Foodie Friday: Are you fuul?

More common than tacos in Mexico, fuul is the staple dish of the Sudan. Boiled fava beans, served like a stew with fresh cheese, fresh herbs or salad, a dash (or smothering) of olive oil and salt, fuul is actually quite filling. No pun intended. Boiled in a special pear shaped pot, fuul is probably the most common food at the local ‘hole in the wall’ street cafes in the Sudan.

I know boiled fava beans sounds rather bland, but I actually liked fuul. Maybe because it was the exact opposite of the spicy Ethiopian stews. Served with pita and eaten with your hands, I got quite used to and even looked forward to our daily allotment of fuul. That being said, the quality did very from place to place and some was very watery and bland. With such variations in the toppings- from plain onion to tomato and cucumber salad to tahini to a hot red pepper sauce, a description of all the different types of fuul would begin to sound like a Sudanese version of Bubba’s shrimp recipes. There’s plain fuul, fuul with cheese, fuul with tomato, fuul with cucumber, fuul with parsley and oil, watery fuul, fuul with pita.

In the early 1990s then President Bush withdrew food aid from Sudan, resulting in severe food shortages. Although we never came across it, a poor man’s fuul- made with the excess water drained from the cooked fava beans- became common place in southern Sudan. Legend has it that this dish is called “Bush” for reasons which aren’t that hard to figure out. Again never saw it, but thought the anecdote was worth passing along if only for a bit of political humor.

And yes, the fava beans would go well with a nice Chianti….if only there was a bottle to be found in the Sudan.

Whirling Dervishes

APrayer leader at Sufi Dancing in Khartoums the taxi pulled up to the gates of the cemetery, we all looked at each other with one thought- this is it? Each Friday evening at the Hamad el-Nil, followers of Sufi Islam perform a chanting ritual, referred to in Western culture as the Sufi dance, or whirling dervishes.  But we were in a cemetery.  Walking through the desolate and dusty graveyard toward the mosque, we taught our couchsurfing friend Sarah a new English expression- the heebie jeebies.  It was really the only way to describe the graveyard experience. A few minutes later we arrived at the mosque where men were already congregating for the ritual.

Forming a large circle in front of the mosque the men began chanting as incense wafted over the group. “Chant leaders” led the feverish men, working them into a frenzy by raising their voices and beating on drums. Soon some of the men began to break from the circle and spin. The holy man, dressed in green with several strands of beads wrapped around his torso jumped and spun around almost lethargically. Entranced in the words of the chant “Allah, Allah, Allah”, most of the men remained in the circle rocking back and forth in a near trance like state.

The ritual lasted about 45 minutes and honestly I can say I’ve seen nothing like it. Slowly spinning, we could see the whites of one man’s Sufi Dancing in Khartoumeyes as he let the chanting quite literally move him. One man began biting his hand over and over again, which our CS friends told us is not at all uncommon. The chanting and “dancing” of the men in trance was fascinating, they seemed completely controlled by the power of the chanting. It was nothing like the Turkish “whirling dervishes” I’ve seen on TV, very few men actually twirled around, and it seemed at least from outside the circle that the trance like state from the chanting was more significant than the physical movements.

Sufi Dancing or the Whirling Dervishes as we call them in the Western world are a mystical sect of Islam. In Sudan, Sufi Muslims perform the weekly ritual wearing colorful patchwork robes. Some consider the dance one of Islam’s earliest rituals. At the climax of the dance, Sufi’s say they communicate with Allah.

Apparently more relaxed than Sufi dancing in other countries, the Sudanese ritual had a strong effect on the crowd. A few women, not traditionally a part of the ritual, stood beSufi Dancing in Khartoumhind the circle of men following the chants themselves, while children wandered in and out of the circle spinning. The chanting was haunting; a few days later going through our pictures in the car Ally remarked that she still couldn’t get it out of her head. I think I’ll always remember the fascination of the event, I literally could not take my eyes off of what was going on, it seemed incredibly powerful even from outside the circle.

Hopefully we’ll get the chance to see the Sufi dance again in another country and compare it to what we saw in Khartoum. I’m sure the ritual will be the same, but it was the atmosphere that I can’t seem to get out of my head.

Here are some more pictures, but there are loads more on our flickr site & more video on our youtube channel.

Sufi Dancing in Khartoum

Sufi Dancing in Khartoum

Sufi Dancing in Khartoum

Camping in the Sahara

Sure there are roads for us to follow through the desert, even towns with hotels to sleep in, but one of the nicest parts about The Sudan is that using the roads and towns is completely optional. We stuck to the road, but made sure to sleep under the stars.

Pulling up alongside the premier archaeological site of Sudan—the Pyramids of Meroe—around sunset the site’s caretaker directed us around the large sand dune to a big spot of desert in the shadow of the pyramids. There were mountains of sand to one side, and tombs of the Kingdom of Kush on the other side. We pitched our tents and set the potjieon the fire and waited for dinner to be ready. This little episode came after we spent the afternoon off-roading a total of 60 kilometers visiting several sites where we were the only tourists to have signed the log book all week.

The rule in Sudan is simple, sleep wherever you’d like. As we were in the middle of the Sahara Desert there weren’t exactly many locals around anyhow. That first night, near the pyramids, we were directed to a specific area to sleep but after that we merely looked for a nice hill to keep the sand from blowing into our tents. The weather was hot, but a cool 85F by morning if lucky. The stars clear The biggest concern not other people intruding, but needed to watch for scorpions everywhere you put your feet. (Ironically, the constellation Scorpio was coming into view)

The first two sights we visited—Naqa and Musawwarat es-Sufra—were quite amazing. Smaller versions of some of the large attractions in Egypt, these temples were not only our own to explore but hadn’t been restored, providing us with countless ‘Indiana Jones’ moments. Outside of a small ticket building (where the guards had just caught a fresh rabbit and were quite excited for the feast they were about to share) the only other people around were using their mules to pull water from the well. Next up were the pyramids, the ones I mentioned above where we made our camp, which were also ours to explore alone. By comparison, I hear the pyramids at Giza are within the view of a few well positioned tables at the local Pizza Hut.

The camping was not without its challenges. Since it was a desert we really couldn’t leave anything behind at all…going so far as to burn our used toilet paper. The bathroom was always available once you dug a few inches into the sand and so long as you walked at least 50 meters from camp everyone was happy. The wind blew sand everywhere,

Camping in the desert

constantly providing us with a natural exfoliant free of charge, which also meant we didn’t even bother to change our clothes since the moment we did they were just as dirty as the last pair. The heat, naturally, was quite brutal (we intended to fry an egg on the sidewalk but never found a sidewalk) and our 25 liter jug was about enough water to last the four of us just 24 hours.

I can think of no other place where I will ever have the opportunity to repeat this experience. A nice breeze. An open fire. Good food and company. Silence and solitude for miles around.


At the convergence of the Blue and White Niles, Khartoum seems to straddle an invisible line separating sub-saharan Africa from Arabia. Geographically it may not be so, but there is a certain cultural divide that comes together with the Niles. White robed men linger in the souk with their brightly dressed East African brothers while women from the west and the south- their faces scared by ritual cuttings sell delicious tea (chai) on the side of the road. Khartoum is in many ways a reflection of Sudan’s place in Africa, it is the largest country with perhaps the most visible regional diversity on the continent.

Mosque in Khartoum

Khartoum was lovely. We spent nearly a week camping by the banks of the Blue Nile, walking the length of the city several times over, exploring the Omdurman (Arab section of town) souk courtesy of a local couchsurfer, drinking gallons of fresh juice and even enjoying an ice cream or two where we could find it. From the wonderful couchsurfers we met up with to the market stall owner who invited us in for tea, and the men who invited us to lunch at the sailing club (which was delicious!), we were constantly meet with gracious hospitality and genuine interest.

Our wonderful CS “family” in Khartoum

Walking back from the Sudan National Museum, Danny and I were stopped on the street by a local family. Introducing himself to us, and then in turn his two boys and his veiled wife, the man welcomed us to Sudan and wished us a pleasant stay. This scene was to be repeated time and time again in Khartoum. Instead of taxi drivers following us down the street honking and yelling: “Taxi! Good price!” the drivers in Khartoum waved at us out their window and yelled, Welcome! It was a delightful change of pace.

Standing at the Whirling Dervish (sufi dance) ritual at sunset on Friday, we were fascinated not only by what was in front of us, but enchanted (thats really the only way to put it), by the people of Sudan.

Entering Sudan

The time had come to leave Ethiopia so after a few days touring the monasteries and Lake Tana in Bahir Dar and the castles in Gondar, we headed towards the Sudanese border.

After our introduction to Ethiopia, we were expecting the worst at the Metemma/Gallabat border, but despite a few aggressive money changers on the Ethiopian side and a small trek to find the mud walled immigration office, all went well. As we entered Sudan we were met by the first of many military officers, who inspected our passports and visas before letting us pass through to customs and immigration. Although time consuming, the border formalities on the Sudanese side were easy, although the TV blaring E! True Hollywood Story – Scream, made for a somewhat bizarre experience.

Pulling into our last check- the “security” check, we followed the instructions and mistakenly pulled into a small concrete walled compound filled Toyota Land Cruisers, fitted with large machine guns, (Did I say large, I mean HUGE!) Their drivers were asleep in the shade underneath the vehicles and moments later an official poked his head out the window and motioned for us to go to the right area and not the scary one. Fortunately they were good humored about it and as they took down our details for the third time since crossing the border, we learned a few words in Arabic.

As we only learned a few quick words in Arabic we were still in need of some serious help in doing pretty much everything. A normally quick and easy task to buying a new SIM card for the cell phone proved a bit difficult as it took a team of locals walking Danny from the provider’s office across the street to buy some airtime, working together to understand how much to purchase and then loading it into the phone for me. The numbers here are written differently and aside from a few more words in Arabic we can almost write the numbers 1-10 in Arabic as well. The amazing thing, considering where we’ve been recently, was that everyone just wanted to help us and no one was looking for any money whatsoever. We were foreigners, their guests, and they our hosts.

On our way at last, we drove through flat pastures and grazing land on the way to Gedaref. At each check point along the way, the military officer greeted us, asked where we were from, welcomed us to Sudan and sent us on our way. Big guns and big smiles actually made us feel rather welcome and as we feasted on falafel and salad that night (for all less than one US dollar) we were thankful for the change of scenery.