Rather for the chickens to pass the night awake than to sleep.  سهر الجداد ولا نومو

Even when someone is facing defeat, he will carry on harassing his opponent by one means or another.

This proverb is based on a story about a cunning fox that repeatedly snatched hens from their coop. Naturally the farmer noticed that his chickens were diminishing in number as each night passed. Determined to resist the rapacious fox, he closed all the gaps in the enclosure. Later that same evening the fox returned and found to his chagrin that a thicker, thornier fence now barred his way. There remained just one narrow hole that the farmer hadn’t bothered in closing. The fox pushed his tail into the gap and started to wag it briskly. In no time at all the chickens were cackling loudly in alarm and fear. Now it happened that another fox came passing by at this moment. Feeling curious, he stopped to ask why his brother was intent on troubling the chickens when there was no chance of catching even the smallest chick. The first fox replied, ‘Rather for the chickens to pass the night awake than to sleep.’ Although the fox was unable to attain his main goal, he had decided he could at least cause some nuisance to his adversaries.


The Wolf and the Stork

This story is basically another version of Aesop’s fable, The Wolf and the Crane, with a Sudanese setting!

One day a wolf met a stork that was foraging for food in the shallows of a river. Being by nature a gregarious fellow, he invited the bird to dine in his lair. So, the next day she flew up to his cave in a nearby hillside. To the stork’s surprise, the wolf served her some soup on a flat plate. Whenever the stork lowered her beak onto the plate, she found that she was unable to take even one sip of the soup. Meanwhile the wolf noisily slurped up all the soup from his own flat plate. When the plate had been licked clean, he turned to the stork and asked, ‘Did you have your fill?’

The stork felt embarrassed and merely replied, ‘al- Hamdu le-llaah’ (Thanks God)

Several days later, the stork invited the wolf to come and dine at her house amongst the trees along the river bank. When he arrived, she offered him soup in a gulla (a small earthen ware jar with a narrow neck). The wolf tried to put his mouth inside the gulla but he couldn’t because the jar’s neck was too narrow. Meanwhile the stork put her beak and long neck inside her jar and quickly drank down all her soup in great satisfying gulps. When she had finished she looked at the wolf and asked, ‘Did you have your fill?’

‘al- Hamdu le-llaah,’ replied the wolf looking down at the gulla beside him that was still full.

A short while later the wolf left the stork’s house feeling very upset. As he climbed the hillside towards his home, he met his old friend the fox. Seeing the look of consternation on the wolf’s face, the fox asked what the matter was.

After being told the full story, the fox laughed loudly and declared, ‘You are the one who started with the wrong and the one who started is the more wrong.’


The Sudanese Souq


A typical Sudanese grocer’s shop (copyright: Muna Zaki).

The Sudanese Souq

Sudanese markets are lively places that add much needed colour and vitality to those provincial towns that languish under a general feeling of atrophy and the loss of more optimistic, youthful times. Wandering along lines of stalls and through bustling, tarpaulin-covered alleyways, any sense of loneliness on the part of a homesick visitor will soon vanish. Greetings are exchanged and questions patiently answered. Much good-humoured bargaining then takes place without any undue pressure being placed upon the potential buyer.

Apart from a small tourist section of Souq Omdurman, markets in the Sudan tend to be based upon the needs of the inhabitants. Alongside the greengrocers and butchers, there are other stores selling the basic ingredients used in Sudanese recipes: cones of dried dates; piles of red karkadee (hibiscus) leaves; white mounds of gongolees, the fruit of the baobab tree. Also tubs of sundried tomatoes, cumin, peanuts, fuul beans and powdered okra; heaps of watermelon seeds; the hard fruit of the doum palm; sweet nabag, the fruit of the jujube tree and even chunks of natron dug from the desert.

Walk on further and there will be a row of hardware shops selling all manner of aluminium pots and pans as well as the now ubiquitous plastic goods from China. In another corner will be stalls selling fabric alongside tailors’ sewing machines for making garments.

More interesting perhaps are the traditional handicrafts:  wooden mafraka for stirring stews such as mulaaH; canoon charcoal burners made from old tins, together with palm-leaved habbaaba for fanning the embers; metal shragrag used for boiling water; teeth cleaning masaawiik made from the branches of the arak tree, and all manner of leather goods such as the traditional shoes known as markuub.


Sudanese shoemakers making the traditional markuub shoe (copyright: Muna Zaki)

The Mouse and the Beetle – a Sudanese Proverb with a Folktale

الخنفُسانة شافت ولدها في الحيط قالت دا لولي ملضوم في خيط

al khunfusaana shaafat walada fi l-HeeT gaalat da luuli malDuum fi kheeT.

The dung beetle saw its son on the wall and said these are pearls put together on a string.

Though the dung beetle is ugly, to his mother he is as lovely and beautiful as pearls beads strung together on a thread. This proverb implies that parental love can be blind. There is a short folktale called The Mouse and the Beetle relating to this proverb.

It once happened that a mouse married a beetle. One day when the beetle went down to the river to wash her shamla (a rag of wool or goat hair used by Sudanese women to cover their bodies when having a smoke bath), a strong habuub suddenly blew and swept away the shamla, together with the beetle who was clinging on to it tightly. The gust of wind threw the beetle on an island in the river, leaving her feeling shocked and bewildered. By coincidence, a boy from the house where the mouse and the beetle had their hole was passing near the shore. When the beetle saw him, she called out in her loudest voice: Continue reading

Residence of Sayyid ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi


The elegant building shown in these pictures lies in the centre of Khartoum and was once the residence of Sayyid ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, the son of al-Mahdi. As the founder of the modern Ansar movement and a prominent nationalist figure in the formation of an independent Sudan, he is perhaps the most important political figure in the country’s twentieth century’s history. He died in 1959 and for some years the building was used as the National Record Office (national archives).

My photographs were taken in the early 2000’s. Unfortunately, a few years ago the building was half demolished and then left in a ruined state. Land prices in the centre of Khartoum are very high and exert pressure on development, but town planning should surely be balanced with keeping representative examples of buildings from the past. It was a great shame that this palatial building dating from 1918, with its beautiful garden and historical connections, should have been damaged in this way.


musmaar JuHa. Juha’s nail. – مسمار جُحا

مسمار جُحا
musmaar JuHa.
Juha’s nail.
This expression is used to describe an unwelcome person who it is hard to get rid of because they always come up with excuses and justifications for lingering. Under Sudanese culture it is considered shameful to turn away a guest, particularly at meal times.

This saying has an amusing story behind it.
One day Juha was approached by a man who wanted to buy his beautiful house. Juha agreed to the man’s offer but on one condition. He insisted on retaining the ownership of a single nail that had been struck into one of the walls. Being delighted with the price, the buyer agreed to this odd insistence and the sale was soon completed.

After a few days Juha arrived at the door when the family was having their dinner with the excuse that he wanted to see his nail. The new owner allowed him in and as the Arabs are famous for their generosity, Juha was invited to share their meal after seeing his nail. This was the first of innumerable visits that Juha made in the following days. Juha would arrive at all hours, day or night, on the pretext of wishing to see his nail. The new owner finally lost his temper as Juha was depriving his family of any rest and privacy. In a blind rage, he stormed out of the house, shouting to Juha, “Take your house with its nail. I don’t want it!”

مسمار جُحا

The Wise Man of the Village

The Nile, near Kerma, Northern Sudan
(The Nile Valley, near Kerma, Northern Sudan – photograph by Edmund Wyatt)

The Wise Man of the Village by Muna Zaki
In a village by the River Nile, there lived a wise old man, whose days of toil and labour were over. Every morning the old man’s chair was placed under the shade of some date palms overlooking the village. Here he would spend his days watching the flowing river and listening to the creaking of the saagiya waterwheels.
Over the years his reputation for wisdom had spread up and down the river so that many people came to seek his advice whenever they had a troubling problem or were in desperate need of help. Around his riverine gardens, he had buried various amounts of money. If anyone wanted to borrow some money from him, the old would lend each according to their need by directing him to a particular spot where some coins buried. The old man only asked that the person should pay back the money when they felt able by placing it in the very same spot from which it had been taken.
Amongst the people of the country was a merchant who did not value the favours of others. One day he came to the old man and asked for ten dinars to help with the purchase of some goods. Because of the loan, the merchant’s business prospered. He knew that he should have returned the money but he could not bring himself to part with it. Finally, he said to himself, “I won’t pay the old man back. My profits are large and I will never have to go begging to him for help again. In any case that old fool has probably forgotten all about the loan by now.”
Days, years passed by, and the merchant’s fruitful business withered and died. Soon he had used up all his money and was desperate. He said to himself, “I’ll go to the old man. I’m sure that he won’t recognize me after all these years.”
He found the old man sitting as before in his gardens near the river. As the merchant approached, the old man welcomed him and asked, “What can I do for you my son?”
“You are well-known up and down the river for your wisdom and generosity. I have come to ask you for some money as I’m facing some hard times,” explained the merchant.
“There should be ten dinars hidden there,” replied the old man pointing to the very spot from which the merchant had taken the money all those years before.
Eagerly the merchant began to dig down into the earth. He thought of what he would do with the ten dinars. Down and down he dug but there was no money to be found. At last he gave up and returned to the old man. “They told me you were wise but that spot does not even have a millieme let alone ten dinars…” the merchant began to complain bitterly.
While the merchant was still in mid-flow, the old man held up his hand and simply replied, “If you had paid it my son, you will have found it.”
© Muna Zaki