Pictures have been an integral part of story telling since the beginning of time; conveying messages, information, and folk lore; even the earliest cave paintings served to tell a story which could be passed from one person to another without the need for verbal communication. In our modern world photographs have taken the place of these pieces of art, and never has the phrase “a picture paints a thousand words” been so true.
Over 95 million pictures are posted on Instagram every single day, each one with its own story to tell (even if that story is something to do with how good you look staring meaningfully into the middle distance!). Pictures can invoke emotion, they can serve remind us of distant memories, and they can educate and inspire – case in point, the whole reason I found myself wandering the streets of Khartoum in the first place was because of a familiar photograph hung unassumingly on my grandparents wall.
That photo of my Great Grandfather inspired me to try and follow his footsteps through North Africa, but this wasn’t the only photograph I had; in fact, as I started to learn more about this man, I discovered a stash of photographs and postcards depicting his life in Khartoum in the 1930s. With this window into the past, an idea began to form in my head, an idea which, as well as matching up the past with the present, would also see me receive a wedding proposal from an old woman, and a brief period of detention at the hands of the Sudanese authorities.
As soon as I had discovered Ruben’s collection of postcards and photographs, I knew I wanted to try and match them up with their modern-day counterparts; and so I had been keeping a keen eye out for any likely looking buildings or features as we had whizzed around the city collecting paperwork, or discovering what Khartoum had to offer the inquisitive tourist.
On one of our forays over the river into Khartoum North, I had seen a couple of dilapidated river boats which seemed to match the one in Ruben’s collection; it seemed as good a place as any to start, and so, eager to match up the photos and explore a different part of the city, we headed across the river and down towards the shore. It didn’t take long to find the old boats slowly rotting away on the muddy banks of the Nile, and we took some time to match up the photograph as best as we could with Ruben’s version whilst some confused Naval personal looked on.
There was a different feel to this side of the river, and rather than immediately return the way we had come, we wanted to make the most of it and see what else Khartoum North had to offer. After chatting to the Sudanese sailors nearby, they informed us that there was a ferry a little further upstream which would take us back to the other side of the river, via Tuti island – a much more agreeable option than hiking back across the nearby iron bridge in the heat of the day.
We began our ferry search along the river, and entered the Bahri area of the city, where we walked down beautiful tree lined avenues, with ample shade, juice vendors selling fresh grapefruit juice, and huge clay pots full of communal water for those who needed it. It was very peaceful, and a welcome change from the hustle and bustle we were used to on the other side of the river.
The temperature continued to rise, as our patience for the apparently non-existent ferry lowered. We reached a dead end next to a vast building site, and managed to sneak our way down to the shore of the river which was distinctly ferry-less, however not all was lost. After a quick search of this little muddy patch of river bank, we looked across the river, and discovered we were directly opposite the presidential palace, another of Ruben’s collection! Normally you aren’t allowed anywhere near the palace, so this was probably as close as we were going to get, I set my camera to maximum zoom and did my best to match Ruben’s admittedly much better photograph!
We had long left the shady avenues behind us, and we were back in the oppressive heat with not so much of a sniff of a ferry. We began to get the feeling that every step we were taking was going to have to be retraced, and although reluctant to give up our search, the temptation of a surreptitiously placed small shop made the decision for us, and we conceded, bought a couple of cold sodas, and began to figure out a way back to the original bridge we had been next to hours before!
The shop owner was a young guy, and we soon got the impression that he didn’t get many tourists down this way on account of the way he called the whole street over to come and say hello, and speak to us in excited Arabic. The best character from this friendly, eclectic neighbourhood crowd was a toothless old woman with a face wrinkled in the most incredible fashion, a physical manifestation of a lifetime of smiles and laughter, which on the afternoon concerned was constant and infectious – she was brilliant, and clearly the matriarch of the community we had stumbled into. The wrinkled wonder was very welcoming, and seemed very excited to see us, especially when she noticed I wasn’t wearing a wedding ring – upon this realisation, she immediately dragged me from the shop towards a young woman, who it transpired was her granddaughter, and began insisting that we should get married immediately! The granddaughter was laughing and protesting on account of me not being a Muslim, but the old woman was having none of it, and she continued to insist upon our matrimony until an equally wrinkled old lady literally dragged her away, much to the amusement of the gathered crowd – it was wonderful!
Having narrowly avoided acquiring a wife and tenacious new mother-in-law, we asked the shop keeper if he could help us with some transport back to the bridge, and with a quick phone call we were in the back of a tuk-tuk racing through the dusty streets, enjoying the cooling breeze, retracing our sweaty steps at a much more agreeable pace!
We were feeling good about ourselves, and had made a great start with matching up the old with the new, little did I know that one of the next photographs would land me in the custody of the Sudanese authorities…