“HOW much for your fastest camel?” I asked the tall man with the large turban and the drooping mustache.
Abdrahman smiled at me. “Come,” he said, and hurried off behind a mud-and-stick shed. There, regally posed, with a golden coat, stood Abrusa.
Abdrahman lowered the camel to his knees and pointed to me. “You ride,” he said, waving a wooden switch in my face. With little choice I threw a leg over the great beast — and remembering Lawrence of Arabia — wrapped my left knee around the saddle horn and hooked my instep behind my other knee. Abdrahman snapped his switch, and Abrusa lurched to his feet. Suddenly we were tearing across the desert.
Abrusa had a smooth gait (for a camel), and after finally heeding my incessant yanking on the reins, he spun and returned to his master. Abdrahman greeted me like a proud father.
“For you,” he beamed, “only 5,000 pounds.”
In a world of troubled places, Sudan, Africa’s third largest country, has a reputation as among those most troubled. The mention of Darfur conjures immediate images of atrocity and starvation. Border and oil disputes with the newly created South Sudan have been perpetuating strife that has continued virtually unabated for more than 50 years. Late last month, the presidents of Sudan and South Sudan signed an agreement that is expected to lead to the resumption of oil exports, though just about everyone who watches the area closely expects tensions to continue.
No danger seeker, I’d come to Sudan with Will Jones, who, with his company, Journeys by Design, runs a guiding service to many of Africa’s top destinations. He was on an exploratory trip to Sudan, and I had come to tag along.
We were intent on exploring the remote — and safe — northern region of the Nubian Desert, clustered with more pyramids than Egypt and nearly unvisited by outsiders. But more than any particular destination, I was interested in the people. I was curious to see how they lived with so much strife for so long. I wondered what effect it might have had on them.
A hot, dry wind blew as I stood under a large mahogany tree on the banks of the Blue Nile in the heart of Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. Not far off to my left, at a bend in the river, was the confluence of the Blue and White Nile that would flow like an umbilical cord through the desert north to where we were headed, then into Egypt and eventually the Mediterranean. My first impression of Khartoum was of order and a cleanliness on the streets that I hadn’t often experienced in other parts of Africa. The roads were well paved and the ubiquitous plastic bags that litter so much of the continent were nowhere in sight.
“Believe it or not,” Will told me as we strolled along the river, “Sudan is a real emerging destination.”
But since South Sudan seceded in 2011, reliable tourism numbers for the two countries are hard to find. I saw only a handful of obvious outsiders during my entire stay. A report submitted to the International Council on Monuments and Sites indicated that just 6,000 tourists and visitors a year came to Meroe, the location of the pyramids.
We walked past taxi drivers kneeling beside their battered cabs on small rugs, supplicating themselves in prayer. Under a bridge, on a dirt plateau, dozens of low plastic tables and stools were filled with women in colorful dresses and head scarves, and men in short sleeves or white djellabas, drinking tea; many were smoking, all talking quietly. We took a seat at the informal cafe, and a small boy brought us two glasses of the oversweetened tea that was served everywhere in Sudan. In the water below, two men sculled up the river, their oars in unison, while up on the far bank an old man silently herded a dozen bony cattle.
“This is not what I expected,” I said.
Will nodded. “Quite peaceful, isn’t it?”
We headed over to Souk Omdurman, the city’s largest market. The narrow alleyways and covered passages swarmed with life. Old men sat beside piles of shoes and garlic and heaps of bananas. Young boys bent over sewing machines. Gas cans were filled with drinking water for anyone thirsty. An old lady served us tea, heaping three tablespoons of sugar into a tiny cup. Men swatted flies away from countertops covered in meat — a typical East African market lacking only the tension of similar bazaars I had experienced in Ethiopia or Tanzania.
Late in the day I headed alone deeper into the Omdurman. The streets were more chaotic, and dustier. Men were piled into the holding beds of small white pickup trucks that belched black smoke as they went. Donkeys pulled carts loaded with wood, or scrap metal. Outside the tomb of the medieval Sufi sheik Hamed al Nil, the late afternoon sun slashed across a dirt lot beside a dusty cemetery. An informal crowd was gathering.
From far off the drumming began. The loitering group settled itself into a circle, and soon a hundred men, some in crisp white djellabas with taqiyah prayer caps, others in multicolored robes and dreadlocks, entered the ring and began chanting, “There is no god but Allah,” over and over. Some men began to twirl; some rocked forward and back, some stepped in unison. One man hopped on one leg, his head thrown back, his eyes shut tight, another hurled himself down and writhed on the ground. These were the famous whirling dervishes in the throes of their devotion.
The chanting built, the drumming grew more insistent — this was the Friday evening dhikr, the rhythmic repetition of God’s name designed to bring the supplicant closer to direct contact with the almighty. A man in a leopard skin robe swung a large thurible from a rope, and smoking incense wafted into my face on the edge of the circle. As the chanting continued, a young man appeared next to me and began practicing his English. He said his name was Mahmound.
“How many wives do you have?” he asked.
“Just one,” I told him.
“Here we have two or three, four if you are a big man.” He spoke about how the Chinese had come to Sudan and were profiting, but the locals were not. He wanted to go to America. “To Miami Beach,” he said, “and Las Vegas. It is very beautiful there. Have you been? You are very lucky.”
There are about 200 pyramids at Meroe.
Then another young man wearing a long robe with a green skullcap came dancing over to the edge of the circle and sprayed me and several others with something from an aerosol can. For an hour the dancing went on, the Sufi holy men chanting, “God is alive, God is alive, God is alive,” with more and more urgency, until the sun set behind the tomb and suddenly, when the music and chanting was at its most hypnotic and orgiastic, it all stopped. People tumbled to the ground, turned toward Mecca, and gathered themselves in the evening prayer.
IN the heat of the next morning we drove north, staying close to the Nile. With the city behind, the vista was broad and flat, broken only by scrawny acacia trees. Blown truck tires littered the side of the road. Occasionally a lone figure atop a camel was seen in the distance. We camped out in rolling dunes. The desert was still and the night cold.
Dancing at the tomb of the Sufi sheik Hamed al Nil.
We drove over sand to Old Dongola. From the seventh to the 14th century, this was the center of the Christian kingdom of Makuria. Little remains except some stone pillars of the Coptic Christian Church, jutting up out of the sand. Large jars, scattered and chipped, lay nearby — how many hundreds, even thousands of years old were they? No one was at the site.
For a week, we crossed and recrossed the Nile, camping in the desert or staying in simple lodgings in small villages.
In Kerma we climbed its deffufa (Nubian for “mud brick building”) dating from 1500 B.C. — also deserted. In Karima, a bustling river town, I sat with silent and serious men smoking a hookah. We ate ful, the Sudanese staple of watery bean stew. A man welcomed me into his home. In a simple concrete room I perched on the edge of a metal cot under pink-washed walls as his young daughter poured me cup after cup of sweet tea — and then coffee. I left, wired from their generosity.
The Sudanese had little, but offered what they had. Perhaps it was northern Sudan’s nomadic history, an understanding that everyone passing through the desert was made equal and relied on one another for survival, or maybe it was the lack of alcohol in the country and the devoutness of their religion, or an acceptance that comes from struggling for so long, but I encountered a peacefulness that surprised me and belied so much of Sudan’s bloody history.
EVENTUALLY we circled back and came upon what will be Sudan’s primary tourist draw — if it is to have one — the pyramids of Meroe. They are far smaller than the Great Pyramids of Egypt, but the setting, the stillness and the scope of the Meroe site are what make it impressive. About 200 pyramids stand deserted amid the dunes — the tops of many of them were lopped off in 1834 by the Italian explorer Giuseppe Ferlini in the mistaken belief that riches were buried inside. At sunset and again at dawn I walked the deserted site.
“This is tourism in the foothills,” Will told me later as we watched the sun, an orange fireball, dive into the desert. “It’s an amazing opportunity. In 10 years, with the absence of control, places like this will get spoiled quickly.”
On the way back to Khartoum, dust rose from far off the road; we drove toward it. It was then that we came upon the camel market. Camels, nearly a thousand strong, had been gathered to be bought and sold. It was here that Abdrahman approached me.
“Those ones over there,” he pointed to an unhappy looking cluster nearby, “they are from Darfur, they make the best eating, they will go to Egypt. But these,” he pointed proudly to several handsome dromedaries, “these are from eastern Sudan, they are for racing. They bring the best price and will go to Saudi Arabia.”
Then he offered me a ride I could not refuse. After I dismounted I told him the price he demanded was too high. “What would I do with a camel in New York, anyway?” I asked.
Abdrahman nodded slowly and looked directly into my eyes. “Come,” he said gravely, and kicking camel droppings out of the way, we crouched down in the sand. “We will discuss this.”