Love songs and tear gas in a tense Sudanese Ramadan

Hundreds of people had gathered on the beach for iftar, the sunset meal that breaks the daily fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Once they had eaten, there was a palpable sense of relief.

People are lounging in the sand, smoking cigarettes and scrolling through their screens. Children splash in the shallow waters of the river. Kites danced in the sky. As the Sudanese capital glittered on the other side, a young crooner sang a song.

“How could your heart allow you to forget me? sang Ibrahim Fakhreldin, his face bathed in the glow of cellphones held by his friends, who erupted for the chorus.

“Tell us what’s changed, for love,” they sang in unison, some playfully clutching their hearts, in a rendition of “Now You Just Pass Us By,” a traditional Sudanese ballad.

The song was personal for 20-year-old Fakhreldin, who told me he once courted a girlfriend on this beach. “It’s over,” he said wistfully. “But the place is still there.” Now he had come looking for something else – a respite from the daily grind of Sudan, where a once glorious revolution has gone awry, and the heady hopes it once inspired are crumbling.

An outdoor iftar meal during Ramadan for neighbors and travelers in the town of El-Kabashi, Sudan on April 21, 2022. The New York Times

“We come here to forget everything,” said Fakhreldine, who described himself as a disillusioned revolutionary. “The heat, the power cuts, the protests. Here, at least we can sing.

For those who fast, iftar is a daily deliverance after long hours of hunger and thirst. In Sudan, it’s particularly grueling: Daytime temperatures regularly reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit (about 46 degrees Celsius) these days, and power outages can last eight hours.

A disturbing political context aggravates deprivation. A military coup in October scuttled the democratic transition that began in April 2019 when the mob toppled Omar al-Bashir, their autocratic ruler for 30 years. Today, the economy is collapsing, food prices are skyrocketing and nearly 100 people have been killed in anti-military protests.

But Ramadan is also a time of community, where friends, families and even strangers come together to break their fast. The iftar meal, which I was invited to share over several weeks in riverside villages, desert huts and suburban streets, also provided a welcome break – an opportunity to take stock at a time when many say Sudan is drifting dangerously, leaving them unsure of what comes next.

As we were driving back to Khartoum one evening, we suddenly came across a determined-looking group of men standing in the middle of the road, urging us to stop. But it wasn’t a set-up. It was dinner.

Ibrahim Fakhreldin, center, sings with friends gathered for an iftar during Ramadan on Tuti Island in Khartoum, Sudan, April 22, 2022. The New York Times

Ibrahim Fakhreldin, center, sings with friends gathered for an iftar during Ramadan on Tuti Island in Khartoum, Sudan, April 22, 2022. The New York Times

A long mat lined with trays of food stood at the gates of a small mansion in the town of El-Kabashi. About fifty other travelers were already seated, waiting to eat. The free meal – an iftar for passing travelers – was funded by Hasoba el-Kabashi, a local entrepreneur and owner of the mansion.

El-Kabashi told me that he made his fortune in real estate, car dealerships and a freight business in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Now he was paying it back. It was a small crowd, he said; it once fed six passenger buses. There was no question of anyone paying a dime.

“It’s for God,” he said, pointing to the sky which was now filling with stars.

His guests did not perform a ceremony. After 15 minutes, they rose from the meal, offered joint prayers and continued their journey. U.S. too.

With the road deserted, we ran into central Khartoum, crossed the Nile on a century-old drawbridge and then passed the gates of the military headquarters where protesters massed to overthrow al-Bashir in 2019, in euphoric scenes that fueled the hope that this revolution could endure.

But now the square is a ghostly arena. Soldiers manned checkpoints in deserted streets. The famous revolutionary murals had been repainted. Only a few pieces of provocative graffiti remained. “We were killed here,” read one.

Further downstream, at the Chinese-built presidential palace, I met Lieutenant General Ibrahim Gabir, one of the generals currently leading the country. The military intervention in October was not a coup, he insisted. “I prefer to say redirect,” he said.

Over an hour of conversation, Gabir blamed Sudan’s mess on its bickering politicians and vowed to hold elections by July 2023 – an incredibly short timeline for holding a free and fair vote, according to most. estimates.

It was almost time for iftar. As I left, I meandered through the long corridors of the empty palace. One painting depicted Mohammed Ahmed Ibn el-Sayyid Abdullah, a 19th-century messianic religious leader who led a revolt against British colonialism, trampling an enemy fighter under his horse. But when I finally found the exit, Gabir was already there, jumping into a vehicle, rushing home to break his fast.

Protesters clash with Sudanese police during a demonstration near Khartoum International Airport, April 6, 2022. The New York Times

Protesters clash with Sudanese police during a demonstration near Khartoum International Airport, April 6, 2022. The New York Times

The traditional iftar meal in Sudan includes rich meat sauces soaked in sorghum kisra pancakes, spicy beef sausages, bean stews and glistening chunks of watermelon. The food is washed down with seasonal drinks – karkade, or frozen hibiscus juice, and a local sweet and sour drink known as abreh. But for many Sudanese, these have become an unaffordable luxury.

At a sweltering bakery in Atbara, 280 km from Khartoum, young men threw flatbreads from an open oven which were sold for 50 Sudanese pounds (about 9 cents) each. Three years ago they cost £2 each. It’s an issue resonating in Atbara, where student protests against soaring bread prices in late 2018 sparked the national movement that ultimately toppled al-Bashir. But the appetite for revolution has diminished.

“I don’t care,” said Kultom Altijani, a 45-year-old street vendor who appealed to send his sick daughter to a dentist. “We want to eat and drink – that’s all.”

Years after al-Bashir’s ouster, his allies are still doing better than most and are slowly coming back. This Ramadan, senior officials find themselves among the evening crowds at Al Salam Hotel, Khartoum’s elite lounge. Although the iftar buffet costs $45 per person, it is packed every night, with women in finely embroidered dresses seated next to men in immaculate robes. They rub shoulders with various foreigners seeking to resolve or profit from Sudan’s political mess – diplomatic envoys, Russian mercenaries, aid workers and United Nations officials.

Iftar is also loaded with meaning for revolutionaries who continue to fight. On April 6, protesters filled the street outside Al Salam to mark the third anniversary of al-Bashir’s ousting. This time the warm breeze carried not a love song, but a sting.

Thick smoke billowed from burning tires as young men and women, battle-hardened by months of protesting, clashed with riot police. At the front, some protesters wore ski masks and garden gloves which they used to throw tear gas canisters at police.

Even though I had stayed behind, my eyes stung from the clouds of tear gas drifting down the street, and I stumbled on the side of the road. The call of the muezzin resounds: iftar.

The chanting died down and bags of food were produced. Protesters handed out dates, sandwiches and paper cups filled with karkade. A woman wrapped in a Sudanese flag offered to share her food with me and, seeing my condition, offered me a cloth soaked in vinegar to stop the tears.

Others crouched on the pavement, drinking water and enjoying a moment of relief, as more tear gas erupted in the distance.

© 2022 The New York Times Company


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Grace D. Erickson