If you told me I would be at a souk, in a suburb of Khartoum called Kalakla, walking hand in hand down the street with a woman completely veiled in a Burqa… I might have laughed at you.
Let me explain. We took a bus into the suburb to meet Abdel, our friend from Dongola, who was visiting his brother. Finding the bus was not so easy – there are no bus stop signs. Local people just know where the buses stop so you have to ask around. The bus was an odd experience itself – no one was speaking. All you could hear was the engine roaring. When people wanted to get off, they just clicked their fingers or made pss pss sounds, like calling a cat.
When we got to the suburb, we met Abdel and Omnia again and it was like seeing old friends. We met Abdel’s brother and sister-in-law. The first thing that struck us was that they adhered to a much stricter form of Islam than the rest of Abdel’s family. His sister-in-law wore black from head-to-toe and all the women in the family covered their face completely except for a tiny slit in the eye. She greeted me warmly with a kiss on both cheeks and for Simon, gave a wave.
Of course, in true Sudanese style, they served us a delicious lunch. Simon ate with the men outside. It did feel awkward at first to speak to someone without seeing their face. While the men ate, I spoke to the ladies without their veils, where I felt more comfortable and Hadeel, the eldest daughter of the family made me feel at home.
Hadeel and her brother took us around the souk – the equivalent of a Friday night out. Watching her elegantly brush her hair, put on mascara and place her face veil so accurately on was hypnotizing. She gave me lipstick and we took a few selfies together before our night on the town.
The souk was Hadeel’s playground. There were so many different stalls with spices, herbs, food and fruit that Simon and I both have never seen before. There were colourful tobs, including one that Hadeel wrapped around me. She explained all the different types of Islamic dress on show and we tried different snacks. She was an excellent host.
After the souk, we took tuk tuks around to visit Hadeel’s family. Tanya spent time with the women, making chai and sitting in the women’s communal areas where they could let down their face veils and we could chat face to face. Simon chatted with the men, including one who was a meteorologist and studied in London.
I also learnt something new. In Sudan, men and women are not allowed to date. Your family will choose your partner when the time is right (there are exceptions, especially in Khartoum). Naturally, men and women cannot have any PDA (public display of affection) between them. However, PDA between two women or two men is very common. You can often see men holding each other around the shoulder or women holding hands.
Even though we were strangers, they did not treat us any differently. Hadeel took my hand and held it in a way I had only done with men before. It was very unexpected and I was very moved by the sweet gesture.
It also forced me to address some of my prejudices. I took a hard look at myself and realised I did have prejudices. I have always thought of myself as an open-minded person but then I asked myself, why am I surprised by these kindnesses? Here I am, the odd one out, showing my long hair and uncovered arms and wearing pants. This is in a world where much of my own culture conflicts with hers, yet I am still being treated as a close friend, even a sister.
Make no mistake, my way of life is very different to her culture, her religion, her language. I should be an alien in her eyes. Yet, she accepted me as friend and family within a day of meeting her. Would I have done the same if the roles were reversed?
As a parting gift, she gave me a gorgeous dress which fit me perfectly but I sadly had to give it back due to the cycling trip. What people wear can be due to personal choice, circumstance or cultural pressures. No culture in the world is exempt from this. We all lie on a spectrum of modesty, which every culture defines for themselves. Whatever the reason, chances are there is an amazing person underneath the cloth who thinks, feels, breathes the same as you or I.
Unfortunately, we accidentally deleted all the photos taken. We also can’t show photos with a woman’s face. Sorry, but you’ll have to use your imagination for this one 🙂 For other photos from Sudan, see here.