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KHARTOUM, Sudan — Arriving at the Khartoum airport near midnight, as I did a few weeks before the American presidential election, one is struck by the lineup of aircraft parked near the terminal. There is not a single Western airline among them, though one sees several from across the Arab world and parts of Africa. And there is a veritable fleet of plain-white aircraft bearing simply two letters: UN.
Welcome to Sudan, a country under strict financial sanctions by Washington — renewed this November for yet another year — because of its government’s alleged support for terrorism and harsh abuses of human rights. The beating heart of Islam in black Africa, Sudan is cut off from Western companies, Western banks, Western credit cards and cash cards. The Western world surfaces only indirectly, through the humanitarian aid delivered by United Nations agencies to Sudanese and refugees in the country from elsewhere in Africa.
To be sure, Sudanese are riveted by the West. Young men tell the visitor of the perilous “underground railroad” that swarms of migrants from Sudan and the Horn of Africa dream of following across the Sahara to Libya’s coast and across the Mediterranean to Italy — from which I had just flown in a matter of hours. They pay far more for their voyage than I did for my air ticket, with far less certainty of reaching their destination. And while my aim was to visit Unesco’s World Heritage sites in Sudan, the least of the priorities of migrants seeking to slip into Italy is to visit its heritage wonders.
It is, by chance, an Italian company that operates the relatively comfortable desert accommodations close to Sudan’s two Unesco heritage sites and that organizes, in high season, exotic tour groups there. Lovers of antiquities who dread the crowds and lines at places like Rome’s Colosseum or Giza’s Pyramids will find no crowds — indeed, in October, no other visitors at all — but plenty of pyramids at Sudan’s heritage sites.
The collection of admission fees to these sites is haphazard, which may or may not be related to the seemingly modest investment that is made in maintaining these antiquities. Extensive restoration work has reassembled what had been shattered ancient temples, but it appears to have predated the sanctions; the Lion Temple at Musawwarat bears a plaque crediting the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, for its preservation way back in 1969, a moment when Sudan’s government was cozying up to the Soviet bloc.
The sanctions do crimp Sudan’s modest tourism potential a bit. The foreigner, cut off from the international banking system, must bring cash to cover all his expenses. Sudan’s security state also imposes restrictions that can be vexing to the visitor. Khartoum sits at the confluence of the White and the Blue Nile, but a tourist’s photograph of the juncture of the two mighty rivers will land him in the police station. Travelers must register with the local police station within three days of their arrival in Sudan, and they will encounter dozens of security checkpoints along the roads leading north through the desert to the ancient Nubian heritage sites.
The sanctions may have a salutary impact in strengthening South-South trade: a bank director welcomed me to his office as he met with Indians seeking financing to export the food stabilizer gum arabic, of which Sudan is the world’s largest producer, to South Asia. The Indians’ local partner observed that the largest foreign economic presence in Sudan today is actually China’s, but the Chinese are seen as no less exploitative than old Western investors had been, with frostier interpersonal relations.
Sudanese do have access to international information media. A modest guesthouse in Khartoum screens BBC World News day and night, providing fodder for conversation among visitors and locals. There was, at the time of my visit, a fascination with the American presidential campaign and incredulity at the candidacy of Donald Trump; as he laced into Hillary Clinton during the second debate, a startled Sudanese watching the feed asked: “This is your election? This is what democracy means?” (Not to worry about the outcome, however: Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, professes to find in the victor someone who will be “much easier to deal with” than Barack Obama.)
However, this intense interest in politics among Sudanese seems only to start at the desert’s far edge. No one I met in a week of encounters with many Sudanese volunteered a word about Sudan’s current internal politics, and I was too discreet to ask. But in a country where the internal security organs lurk everywhere and omertà is the watchword of the prudent resident, Sudanese across all walks of life — even policemen — volunteered with startling unanimity a nostalgia for the days of Ga’afar an-Nimeiry, who ruled Sudan for nearly two decades before he was ousted by an Islamist coup in 1985, which brought the current leadership circles to power.
Or draw an inference from another vignette, of a Sudanese driver who hangs a token of a miniature Kalashnikov from his rearview mirror, along with a real Kalashnikov bullet. This is not out of sympathy for those waging jihad, but a reminder of what he had endured, thanks to the world of politics. Over a decade ago, as a teenager, he had been pulled off a bus and conscripted on the spot into the Sudanese army and was sent to Juba to fight the rebels challenging Khartoum’s authority, where he took this bullet in his side. He has nothing critical to say about the regime that sent him there — he just hangs the bullet that had been taken out of him as a plea for “war no more.”
Those same South Sudanese that my interlocutor was fighting are now streaming into the north, fleeing their own new state’s downward spiral into ethnic war. One South Sudanese family had just become squatters in a vacant yard under my hotel window in the capital here in Khartoum. Other refugees from Eritrea and Ethiopia put their language skills to work in restaurants and hotels, while praying to avoid government roundups while they wait for the UN high commissioner for refugees to accept their applications for asylum.
Syrians come to Khartoum as the one Arab country that has not yet put up visa barriers as they flee their own country’s civil war. The range of foreigners flocking to Sudan from across East Africa’s conflict zones was on display in the capital’s lone Catholic church.
“Sudanese hospitality remains second to none,” I had read in my “Lonely Planet” guide. That hospitality is extended not just to Western visitors and UN staff carrying cash, but even to Africans coming without it. Sudan remains a wondrous land of contradictions.