The Khartoum Issue


John Burns


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Affectionately nicknamed ‘the world’s largest waiting room’ for its seemingly peaceful patina, it can often seem like the only things moving through Khartoum’s low-rise, sleepy sprawl are the Blue and White Niles, which glide into each other at the heart of the city before tumbling forth towards Egypt.

But still waters run deep, and Khartoum’s navigable grid system makes for a complex city, one that means many things to its many people. For some, Khartoum is a city of pleasures; for others, it’s one that requires surviving. It is both a hometown and a place of refuge and, depending on who you ask, can be Arab or African. Just like any waiting room the world over, too, the Sudanese capital offers a microcosmic cross-section of its nation’s many ethnic groups, tribes and nationalities.

‘It’s a mysterious city, in a way,’ says Khalid Ali, Sudan Independent Film Festival’s gregarious project manager, describing his hometown. ‘If you look at tourism in the region, you wouldn’t find Khartoum in a line up with Marrakech, Cairo or Dubai. There’s not a whole lot that is known about Khartoum as a city,’ he says. ‘And for that, it’s a great one to explore.’

The capital city of a complicated country, Khartoum is not famous for the exciting urban centres or zeitgeist neighbourhoods one might find in Morocco or Egypt. Saddled with the gravity of Sudan’s ongoing humanitarian crises and economic austerity, to discover Khartoum is to find an introverted city – one confronted with rambling metropolitan areas, creaking infrastructure and an infinite unfurling of red tape.

Sweltering, yes, languid, maybe – one thing the Sudanese capital is not, however, is boring. Stand on any street corner in Khartoum, and the city’s simple, intangible charms that make it worth exploring reveal themselves.

Here, tea ladies from Darfur crouch over plastic stools, stoking charcoal fires, simmering kettles, tinkling spoons and serving hot, pink hibiscus tea to friends and strangers. Rickshaw drivers put-put into the cushions of dust that line each curb to check Whatsapp or smoke a Bringi (the local cigarette brand) in the shade. Nancy Ajaj’s voice wobbles out from one-storey beauty ‘saloons’ and barbershops, named in honour of Beyoncé and Barack Obama.

Though the anomalous curves of the Corinthia Hotel and tripod-like GNPOC Tower may be brightening the skyline downtown, social life in Khartoum still ticks along at its own pace around them – in the strolls along the potholed banks of the Blue Nile, in the souks bustling within the crumbling colonial arcades and in the stillness of a second Khartoum, found only on its rooftops.

For this issue, though Brownbook visited Khartoum to explore the city’s contemporary culture and follow the streaks of creativity that puncture its surface – from new restaurants to initiatives updating Sudan’s rich cultural heritage – in discovering Khartoum, we found that its charm lies below, in its idiosyncrasies and unexpected moments: the calm around the corner from a four-lane traffic jam, the pride for homegrown household brands like Pasgianos, the altars to kitsch that decorate the dashboards of its microbuses and the steep folklore of its institutions.

‘There’s always been stories of war and famine and armed conflict in mainstream media,’ says Ali, ‘but a lot of Sudan’s stories haven’t been told to the outside world and there are some great ones. What we know about Sudan, the world doesn’t.’

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