Train to Khartoum: Hurled Through the Haboob
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Article reposted with permission from Zvezdana Rashkovich. This article was first published on WhenWomenWaken.org.
I was eleven the summer mama and my Sudanese stepfather Hassan decided to hop into a tomato-red minivan and drive me and my sister Leila from the Balkans to Khartoum. Now, after weeks on the road we were finally at the last stretch of our journey, a nine hundred forty-kilometer ride through the Sahara on a dilapidated monstrosity of a train.
Wadi Halfa, an ancient border town in the Sahara, nestled by the banks of Lake Nasser was our point of entry into Sudan. As we waited to board, sand dervishes whistled about, creating funnels towards the sky. They snaked their way between decrepit mud houses. Two emaciated goats and an old donkey roamed around with indifference. The town’s residents were hiding indoors due to the advent of a haboob.
We clambered onto the train amongst a mass of panicked travelers, only to be greeted by the pungent odors of sandalwood, sweat and fear. My stepfather elbowed his way through the chaos and found our places on the hard vinyl seats.
Around us, a throng of tongue clucking Sudanese women wrapped in bright traditional cloth, chattered in high-pitch Arabic. They wrestled with straw baskets groaning with the weight of tamarind and fava beans. Wrinkled, chubby underarms flapped uncontrollably as they raised their packages onto the unsteady racks. Leila stared at them, transfixed by the sight of their heaving, ample bodies, their indecipherable prattle, and their hands and feet adorned with intricate designs of black henna. Finally, the women settled down, after much complicated arranging of their shimmering three-meter garment, the tobe. With a steamy whistle and a belch of the locomotive, we left the sad town of Wadi Halfa.
Ahead of us, only days of mysterious, bare Sahara. Sunburned, centuries old sand stretched into eternity. It glistened like a mirror, undulating like the silkiest tobe. I took one more look before the conductor slammed the wooden blinds down.
The storm arrived vengefully, roaring past darkening windows like some furious desert demon. The force of the wind rattled the heavy metal train as if it was a tin can, and the storm, a giant’s merciless fist. The screaming force of the Sahara rose against us, without apology, for we were the trespassers, the offenders. This master of the desert silenced the strong, dark men on the train, the clucking grandmothers, and the giggling young girls. It caused covert glances of trepidation over the hastily wrapped facemasks. Only babies dared to scream their protest.
The haboob continued throughout the night. It had grown colder, and I pulled my jacket around my body. Someone right behind me was snoring over the shriek of the wind. A child’s voice rang out asking for his mother. I stayed awake, thoughts whirling in my head like those sand dervishes. The desert continued its reign of terror for hours. Exhausted passengers sat with their eyes tightly shut. Some moved their lips in prayer. As fine as powder, red dust crept in through every sliver of opportunity. I realized how isolated we were, here in the center of a desert. Our sole link to the outside world depended on this pitiful machine.
After a long time, a grayish streak of light stole its way through the window shades. Inside the train there was stillness, a lull. I waited for the roar and lash to start again. It did not.
It was over.
A wizened man called out his invitation for tea, “Shai.” Wide pants and a tunic hung on the bony tea-seller, yet his vigorous maneuvering of the large pot of hot liquid and miniature cups was startling from someone so old. I took some coins from mama’s pocket and placed them in the knobby hand. His face crumpled into a toothless grin.
He poured frothy tea into glasses, one for me, and one for Leila. Leila smacked her lips relishing the milky sweetness.
Two Nubian women stared at us with liquid eyes. I marveled at their tattooed lips and the angry lines which tribal symbols left on their cheeks. Across the aisle sat a large man wearing a coiled white turban that reminded me of a huge vanilla ice cream cone. Somebody made their way to the toilets, shuffling in their plastic flip-flops across the sandy floor. Someone snorted and spat.
I peered outside. Through the slits in the blinds, I saw the sun. My heart thundered in my ears. Blood rushed through my veins, through my head, swirling, like molten gold. A rolling fireball was rising on the horizon, spreading gold over the endless desert vacuum. It burst into orange and crimson lava, washing over the barren land, enveloping it in an embrace. I pressed my eye to the narrow slit… frozen, breathless. The train hurled forward into the dawn.
I woke up to a bright light shining through the shutters, illuminating the sand shrouded passengers. My body begged for water. I rubbed sand and sleep out of my eyes. Mama was bustling with our bags and Leila had her head out of the window. Hassan was disagreeing with the man in the head wrap. I beat at my clothes, trying to get rid of dust that had settled into every crevice of my body. I yearned for a swim in an icy cold river. A whistle blew ahead of us as I strained to see over Leila’s head. Ahead, more sand, more emptiness. At the back, I could hear the rising cacophony of excited passengers. A Sudanese song came to life on someone’s radio. The train reached a bend in the tracks; its engine sighed… stopped. There was a smell in the air, and I sucked it in. It stunned me, for it smelled of something fresh like rain and maybe mangoes and another scent, with which I was not familiar. Hassan squeezed in next to us.
“What is it?” I asked.
A shadow of pride skimmed across his dark face.