Sudan 1981

The bearded stranger and his friend were sitting on a wall looking at the green-coloured dome-topped tombs, and the dancing. The drumming was hypnotic, the cymbals crashed loudly.  In the middle of the open space some dervishes swayed wildly around a pole festooned with white and green flags. The foreigners moved to the rhythm, slowly or they’d have fallen off the wall. The crowd, which had mostly walked out from Omdurman for the Friday ceremony, began to move like a wheel around the pole, leaving space for the dancers in their middle. I pointed out to the foreigners the approaching lines of dervishes, wearing green jellabiyas (long cloaks) often with red stripes or patches of other bright colours. Some had long swords they waved above their heads; those in front carried a huge green banner called the tariqa.  Between the lines the drummers strode and more dancers pranced, all singing religious songs at full volume. These are the Ansar, the followers of the Mahdi, who collect here at the tomb of the venerable Hamad el-Nil every Friday to achieve (the stranger’s guidebook said) ‘ecstatic abandon’ through zhikr, or recitation of the names of God.

Omdurman dervishes 6.JPG


I took the strangers away after a while: sometimes foreigners aren’t welcomed at the festival if the frenzy comes upon the dervishes. I took them away from the good to the not so good: my favourite araaqi is sold not far from here. We walked down dusty lanes to a house with an open gate. The two young guards were so stoned or drunk they didn’t look at us. Mud walls surrounded an open courtyard in front of a house. I sat the strangers down at a table, where others were sitting, mostly silent, with bottles on their tables and water-pipes in their mouths. A fire was burning to keep the charcoal warm for the water-pipes, and an old hashashi sat there waiting to add hashish to the smokers’ pipes if they wished for it, or else, for a small tip, just to do all the puffing which was required to get the smoke flowing through the pipe.  Young ladies were sitting on the beds round the corner of the building and I beckoned one over. The bearded stranger stood up, anxious about what was going on and ready to leave, but the lady had a pure intent: she brought us a bottle, the liquid inside still warm from the still which was operating in the house. Araaqi is distilled from dates, and is illegal. Its not illegal because this is a Muslim country but because it often causes blindness. Many Sudanese drinkers start their day with asaliyya which is a lighter, honey-based spirit, and transfer to araaqi at about 6pm. Araaqi is slightly glue-y, burns pleasantly as it heads down to the stomach and leaves an aftertaste which is not unpleasant. We left when another young lady came over to the bearded stranger with no bottle and a different, impure, intent: ecstatic abandon of a different kind to that of the dervishes.