This post was inspired by pictures my friend Ahmed sent me of him sitting poolside, somewhere in the UAE, and my subsequent reflex of yelling (in my car), “Yaaaasss, 3eesh!”. My reaction caught me off guard – why was I so happy? I sat back in my seat and took a minute. I didn’t need the whole minute – I already had the answer: he was engaging in that magical thing we call leisure. Leisure is a concept still lost on many Sudanese. Though known for our lazy Fridays afternoons and Sunday, Monday, Tuesday mornings, we still fall short of the mark when it comes to properly engaging in leisurely activities. Reading a book, taking a walk, having a picnic on the banks of the Nile are all activities that are deemed a waste of time, frivolous, or the infamous “gillat adab” [lit. low manners]. I can’t count the number of times I’ve driven down Nile Street with my family and have them comment on the throngs of people enjoying a cup of tea or coffee by a sit shai [tea lady]:
Da shinu da! Alnas di battalat tag3ud fi buyoota! [What is this! Everyone has stopped staying in their homes]
As if being out in the street is some great shame. How dare you not spend every free moment you have cooped up in your house going stir crazy? This comment is especially applicable to women, who I am discovering apparently should be neither heard nor seen. Passing by a group of girls taking a walk on any given afternoon, I often hear the comment (usually from an older person), “Albanat dail i7ooman fil shawari3 di kida, ma akhair laihin ymshu yshoofan laihin giraaya fi buyootin?” [these girls roaming the streets, aren’t they better off going home and hitting the books?]. But these girls probably just got out of class, where they’ve been force-fed information since 8am; can they get a couple of hours to unwind before going home?
But who can blame us for not knowing how to relax, when most of us spend our lives playing ‘Red Light, Green Light’ with death? Between the oppressive heat, trying to earn a living in an even more oppressive economy, and navigating the daily maze of social obligations, it’s a wonder we have time for anything. And when you do have a brief moment to get some fresh air and some distraction, you have to pay for it. There are no (free) public parks in Khartoum. As a result, those without the funds to spend on entering a trash-littered “park” with minimal lighting and rides for kids (which are more death trap than fun ride) are forced to hunt down the few open spaces available – like the patches of grass at the entrance to Khartoum airport.
You read that right. People take their kids for nighttime picnics at the airport. If that’s not a powerful metaphor, I don’t know what the hell is.
Up until a year or so ago, there used to be spaces called ‘7abeebi Mufallis‘ [my love(r) is broke] – grassy areas that are basically large medians in the street where sitat shai would set up shop, and people (usually young couples) would come drink tea and spend a romantic time to the tune of traffic. 7abeebi Mufallis was especially populated at night, and without lighting, I often wondered how these couples could be sure that they were sitting with the right person. Those spaces have since been fenced to either become paid spaces or just simply to keep people out.
The only viable option left is Nile Street, which is quickly being overtaken by “investors” (read: government entities) building large structures right on the banks of the Nile, obstructing the view and effectively rendering Khartoum’s only source of beauty useless. Here is where the young men of the Triangular Capital come to live, one laughter-filled, music-accompanied, sheesha and cigarette smoke-enveloped moment at a time, all for the price of a cup of tea. If you’re a woman, you too can join in on the fun, but your price is a little steeper, and more to the tune of sleazy looks, an off-color comment or two and, if you’re really lucky, a quick visit from the Public Order police, who will stop you while you take a walk with your mother and cousin, and ask your mother why she allowed you to walk out of the house wearing wide legged pants and a long cardigan, but scarfless. Your mother will appease the officer by apologizing, while she pinches you (hard) to keep you from popping off at the mouth. The officer will then tell your mother to take you and your cousin home, immediately, and your mother will obey in order to save you from your fate which, in this case, is in the form of a pickup truck filled with police officers that has parked next to you and is ready to pick you up to take you to the police station. You’ll go home wondering why you ever decided to go out in the first place.
(Sorry for the PTSD flashback)
All this to say that in order to survive, the Sudanese people need to be afforded the luxury of leisure. We need to be able to experience moments that are a basic necessity for any healthy, stable human being. We need to be provided ways to relieve the soul-crushing stress we rack up on a daily basis that are not at the expense of our thinning pockets. We need to be given the opportunity to live.