The Whirling Dervishes of Khartoum

Words by Simeon Gready - December 2014

“Please stop saying ‘thank you’ and ‘do you mind’ because you will say it all the time in Khartoum and I’m tired of saying ‘you’re welcome!’”

Ahmed was certainly a curious character. Never one to shy away from a conversation, he was frank, opinionated, somewhat controversial; we spoke about life, moral philosophy, religion, football, family.

We spoke about Sudan: “I love the people of Sudan, but I hate the government and the politics.” He spoke of the widespread corruption and hypocritical nature of the ‘goodwill’ the government attempts to promote in the country. On the other hand, “the Sudanese people are the most accommodating in the world.” He was proving this on his own.

We stayed with his entire family, from grandfathers to aunts and uncles, sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews. I shared a comfortable room with Mervyn, a bounding Dutch traveller who was also staying with Ahmed at the same time. We were fed extraordinarily well: much like at the border, huge platters of bread rolls with numerous dips and meats and fishes, to be shared in a communal manner. When we weren’t at home, we ate at little street-corner pop-ups, which also served strong coffee with a strangely addictive cinnamon flavouring. Ahmed flat-out refused to allow us to pay for anything.

We were actually lucky to time our stay so as to meet Ahmed. He lives in China, where he runs a small business, but misses Sudan, and his family, to the extent that he travels back every month for 3 days. Mandarin is very difficult (something I’ve had personal experience of), and he’s not a fan of the Chinese food; thankfully, his brother stays in the same area such that they can cook Sudanese food together.

We even delved into the romantic side of life: Ahmed is recently married, having proposed to his new wife every day for 6 years (!). I did not have much to add to this conversation.

He took us around the wide roads of Khartoum, while we talked, ate, and talked a whole lot more. Ahmed told us of a bad business deal he made a couple of months before the wedding, where he trusted the wrong person and lost a lot of money. But, in his own words, “My name is Ahmed and I’m a donkey because I work hard!” Somehow I was left without a doubt that he would earn the money back.

One of the highlights of our stay in Khartoum was a trip to see the dance of the whirling dervishes, on a Friday afternoon just before sunset. Those that practice Sufism, which is associated with both Sunni and Shia Islam, perform the dance at a mosque by a cemetery. We arrived just as the ceremony was starting:

The drums started, slowly, rhythmically, as a huge circle forms in the red dust; the turquoise mosque stands tall, supervising, admiring, with the sun just starting to arc in the background. This was the cue to dance: as the drums build and build and build, men sway into the middle of the circle, mostly dressed in white but some splashed with colours of green and red and gold. The circle widens, holding flags that rattle, the sun dips, the dancers whirl and form their own circle of swaying hips just inside the main circle. They kick up dust and stones that shimmers in the fading light, adding shades of a wistful orange glow that adds to the kaleidoscope of colour. The smell of incense drifts through the air, the tempo quickens, faster, furious, men blow on whistles as they dance, faster, furious, the drums beat, faster, furious, the crowd wavers, faster, furious, the sun dips, faster, furious. In this moment everyone is one mass of praise and worship and passion, and I am overwhelmed, overcome and embraced all at once.

“Do you know what they are singing,” a man with brown, kind eyes leans softly towards me, breaking me from my trance as I struggle to tear my eyes from the whirling dervishes. “They are singing ‘Praise be upon Muhammad the Prophet,” he hums. I smile as he begins to sing softly in my ear, his voice carried by and entwined with the beat of the drums and slap of the feet and cries of the chant.

There is a pulse of spirituality in the air, beating in time with the drums. Worshippers embrace and kiss each other’s hands. We reach a crescendo of noise, a glorious climax of rhythmic beating, all in one, in unison, furiously loud, furiously fast, matching the frenzied passion of the crowd. It is an experience that leaves you feeling more alive than ever before, and it’s a moment that you wish would last forever.

And all too soon it is over. The noise dies as the sun dips further and further beneath the horizon, reflecting a bronzed orange off the greens and browns and blues and whites of eyes. Only now do I see how the turquoise mosque has chipped at the corners, yet still it stands tall and proud.

The next morning, Mervyn and I went out to visit the Nubian Meroe pyramids, which necessitated a 3-and-a-half hour bus trip from Khartoum to Shandi. We packed dry biscuits, bread and fruit for the trip, planning on spending the night – somewhere – by the pyramids and return to Khartoum – somehow – the next day.

We trusted the bus driver to tell us where to get off and, sure enough, as we rumbled to a stop in the middle of nowhere, he pointed to us and flicked his finger to the right, where we glanced over the surrounding hills – from the bus, we could just about see the tips of the pyramids. We shambled out, and the bus lurched off, kicking up a healthy faceful of dust.

At first we seemed alone. Then, suddenly, a man leading a donkey materialised, quickly followed by two men with camels. They approached us, full of smiles that, quickly, then turned into an argument. They were clearly competing as to who would take us from the road to the pyramids, not in any way inclined to ask us on the matter. In an attempt to appease the situation, we refused all modes of transportation and walked the relatively short distance instead. This however, seemed to simply worsen the situation as they all felt they had missed out on an opportunity, and blamed the other, such that they started running around hitting each other with sticks. It was all hugely exaggerated and slightly comical, something out of a Charlie Chaplin skit. We walked on quickly.

Over the perfectly formed sand dunes, two sets of pyramids stretched up from the sand, clearly old and damaged but worldly nonetheless. The damage was caused in ancient times, and further exacerbated in the 1830s by Guiseppe Ferlini, an Italian doctor-turned-explorer and treasure hunter. The story goes that he and his men found treasure in the very first pyramid they blew the top off, and, thus encouraged, plundered almost 40 more without finding anything further.

We paid the small entrance fee and went about exploring the pyramids in more detail. The entrances were small, and you could not stand up once inside, but we still managed to find plastic bottles, crisp packets and other such litter from modern times. The pyramids themselves felt rough to the hand from the stone bricks, coloured various shades of beige. I can only imagine the effort that went into the construction of such monumental edifices.

We had arrived in time for sunset and the sun glowed off the pyramids, emphasising the strength of their structure. We could see the hazy air above the roads back from where we came, with powerlines beyond that – besides that, nothing but the rise and fall of sand dunes.

There was barely any other sign of human life there, besides the litter. At the entrance a few locals had been selling trinkets, and a small group of students taking selfies left soon after we arrived. Thus, we were soon left alone.

Night came, and the stars came to greet us in their millions, some dotted, some interlinked, all creating a web of golden twinkling light against the black nothingness beyond. It was an awe-inspiring sight, the pyramids, some complete, some not, set against the cold starry night sky. A few cars with piercing headlights sped past on the road in the distance.

We had been told that we couldn’t sleep by the pyramids, so, despite the fact no one was around to enforce this rule, we stumbled off into the dark. We made camp, with just our sleeping bags for cover, behind a sand dune, and slept side-by-side, restlessly tossing and turning against cold.

We woke up before sunrise, purposely, and headed back to the pyramids. The sun rose pink and orange, as camels strode slow, gracefully in the distance. We sat in the sand dunes and watched.

Once heat had returned to our bodies and we had explored a few more pyramids, we rode camels back to the road (this time, no donkeys in sight). While seemingly graceful from afar, it is a very different experience when on them. Standing up and sitting down is a rocky ride, and you have to hug a hump so as not to fly off. It all felt slightly surreal – riding a camel in a desert away from old, magnificent pyramids. And in that manner, we reached the road, basically fell off the camels, paid the owners, and then had to plan a way back to Khartoum.