Halgt Zikr in Omdurman

The White Nile separates Khartoum from Sudan’s largest city, Omdurman, which was the country’s capital during the brief Mahdist rule at the end of the 19th century. The capital was moved back across the Nile to Khartoum when the British brutally defeated the Mahdists at the Battle of Omdurman, heralding over fifty years of effective colonial rule, A traditional Muslim city, the atmosphere here is very different to that of the neighbouring capital, dotted with colonial architecture.

For visitors to the region, Omdurman is reputed as having the country’s largest souq, and every Friday, for the congregation of whirling dervishes practicing their devotion to Allah at the Hamed el-Nil mosque.

My first taste of Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam, was just three weeks previously, as the colourful Al-Tannoura Traditional Troup presented their choreographed performance in Cairo. Walking past the small cemetery at Hamed el-Nil, the chanting of la illaha ila-llah (“there is no god but Allah”) filled the air. The dhikr is a very different affair than the seated performance in Khan al-Khalili, as a large group of men dressed in white djellabas stood, almost trance-like, forming a large circle.

Dust filling the air as the ground reverberated with the beating of drums and the dervishes danced and whirled, “turning [their heart] away from all else but God”. Many carry ceremonial canes as they parade around the circle. Another devotee, in almost priest-like attire, scented the air with incense, before himself spinning barefoot on the dusty ground, his beads splaying out and smoke issuing from his hands.

Sudan—reputed for its adherence to Sharia law—and its people are heavily influenced by religion; the country is, by name, an Islamic Republic. Walking down the street at one of the five prayer times, the muezzin fills the air and swathes of men are out on the pavement kneeling towards Mecca. Yet the lives of normal people here are far from the strict, oppressive stereotypes that many hold in the West, this Sufi display being a facet of the story. The majority of women observe Islamic dress code, but their coverings are rarely muted burkas, often influenced by the traditional African toob, and they have no qualms about extending a hand to greet a scruffy looking foreigner.

At Hamed el-Nil, in a country where alcohol is forbidden by law, an occasional waft of marijuana floats by. Elsewhere in the capital, home-brewed merissa and erigi (a sorghum-based beer and a strong gin of fermented dates, respectively) can be obtained if one knows the right places to ask. A Sudanese friend described her compatriots as a very liberal people, “it’s just that they don’t like to show it”.

It is easy to dismiss these differences as a north-south divide, particularly pertinent with the current focus on the referendum scheduled for January 2011, where the people of the south will decide whether they wish to succeed from north. Yet with such a display in the heart of a traditional, Muslim city bordering the capital, I found the line is not so clearly cut.

» More images: Hamed el-Nil Sufis.