Several years back, I accompanied the late Mohamed Ibrahim Nugud, the former Political Secretary of Sudan’s Communist Party, on a drive through Khartoum’s upscale neighbourhoods on New Year’s Eve. Nugud had just emerged from more than a decade of underground life and was eager to get a feel of the beat of the streets on such an occasion in the new Khartoum of oil and sharia. He was taken aback by the sheer number of young people on the streets, an uncontrollable swirling mass along Airport Road and the main streets of Khartoum (2). Moving at a snail’s pace we proceeded through the crowd to experience the first minutes of the new year close to the Officers’ Club. Fireworks were too rare to be the common means of celebration. Instead, the young fun-seekers splashed each other with water using the plastic bottles of ‘Crystal’ juice newly introduced into the market at the time.
The ‘Crystal’ functioned also as the preferred container for ‘araki’, the favourite alcoholic beverage of the riverain Sudanese, a clear liquid that could pass as water to the novice in the transparent plastic container. We could spot the araki imbibers tucked in their cars as they reached under the seat for their Crystal and passed it around gulping and coughing in a permanent cloud of cigarette smoke. Drinking while driving became the ‘takeaway’ format of the Sudanese rituals of alcohol consumption as middle class families shunned the practice and the famed nightly drinking sessions of the Sudanese effendiya accompanied by generous lamb-dominated suppers prepared by compliant womenfolk were struck out of the chores of ‘good’ households. The satisfactorily rich can afford to rent a separate flat or a farmhouse in Khartoum’s suburbs for the pleasures of the night while the poor drinkers continue to burden their families with the habit and the social embarrassments it invites, the police raid included.
Swig tactics aside, Nugud asked me back then what it would take to spark the political energies of the young women and men occupying the streets. I am still pondering over the question. Input for a possible answer was delivered to us almost immediately though. As we drove back to the Nugud family house in al-Jireif we had the opportunity to witness the last throws of a mini-riot that drew an ‘army’ of police. For whatever reason, a crowd of young men smashed the glass façade of Afraa, a new Turkish shopping mall, with a torrent of stones and bricks. Nugud asked one of the bystanders what exactly happened. The young chap answered in Khartoum slang: “Ya juluk [old geezer], what do you care? Drive away before we smash this air-conditioned car of yours”. Nugud chuckled in amusement and then turned to me saying: “Well, this is material for revolution, where are the revolutionaries?”
One way to map the class divide in today’s Khartoum would be to follow the Shingeeti Road heading from Omdurman’s old market northwards towards al-Thawra (the revolution), the expanse of residential areas which carries the name of the 19th century Mahdist revolution against Ottoman-Egyptian rule in Sudan. Today, al-Thawra borders on the Karari plane, the site of the terminal battle between the Mahdist army and the forces of the Anglo-Egyptian re-conquest on 2nd September 1898. Following established colonial tradition, the authorities responsible for urban planning in Khartoum classify residential areas into first, second and third degree according to merit, and impose corresponding building standards for each. First degree plots usually measure five hundred square metres, second degree plots four hundred and the third degree three hundred square metres. The identification however is not static and a third degree area could be upgraded to second degree or even first if fortunes change, for instance a new bridge suddenly links across the river, as happened to the riverside area of al-Fiteihab in Omdurman when the new bridge across the White Nile to Khartoum was built a few years ago.
Once it crawls out of the narrows of the old Omdurman market Shingeeti widens to become a mighty well-lit multi-lane road with high buildings on both sides. The eye is kept occupied with the colourful neon lights of supermarkets, restaurants, beauty parlours and furniture stores. The air-conditioned saloons escape the bustle one by one to turn sideways as the road proceeds leaving the common transport mini-buses and rickshaws to compete for headway. Across the traffic lights of al-Rumi the buildings dwarf back to single-storey size with the occasional failed attempt at extension marked by bare iron rods jutting into the sky from the concrete as if in prayer. The lights dim and the road narrows to a tight passage where every two vehicles passing side by side risk kissing each other disaster. This far, the road still has surplus to offer, witness being the roast chicken displayed in glass-paned ovens if only to prove the principle.
The definitive switch takes place in Sabreen, a bus station and marketplace one or two stops further north. A few buildings shoulder demonstrably over the shacks below, almost in declaration of hierarchy. The ‘broast chicken’, to use the common Khartoum spelling, give way to sizzling chicken heads fried in ever darkening oil. The king of the menu in Sabreen used to be the boiled sheep head, nicknamed al-Basim (the smiling one), said a bus-driver to me, but austerity forced this delicacy out of the market. Sabreen’s shops, and its pharmacy, offer the luxuries of life at sub-retail level, a marketing strategy known as ‘gader zuroofak’, which loosely translates into ‘according to your means’. The young woman wishing to impress potential admirers on New Years’ Eve for instance can buy a single dip of facial cream, a layer of skin whitener, or a strike of eyeliner for immediate application before she starts the beauty-threatening journey to the glamour of Airport Road and the vicinity. The name Sabreen derives from the Arabic word for patience. ‘We are holding on’ captures the gist of the expression better I suggest, ‘waiting for the revolutionaries’!