Young prospectors pause midday at Las Cristinas
Brothers, who dug a well on land that only a decade ago was sand, harvest crops from the fertile fields. (Globe Staff Photo / Essdras M. Suarez)
Photo gallery

God wills, the desert provides

Across a barren stretch of Sudan and Egypt, agriculture and religion, strife and striving mold a way of life

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / October 31, 2004

KADABAS, Sudan -- The bodies, cloaked and capped in white, stood stock-still in the black Nile night.

Still as pillars bracing arches. Still as a stopped clock.

Slowly, the beat of hands on drums rose in the sandy courtyard of the mosque, and the circle of worshipers bounced and bowed. One man spun as a dervish, his robe a fluid arc, as thumps and chants in the name of Allah spilled into the desert beyond.

This Islamic outpost nestles on the fertile banks of the Nile. But just west of the courtyard walls begins the Bayuda Desert, and north of that, the Nubian Desert -- together a swath of the Sahara's eastern flank.

Over thousands of years, this expanse of rock and sand sprawled as an inhospitable buffer between diverse communities, of Africans and Arabs, of Christians and Muslims and those with many gods. Over time and terrain, these groups collided and merged. Now firmly Islamic land, this stretch of the Sahara is the second of four geographic and cultural divides the Globe is journeying across this fall, in a series that will circle the planet.

Centuries after Muslims arrived in what is now northern Sudan and southern Egypt, those settled along riverbanks and in oases sustain the old rhythms of farming and faith. Yet even within this desolate preserve, they feel the push of the outside world, of politics, war, and modern ways.

At a time when so much focus is on the extremes of Islam, what would come from a journey among the farmers, herders, and holy men here?

In Kadabas, the crowd of men and boys were gathered to worship Sheik 'Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, an eleventh-century saint revered by many followers of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. Clusters of women looked on from steps and doorways as the circle of dance and chant continued from late evening toward dawn.

By 8 a.m., in a shaded room separated from the courtyard by a hall of arches, Sheik Mohammed Hajj Hamed, leader of the mosque, was waiting. He leaned against a cushion of pillows, his legs folded comfortably on the floor. His beard straggled toward the smooth, white cotton of his jalabeya, as such long robes are called, and his thick hands worked a string of beads.

The sheik explained to visitors how an ancestor, seven generations before, had come to Kadabas and gained followers. For 40 days, the ancestor had kept a religious vigil in a small, shadowed room, eating only dates.

The sheik then told his own stories, of his visits to Sufi communities in Germany and Britain and of his friendship with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. He spoke fondly, too, of John Garang, the rebel leader who had opposed the Sudanese government during a 20-year civil war. After peace was negotiated last spring, the sheik called Garang to offer congratulations. He said Garang, a southerner raised in a Christian family, suggested he would visit the north and marry a Muslim woman. The sheik offered his daughter, as long as Garang converted to Islam. They had a good laugh.

The sheik's stature is built on the legacy of his ancestors, and anchored in this compound and neighboring villages, home to 7,000 of his followers. In Kadabas, he runs a home for the mentally impaired and a school, which offers food, clothing, and the teachings of the Koran to poor boys and young men.

"Only the sons of the rich people learn, and eat nice food," the sheik said.

Then he turned toward the door, as it was time for work to begin. Dozens of men swept into the room, and women, their heads wrapped in scarves splashed in red, green, and gold, clamored in the doorway and behind open windows.

Three men knelt to kiss the hand of the smiling sheik and ask his judgment in a land dispute. Then came another, who worried about his daughter's possible marriage. Then four more, who had traveled days to ask if it was wise to obey the government and move from their land, which will be flooded by a dam on the Nile.

For more than an hour, the sheik smiled and embraced. He lectured and criticized and, in the case of a man who said he had not properly tended his crops, raised a short, thick whip and lashed him. He slapped the hand of another man with his beads, a gentler punishment because the man cast the wrong vote in a local election. He blamed the land dispute on the landowner's wife.

"It is typical," the sheik told the pressing crowd, "all problems come from women."

Men and women, young and old, carried forward cups of water and bits of food to be blessed, in hopes the sheik could help cure their illnesses.

One middle-aged woman, a black shawl covering head and shoulders, barged past the sheik's assistant. The woman wailed, pleading with the sheik to punish her. She did not detail her suffering, but the sheik knew her case well. Annoyed that she had come again, he barked at her to leave.

Minutes later, she returned, shouting. The sheik told her to sit facing him and grabbed her right hand. He hoisted his curled whip and struck her across the back.

Did it hurt, he asked?


He struck again, then a third time. The woman straightened against the blows.

The sheik spat into her mug of water, and the woman, tears slowing, drank.

. . .

Just west of the courtyard walls, at the edge of the Bayuda Desert, green shade surrendered to white heat. Hundreds of tire tracks dug into the sand, marking a 150-mile route across the Bayuda's breadth.

After a few minutes' drive in a 4-by-4, there appeared, shimmering in the distance, a black-water lake spiked with trees and wading cranes. But as the vehicle approached, the lake evaporated: Cranes had been rocks; trees, jagged acacia; water, a mirage of heat.

At night, too, travelers see illusions: Abu Lamba they are called in Arabic (for "father of lights"), imagined village lamps that lure the unwitting deeper into empty terrain.

By midday, when summer temperatures spike at 120 degrees or more, locals know to rest.

Midway across the Bayuda, proprietors at a rest stop with mud walls and a thatched roof offered travelers a clutter of cots and tea boiled over an open flame. On other routes, less traveled, passersby depend on the kindness of strangers, who open doors and offer meals of beans, onions, and bread in a shared hospitality sprung from the harsh terrain.

Before Islamic culture settled into this land, most completely some 450 years ago, the snaking Nile had been the domain of powerful kingdoms and local tribes. More than 3,000 years ago, southward-looking Egyptian pharaohs gave way to kings and queens of Nubia, among the earliest African empires. Later, Christians from Alexandria and Constantinople arrived, then Muslims, first Arabs, later Ottomans.

Few, then or now, lived in the desert.

Those who do work in the relative cool of morning or late afternoon. At one low rise an hour past the rest stop, bedouins harnessed camels to hoist sacks of water from a well more than 200 feet below the surface. Farther on, near the end of a shallow valley, women and children cranked a hand pump and filled plastic canisters.

The scorched valley carves northward until it reaches the lush tufts of growth along the Nile's banks. There, beyond the market town of Merowe and the temple ruins of Jebel Barkal, near the river's Fourth Cataract, sits a string of riverside settlements.

In one village, el-Arish, Sid Ahmed, a farmer who has spent all of his 61 years along the river, scrambled down a hill and squatted on a smooth rock to wash his hands and feet. The Nile, broken by a series of small islands, ran in a narrow channel. The current gurgled and birds flitted in the bushes.

Ahmed turned and climbed the bank. He stood, hands outstretched, eyes closed, and whispered words of prayer. Then he dropped to his knees and, with a dip of his head toward earth, bowed to Mecca.

Finished, Ahmed followed the borders of fields to the village center, dirt flats framed by scattered mud homes. There, he joined a circle of men drinking tea sweetened with goat's milk.

The farmers spend days tending fields of beans and onions, clover for the livestock, and date palms. On their way from field to river, the farmers step across shards of pottery that litter a footpath near the school. The pottery, made from Nile mud, can be dated by color and texture to around AD 700 when Nubians, converts to Christianity, lived in this spot.

One member of the group, a farmer and teacher named Ali Atiatala, who regularly travels far to negotiate date sales, raised a question that lingers in this place.

"Are we Arabic," he said, "or African?"

Atiatala knew the answer had been evolving since the arrival of Arabs, from the north and east, more than a thousand years before. The Arabs found Nubians and other groups whose color, like that of tribes farther south, prompted geographers to call the place Bilad al-Sudan, or "Lands of the Blacks." During subsequent centuries, through conquest and simple intermingling, Islam and Arab customs took hold.

Atiatala replied to his own question:

"The culture and tradition are Arabic," he said, "but the color is African."

Modern el-Arish has no mosque of its own. Villagers follow no Sufi sheik, unlike most Muslims in Sudan. But they accept Allah as the one god and practice rituals of the faith: reading the words of Allah as told to the Prophet Mohammed and recorded in the Koran, praying toward Mecca five times a day, and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, a season of spiritual and personal reflection.

"We cannot be without religion," Atiatala said. "We believe in the Koran and the Koran speaks about the future, about the end of days. It is very clear: Islam will be here at the end."

As Atiatala spoke, distant lights brightened the sky to the south. There, Chinese workers contracted by the Sudanese government were building a towering concrete wall that, in a few years, will become the first dam on the Nile in Sudan. A 100-mile-long lake will form, drowning land now home to some 20,000 people. Under government order, the farmers of el-Arish will move to a desert valley, where they will draw water from wells.

The next morning, Atiatala and his father, Omar Ali, walked among date palms they expected to harvest one last time. They stood in the shade of trees planted 20 years before and described the sweetness of one kind of date, eaten soon after harvest, and the dryness of another, eaten months later.

The government had promised to pay farmers $2,000 for each tree. But villagers had seen no money yet, and they will have to plant anew in the desert valley.

"We will grow dates," Atiatala said. "We are very good at that."

Ali, 84, was confidant that Islam would thrive in their new home. But he feared the villagers' subsistent lifestyle would become too reliant on markets and modernity. Ali held out one hope, that the new land would be as fertile as the old.

"The government told us," he said, "that they will take the Nile and put it near us."

. . .

From a riverside landing a day's drive north, a flat-bottomed ferry shuttled two farmers across the stiff current to the opposite bank. An hour's drive farther, beyond the last shops of the town of Abu Hamed, the Nubian Desert sprawled, cracked in chipped stone and caked sand. More rutted tire tracks traced northward.

The remains of a camel, probably fallen while marching in a caravan to Egyptian markets, were sunk into the sand. Its skin had dried and split, its hollowed gut filled with blown sand.

This stretch of the Nubian Desert, which offers a shortcut to avoid another long turn of the Nile, had stood in the path of Turks, who occupied this land in the 19th century. Then came the British, who controlled it until 1956, the year of Sudanese independence.

A single railroad track, a British legacy, runs northward into the 200-mile expanse. Once a week, a train carrying families and businessmen, immigrants and refugees, rumbles from a station in the capital, Khartoum, to Wadi Halfa.

The city was designed in the 1960s as home for modern ethnic Nubians displaced when the Egyptians created Lake Nasser by damming the Nile. A 1995 assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, which Egypt blamed on Sudan, worsened already-tense relations between the two countries. The ferry from Wadi Halfa is now the only legal inland border crossing.

Late on a Thursday night, long after the arrival of the weekly train, travelers surrounded by suitcases lashed with tape and boxes secured with twine idled outside shops selling cold Coca-Cola. They waited for morning and the aging iron ferry that would, inshallah ("God willing"), carry them across Lake Nasser and into Egypt.

Hours before departure, inside the main hall of the ferry terminal, a pudgy young man wearing a purple sweat suit began talking, in accented English:

"How are you, my brother? OK? OK?"

The man, named Jacoub, twitched and shifted, frowned, and flashed a smile. Then, amid chatter of weather and waiting, he mentioned the place from which he had come, his home: Darfur.

"You have heard of this?" he said.

He did not mean to say, do you know Darfur is a province in western Sudan? He meant, do you know Darfur is in chaos?

During two years of widespread fighting in the region, local Arab militias, at times backed by the government in Khartoum, have waged campaigns against African tribes that have killed tens of thousands and displaced many times more.

"The government is crazy. Islamists," said Jacoub, a member of the Fur, an African tribe. "I am a Muslim, but not like that."

Then Jacoub withdrew.

"This is still a government place," he said. "Wait. Wait."

Later, on the ferry's top deck, a group of teenagers from the Dinka tribe, Christians who had been raised in Khartoum after their parents fled years of civil war in southern Sudan, settled beneath a lifeboat. On the opposite side of the deck, men spread woven carpets alongside a railing and took turns slipping off sandals and kneeling in prayer to the east.

Below, in a dark room of benches and huddled families, Jacoub sat beneath the rattle of an air conditioner with two boxes at his feet. One held hibiscus, the other henna, gifts from his mother to sell on the streets of Cairo when he ran out of money.

Jacoub rose and offered a warm handshake.

"I have seen the fire," he said. "I know it all. I have seen it all."

He described mothers and children scattering from a village, not even stopping to look for one another. Imagine that, he said, a child too scared to look for his mother.

He told how his sister ran for hours across parched land with her 15-month-old son strapped to her back. When she found cover and lowered the baby to nurse, he was dead.

Jacoub cut these scenes short, sentences dying in his mouth. He often pursed his lips into a loud "thfft," as if to say, "finished."

"And she ran and ran and . . . thfft," he said. "Nothing. Kid dead."

A young man from Khartoum passed and said "hello."

Jacoub turned on him.

"Anything else?" Jacoub said. "OK?"

The man left.

Jacoub said, almost to himself, "His people killed my people."

Then, as if to apologize for the man, Jacoub added, "People in Khartoum, they are scared."

Outside, twilight brushed Lake Nasser's rocky shoreline. On deck, a man from Cameroon sat on a railing and spoke in English and French about his two-week trip touring Sudan. A Dutch backpacker wearing a T-shirt penciled with the words "Africa 2003" curled in sleep. The boat kept a steady clip across the border into Egypt and on toward Aswan, a city of 700,000 inhabitants and five-star hotels overlooking the Nile.

At 10 the next morning, one hour before arriving in Aswan, Jacoub said he finally felt safe.

He began his story again, with the day in October 2003 when Kaltoum, his wife of three years, went to the market in their village in the Valley of Amun. Jacoub, 29, a cattle herder and part-time employee of the phone company, was at home. Suddenly, planes swooped overhead, bombing, and militiamen swarmed in on camels and horseback. Jacoub and other men from the village ran into nearby hills. When he came back six hours later, he found Kaltoum dead, a knife wound in her abdomen.

"And I do not even know if [they raped] her," he said.

That day Jacoub fled to a town near the border with Chad. Three months later, he returned to find his village deserted. He rode a donkey for two weeks, first to the town of Kebkabiyya, then the city of El Geneina, and finally to a refugee camp near Chad. There he found his mother, who urged him to leave Sudan.

Four months later, Jacoub sat on the ferry fingering a wallet that held $100. He would use the money to buy a train ticket from Aswan to Cairo, where he knew not a single person.

Before he tucked his wallet into an inside pocket, Jacoub removed a color photo of Kaltoum, only 21 when she died. Kaltoum had smooth, beige skin and soft lips. A fine scarf covered her hair. Her calm eyes looked downward.

. . .

Beyond the ferry landing in Aswan, beyond the city's boulevard cafes and camel rides for tourists, the route of Nile trade and traffic continues along two congested lanes of asphalt.

Ninety percent of Egyptians live along the Nile Valley, which widens as it runs north to Cairo and on to the Mediterranean.

In cooler seasons, the highway swells with police-escorted caravans of tour buses that have shuttled sightseers to temples and tombs in safety since 1997, when gunmen entered a temple in Luxor and killed 58 foreigners. Always, locals slow at police checkpoints that the government, ruled by Mubarak since 1981, uses to control a restless nation. It is a place, in the words of one local old man, "only no wheat away from chaos."

In Luxor, the 4-by-4 crossed a bridge over the Nile, sped past the last fields, and climbed 1,500 feet up an escarpment that opened onto the desert again.

The route led west, toward a ring of modern cities built around ancient oases. Just south of this track is another, more-sheltered oasis. In centuries past, camel drivers and slave traders on the Forty Days Road from Darfur toward Cairo sought refuge, and water, in Dush.

On a Saturday evening, Ibrahim Ahmed Wedaa removed his sandals and sat cross-legged atop a low mound of sand at the center of the village. Wedaa, his head in a white scarf, his jalabeya hanging loosely from his arms, waited for others to join him.

Each night, the older men of Dush gather on the sand mound to kawaa, or "elbow." Kawaa is the position they take, lounging on their sides, propped on one arm. But it also means to talk, to decide the business of the village and its 250 residents.

The elders quote passages of the Koran and share advice about how to raise the young: Sincerity, they say, is the cornerstone of character, the quality that will help children respect land and family. They debate how best to split profits from farming oats and dates to pay for the school, or for electricity, which arrived only four years ago.

Wedaa, the oldest man in Dush, so old no one in the village dared ask him his age, waited alone on the mound. Women and children strolled narrow streets, passing houses painted with murals depicting, in purple and gold, the airplanes and boats residents had ridden during their pilgrimages across the Red Sea to Mecca. An imam broadcast his call to sunset prayer over a tinny loudspeaker outside a one-room mosque.

Wedaa did not budge as night fell, a street lamp cast a yellow glow and, from a nearby door, a television blared a professional wrestling match, received by satellite from the United States.

"Oh, he came out," the commentator bellowed, as one wrestler went for a fake move. "He's the only one who took it, and now he's going to pay the price!"

On an isolated hilltop just beyond the well-fed fields that hug the village, guards patrolled the ruins of a temple, built by Romans, and plundered through centuries by bandits. The guards cast flashlight beams across stone walls carved with script in Greek and Latin, and into corners and crevasses. There, lurk sand vipers, whose bite can quickly kill. When a viper freezes in the light, the guards, one hoisting a stick, shout, "Allah akbar!" ("God is great") and rush to be the first to strike.

Back in the quiet of the village square, a young man, his dinner complete, joined Wedaa. The man, Medhat Gab Abdalla Eweida, had studied sociology in Aswan, then returned to teach Dush's children. He chatted with Wedaa, then stopped to describe life surrounded by sand.

"We are self-contained, for survival," he said.

The next morning, Eweida joined his father and uncles, brothers and cousins to harvest a field of wheat a 10-minute walk north. The last camels had left Dush decades earlier, and nearby a blacktop road split sand reaching toward Paris, a market town more bustling year by year, and on to the city streets of Kharga, the largest of the modern oases.

Eweida stood on the far side of a threshing machine, beyond earshot of his father, and talked about the collision of the world he had seen during his studies with the world within Dush.

"Islam will always be here," he said. "But it's not going to be a solid Islam, like now, after the changes that come from television, from the satellite receivers."

A few feet away, a venomous scorpion, three inches long and brown as the earth, marched, pincers forward, through a scatter of cut wheat.

Eweida considered whether Dush's central tradition, the nightly sand mound discussions, would survive from his generation to that of his 3-year-old daughter.

"No," he said, an apologetic smile crossing his lips. "I don't think so."

Then Eweida picked up a stick and traced the air above the scorpion. He pinned it to the ground and pressed lightly, piercing its back.

The scorpion's curved tail straightened, twitched, then stilled.

more stories like this

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Save this article
  • powered by
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.