Wednesday, July 2, 2014
Background and first impressions of Khartoum
Background: A US ambassador had been killed in Khartoum in 1973, Osama Bin Laden took refuge in Sudan in the mid 1990s, the US Embassy had closed in 1996. It reopened in 2002. I arrived in Khartoum as Charge (head of mission but without the title of ambassador) in late August 2003. The chief issues the Embassy worked included counter-terrorism, the north/south conflict between the Islamist-Arab central government and the Christian-African SPLM in the south and eventually Darfur.
My first impressions upon arrival:
Khartoum is essentially a three-part city. There is the “new” Khartoum that sits within a large triangle formed by the two Niles, White to the West and Blue to the East. It was reconstructed after El Mahdi destroyed all traces of the Khartoum founded in the 19th century by the Ottoman Egyptians. Omdurman – the older city – sits on the west bank of the Nile, across a couple of bridges from Khartoum. Khartoum North occupies the eastern bank of the Nile across from Khartoum. The Embassy, my residence and the government offices are in Khartoum. Usually, on the way to the Embassy, I drive along the southern bank of the Blue Nile as it approaches its confluence. The Blue Nile is rising again, unusually I’m told, because of the continuing rains in Ethiopia. A visitor from Addis Ababa told me last night that it has been raining every day there for the past 11 days. I can watch the river rise because it has been creeping up the banks of Tuti Island, a large island in the Blue Nile extending into the Nile proper as the rivers come together.
Khartoum first appeared to me as a ramshackle collection of buildings thrown onto the dirt. But I am getting a better sense of the city now. The main avenues (think of the streets called Avenues in DC) are paved, one lane in each direction. All the other streets are of dirt. Where there are open lots, roads disappear into just plain dirt, thus the somewhat haphazard look. There are also a few “highways” of four lanes. Few roads cut directly from one side of the city to the other so my drivers choose between various circuitous routes. The dirt roads are quite uneven. Must be a combination of the rain and the wind blown sand. Khartoum is at the very northern edge of the rain belt so does have a wet season. It rained once since I’ve been here, though the sky has been overcast. The rainy season ends soon and the temperature will go back into the 100s for a while with lower humidity.
The city is dirty – covered in dust and sand – but there is not much trash thrown about. Vacant lots do collect trash and goats. There are many cars crowding the few paved roads but also mules and mule- or horse- drawn carts. Despite the dirt, many people wear white clothes that seem to shine in their whiteness. White makes sense here because of the sun. The police wear white uniforms with blue berets. They sort of look like stranded sailors.
Traffic moves steadily but few people appear in a rush. The right-of-way rules that drivers follow seem to involve courtesy as much as efficiency. There are a few traffic lights and the police are usually at circles waving vehicles through. Along the roads are many stands where vendors sell local fruits and vegetables including grapefruit, oranges, peppers, eggplant, onions, and mangos. Here and there are also shops selling other items. Street vendors sell a delicious sorghum-based version of Arabian flat breads that are puffy and taste like chibata.
Groups of people sit under most of the large trees along the roads. Men and women don’t sit together though do stand together at bus stops. Almost all the women wear head-coverings. Some women sell tea from the roadside. I have seen no one smoking except a few foreigners. Sudanese don’t seem to smoke though I understand they do use hookahs (water pipes) on special occasions.