I squeeze myself into the back of a small bus in Dongola, my backpack strapped to the roof, and put my life in the hands of the bus driver as he cuts across the vast desert of northern Sudan. As with most towns in Northern State, Karima & Dongola both sit on the banks of the Nile, but the road that joins them cuts through vast swathes of nothing but desert as the river performs a big U-bend to the south. The only things breaking the monotony of sand & black rocks are the occasional, confidence-inspiring, shells of buses or blown-out tyres…
Karima itself is a small little town, with a lively souk at the heart of it. The town houses a railway station, but the tracks no longer support the rumbling wheels of locomotives; the influx of oil-revenue & subsequent investment in road building have replaced the trains by competing bus companies.
Arriving in the peak of the afternoon heat, as the sun reached its zenith, I once again had to endure the ordeal of locating the police registration office before I could dump my bag and nab a bed for the night. Despite Karima’s small size, they managed to hide it well; as I walked through an unmarked entrance into what seemed like a family’s garden, it was only the framed picture of President Omar al-Bashir hanging in a room that gave the game away. The local tea-ladies (who are prevalent throughout Sudan) kick me back into life with a spicy coffee, prepared on the side of the dusty street before I take a rickety bed in a dilapidated lokanda.
In town, I meet Mahmoud who, over the course of the following couple of days, in between contradictory talk of the corruption of the ruling NCP party & the benefits of incumbent president Bashir, would try to enamour me the ways of Islam. He runs a couple of mobile phone shops in town, having moved north from Khartoum, and is trying to save enough money to “escape” Sudan, pinning his hopes the (illegal) people trafficking routes of Ethiopia to Turkey, and then into Europe.
At night, sat outside his shop with a computer, he seems to hold the monopoly on the local music business. People arrive at his shop, hand him the SD card from their mobile phones to have it charged with a new selection of Arabic & western MP3s. Part of my reason for leaving Europe had been to evade the mindless consumerism that prevails on the high street; but here in a dusty African village, as people with little “spare cash” to spend hand over 5 SDG for a change of music to play through the tinny speakers, it seems it is perhaps innate to human nature. Mahmoud wants to go the other way. He can’t wait to “leave this goddamn country” and “get the fuck out”; each download of an MP3 takes him a step further to reaching his goal, although I question how many of his dreams will be realised as an illegal worker in a Greek restaurant… But in the mean-time, as a Muslim, he will accept his fate & destiny — it is “God’s will” — and he would pray that I would find enlightenment in Islam.