However, after multiple events I realize that when these women see tourists passing through their world appearing to be totally free to do whatever they want to do, they feel hope that maybe it could possibly be like that for them. It as a desperate request for help by one who feels trapped, confined, and impoverished by her circumstance. The frequent chants from the mosque remind the traveler that the people of Islam are constantly encouraged to follow the word of Allah, but those encouragements extend beyond the theological. In an Islamist state where a violation of islamic law by a woman can lead to banishment, disfigurement or even death, the effect on behavior is palpable and the net result is the near complete dehumanization of the woman, at least in public. Ruthless is the word that comes to mind. As they treat the people of Darfur, so the Sudani government and Islamic fundamentalists are willing to treat humans, dehumanize them, to further their own ends. Even genocide is an option in a society where the interests of privileged individuals is permitted under the law, a law where the racial biases of Arabs and the sexual whims of Islamic men are intertwined in complex ways with the highly interpretable tenants of their religion. In such circumstances, anything is possible, because evil has no limits when it is permitted by the word of Allah, their God. Yet, in spite of the fact that they are obviously in a controlled, even watched environment, the people of Sudan are the country’s saving grace. It may surprise the reader to hear that we felt safe and welcome. When we were asked to not camp in the middle of the Fao village, we didn’t take this as a break in the consistent pattern of warmth and hospitality we had been shown. It was an anomalous situation and we took it as such. After all, the elders did agree for us to stay and the drunk insisted we stay in his house. It was only one man who voiced a concern and he only wanted us to move away from the center of the village.
When we crossed the border to enter Ethiopia there was an instant sense of a more relaxed and comfortable people. Most obvious was the presence of women everywhere in numbers equal to, sometimes exceeding men. Their faces were exposed, full of expression, and they walked freely about the roadside. Some women were holding hands with other women. Some with men. Some, actually many, were smiling, apparently enjoying the world they lived in. It was obvious that the women took it for granted that they could express themselves as they pleased. As we reached the higher elevations, we found the villages and towns filled with people, both men and women, strolling in the cool air of the late afternoon and early evening. It was a liberating feeling and reassuring to see.
Three school girls and a tea lady in Gondar. They asked me to take the photo after Maria and I stopped for some chai at the owner's (woman on left) roadside shop.March 2010