I've done sex in Sudan, or rather not sex in my case, but what about drugs and rock 'n' roll? I mentioned some while back that a large part of my Sudanese experience seems to have revolved around getting stoned, though indulgence in that particular vice was inevitably a delicate matter. Discretion was advisable and tolerance seemed to depend in large part on where one was based.
En Nahud was a conservative town and it would have been foolish for us to try and score there, so whatever we smoked had to be brought in from trips elsewhere. In Kadugli, there seemed to be no opprobrium connected to dope and the principal threat to the teachers' cannabis plantation was Fatih, the street kid they had taken in who desperately wanted to make himself useful by 'weeding' the garden. They were a laid back lot in Kadugli, but they got remarkably lively when Fatih took his trowel out. I have a vague, slightly unlikely memory of seeing extensive, well-weeded market gardens in Darfur, too, and a more distinct impression that everyone there was stoned all the time. And when travelling along the Blue Nile, I was delighted to discover that in Sennar or Sinja (I forget which) what seemed to be half the town gathered by the banks of the river of an evening to get bombed out of their heads.
The best known intoxicant in Sudan though was araagi, the hooch distilled from date wine, millet beer, or virtually anything fermentable you could lay your hands on. Memories of drinking this with the Sudanese teachers appear elsewhere, but it was also an essential part of the weekly evenings I spent with fellow English teachers John and Claire, in the course of which we would eat their astonishing marmalade curry (an inspired response to a seasonal glut of oranges in the market) and get blind drunk (this is not a metaphor), after which I would stagger back across town in the early hours of the morning wildly thrashing out with a stick to beat off the packs of feral dogs that roamed En Nahud at night. Oh, what fun we had!
In the South, there was a celebrated honey beer, duma I think it was called, an altogether better use for a word otherwise wasted on the Russian parliament, but I never found any of this fabled beverage. I had plenty of merissa (brewed from masticated millet and featured in Standing At The Crossroads), another muddy substance of an indeterminate source that I think was called assalia, and a delicious sesame beer which, in a state of extreme intoxication, I named in my diaries as sim-sim kudjemora (plausible, sim-sim being sesame, though I haven't a clue what kudjemora means if anything at all).
However, the alcoholic triumph of the year was my apricot beer. Bought a fistful of yeast from the baker, a packet of dried apricots in 'the Western supermarket' (a lock-up large enough to walk into), and dumped them in a large bucket of water in the evening. Come morning the brew was intoxicating, by the afternoon it was distinctly unpalatable, and within twenty-four hours it had declined into a poison so noxious that flies were dropping off the ceiling. The Sudanese teachers, most of whom were reeling round the compound and clearly didn't know what had hit them, claimed that it was the strongest alcohol that had ever been brewed in En Nahud, and the chemistry master solemnly announced that it was 107º proof. Then he fell off his bed.
In search of authenticity, John and I took up tombak, a sort of snuff-cum-chewing tobacco. I hate to think what was in it, but basically it was gunk that you lodged in your lower lip to get a nicotine rush sufficiently potent to blow the back of your head off. Trouble was, you had to time its expulsion right, because after a while it would unexpectedly turn as toxic as my apricot beer. The Sudanese were quite proud of the fact that their personal khawajas took tombak, and they were absolutely delighted the day John and I sat down to mark papers in the English department, left the stuff in our lips too long, then simultaneously dashed outdoors desperately expectorating as the drug set about dismantling our nervous systems.
If you don't count John with his guitar, and nobody would, least of all himself, rock 'n' roll was a bit thin on the ground in Sudan. The famous Sudanese musicians were too keen on synthesizers for the distressingly sectarian tastes I had at the time, though they did inspire the local teachers (male, of course) to some wonderfully fluid, finger-clicking dancing. As I recall, I also had a stab at tripping the light fantastic in public at the end of year concert, which inevitably entailed the entire school lying on the ground weeping with laughter. But by far my happiest musical memory is dancing with women to Kenyan pop at a Shilluk camp near Kadugli. The batteries for the cassette player were too costly to use all the time, so the DJ kept turning it off while we continued waltzing about in the dust, the rhythmic shuffling of our feet accompanied by a small boy blowing across the top of a bottle. Hopelessly stoned, of course.
A few months into the academic year, John, Claire and I were very excited when we were invited to a dervish ceremony. We're in here, we thought, this is a special event the like of which your average traveller would never be allowed to access. As it turned out, there was none of the colourful whirling that comes out of Konya, just five hundred people gathered together sort of yapping at each other. They did this for eight hours. Reckoning ourselves privileged to witness this esoteric ceremony, we dutifully recorded the yapping and I sent a cassette of the 'highlights' home to my family, who sat down after Christmas dinner to listen to it equally dutifully and with mounting puzzlement. My aunt, who had worked in Kenya during the tail end of the colonial period and who was not exactly PC, insisted the cassette had been intercepted by the Sudanese authorities and scrambled by the censors - "They're like that down there." Truth be told, I was the one who was scrambled, determined that even five hundred people yapping at one another should be transformed into an authentic African experience.
Too much tombak probably.
I wonder whether they still remember my apricot beer in En Nahud.
Postcard from the Past #1 On Your Bike
Postcard from the Past #2 Dismal Self
Postcard from the Past #3 Do Not Photograph This Wall
Postcard from the Past #4 Befuddeled
Postcard from the Past #5 An Island In The Desert
Postcard from the Past #6 Oh, My Darling.
Postcard from the Past #7 Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? And what the fuck are we doing here?
Postcard from the Past #8 Where There Is No Doctor
Next week, travelling in Sudan.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace