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The Khartoum Diaries: A Sacrificial Lamb

How is a dinner party in Khartoum different from a similar occasion in the United States?

September 28, 2007

How is a dinner party in Khartoum different from a similar occasion in the United States?

Come over for dinner,” they told us, and then they went to the market, purchased the lamb and walked it down to the local shop to have it butchered for the occasion.

It’s an honor, really. But for someone whose appetites are more for veggies, fruits and baked goods, a freshly slaughtered sheep didn’t exactly whet my appetite.

In fact, I felt more than a little guilty. Not for the fate of the little lamb (although I imagine he would have liked to extend his life a bit longer), but for the burden on the local family — particularly the women — to host us “Khawajas,” or foreigners, for a meal.

Nevertheless, at the appointed time, which was approximately 10 pm on a Wednesday, we made our way over to our friend’s place on the other side of the river.

Greater Khartoum is located at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. Everything here is pretty much described in one way or another in relation to the river.

Our friend lives in Omdurman, the traditional cultural heart of this metropolitan region. The city is famous for being the hometown of the Mahdi — literally, “the guided one” — who regained control of the area from the Red Sea to Central Africa from British and Egyptian forces at the end of the 19th century.

While Omdurman, Khartoum and Khartoum North (or “Bahri”) make up the metropolitan area, the city of Khartoum itself, where we live, regularly makes headlines for its rapid economic growth, Chinese investment — and tense political atmosphere. It is more modern, with wider streets and a sidewalk along the Blue Nile.

Overall, though, it lacks the seasoned character of its sister city to the northeast. Omdurman, on the other hand, is brimming with pedestrians bustling about their business, the central market for the greater city, tiny alleyways, dirt roads — and densely packed mud and brick buildings.

Even when animals haven’t been killed for dinner, we very much enjoy heading over the river to Omdurman for strong doses of another side of urban Sudanese life as often as we can.

On this night, we arrived after a circuitous trip, avoiding the ubiquitous traffic jams as often as possible, by taking side streets. As our car pulled up, our friend came running out from his gate — a fresh white jallabiya, or robe, billowing behind him. He welcomed us inside, showed us up to the third floor where he lives with his wife and two children, sat us down — and turned on the television.

Why is it that, as soon as the guests arrive, the hosts here always turn on the TV? It’s a trend we have yet to figure out, but we have grown quite accustomed to it by now. Our friend, like most people we know in Khartoum, lives on a kind of compound with his extended family.

His mother and single sisters on the ground floor, a married sister and family on the next one up — and his own wife and children on the third floor, at the top. His remaining siblings have gone to live in the family compounds of their extended in-laws.

Although it seemed late to us, it is not at all unusual to have guests for dinner late at night on a workday in Sudan. The workday here starts early, before the sun gets too hot, then a break mid-morning for breakfast — and a break in the early afternoon for lunch.

In practice, many offices do not re-open again until the following morning — although in theory there is an additional three hours of work between 4 pm and 7 pm.

In spite of the early start of business, and restrictive Sharia’ law, Sudanese dinner parties are lively events, often just getting fully going after midnight.

As we sat and talked over the din of the television in the background, our host brought fresh mango, tamarind and karkaday (hibiscus) juices.

We had met our friend’s wife on the way in — but she and her sisters-in-law who had been recruited to help with the meal preparations stayed largely behind the scenes throughout the meal. The women prepared the drinks, then the men brought them out from the kitchen and served them.

Later, sometime after 11:30 pm, our host decided it was time to eat. He called to the women to get the final pieces of the meal together. And then he and another friend brought it out, piling an enormous tray with little dishes of salads and sauces and big plates of meat.

When the table was filled to overflowing and we had to bring additional side tables to hold the bread and accoutrements, the men rejoined us and we crouched over the low table to eat.

In this part of Sudan, the style of eating, like in many places in North Africa, is to use bread as a utensil. A group sits together around a shared platter of meat and sauce, then they nimbly break off pieces of bread from the buns dispersed across the table, using only their right hands — and dip the bread into the various dishes.

In this way, it is possible for many to be fed with only a little meat, since the main substance of most meals is plain bread.

Our host had pulled out all the stops. There was lamb prepared at least three ways in heaping platters across the table. We looked at chops that were the size of a person’s face! I couldn’t stop thinking about what an extravagant event this must be for my host and his family.

Not that they would let me feel guilty for long. I could see that while it was a great expense to have killed a lamb for this dinner, there was great joy in his being able to share it with us. We ate with gratitude.

The women who had prepared the delicious food were nowhere to be seen.

This, like the noisy television in the background, is something I’m getting used to. Very often, if I eat with my husband in a friend’s home, then the men of the household will join us, but the women will not.

The other option is for me to leave my husband with the men and find the other ladies in the kitchen. As a “Khawaja,” or foreigner, I am usually given “honorary man status,” but every once in a while I am invited back into the inner rooms or kitchen where I can connect with local women.

Unless they are working in jobs outside of the home, it is very hard to get to know other women in this society.

Throughout the dinner, our host and his friend regaled us with stories from their work. What I remember most was my host’s friend talking about how our host used to be very fat.

He said, “This guy used to be so fat! You know, when he leads us in prayer, and bends over for the prostrations at the front of the room, wooo! It’s like a giant satellite dish up there!”

Or, “Hey! I remember you used to be so fat it looked like you had a bed mattress under your jallabiya!”

And, “Now, your wife takes good care of you because she makes you run up and down the stairs to this third-floor apartment. Whenever she needs anything . . . ‘go get me some sugar . . . go get me some Coca-Cola. . . we need more soap’ . . . that’s keeping you in good shape! You’re such a lucky man!”

Everyone roared with laughter. We laughed until our sides hurt. What I admired so much about our host, his friend and so many of the people we spend time with here, is that they don’t take themselves so seriously.

In the United States, I can hardly imagine sitting at a proper dinner party while one person made fun of the other’s appearance explicitly.

The importance of knowing when — and how — to take ourselves lightly is just one of the lessons I am learning from my time here in Sudan. Some of the others include the magnitude of generosity and hospitality, necessity of resilience and potential for endurance.

I have lived abroad before, but never in a place like this. Every day has been another opportunity to learn something about myself as I learn more about the rich local cultures that intersect in this capital city. I just hope not too many more lambs will have to be slaughtered in the course of my education.