KHARTOUM, Sudan – Friday night by the Nile, and a love song floated on the warm breeze that blew over Tuti Island, a crescent country at the confluence of the river’s two great branches.
Hundreds of people had gathered on the beach for iftar, the sunset meal that breaks the daily fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Once they had eaten, there was a palpable sense of relief.
People lay in the sand, smoking cigarettes and scrolling their screens. Children splashed in the shallows of the river. Kites danced in the air. As the Sudanese capital twinkled across the street, a young crooner struck up a song.
“How could your heart allow you to forget me?” sang Ibrahim Fakhreldin, his face bathed in the glow of cell phones held by his friends, which burst out before the chorus.
“Tell us what has changed, for the sake of love,” they sang in unison, some playfully clutching their hearts, in a rendition of “Now You Just Pass Us By”, a traditional Sudanese ballad.
The song was personal to Mr Fakhreldin, 20, who told me he had once courted a girlfriend on this beach. “It’s over,” he said wistfully. “But the place is still there.” Now he was looking for something else: a respite from the daily grind of Sudan, where a once glorious revolution has foundered badly, and the intoxicating hopes it once inspired are crumbling.
“We come here to forget everything,” said Fakhreldin, who described himself as a disillusioned revolutionary. “The heat, the power cuts, the protests. At least here we can sing.”
For those who are fasting, iftar is a daily liberation after the long hours of hunger and thirst. It is especially tough in Sudan: Daytime temperatures regularly reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit, about 45 degrees Celsius, and power cuts can last up to eight hours.
An ominous political backdrop sharpens the deprivation. A military coup last October brought an end to the democratic transition that began in April 2019 when mobs overthrew Omar Hassan al-Bashir, their autocratic ruler for 30 years. Now the economy is collapsing, food prices are rising and nearly 100 people have died in anti-military demonstrations.
But Ramadan is also a time of communion, when friends, families and even strangers gather to break their fast. The iftar meal, which I was allowed to share over several weeks in riverside villages, desert huts and suburban streets, also provided a cherished break – a chance to take stock at a time when many say Sudan is dangerous. it’s drifting, leaving them unsure of what comes next.
Driving back to Khartoum one evening, we suddenly encountered a group of determined men standing in the middle of the road, urging us to stop. But this wasn’t a robbery. It was dinner.
The celebration of Ramadan
The Islamic month of Ramadan, a time of prayer, fasting and feasting, began on April 2 in the United States.
At the gates of a small mansion in the town of El-Kabashi was a long mat with food plates on it. About 50 other travelers were already waiting to eat. The free meal – an iftar for passing travelers – was funded by Hasoba el-Kabashi, a local entrepreneur and the owner of the mansion.
Mr. el-Kabashi told me that he made his fortune from real estate, car dealerships and a freight company in Dubai. Now he paid it back. This was a small crowd, he noted; he once fed six busloads of travelers. There was no question of anyone paying a cent.
“It’s for God,” he said, pointing to the sky now filled with stars.
His guests were not at the ceremony. After 15 minutes they arose from the meal, prayed together and continued their journey. We also.
With the road clear, we ran into the center of Khartoum, crossed the Nile on an ancient bascule bridge, then flew past the gates of the military headquarters where protesters gathered to oust Mr al-Bashir in 2019, in euphoric scenes which aroused hopes that this revolution might continue.
But now the square is a haunted arena. Soldiers man checkpoints in deserted streets. The famous revolutionary murals had been painted over. Only a few shreds of rebellious graffiti remained. “We were killed here,” read one.
Further downstream, at the Chinese-built Presidential Palace, I met Lieutenant General Ibrahim Gabir, one of the generals who now rule the country. The military intervention in October last year was not a coup, he insisted. “I’d rather say diversion,” he said.
After more than an hour of conversation, General Gabir blamed Sudan’s mess on his bickering politicians and promised to hold elections by July 2023 — an impossibly short time frame to hold a free and fair vote, by most estimates.
It was almost time for iftar. As I left, I wandered through the long corridors of the empty palace. A painting depicts Mohammed Ahmed Ibn el-Sayyid Abdullah, a messianic 19th-century religious leader who led a rebellion against British colonialism and trampled an enemy warrior under his horse. But when I finally found the exit, General Gabir was already there, jumped into a vehicle and scrambled home to break his fast.
The traditional iftar meal in Sudan includes rich meat sauces soaked in kisra sorghum pancakes† spicy beef sausages, bean stews and glistening pieces of watermelon. The food is washed down with seasonal drinks – karkade, or ice cold hibiscus juice, and a local sweet and sour drink known as abreh. But for many Sudanese these have become priceless luxuries.
In a sweltering bakery in Atbara, 250 kilometers from Khartoum, young men threw flat breads from an open oven that sold for 50 Sudanese pounds, or about nine cents each. Three years ago they cost £2 each. That’s a resonating problem in Atbara, where student protests over rising bread prices in late 2018 sparked the nationwide movement that eventually toppled Mr al-Bashir. But the hunger for revolution has diminished.
“I don’t care anymore,” said Kultom Altijani, a 45-year-old street vendor who asked for money to send her sick daughter to a dentist. “We want to eat and drink – that’s all.”
Years after the ouster of Mr. al-Bashir is still faring better with his allies than most, slowly making a comeback. This Ramadan, the wealthier officials can be found among the evening people in the Al Salam hotel, the salon of the elite of Khartoum. Although the iftar buffet costs $45 a head, it is packed every night, with women in delicately embroidered robes sitting next to men in immaculate robes. They stand next to all sorts of foreigners looking to fix or take advantage of Sudan’s political mess: diplomatic envoys, Russian mercenaries, aid workers and United Nations officials.
Iftar is also fraught with meaning for the revolutionaries who are fighting on. On April 6, protesters filled the street outside the Al Salam to mark the third anniversary of Mr. al-Bashir. This time the warm breeze was not carrying a love song, but a sting.
Thick smoke rose from burning tires as young men and women, spiced up by months of protests, clashed with riot police. On the front, some protesters wore ski masks and gardening gloves that they used to hurl flowing tear gas canisters back at police.
Even as I hung back, my eyes sting from the clouds of tear gas that drifted down the street, and I stumbled to the side of the road. The call of the muezzin sounded: iftar.
The chanting subsided and bags of food were produced. Protesters distributed dates, sandwiches and paper cups filled with karkade. A woman wrapped in a Sudanese flag offered to share her food and, given my condition, offered a cloth soaked in vinegar to stop the tears.
Others crouched on the curb, guzzling water and enjoying a moment of relief as more tear gas blared in the distance.