As a singer from Southern Sudan was swinging on stage at a concert for World Music Day in Omdurman, a Sudanese friend commented “What is he doing? We Sudanese don’t dance. Just stay still and sing”, giving an insight into her countrymen’s attitudes towards frolicking. Whilst I don’t whole-heartedly agree with her opinion, the city is lacking when it comes to evening entertainment. More importance is accorded to the people you are with than the activity that engages the group; people sit in homes or restaurants, or smoking shisha in cafés, talking. Night-clubs and dancehalls don’t exist.
For those accustomed to intoxication, Sudan—or at least Northern Sudan—is dry. Alcohol is illegal under the strict imposition of Islamic sharia law, applied in 1991. That is not to say it cannot be found. In expatriate parties around the city, beer will often flow, and if you know the right places to ask, locally brewed merissa (a muddy-looking sorghum-based beer) or ereegi (“gin” distilled from dates that can turn you blind) can be procured. Sat in a rather dubious Ethiopian café with a Darfuri I had met, I was offered Heineken (at extortionate prices) by his acquaintance; presumably smuggled from Ethiopia. Getting caught with the stuff will bring about a heavy penalty.
Excepting a couple of slips, I stayed on the dry-side of life. On the occasions where I succumbed, I was left the next day with much to regret, less from a hang-over, and more from the what-if, had I been caught. It didn’t cross my mind as I stumbled home, but waking in the morning to a text-message saying “Did you make it home safely last night, or are you in a police-cell in need of biscuits?” put things in perspective somewhat.
The problem, too, with alcohol-fuelled parties is that it often leads to an khawaaja-only crowd. Not always, but often. At one soirée, I was given a brief history of Sudanese parties.
“Six or seven years ago, we used to party all the time. We’d drive out into the desert, party ‘til dawn, and then come back in the morning.”
He explained that novel ways were devised to smuggle the alcohol out there. Not all Sudanese are Muslims, and not all those that are, don’t drink. At one point, my friend’s windscreen-washer reservoir was filled with whisky, with a tube feeding it discreetly into the dashboard. A concealed cup would be filled with liquor whenever the lever on the steering column was pulled to “wash” the windscreen.
There was a time when khawaaja parties would be left alone, and they could do whatever they wanted, I was told. Then came a period when the locals started to attend, too, and this caused problems. You can do what you like in your buildings, but keep it to yourselves. He was at a party when it was raided by the police; foreigners were lined-up on one side of the room, Sudanese on the other side. The former were warned, the latter carted off to the cells. My friend was given lashes, and for three years afterwards, had to register at the police station every month. “Now I don’t go to any more “big” khawaaja parties.”
Happily, at the smaller gatherings, there is still a good mix. I loathe the vision of the “ex-pat world”, with embassy staff stay holed-up in their compounds, not mixing with the society in which they ostensibly live.
So many nights were spent in other pursuits. Boats were hired on the Nile, everybody cooking and contributing to the buffet. We ate out often. Countless evenings were spent at Lord Café, drinking sahleb and smoking shisha.
Two Italian friends—il gatto e la volpe—made the social scene here. One raising the bar each time with home-cooked desserts, the other inspiring terrible singing as he strummed the guitar.
I was invited to traditional Sudanese weddings, trying to keep up with the traditional dancing. At the other end of the scale, I danced in the middle of a haboob (strong winds bringing sand from the desert) as techno blasted over the sound-system, a Sudanese friend DJing.
And then there were parties, the soirées…