A lot of my initial, pre-trip fears disintegrated as soon as I arrived here. It may be that my apprehension of these new and unknown obstacles, along with the added anxiety of family members had spiralled into paranoia. The fears that I had discussed prior to my trip have, however, been replaced by other concerns.
The main danger, which I had failed to pre-empt, is walking through the streets here. As the pavements are either non-existent or used by vendors, people simply walk in the middle of the road. This requires a suitable amount of skill, both from the drivers and pedestrians, for dodging out of each other’s way. The drivers seem programmed to brake hard at any moment, though there have already been many occasions where I have been close to having my toes run over. Apart from this, the antiquated drainage system, constructed by the British, seems to consist of massive holes in the road, which, if you don’t pay careful attention to where you put your feet, you could disappear into at any moment. They are filled with dirty water, rubbish and often barbed metal, which I find alarmingly hazardous.
Of course it was impossible to envision my new role in society as a white woman in the Middle East. In Europe, I enjoy all the same freedoms of a man and feel in no way ostracized. In Sudan however, it is a different story. Here, I am a 2nd class citizen in society simple due to my sex. I had been warned about unwanted attention, and even the harassment and molestation of white women by Arabic men; of course, these cases are few and far between, but one must be wary of giving the men here any false impressions. Swap numbers with them or add them on Facebook and they will pester you nonstop; a mistake I have already made. This behaviour is all down to their misunderstanding of the Western world. Due to the portrayal of women in Hollywood movies, they have formed a twisted image of Western women as being promiscuous, and are keen to try their luck. A Sudanese contact also did not think twice about informing me of my new reputation here. I have found this amount of attention overwhelming so far and am trying to find ways to deal with it; so far ignoring it seems to be the best strategy.
On the other hand, I do possess one advantage in this culture, which automatically puts me in the circles of the elite, and that is the colour of my skin. It appears to represent wealth and one gains a surreal, “celebrity”-like status. As I walk through the streets, disguised behind my headscarf and dark sunglasses, anyone that catches a glimpse of my white skin will inquire into my well-being and welcome me to their country. People also constantly exclaim “khawaja”, as if they have just spotted a rare bird. Beggar children run after me asking for money, and adults ask in a more demanding tone of voice, as if my presence here obliges me to help them. This is difficult, as although I have led a privileged life compared to them, I have no money to spare at this moment and have come to Sudan to offer a different form of aid.
Yesterday, I visited Abdel-Rahman’s university with him to attend a lecture on English and African literature, taught by a female lecturer and active member of the feminist movement in Sudan. Entering the university, we were stopped by a middle-aged woman wearing a disgruntled expression. She looked me up and down with raised eyebrows, pointed and said something in Arabic. Apparently she had asked who I was and complained about my trousers and loosely-worn scarf. This was a pretty humiliating experience, especially as for my standards, I am trying hard to dress conservatively and in turn am being told that I am scantily clad.