Wearing a white skullcap, I decide to head out across Khartoum to explore the souq, or market, of Omdurman.
I figured wandering the endless alleys and side streets of stalls and shops would offer a little insight into the largest market of Sudan.
Before leaving my hotel, I ask the receptionist to write for me in Arabic the name of the area I was heading for. He writes what looks like scribbles to my untrained eye on a yellow piece of paper, hands it to me saying, “good luck,” as I walk out the door.
A few blocks later I find myself standing in the middle of the chaotic open air bus station in the heart of Khartoum, overwhelmed and wondering where to start. With a lost look on my face, I show the yellow piece of paper to one of the men calling out for passengers. He speaks to someone else and points, “Follow him, he will show you the right bus.”
I thank the man as he smiles and walks away.
Jumping on board, I find a seat in the crowded mini bus and offer a greeting to everyone. I know they are all curious. I can feel it in their eyes when they look at me. It’s not a bad thing, it just feels like I’m the only Caucasian tourist in town. I make a point to greet people first. It takes all the tension out of the air and creates an opening for dialogue.
A few people chat with me as we drive down the busy road. When the conductor comes to my area for the bus fare, I discover someone has already had paid for my bus ride. The man sitting next to me, leans over and says, “Welcome to Sudan.”
The bus arrives, I look at my compass to gain some kind of idea where I am and where the market is located and set off to see what is waiting to be discovered.
Walking down the narrow alleyways and side streets, I take a deep breath; the air has the smell of spices, teas and the busyness of daily life. Everywhere I walk, I hear the words “welcome” blurted out-loud from shop windows and doorways.
At the insistence of a group of men, I join them for a cup of tea. We talk about America, Iraq, Bush, marriage, Nebraska, and all the things they are always curious about.
Walking down one of the small streets, a huge man dressed in a traditional Muslim garment comes marching up to me and asks in a demanding voice, “What is that on your head?”
I bark back at him in a tone of voice that communicates why are you asking me this silly question and say; “It’s a hat.”
He smiles and says “Yes, you are right, welcome to Sudan.”
Everywhere I go people ask if I am a Muslim because of the hat. I wore it to keep the sun off my head and to make a small attempt to be respectful.
Walking down the streets I often hear people speaking out-loud; he’s from America and he’s Muslim. Apparently rumors were spreading fast. After several hours of exploring, I finally set off for home.
As I walk down a street, a police pickup pulls up and starts chasing three men standing across the street. One man jumps into an opening for a sewer and escapes. The other two are grabbed and thrown into the back of the pickup.
As the scene develops, I press the trigger of my camera as it hangs from my side, attempting to capture images of the brutality unfolding before me without being caught.
I keep walking.
The police pickup truck immediately pulls up next to me and waves me over.
Jeesh, I think to myself, why did I take those photos?
My stomach tightens up.
The policeman points to my camera and says, “Why do you have a camera?”
“I’m a tourist,” I reply to the policeman sitting in the passenger side of the pickup.
I notice his shirt is half unbuttoned, and the look on his face was more of a thug then of a policeman.
With his index finger pointing, his hand follows the horizon and then turns up, as his head tilts to the side, a gesture that communicates: taking photos of what?
“I’m a tourist,” I say again, smiling and walk away.
A shopkeeper’s voice I met in the souq comes floating back to me, “Be careful of the police, they can do whatever they wish.”