Khartoum from the air


Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends,
have become global garbage cans.
~ Jacques Yves Cousteau

Coral reefs represent some of the world’s most spectacular beauty spots,
but they are also the foundation of marine life: without them
many of the sea’s most exquisite species will not survive.
~ Sheherazade Goldsmith


My colleague and I had completed our assessment interviews regarding current refugee needs in The Sudan. At the time, we worked for a non-governmental organization (ngo) that had been contracted for this work by the US State Department. Now we just needed to write the report.

Khartoum, the capital of The Sudan, where we were located, was a hot, dry, and rather uncompromising place. Islamic law, aka Sharia, ruled. This meant very strict, inflexible regulations about women, alcohol, sexual orientation, and so much more. 

It would be Christmas in a few days. ‘Christmas’ did not exist in Khartoum. I suggested to my colleague that since we did not need to be in person anymore, we could ‘get out of Dodge’ and write our report on the banks of the Red Sea near Port Sudan. He was resistant at first. “If we go to the sea we won’t write and we won’t finish our report on time.” He and I had known each other for years and we had worked together before. “Yes, we will,” I said. “We have always met our deadlines in the past. We’ll do it again this time. It really doesn’t matter whether we write here in hot and dry Khartoum or somewhere on the coast of the Red Sea.” After much cajoling and persuasive arguing, he finally agreed to my Red Sea proposal. Thank you, God!

When we got to Port Sudan, I was blown away. It was a disaster zone. Garbage was everywhere both in the city and on the shoreline. Totally disgusting! I remember wondering, “Is this where we’re headed on this planet?” Given the state of the city and the shore, I also wondered what the resort I had found outside of Port Sudan would be like. It turned out that our accommodations were somewhat dilapidated, sparse, and visually nothing to write home about but totally adequate. The landscape was more of the same: desert sand with no trees. The other guests at the resort were all Europeans who were there for the scuba diving. 

On our first day there, December 23, we spent a good amount of time synthesizing and writing. On December 24, we wrote some more in the morning and afternoon. We were getting closer to our goal. See?

As for the evening, the owners of the resort invited us to join in a communal Christmas Eve dinner with the other guests. It was delicious. And along with it came ‘Sudanese tea.’ The resort was owned by two European gay men. Brave. After all, Sharia outlaws for being gay. And it outlaws alcohol. Nonetheless, they circulated tea pots that held the ‘tea’ which was actually whiskey. Brave indeed. And, after months without alcohol, the small amount of whiskey we shared was welcome. It was a fun and rather raucous evening. Then, with nowhere else to go, we all went to bed in anticipation of a day at sea tomorrow.

My colleague and I closed up shop on December 25 – which we would have done in Khartoum as well had we stayed there. We went to the sea instead. Which, of course, we could not have done in Khartoum. We boarded a boat that ferried us out a fair distance from shore to where a reef predominated. All of the other guests were there for deep sea scuba diving. My colleague and I would snorkel on the surface above the reef. 

In my view, by being on the surface of the sea we had the very best view. In fact, we were gifted with an unimaginable cornucopia of beauty. Schools of various kinds of fish passed by in an unbelievably abundant variety of brilliant colors, unusual shapes, and varied sizes. The choreography was stunning and unending. Like a miracle. Well, perhaps less ‘like a miracle’ and, more simply, a miracle. Yes, it was yet another freely given miracle of life on earth! All we had to do was lay still and breathe though our snorkels. That incredible visual yet silent experience of marine life on the reef has become a treasured memory. It was a most wonderful and unmatchable Christmas gift indeed.

Then, on December 26, we said goodbye to the wonderful people had we met and the tea that was whiskey. We headed back to Port Sudan and made our way back to Khartoum. The trash and disarray of Port Sudan above the sea had not changed since we were there a few days ago. Garbage prevailed. But now I had a new memory of the beauty held under the nearby waters of the adjacent sea.

This story took place almost 40 years ago. As I’m sure you can imagine, today there is more garbage and there are far fewer fish.

And, yes, without question, we completed our report on time. Of course, none of the above was included in the report.

Wishing you most abundant and Happy Holy-Days!


Photo by Barbara
Landing in Khartoum, The Sudan
Scan of a 35mm slide