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Port Sudan, Off the Beaten Path 

Port Sudan is a gem on the Red Sea from whichever angle you look. A wonderfully quaint city in which Eastern Sudanese culture can be experienced, in context. Port Sudan is not a touristy town. The tourist footprint is not very apparent in the city—possibly because of the grueling 12-hour bus ride through no man’s land it takes to get there—but it is well worth the journey.

Most people after arrival in Port Sudan land squarely in the downtown souq (market). In the suoq, most everywhere you go the aroma of spiced jebana (coffee) fills the air. Vendors selling everything from condiments to swords, tailors selling waistcoats and their trademark extremely baggy white surwal (trousers) called Surbadoug, line the high-vaulted arcades along the facades of businesses and alleys throughout the souq. The souq is lively and colorful and part of the Port Sudan experience.

Port Sudan is conservative by comparison to Khartoum; traditional Sudanese clothing is the norm with an Eastern twist. Men wear the white jellabeeya (thobe) and most every man wears a waist coat and carries a stick or sword. Some men wear the izar, a traditional waist wrap like those of the Yemenis and Somalis. The women wear tiaab (wraps) and were generally one solid color. Many women also drew fabric from their tiab across part of their faces, particularly when men were around. Our first night there were went to a wedding. The hall was packed but no mixing occurred. The women were all to one side and the men the other. Even when the bride and groom arrived, the men and women crowded around the groom and the bride respectively, to congratulate them, but maintained separation.

Due to the hot humid coastal weather many of the residences have open-air second or third floor verandas. In older houses around the souq, the verandas have latticed bay windows, similar to what’s seen on traditional houses in Jeddah, KSA.  This cultural feature has two purposes. One, it adds architectural beauty and two, it allows the breeze in, but provides privacy for the occupants.

A popular evening destination for residents and tourist alike is the Cornish, the Port Sudan harbor. Families, equipped with thermoses of coffee and sweets, relax on large mats that they spread out on the wide paved sidewalks across the street from the harbor. On the harbor promenade, outdoor restaurants and cafes provide fast food and places to sit near the water. Along the lower promenade merchants sell colorful local crafts decorated with sea shells. Visiting yachts docked at the Cornish, are also a common sight.

These are all wonderful places to enjoy during a visit, but what crowned my visit was an out of the blue walk along the Red Sea coast after lunch at Seagaala, a popular restaurant near the fish market. The weather was inviting for a stroll, so we walked leisurely with no intended destination.

The houses faced to sea. Generally attached, almost like row houses and void of front yards, their flat facades, painted and unpainted were uncharacteristic of homes in the capital Khartoum. After walking a bit, we heard the call to pray from what I imagined to be a vintage horn speaker; I mean you could literally hear the history crackling through the wires. There, further up the coast we spotted a small neighborhood mosque, its white minaret contrasting the blue late afternoon sky.

The entrance of the mosque proper was a large wooden double door shaded by a wooden awning, weather beaten but firm. The awning stretched the length of the mosque and provided an annex for prayer as well as a mid-day nap. The floors inside the mosque and the annex were covered with colorful woven mats. Thinking back, it’s hard to describe the serenity of the scene; a bit surreal you might say.

Attached to the street wall with its own awning was the wudaaya, ablution station. A tiled façade with a number of faucets over a trough, facing concrete blocks for sitting on. Rolling up my sleeves and tucking up my jellabeeya, I squatted to perform ablution for prayer. The cool soft water felt good running through my fingers, so I let them linger momentarily as I gazed back at the traditional architecture of the mosque and its minaret. This was an gem in the crown.

Cupping the water in my hands, I took a full swig into my nose and mouth. Chocking, I spit out the water to catch my breath—it was salty, not just desalinated salty, Red Sea salty.

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