Sudan 1981

The first five stories of 2018 are all from a trip the bearded stranger made to Kassala in Sudan. Different characters tell their stories as they meet the stranger in different environments: a school, a courthouse, a coach, a dinner, a bedouin encampment.


I waved my sword in the air and shouted: ‘Asly; asly’. I pointed at myself with the sword, and looked at the black man to be sure his companion, the pale-faced bearded stranger, understood my Arabic. He did. My tribe, the Rasheida, is original, pure blood: it’s ‘asly’. We came here to eastern Sudan in the 18th century when there was drought and famine in what is now Saudi Arabia. We have kept our pure traditions, and we only allow the women to marry within the tribe to ensure the blood is pure.

Fatima brought the sick child out but we were disappointed to learn the white man wasn’t a hakim, a doctor, and could do nothing.  Nor was he one of those whites I remember from my youth: the ones with power to make things better for us. But when we discovered he had a camera we went into our tents to change into proper clothes. My clan has ten tents, poles stuck in the ground and covered with black or brown cloth, guy ropes stretching out to keep them in place.  These load onto our camels for when we move, but we stay here, near Kassala, for three months each year. The women came out in their best black dresses with red trimmings, their coloured veils covering their hair and going from their nose down to their navels. They wore their silver bracelets and numerous rings.

For the photograph of me, I danced around with my sword shouting ‘harb; harb’ (war!). Harb helps us stay pure, helps keep the wretched Hadendowa tribe away from where we take our goats to graze. The bearded stranger asked to look at my sword. He saw the maker’s name and read it out to me: G Perez of Verona in Italy. Also engraved on the blade was the Lion of Judah which showed that one of my ancestors had taken it from an Ethiopian warrior. Perhaps not everything about me is ‘asly’.