Khartoum: A Recollection, Part 4

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“He peered at me through the rearview mirror, and replied, ‘Yes, Miss. Cigarettes and pens, one at a time, will feed his family for a couple of weeks.’ Although Bashir’s tone was calm and controlled, I sensed that he was keeping his feelings carefully in check, but they were made quite evident when, after driving a few miles through a largely deserted landscape, I sat up in surprise to see a beautiful building. ‘What is that building, Bashir?’ I asked. ‘That, Miss, is the tomb of Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, the Mahdi who killed Lord Gordon.’”—Helen Noakes

Waking Point

By Helen Noakes

Tomb of Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, the Mahdi, in Omdurman, Sudan.
Tomb of Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, the Mahdi, in Omdurman, Sudan. (Image: Petr Adam Dohnálek / Wikipedia Commons.)

Editor’s Note: Read the first three installments of Noakes’ “Khartoum: A Recollection” here, here, and here.


SAN FRANCISCO California—(Hubris)— March 2024—Before dawn, the next morning, I was summoned to the hotel entrance by the driver hired to take me, the British contractor, and his wife to the Omdurman Souk.

The driver, a young, lanky, easy-going Sudanese man who spoke English, greeted us politely, introduced himself as Bashir, and got behind the wheel. The contractor huffed, making it clear that he disapproved of the fact that the driver hadn’t opened the car doors for us, then ushered me and his silent, sullen wife into the back seat; he sat next to the driver in the front passenger seat.

While the wife remained taciturn throughout our journey, her husband spoke, almost incessantly, about the shortcomings of the Sudanese, the terrible conditions in the country, and the hardships he and his wife had endured while staying at the hotel in “one little room.”

After trying to change the subject several times and failing, I resigned myself to silence as well, every so often stealing glances at the driver, who, I was quite sure, was insulted by the contractor’s diatribe, and gazing out the window.

Even at that early hour, Khartoum was waking up. Street vendors appeared, laying their wares on cloths spread out on sidewalks and waiting for likely customers. When we stopped for pedestrians, I noticed one vendor who had carefully arranged cigarettes and a few ball point pens in a neat row on a colorful sheet. Recalling Joseph’s awe at the number of pens on the dining table, I interrupted the contractor and asked Bashir if the vendor was selling the pens and cigarettes individually.

He peered at me through the rearview mirror, and replied, “Yes, Miss. Cigarettes and pens, one at a time, will feed his family for a couple of weeks.” Although Bashir’s tone was calm and controlled, I sensed that he was keeping his feelings carefully in check.

But Bashir’s feelings were made quite evident to me when, after driving a few miles through a largely deserted landscape, we came upon a beautiful building. Interrupting the Brit in the front seat yet again, I asked, “What is that building, Bashir?” 

“That, Miss, is the tomb of Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, the Mahdi who killed Lord Gordon.” 

Bashir delivered this information with a little smile, again, glancing at me through the rearview mirror. I couldn’t help but chuckle and was delighted that Bashir’s wily little jab had silenced the contractor, whose wife made a huffing sound of disgust.

We arrived at the Souk just as dawn was creeping up on people setting out their wares and opening their shops. The heat was inching towards unbearable. A man sleeping on a cloth laid out on the ground sat up, greeted us with a huge grin, and said something in Sudanese.

Bashir, who may have been instructed to do so, was walking beside me. “What did he say?” I asked.

“He bid you all good morning,” Bashir replied.

The British contractor and his wife walked by the man without acknowledging him.

“Καλημέρα,” I said, returning the man’s smile. Bashir leveled a quizzical look at me. “It’s Greek, for ‘Good morning,’” I explained.  “But what possessed me to speak Greek, Bashir, I cannot say.”

Bashir laughed. “Perhaps to distance yourself from English?” Again, there was that little, wry dig, which I found amusing.

We walked past a meat market, and had to step over a rivulet of blood, evidence of recent slaughter. “It’s the only way to ensure that the meat is fresh.” Bashir seemed apologetic. “No refrigerators here, you see.”

“Logical,” I replied and, after walking some distance away, stopped at a vendor who’d set out his wares on a white sheet, the wares being beautiful amber beads and necklaces. The man wore white robes and a turban and sat with a ramrod straight spine, gazing steadily ahead. He made no move to summon customers. There was a dignity and stillness about him that drew my attention, and, so did his display.

“These are beautiful,” I commented, as I bent to look at a string of large amber beads. “Please ask him how much.” Bashir translated the amount, which came to something akin to $25. “May I look at these?” I pointed to a string of three beads; the largest being about two inches in diameter, the other two about one and a quarter inches. The vendor nodded, and I wondered if he understood English or if my admiration and pointing made my request evident.

Examining the beads, I decided upon buying them, and turned to Bashir. “How are we handling payments?”

“The hotel gave me money. I am to get receipts,” he replied.

“Then, please indicate on the receipt that this is a personal purchase. I’ll reimburse the hotel.”

“Bargain with him, Mrs. Noakes,” the contractor said.

“No. The amount is reasonable, by any standard,” I replied, tucking the string of beads into my bag while Bashir paid the vendor.

Food cover bought from a northern Sudanese woman at the Omdurman Souk, Sudan.
Food cover bought from a northern Sudanese woman at the Omdurman Souk, Sudan.

We continued walking past shops displaying household items. I noted the stacks of paper products and canned goods bearing Chinese writing. So they’re here as well. Glancing around, I was disappointed at not finding any interesting Sudanese goods and asked Bashir if there were a section of the souk which sold rugs, fabrics, pottery, and such. He replied that the only thing he could think of that came close to what I was looking for were the baskets made by Sudanese women, and directed me towards a tented marketplace. Hanging on the tent walls behind several stands laden with baskets of all shapes were round woven food covers. All the wares featured artful geometric patterns in brilliant colors. I was impressed by the sophistication of the color combinations.

Women in multi-colored Sudanese saris sat behind their table displays, quietly examining us as we walked by. One flamboyant lady, with tribal scars on her face, eyes flashing merrily, stepped up to me and, smiling broadly, spoke very rapidly. She looked me over, reached for my silver earrings, and touching them lightly with a finger, wagged her head in approval. Bashir laughed as soon as the woman began to speak. I glanced at him and joining in their jollity, saying, “Bashir, there is an international language when women admire each other’s finery, but I would appreciate a translation.”

“She says that she likes your style and can tell you have good taste,” he replied, “introduced herself as Jamila, which she asked me to tell you means ‘elegant,’ and wants to know your name.”

“I’m Helen, and you can tell Jamila that her name does her justice.” Jamilla chortled at Bashir’s translation. “And please tell her that I like her beautiful yellow sari and her lovely baskets very much.” As soon as Bashir translated, the woman clapped her hands in appreciation, and pointed to some of her wares. I indicated two large food covers of intricate design, and a straw carpet runner whose reverse side looked like a modern weaving worthy of display.

Jamilla continued speaking and pointed to Bashir to translate. “She says that these baskets are a woman’s industry, a way for them to help their families and that she thanks you. I nodded, told Jamilla that I was pleased to see women thrive, and that she was an excellent businesswoman. We parted with smiles and waves, and Bashir helping me carry my purchases.

Basket weaving in Darfur, Sudan: a woman’s industry.
Basket weaving in Darfur, Sudan: a woman’s industry.

The drive back to the hotel was uneventful. Mercifully, the contractor and his wife were quiet. Having bought nothing, they seemed preoccupied with their own thoughts.

Bashir helped me get my purchases to the manager’s office, where I asked that they be packaged for transport to Athens when the time came for me to leave. I thanked him, we shook hands and said our good-byes.

“It seems to me, Miss, that you’ve seen many sides of Sudan today,” said Bashir, flashing once more his wry little smile. I could only agree.

Helen Noakes is a playwright, novelist, writer, art historian, linguist, and Traditional Reiki Master, who was brought up in and derives richness from several of the world’s great traditions and philosophies. She believes that writing should engage and entertain, but also inform and inspire. She also believes that because the human race expresses itself in words, it is words, in the end, that will show us how very similar we are and how foolish it is to think otherwise. (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)

One Comment

  • Dennis Hanshew

    I’ve enjoyed reading your Khartoum series, especially the description, and dialogue, of the Sudanese characters. Though their dialogue is limited, it is a revelation of their character as in more is less and less is more. I realize that your Hubris reflections are a personal accounting and, necessarily so, written in first-person akin to a memoir or diary. In these four installments, and in many of the stories you have told me in our conversations, I see short stories. And the short stories I see are written in third-person. I am always keen to have the narrative and dialogue define the plot themes and characters. By removing the immediate self from the point of view, the impression is more observed than dictated and, as a consequence, more left to interpretation, more mysterious, perhaps more magical. If the narrator is to be personified, her character/personality/beliefs/opinions/morals/prejudices can all be revealed in third-person. When thinking of short stories set in Africa I immediately go to Paul Bowles. Most of his short stories are told in third-person, although not omniscient, revealing only the thoughts of the main character. Helen not telling the humorous story; instead, that red-headed woman laid up in an Athens bedroom and unable to walk, trying to explain to her distraught husband, unseen in the kitchen, how to cook. It is always easier to psychoanalyze someone else rather than ourselves. We may, similarly, be able to get to the heart of ourselves as the main character if we approach from a distance. Just my odd perspective told in not-so-charming first-person!