Sunday, 3 Dec 2023

Love Songs and Tear Gas in a Tense Sudan Ramadan

KHARTOUM, Sudan — Friday night by the Nile, and a love song wafted on the warm breeze that blew across Tuti Island, a crescent of land at the confluence of the river’s two great branches.

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 lounged in the sand, smoking cigarettes and scrolling on their screens. Children splashed in the river shallows. Kites danced in the sky. While the Sudanese capital twinkled on the far shore, a young crooner struck up 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 changed, for the sake of 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 Mr. Fakhreldin, 20, who told me that he had once courted a girlfriend on this beach. “It’s over,” he said wistfully. “But the place is still here.” Now he had come in search of something else — a respite from the daily grind of Sudan, where a once-glorious revolution has run badly aground, and the heady hopes that it once inspired are crumbling.

“We come here to forget it all,” said Mr. Fakhreldin, who described himself as a disillusioned revolutionary. “The heat, the electricity cuts, the protests. Here, at least we can sing.”

For those who are fasting, iftar is a daily deliverance after the long hours of hunger and thirst. In Sudan it is particularly trying: Daytime temperatures are regularly hitting 115 degrees Fahrenheit, around 45 degrees Celsius, these days, and the power cuts can last eight hours.

An ominous political backdrop sharpens the privation. A military coup last October scuttled the democratic transition that started in April 2019 when crowds toppled Omar Hassan al-Bashir, their autocratic ruler for 30 years. Now the economy is tanking, food prices are soaring, and nearly 100 people have been killed in anti-military demonstrations.

On the Scene: A Tense Ramadan in Sudan

On the Scene: A Tense Ramadan in Sudan

During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims break their daily fast with iftar, a meal that is shared with friends, families and even strangers. In Sudan, I was invited to iftar in riverside villages, desert huts and suburban streets.

Here’s what I saw →

On the Scene: A Tense Ramadan in Sudan

One evening people streamed to Tuti Island, in the Nile, to share iftar. It had been another scorching day with temperatures reaching 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Economic and political turmoil added to their hardship.

On the Scene: A Tense Ramadan in Sudan

Once they had eaten, a wave of relief washed over the beachgoers.

Some lounged on the sand, smoking their first cigarettes of the day. Others dabbled in the water or flew kites.

On the Scene: A Tense Ramadan in Sudan

Then a love song rang out. Ibrahim Fahkreldin, a 20-year-old crooner, performed traditional Sudanese ballads as well as new songs about Sudan’s growing turmoil. “We come here to forget it all,” he told me.

On the Scene: A Tense Ramadan in Sudan

He wasn’t the only one. While iftar is a moment to satisfy hunger and thirst, it is also an opportunity to share food with loved ones — and a welcome respite from the daily grind.

On the Scene: A Tense Ramadan in Sudan

It was the same everywhere I went, including this village 200 miles upriver. Some of these men worked in the nearby gold mines, and they offered to guide me to their workplace in the nearby desert.

On the Scene: A Tense Ramadan in Sudan

That led me to Ahmed Ali Jadallah, a miner I found sitting in a tiny tent, fasting. He was waiting for sundown to get down to work at the “line” — a seam of gold-rich rock he was hacking from the desert.

On the Scene: A Tense Ramadan in Sudan

Even in a season of worship, Sudan’s turmoil kept pressing in. Nearly 100 people have died in street protests since the military seized power in a coup in October. The tumult continued through Ramadan.

On the Scene: A Tense Ramadan in Sudan

One afternoon, young men and women wearing ski masks clashed with police officers who were firing tear gas. Acrid smoke filled the air. Then the muezzin’s call rang out: It was time for iftar.

On the Scene: A Tense Ramadan in Sudan

The protesters paused and pulled out dates, bottles of water and bags of sandwiches. Several offered to share.

Another fast was over, but Sudan continues down an unpredictable path.

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