Yesterday we went to Omdurman, one of the three parts that makes up the city of Khartoum, along with Khartoum proper and Khartoum North. The purpose of the trip was to see the whirling dervishes, who practice a branch of Islam that celebrates its faith through a unique ritual.
A bumpy bus ride took us over the White Nile to Omdurman, where we drove through the town for about quarter of an hour, observing the mud hut villages and starkly contrasting vast, painted villas with extensive plots of land behind them. Our guide, Abdel-Rahman, pointed out that the huge gap between rich and poor was clearly visible here, and that he had great respect for the underprivileged of the population, who live contented lives, free from resentment.
We drive into Souk Libya, a busy and bustling market with many second hand goods for sale: furniture, sewing machines; as well as large piles of watermelons and every type of nut you can imagine. We get out the bus and wander through the dirt roads, lined with buildings that are just one story high. We pass some sleepy cafes, with women outside frying some unidentified meat. A couple of these women approach us, enthusiastically greeting us and shaking our hands while simultaneously having some sort of heated discussion between themselves. They promptly burst into hysterics. It turns out that the meat they are cooking is camel meat, and we decide to sit down in one of the cafes to sample this delicacy. The meat arrives, looking appetizing, with a few halves of lime and a chilli sauce on the side. We dig in, being careful to eat only with our right hand. The meat is extremely tough; chewing each mouthful takes at least five minutes. But the flavour is not unpleasant; similar in fact, to beef. We end the meal with (will find out name later!), a mixture of yoghurt and 7up, which also goes down well.
After this, we decide to travel a little way by donkey cart; the main mode of transport on these streets. All seven of us clamber up onto the cart and the scrawny white donkey begins straining at his rains. We bumble along the road at walking speed, and children run alongside the cart, staring at us in wonder. We begin to feel a little like “khawajas on parade”. We reach what could pass as the town’s high street, jump off the cart and transfer our crew to an Amjad (taxi), which will take us to the Sufi parade. The potholed road results in a very bumpy ride, and as we pull into a graveyard and our destination, one of the boys regurgitates his camel meat.
During this ordeal, we notice a group of men marching towards us, singing, chanting and brandishing sticks. Luckily, this is what we had come for: a glimpse of the Sufi warriors. We watch in awe as they pass us by, and befriend one who lingers behind; he wears a long coat decorated with strips of coloured fabric, clearly intended for “whirling”. We ask to take a photo with him, and he obliges, showing us his party piece, which is to hold razor blades in his eye sockets while he chews on one in his mouth. We follow to where the parade has halted to form a crude circle, in the centre of which the leaders are dancing and chanting to a trance-like rhythm. The crowd observes them in quiet exhilaration, and begins to sway gently to the beat. Soon enough, they break into a rhythmic dance, and the circle begins a slow rotation. Like a celebrity coming to greet his fans, the imam passes through the crowd, blessing people with a perfumed liquid. Another man wafts pungent incense, which has a drugging effect. The trance speeds up, and “Allah” is chanted through speakers, cutting through the hubbub. A few men within the circle begin whirling, which no doubt fuels their trance-like state. This entire spectacle has a considerable hypnotic effect on me, and before I know it I am swaying along with the crowd. Under the bright orange dusk sky, I can almost feel the presence of Allah.
Later, I am told that Arabs from various strains of Islam will go to watch the Sufi festival, and that they do not take them particularly seriously: they have a reputation for being lazy and smoking hashish.
Note: After this excursion I became sick – not surprising considering all that we had consumed that day.