The following is a letter from a European woman coming down the Nile from Egypt into Sudan to her friend, Doris. She, being an artist was able to express vividly many beauties in Sudan that may have gone unnoticed by most travelers.
This letter, written in 1960 gives us a glimpse of the Nile and villages through the eyes of a foreigner. Her observations, particularly concerning customs and habits are her own opinion—in some cases inaccurate, but her descriptions of the physical beauty of the land and dwellings inspire wonder.
Letter to Doris
30 April 1960
My dear Doris,
I have just spent two days clearing my studio after returning from my travels. Within all the chaos of travelling, it is essential that my eyes remain alert and able to take in everything I see around me. Problems in painting abound, and yet, in spite of everything, painting actually happens—before you, you have the subjects, the ‘phenomena,’ the visions; they are outside of you and you receive them, absorb them; then, somehow, the work, the transposition happens despite the fatigue, hordes of mosquitoes, and (what I find particularly wearing) all the horrible little complications and misunderstandings with people around you. Fortunately, memory allows for the occasional clean sweep, leaving you fresh and receptive to new sensations.
Nubia, a land condemned to die, offers itself to our view from the boat that we have been on for twelve days so far. Before us lies a sequence of dry, harsh ripples in the desert sand and black mountains. The houses built upon this land are a perfect style, totally adapted to their surroundings and with a rich variety of decoration on their windows and facades. One could spend forever studying these designs and learn more than one would ever need to know about ornament.
I do not know how to begin telling you about the interiors of these houses. All of nature’s jewels seem to be there in an extraordinary display; everything is so expressive. There is nothing as beautiful and so in harmony.
But beautiful though things are, life in these villages is like being exiled by the gods—the women are there sometimes for two or three years without their husbands. They are smiling but can become quite hysterical, excluded from the normal life that we know.
And yet what beauty lies in the tiny, fierce orange grains sparkling in the hot sand and in the huge, strangely shaped stones. And further, beyond the banks of the Nile lurks the great desert. . . .
A feeling of anxiety takes hold of you when you see things of such outstanding beauty. You become conscious of the artist’s obsession to eternalize and feel the need to put all that you see down on canvas or paper. Occasionally, and this is almost painfully beautiful to witness, the Nile becomes a long, flat mirror; the reflection upon its surface has a completely abstract quality and the light on the water reflecting the sky is extraordinary. One single ripple will carry streaks of an intense cobalt blue and of
yellow—or rather gold, bronze or creamy yellow—all sparkling with lilac and mauve. From time to time in this seemingly flat landscape there will appear a black mountain enveloped in sand.
According to the level of the water, the small islands resting on the Nile will disappear and reappear. The river is running high at the moment, so these stretches of plantation are all submerged in water. There is an enormous variety of birds on this stretch of water: pelicans, ibises, herons, wild ducks and swans.
My God, if only the world could be created over again with creatures other than cruel human beings.
Apart from the beauty revealed in the landscape unfurling before one’s eyes, I have also to mention the beauty of Nubian women. Their jewellery is so beautifully arranged around their necks while their faces are framed within a thick black double set of earrings, which they all wear. Their beauty, however, can only be witnessed fleetingly as they tend to hide in their homes, coming out on occasion and giggling childishly. Their voices seem to sing yet they are shrill.
Everything appears to be in harmony here; it all follows the same rhythm; and artifice has not spoilt anything as it has with city-dwellers. So everything is presented in its pure form and each element becomes a pictorial ‘source’ for me.
Recently we went by chance to a village and to the house of the chauffeur of Dr. Naumare, a professor at the American University. He was a perfect gentleman, extremely hospitable and made us feel completely at ease in his home. He showed us the various rooms in his house, each more beautiful than the one before, and each one exquisitely decorated. Walls were painted and adorned with an array of baskets, rugs, paper cuttings, all of varied symmetry.
In other villages I have been to, each one giving its own particular way of ornamentation, I have seen rooms decorated with little plates made of packets of cigarettes, and newspapers transformed into rugs. The overall effect is stunning. On a wall in the square of one of the villages a young girl had cut out in sheets of varied coloured plastic material a series of people and animals. I saw this one morning. I was completely taken aback by this display of colours and decorative instinct. The material the girl had used gave a surprisingly impressive result—surfaces of colour that seemed to be dancing on the stillness of the dark grey wall.
I hardly looked at the temple at Abu Simbel . . . I couldn’t take my eyes away from the landscape around it. The day after visiting Abu Simbel we went for a long walk on the mountain. So many colours and so many contrasts in colour were revealed to me there: violet, green shades or red and yellow of a multitude of depths and densities. The Nile today is very still and dark. Where there is a mist floating upon the water soft shades of green bring the river to life. It is wonderful to sit and watch the water as the mist lifts off and drifts away. I was in the middle of putting this perfect landscape onto paper one day when I noticed a group of Nubian children nearby laughing heartily, their frizzy hair blowing in all directions in the wind. They stayed for only a very short while—a fleeting moment in the diminishing light of day. Which brings to mind the group of women I saw not so long ago in the village of Korosko—three women in black wearing turquoise blue veils standing against a white wall; again seen in the dimness after sunset . . . .
Al Jazar: A Minimalist Approach
On Al Jazar Street in al Riyadh Khartoum, under a large white sign spelling out the word “Al Jazar” in big bold black-lined red letters, is a great little take out for a delicious kufta sandwich. As the namesake explicates, the enterprise is a byproduct…