Karl’s Chronicles. The Fight & The Dance
The two threads of the Nile may have come together, intricately bound like maritime rope, twisting far across the sand-blown hell of the Sahara. Until with predatory grace, it quietly slips away into the Mediterranean. Those threads, one white and one blue, disagreed with their colourful names conjured up by foreign explorers eager to fill in landscape blanks. For The Blue and White Nile bobbed along in the muddiest of browns, swimming away from their plump mothers Tana and Victoria, the mighty lakes who live further south.
Khartoum, the triptych city of endless Sudan, stands with her arms outstretched, like a favourite aunty ready to embrace her sister’s children. She leans forward and brings Blue and White together in a passionate hug, becoming the confluence, the catalyst, and the conduit to something more splendid, and stronger, the source of change where life is a door held up by the Nile’s hinge. The merging of two into one, a geographical sacrifice to enhance her path against desert hostilities.
But not every coupling has reasons to unite. Quite the opposite, when honour and reputation hangs on the line. Watched and judged by rows of eager eyes, each cast beneath a rigid mind that no hurricane can up-root. Staring down across the dusty sirwan to a pair of toughened men on the cusp of going head-to-head.
To the Nubians, wrestling takes centre stage for a man to uphold his integrity, his dignity, family and tribal name. Cementing a vital act of stealth and bravery in Nubian culture. Down south in the fertile band of the Nuba Mountains, wrestlers adorned in animal skins fight for the very honour of their village, battling through exhausting tournaments to claim a title that is more than just a physical trophy. It is recognition of bravery, stealth, endurance and manhood, similar traits found in tribal initiation rites. But rather than a rite of passage, bridging adolescence to manhood in securing tribal respect, wrestling is a confirmation of masculinity and superiority.
In the capital, matches operate a little differently. Organised municipally with each fighter fully clothed in adherence to local customs. The opponents confront each other for the first time on the sirwan (wrestling ground). The bouts continue until every wrestler has fought, there is no clanging bell like Western wrestling, finishing only when the winner has properly conquered his rival.
The objective is to throw the opponent to the ground. Pinning and submissions are prohibited, though occasionally a strike flares out. Like most wrestling, it falls to a grappling technique of successfully up-rooting the opponents’ recalcitrant position.
Past champions often teach new recruits, supervising classes in the verse of athletic dances, traditional songs and focusing trainees on the importance of abstaining from alcohol and promiscuity. Sporting characteristic’s such as self-discipline, practise, persistence, and motivation provide overlapping skills for everyday life.
As the majority of Nubian’s are farmers, tournaments evolve around the harvest festival. Manifesting a two-fold heritage of proclaiming gratitude for the harvests bounty and the parallel of being the traditional war season.
Dances, feasts, singing, and stories promoting past glories on the sirwan radiate around the tournament, seen as much about embracing cultural identity, certainly in the ethnically diverse cities, then just male prowess.
Like low-tide, much of the suns respite had ebbed away by the early throes of the evening. Drawing out families who set up chairs and chat in the side-streets. The dust-stricken taxi dropped me close to a throng of male youths who gradually began to file away down the long broad street. The further down I went, the more the numbers grew which invested a sigh of relief the route was correct. Passing through a closed souk with its shutters and hanging padlocks, while beneath fragments of discarded trade lay collected in the gutter.
More men, spilling out of side streets like streams into a river, and carried along by the current of numbers meant we were close. Every Friday evening the district of Haj Yesef came alive, its population swelling like a fresh bruise. The day’s dust kicked and scuffed back into the air hung overhead like toxic smoke. The scent of petrol, then fried garlic pervaded the road, burrowing like rats into your hair and clothes. Discontent soon followed, rumbling along like an underground train. Beyond the souk the ground opened out, a pool of spectator’s filtered through a thin partition in a fabric wall. Colourful material stretched between wooden poles encircled an athletics track. Passing through, one confronted a male only audience (women did not spectate such sports), cross-legged around the track. Several contender’s pandering to vanity, paraded in front. Heading backwards and forwards in plight for recognition .
Two men raked over the last patch of untamed sand, making the sirwan fit for an evenings wrestle. The buzzing hive of spectators fell silent as a plump man shrouded in a blue jallabiya addressed his people. A pulsing voice of welcome, beefing up the gloss of wrestling with a sensationalised manner fit for a circus. No applause accompanied his exit, just a wave of fidgeting until the first pair of wrestlers entered the ground. Before the fight took shape, I glanced around the ring and couldn’t discern another traveller in site. The declaration mustered a little pride on my part, sitting cross-legged amongst these good people, who weren’t exclusively Nubian, but Shilluk, Arab, Beja, Dinka and a few Fur. Moments like these epitomised the reason for travel, privy to a cultural experience hardly known outside Sudan. Just as my thoughts grew in structure, a roar from the crowd knocked them back. The two wrestlers had lunged forward, arms locked onto their contender’s shoulders, scuttling like crabs to kick the feet out from the other. Both had been paired fairly, no size or strength issues that used to plague boxing. The grappling continued for several minutes, a long time in a match which can be over in seconds, as the weaker of two is flipped like a pancake. Eventually the opponent in Arsenal-red misjudged his position, exploiting a chink in the armour, he ended up face down in the sand.
Friday, everything happens on a Friday in Khartoum when Muslims have drifted from the mosques, paying particular heed to the after noon Salāt al-Jumu’ah. Really it should be the quietest, considered a day off like a Christian Sunday when religious duties stand complete. Only a trickle return to throw up the shutters of a small convenience store, buried deep in a neighbourhood where the simple needs of customers are forever crossing the threshold.
Omdurman is no different, the ticking heart-beat of the capital and like its history, the district is compact and restless. Throughout the week, the big and bustling souk claims all the attention. Absorbing a hurried train of shoppers down through its fantastic network of alleyways and corridors. Trying to side-step the oncoming aggression of donkey carts and rickshaws that barely miss your feet. Becoming ever more confused with orientation and the distracting smellscape of warm meats, Nile fish, designer perfumes, diesel oil, stagnant puddles and cracked cardamon that feel as territorial as each merchants place of business. The souk, a giant land monster swallows you whole, finally spitting you out happily wretched five hours later.
South of the souk fronting Khalifa Square, blown up and rebuilt is the Mahdi’s tomb. Symbolic of colonial defiance as General Gordon, the darling of British excellence lay slaughtered on the front steps of his residence. The key-stone architect of foreign intrusion is how Muhammad Ahmad, a self-proclaimed Mahdiyya (prophet) saw Gordon. Leading a campaign of Ansār (Mahdi supporters – known in the West as Dervishes) that initiated the long siege of Khartoum. Gordon had returned back to the capital after a failed attempt to clear the roads northwards to Egypt, weakened by the treachery of several Egyptian officers joining the enemies side. Britain despatched a relief force under Lord Wolseley, already stationed in Cairo, who couldn’t quite get to grips with the severity of the situation. Arriving on 28th January 1885, two days after Khartoum had fallen. Aside from Suakin on the Red Sea Coast and Wadi Halfa in the north, the rest of Sudan fell to Madhist victories. In less than six months after the siege, the Mahdi succumbed to Typhus, buried in a silver domed tomb in Omdurman. The British, spurned on by revenge, defeated the Khalifa and threw the Mahdi’s bones into the Nile. Once British suspicions had subsided, an identical tomb was constructed shortly after WWII.
With the souk the king of commerce, and the Mahdi the anti-hero of recent history, then Hamed al-Nil takes the spiritual crown in Omdurman’s hat trick of astonishments. A 19th century Sufi leader of the Qadiriyah order, his tomb becomes the focus of dhikr, a dance ritual that occurs an hour before sunset.
To communicate directly with God, the devotees dance and spin, circling ever faster while reciting the name of Allah. Whirling into a trance the sufi’s reach an ecstatic abandonment, opening a communicative portal between their hearts and God. It’s this very personal link that resonates with Sufi belief.
On cleared ground, beneath the green and white tomb, the dervishes gather to dance and pray. Dressed in green robes, some topped with leopard skins and long garlands of beads looped around their necks, they make their entrance by first honouring the tomb. Carrying the green Qadiriyah banner, an emblem of the order founded by Sheikh Hamed al-Nil, in a procession accompanied by drums and crashing cymbals. The chants attract a large consortium of devotees, most donning the traditional white jallabiya, a simple shoulder to neck robe, who form a circular boundary. Behind them, peering through the gaps are the modern and curious, dressed in blue-collar shirts and trousers. As the ritual progresses, spectators find any advantage point they can, often lining the upper wall of the tomb itself.
La illaha illallah – There is no God but Allah is repeated over and over by the dervishes, reciting the first line of the Muslim profession of faith. The dervishes have no order or time frame for their ritual, casually breaking away from the others to initiate their calling to God. Slowly swirling on one foot, guided with crowd encouragement their movements become faster, frenetic, a centrifugal blur ever more hypnotic -each baying the other. The ecstatic feeling flows through the crowd, the chanting and clapping reaching a fever pitch helps electrify the evening air. Tainted with incense from an attendants burner, who glides amongst the crowd, swinging around scented smoke.
A trance can last up to 45 minutes. with the dervish suspended in his hypnotic state, calling upon the presence of God. Coming out of the ritual, the dervish finishes his duty by entering the small mosque to pray.
Despite the excitable, noisy, slightly eccentric gathering, the dhikr is paramount to the religious life of a Sufi. Seen correctly as a celebration, the event quickly adopts a festival vibe with tea-stalls and Sufi members selling literature and music. The performance here contrasts with the Whirling Dervishes in Konya-Turkey and Pakistani Sufi’s from Lahore. Each operates a very different style but the personal union through trance is still the same. Much like the winding Nile, it is a confluence of two branches binding together as one.
Both the Wrestling and the Sufi Dance occur at identical times in the different parts of Sudan. To see them both, you need two Friday’s in Khartoum.
It’s advisable to be at Hamed al-Nil tomb before 16:00. Chartering a taxi is the easiest, a 15 minute journey from the centre. You can get there by bus from Arabi station. The silver-grey domes of the tomb and mosque are easily discernable. During Ramadan and Eid, the Dervishes do not perform. Don’t enter the circle to take photos, always seek permission before you photograph somebody. Dress appropriately.
Wrestling happens in the district of Haj Yesef, twenty minutes from down-town. Take a minibus bound for Al Wehda from Estad station. Simply follow the crowds, you’ll soon see the open area.
Bradt’s second edition guidebook by Paul Clammer provides a well-researched accompaniment to Sudan: www.bradtguides.com
For further research try the Sudanese Embassy in London www.sudan-embassy.co.uk
Due to the complexities of Covid19 and the travel industry at large, you will need to check FCO advice regarding possible restrictions. Also, any change in travel insurance policies concerning non-coverage of claims considered to be effected by coronavirus, and airlines where refunds might not be possible against cancelled flights.