It is a tough call: see the Nubian wrestlers across the Blue Nile, or witness the dervishes at Omdurman, on the other side of the White Nile? Both events only take place on Friday afternoon and start at more or less the same time. We decide to try Omdurman; finding a minivan turns out to be a little more difficult than we thought, and we end up hiring one. When we cross the White Nile on the old bridge, I feel the excitement of entering new territory: I had walked here a week before, but turned back as soon as I reached the other side. Now, we drive through streets with low-rise, relatively new buildings, until we reach an open space. In the middle of it, we see a few domes rising out of the plain. Our driver steers his rickety van right onto a track, and stops next to the domes of Hamed el Nil mosque. There are the tea ladies that are such a common sight in Sudan, there are a few men dressed in green robes, and there is a peaceful atmosphere. We are early; one of the rickshaw drivers takes us out to the tomb of Mahdi. When we come back to Hamed el Nil, not much has changed. It turns out that the weekly Halgt Zikr ceremony starts later in winter. An older man in a white robe takes us out for a short walk, explains what we are seeing, invites us into a tomb where people are singing and murmuring prayers, and a cat sneak into the openings of the tomb itself, and walk around the cemetery. We end up at yet another tea stall.
More people have arrived by now, a few instruments and loudspeakers have been installed. We even see a group of tourists, and a few other guys with serious video camera equipment (ten days later, we would learn they were BBC crew). The air is filled with expectation. Then, the music starts to play, and a group of men mostly dressed in green robes walks across the open space to the mosque. Some wear pointy hats, some just have a green shawl wrapped around them. They have to push through a circle of people, and there is some elbowing to get a good spot in order to see them up close. The band plays rhythmic music, and some of the guys of the group gently push people a step back. As soon as more space is created, the dervishes start to whirl. The people around us chant in line with the music. People get caught up in the ceremony; all seek a way to communicate directly with God. Many men have a curved wooden stick in their hands, raised in the air. Most have taken off their shoes. Inside the circle, some guys are in a trance, and run around, while in the crowd, people are chanting "Allah" and clapping along in peace. People move their elbows forward and backward along with the merciless pace set by the music. Some of the older men dressed in green wear a whole bunch of prayer beads, giving them an aura of more dignity. In a quiet moment, I manage to get to a small, stony and circular platform around which the dervishes move. While sitting on the sand, I am overrun by a blind dervish who runs around the circle like a madman.
Sitting on the stones, with the music coming from behind me, and the chanting from all around, I watch in awe at the people around me who seemed totally immersed in their faith. People in the first line of the crowd are chanting with their raised sticks, while the dervishes move around me at various paces. Some appear calm, where others seem to be getting in a frenzy. One of them stands out: he is wearing a light brown coat with colourful decorations, has dreadlocks on his head, and a wooden gun around his shoulders. His frightening stare is pointed to somewhere no one can see, and he moves around violently, sometimes swinging his wooden gun into the air. Frothing saliva is coming out of his mouth. It feels like he lost self-control, and I take care not to look directly into his eyes. But then, he kneels and pats small boys standing inside the circle with a smile, before continuing his aggressive dance in a cloud of whirling sand. His uncontrolled and brusque movements finally make him collide with another dervish, at which point they get into a physical fight, which is quickly ended by the others. The chanting coming from everywhere around me, and the continuous movement of both the dervishes and the Sufi bystanders starts to make my head spin. It is at the same time, fascinating and frightening, impressive and intimidating. Eventually, the dervishes move around the circle together. When the sun sinks below the horizon, the ceremony is over, and the crowd disperses. We are invited to have a cup of tea with a group of young men, and make our way back to Khartoum, our heads full of intense new images.
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