Khartoum is dusty and very, very hot. Every time I complain about the heat, I am told that I should have been here in May when it was hot; this is not the hottest season. The city looks as if it is at the end of a war rather than in the middle of one. For every building standing, there are at least five others being constructed. It gives the impression that Khartoum was thought of a few weeks ago. The main roads of the city are very good but small back streets in residential neighborhoods are unpaved and unnamed. To navigate the city, you need to know it well or at least which landmark is near your destination.
My first night I stayed at the Acropole, a once grand hotel run by a lovely old Greek couple. The hotel was blown up in the 1980s by a Palestinian who didn’t like foreigners in Sudan. The main part of the hotel still lies in ruins because of some legal complication over ownership of the land.
It was a little pricey.
I stayed one night and with the help of my brother in law we found an apartment on Mohamed Najib Street above the Attractive Man Salon. A Turkish looking man with a sleazy come-hither half-smile looked across the road to the Ibn Khaldun Bleeding Centre. I couldn’t help think that Google translation is doing more damage than good for the English language.
Some of the steps to the second floor flat were straight and some weren’t chipped or cracked. The other flat on the floor was occupied by a dentist’s surgery. It took a while turning the key to open the door, and we all had a go. I tried to switch the lights on and then realized they already were. It had one of those twirly 40 watt energy saving lights that make a room seem darker, and the curtains were like life-size chocolate wrappers, put up to make a would-be intruder think the flat was derelict and not worth robbing. The walls were painted with oil-based heavy duty colours that might have been left over from painting a garage. Each wall was discoloured in a different way. I tried not to show my brother in law that I was horrified, as I didn’t want to offend him. The owner of the building came down to welcome us. He was slightly overweight, a very dark tall man with tiny teeth that were very white, almost as white as his jellabiya. He sat with us and left as soon as I paid him for 2 weeks ($300). He left with a grin, revealing more of his tiny white teeth.
As soon as my brother in law left I inspected the rest of this hellhole. You could see the stains on the bed of the last few people who had tried to sleep there. The drawer of my dressing table had an abandoned toothbrush. The bathroom and the kitchen were filthy and totally impractical. To get to the toilet you had to step over the shower (that didn’t work). I shut the door to the kitchen. I covered the bed with some material I had brought from Boston to make dresses. I left the next day.
My husband, who has been living in Sudan, as soon as he saw the flat, booked us into a guesthouse used by UN staff instead. He enjoyed saying nothing about how dreadful it was. If he’d found the flat, he would not have heard the end of it.
Our new place is clean, comfortable and connected to the Internet. There is a common room where we can have breakfast and meet the latest guests. This morning it is a young man from Albania who is working for the UN. It is Manuel’s first time in Africa but he has been to other third world countries. He’s wearing a bead necklace as if he’s off to Mardi Gras. Actually he’s going to Darfur for three weeks on a logistics mission and is afraid that something would happen to him, like getting eaten by lions. He was horrified to learn that I brush my teeth with tap water. I am trying to read my emails and not feeling particularly sociable or argumentative.
When we were sitting in the common area, Manuel asked, “Can you get the internet here?” I said yes, and it was fast. He ran upstairs to fetch his computer which he opened and said that he was going to put his impressions of the city on his Facebook site. He had arrived the night before and it was not even nine o’clock in the morning and he hadn’t yet left the building. My husband advised me to write immediately after I arrived, because the longer you stay the more difficult it will be to write anything. I was envious of Manuel’s speedy understanding of Sudan.
After he finished his report, Manuel tried to get my attention by looking at his watch and saying “my driver is supposed to be here at nine, but hey this is Africa.” It was 8.58 and his mobile rang at 9.03. He told me it was his driver and with a forced grin I said, “hey this is Africa.”