“Come! Come!” The group of teenage schoolgirls was enthusiastically wading through the murky waters of the Nile to hop aboard a bright purple metal boat. Our captain, a young man not much older than the girls, was hugging the sputtering outboard motor, looking about as bemused as me.
As the final stragglers succumbed to peer pressure and joined our now completely overloaded vessel, I kept wondering. How on earth did I end up here?
An Invitation For Tea
This strange encounter, like so many others in Sudan, began with an invitation for tea. Escaping an awkward conversation with our greedy hotel owner, Marie and I sought refuge along the sandy shores of the Nile.
Our small Nubian village was surrounded by lush fava bean fields, the local staple food. And beyond the narrow strip of vegetation, endless sand dunes. Farmers tirelessly toiled under the blazing sun, while small boats ferried people and goats up and down the river.
Sudanese people, and perhaps even more so the Nubians, an ancient ethnic group spread between Egypt and its southern neighbor, are exceedingly hospitable. Thus, we weren’t really surprised to hear once more faint shouts of “shay! shay!” mere minutes after our walk began. Yep, another invitation for tea!
But this one was different. Upon closer inspection, our new hosts turned out to be small group of half a dozen teenage girls, hugging a thermos of milk tea and a big box of biscuits. Condemned to sit back with my few words of Arabic, I watched Marie do all the talking.
Brother Or Husband
Our friends had just finished school, and were visibly very excited to speak to a foreign female visitor in Arabic. So excited in fact that two of them soon ran away, gesturing that they would return. Indeed, within minutes another dozen giggling schoolgirls appeared from behind the date palms.
Women play a more visible public role in Sudan than in Egypt, manning most of the countless tea and coffee stalls across the country. Nevertheless, the country remains very conservative, as illustrated by the long dresses and hijab worn without exception by all women. Boys and girls hanging out together is usually a big no-no.
The girls then asked Marie a crucial question: “Is this your brother?” She went for our usual answer in such a situation. As her husband, I was not much of a moral threat anymore, and could thus be happily ignored.
A Heaven Across The River
Quickly, a plan was formulated by what seemed to be the leaders of the group. Once more, two girls ran away, this time towards the boatmen that were hanging out further downstream. We went back to sipping tea and chatting. A few minutes later, they came back triumphantly with their prize, a rickety metallic boat to take us all to a nearby island.
We were set free on what was more like a giant sandbank in the middle of the Nile. Our hosts immediately switched into high gear. Far from the inquisitive eyes of the village, some hijabs came off, and a game of dodgeball was improvised by making a ball out of them. Small groups broke away chatting and laughing.
“What music do you listen to?” I failed to impress them with the songs on phone. Fortunately, the mobile signal was strong enough for streaming, and soon we were all dancing to the sound of Sudanese pop music. It was surreal, akin to suddenly discovering that you have 20 odd Sudanese sisters in your family.
The Honorary Man
There is a cultural phenomenon in the Middle-East that is often referred to as the honorary man. Foreign women usually receive a unique status that socially places them somewhere between local men and women. And transcends boundaries.
The honorary man can interact freely with the male specie and participate in their activities. Talking to a Bedouin Sheikh is acceptable, and so is dining with shepherds. But compared to the ubiquitous regular man, she can also enter the intimacy of the female sphere, a world that is otherwise strictly off-bounds.
This phenomenon occurs, although often to a lesser extend, in most conservative societies that segregate the sexes. I have, as a man, secretly been jealous of this more than once. Simply smiling to a group of Tajik housewifes can still carry some ambiguity. It sometimes feels like half the world remains hidden away, out of reach.
Back on the shores of the Nile, for once, the roles had been reversed. I had briefly slipped into the elusive skin of the honorary woman. For a couple of hours, I was part of their world. A privilege that would not have been bestowed on a lone backpacker.
I’ve often heard people touting the benefits of traveling as a couple or a group. “It’s less lonely.” Or at the opposite how solo adventures fosters easier human interactions. Reality is, as always, somewhere in between. Every approach comes with unique opportunities, as long as we are able to see, and most importantly seize them.
By late afternoon, our ferry came back. Hijabs and coats were gingerly rearranged. Some girls performed the afternoon prayer in the sand, their prostrations flowing gracefully. Back at the village, the schoolgirls paid the boatman and bid us farewell. We said goodbye and watched the schoolgirls walk away, happy and proud. They disappeared behind the old mudbrick houses lining the shore.
We tried to continue our walk by leaving the banks of the Nile, still trying to put words on our experience. As we crossed a field, a farmer greeted us. Half an hour later, and we somehow ended up clumsily helping the man to cut forage for his sheep. Which was followed by another invitation for tea. But that’s another story.