"السودان جميل بي ناسو"
“Sudan is beautiful because of its people”
I was approaching the one year mark of my stay in Sudan, and I was miserable. The high of being back & resettling amongst family, surrounded by things that I had once pined for in the diaspora was losing it’s charm. I had come to a crossroads in my stay in Sudan. Had I come back only to fall into another state of habits? I’d left the US to get away from the nine to five uninspired life, but found myself adapting into even more numbing patterns. I was limiting myself to the same bubble of the same five restaurants in Khartoum, only getting to know the insides of living rooms and the array of beverages & candy given to me as a guest, or the insides of hospitals, or the insides of wedding venues, listening to the same music, having the same conversations, complaining over the same grievances, greeting the same faces that I’d see in Ozone or funerals, or house parties. The redundancy of it all was taking a toll on me.
Is this what Sudan was to me?
I remembered my father’s words.
“Travel is the best thing a person could do. It is more valuable than gold, than books or an education. It makes you into a human being.”
From a young age we’d listen to my father recount his memories of Sudan. He knew his country intimately, traveling to its most northern, western, eastern & southern points. I remember how I’d enviously trace Sudan’s map from Wadi Halfa to Dongola to Abu Hamad to Khartoum to Kosti to Malakaal to Juba to Nemole, promising I’d make the same journey. I wanted to know Sudan just as intimately. I wanted to make up my own mind, come to my own conclusions not having to rely on the opinions or slanted memories of others. My father told his stories; I wanted to tell my own.
"الخواجات بستمتعو بى بلدنا اكتر مننا"
"Outsiders enjoy our country more than we do"
I have family and friends who have lived their entire lives in Sudan and had traveled extensively throughout Europe & North America, but had never once left Khartoum to visit other cities in Sudan. This can be attributed to many things - a nonexistent tourism industry, lack of interest, but I think mostly a lack of knowledge. When we view images of non-Sudanese partaking in adventures across Sudan visiting the pyramids, camping in the desert, snorkelling in reefs, the reaction is always of genuine shock. “This is really in Sudan?”
So it wasn't much of a surprise that my travel plans were met with confusion & even discouragement. I was told it wasn't safe to travel as a girl, that I would be attracting the attention of NISS or worse, be labeled a spy. I was warned I would only be disappointed by what I’d find and it’s all sadly linked to the perception that anything outside of Khartoum was a wasteland of primitive villages that lacked electricity & water.
I would not be dissuaded.
I have since visited Wadi Halfa, Kerma, Al Begrawiya, and Port Sudan. There a few things I have learned on these trips. The map of Sudan can be misleading. What looks like a short distance from Khartoum to Port Sudan is a nine hour bus ride. Sudan is not just Khartoum. You do not realize just how vast and diverse Sudan is. The amount of dialects, cuisines, how the toub & 3ima are worn, the architecture & style of homes are so distinctly varied.
I learned to observe in silence.
For hours I’d watch the landscape from car and bus windows transform & unravel before me, seeing and experiencing my trip mile for mile. All the frustrations I had for Khartoum, my family, friends, society, the regime, fell away into awe.
In the past, I was in love with the idea of Sudan. The only concrete certainty of my love was in it’s people, which was mostly family. What I felt and how I perceived was based on blind loyalty, memories watered with romanticism, making a weak foundation that was shaken easily & often. When faced with the stark reality of Sudan’s current state, I judged harshly, gave up easily, only to be drawn back when I was abroad, pining after a ghost of Sudan. I now have something that I can grab onto, hold onto. I saw it in the hours that I sat pondering at the scenes that we passed. I heard it in the random conversations that I struck with strangers. I felt it in the hospitality shown to me by every single place I’ve visited. Just as my father’s love is unshaken, I now have reasons for mine to grow.
Mark Twain said it best; “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”
We were at a stop near Dongola and as soon as we stepped out of the car my sibling hissed at me & my camera. "Stop taking photos! You look like a tourist!"
I was sincerely baffled. This was supposed to make me feel embarrassed. Laughing, I responded "But we are tourists!" There is no shame in that. Although this is my heritage, linked by blood & history, I will readily admit that I am still a visitor who is not too proud to ask, to wonder, to take note & acknowledge my knowledge is limited.
With each photo that I took my understanding expanded, each shot revealing a small facet of Sudan. It was never my intention to share these photos, and even when I did through Instagram it was more for myself as a reminder of the stories behind each image. I was not prepared for the amount of support & even more so by the individuals reaching out to me. This excited me the most, especially since the majority were Sudanese women asking for travel advice and tips for Sudan.
My advice to them and to anyone who visits or currently lives in Sudan is; be a tourist in your own country. Whatever qualms, frustrations or disappointments you have, let them go. Give Sudan the chance to speak for itself while you just listen. Treat what you see, hear, & feel with kindness. Travel with tenderness. You not only owe this to your family & country, but most importantly to yourself.
Najla Salih is a visual and written storyteller often exploring women and Sudan. You can find her work at ww.nubianq.com, FB: @nubianq1, Twitter & Instagram: @QNubian. Check out more images from her travels around Sudan on the Elephant Media Instagram - @elephantmediasd - following her week of curation.