“I must eat a decent meal today!” Ahmed Suk Suk said to himself, as he woke up and sat on the bed. “I haven’t had some warm food with salt in days,” he lamented. “Yesterday, it was just some miserable kisra, a leftover from a neighbor; scrambled with sugar and this water that one can get freely everywhere, even from the grand river – the Nile!” He shook his head gently, and then sighed deeply: frustrated!
He had slept in a police cell four days earlier and was whipped the next day and then released, as required by law, since he was caught drinking. He was with two others. And they were killing the hours with locally made aragi, in broad daylight, at Kapuki’s secret bar here in New Mayo, on the outskirts of Khartoum, when the police struck. He could not recall what happened to his money – wages amounting to two months– that he was carrying with him in an ‘inside’ pocket, before the surprised raid and arrests.
Maybe the cash fell in the boozer during the scuffle with the men in uniform; perhaps he used it unknowingly to buy more drinks for his friends, as the rounds kept spinning; or, maybe, it dropped in the police station. He might never know. That meant for him a search for another workshop to weld together metal pieces to earn more money. After absence of two days from his work place, without warning, he knew he had lost it this time. It had happened twice before, and each time it was alcohol-related, with police arrest. But of course, he did not say this to his employer. But the boss knew. Nonetheless, the big man was kind enough to give him a last chance. Should he repeat the careless act, he was cautioned, he should consider himself fired!
“Whatever!” Ahmed Suk Suk said to himself again. “I’ll survive, God willing … But today, I must eat food worth eating!”
He was a first class welder, he believed; coming a long way. Before he got to Khartoum, he was Satimon Lujang in the South, living in Wonduruba, with hardly any skills: felling trees for charcoal, and tilling the soil! He had started out here as a construction laborer for years and had a hand in the erection of various structures: banks, bridges, hotels, and other buildings competing in the skyline across Khartoum; and he was proud of that. Next he drifted into the industries: soap, vegetable oil, soft drinks, etc. Then he peddled chick peas: boiled and salted and packed in tiny plastic bags; he attracted children as he shuffled along in some neigborhoods, a bucket dangling from his hand while he cried out: “Keb-kebe! Keb-kebe!” … Chick Peas! Chick Peas! … But soon he became a milkman; he maneuvered a donkey cart and penetrated one suburb after another. Later, when he discovered welding, he leaped into it; with no plans for a turnaround.
He got up, slipped his feet into a pair of flip-flops, and adjusted the knot at the waist of his baggy, knee-length and once-white-but-now-faded boxers. Next he toddled to the door of his mud-walled and box-shaped shack. He pushed back the bolt and stepped outside. Then he picked by the door a plastic kettle containing water and washed his face in the open while bending. He also rinsed his mouth a few times with the aid of a finger, spitting the water on the ground each time; before heading with the container to the latrine in one corner of the mud-walled compound.
When he was done with the toilet, he strolled back to his room. Inside, he shuffled to his suitcase in one corner, squatted and rummaged through the case, and picked out a white jallabia out of three: the one that looked less dirty. He stood up and put on the robe, and then sat on a plastic chair. After that he squeezed his bare feet into a pair of simple, hand-made, leather-like shoes that were close to the chair. A rotten smell, which he knew was coming from the footwear, hit him in the nostrils, but he cared less about it. He got up from the chair and retraced his steps to his suitcase. He bent and picked out a white scalp cap and adjusted this on his head.
He walked to a pair of trousers hanging by a nail on one wall, searched the pockets scrupulously, and found his keys. He also found 25 piaster – coins.
“This can only buy sticks of cigarette, or sweets for children,” he complained to himself as he slid the change into a pocket.
He strode outside, locked his door and the gate, and then marched to a dirt road that linked his area to the tarred road to the city centre.
Maybe he should finally cease this intractable habit with the endless and surprising police raids, he reflected. The arrests and the lashes he had witnessed several times and fallen victim to more than once were becoming unbearable. Or perhaps he should move out of New Mayo altogether, with all the temptations of the environment, he digested further. What’s more, didn’t a doctor warn him about his liver, only three months earlier? The doctor explained to him everything and instructed him to stop drinking. But still he could not understand himself; even two years after the split with his wife!
He spotted Marco, a neighbor, who lived on the next block of mud-walled and box-shaped houses. Marco was with his wife and two older children; the family loading mattresses, suitcases and boxes onto two hired donkey carts, probably heading to the main road to catch up a bus to the city centre, from where they would take another bus southwards to Kosti town not far from the border, to connect with a steamer to Renk and then Malakal in South Sudan.
He slowed down and waved: “Marco! Safe journey!”
The neighbor paused, looked at him and shouted back: “Thank you, Ahmed Suk Suk! Stay safe!”
He walked on.
Going back to the South? Well, he loved that place because that was his home of origin. However, he still had no prospects of joining the exodus back there; he had been assuring himself of late. He had witnessed countless South Sudanese, like Marco, packing up their belongings to head back home after so many years in the North. From where would he start? He wondered. He was not sure if he could easily secure a welder’s job in Juba. Still, he had no piece of land there. Furthermore, he heard that life was expensive and rent was a nightmare! Twenty five years here in Khartoum, then all of a sudden the country ripped into two, like a loaf of bread split in the middle! Just like that? He wished Sudan had remained intact and continued enjoying the status of the largest country in Africa. He never liked politics and yearned for people everywhere to try and come together instead of breaking apart and drifting away from each other. He loved it here in Khartoum: the affordable life; the tangible progress he had witnessed and contributed to; the brotherhood amongst the people; the politeness; the generosity; the security. Khartoum and Sudan had given him so much over the years, and he was not ready to part with both. Not yet!
He arrived at Yasin’s shop, where he regularly bought cigarettes and other items. The proprietor was alone.
“Good morning!” He said.
“Good morning!” Yasin replied.
“Brother, I need a loan, please!” He said immediately, a solemn look on his face. “I’m not feeling well today.”
“Well, business is bad these days,” the shop owner said. “Besides, how much do you owe me in Sudanese pounds?”
“Haj Yasin, I promised I would pay you; how can I forget!”
“Well, I’m waiting!” The shopkeeper shrugged and started to arrange items on the shelves, appearing to be busy.
“I’ll come back then,” Ahmed Suk Suk said, and turned and walked away on towards the paved road – disappointed.
He stood by another shop: Suleiman Kadugli’s. He saw numerous customers at the counter and hesitated. Moreover, again, he owed Suleiman Kadugli: about five weeks of his wages! He had a feeling nothing positive this time would come out of this man from Kadugli.
He trekked on, yawning deeply, his jaws threatening to dislocate, and he felt his stomach growl, like he was suffering from some diarrhoeal illness. He was not sure if he could find any restaurant operational this early.
He reached the main road and stood for a short while, like someone lost. He recognized fruit vendors already by the roadside and gazed at cars and pick-ups zoom back and forth, as well as donkey and horse carts clip-clop along.
“It can’t be like this!” He said to himself as he walked on along the wayside.
He yawned again and crossed the road to another shop he was familiar with. At least he did not owe Abdel Muneim anything, as far as he could remember, not even a piaster. He could see only two consumers at the counter.
“As-salamu alaykum!” He said.
“Wa-alaykum s-salam!” Abdel Muneim and a buyer said simultaneously.
“Can I borrow a plate, alek Allah?” he said. “I’ll bring it back in about 20 minutes.”
“Sure!” Abdel Muneim said and picked up from one end of the counter a metallic bowl, medium size.
“Thank you!” Ahmed Suk Suk said; a smile on his face. “God bless you! God bless your children, and your children’s children, and the children of your children’s children, and the children of the children of your children’s children!”
“Thank you!” The shop owner said, and then added: “You’ll need to wash it.”
“Not your problem, brother,” Ahmed Suk Suk said, as he brushed off with his fingers the dust and food crumbs in the container. “It’s clean enough.”
“Remember to bring it back; it’s almost 10 o’clock.”
“Twenty minutes!” Ahmed Suk Suk said.
“Twenty minutes!” Abdel Muneim repeated.
Ahmed Suk Suk moved ahead to the next block of buildings.
He felt beads of sweat form on his brow, despite the low heat this early, and wiped his forehead with a hand.
“I must eat a decent meal or something closer today!” He reminded himself.
He reached a bakery. He was surprised to see someone who he thought looked like Dunia, a onetime friend, at the counter.
“Dunia!” He called.
The man looked at him with container in hand.
“I’m not Dunia,” the man said. “There must be a mistake.”
“There’s no mistake!” Ahmed Suk Suk said. “You must be Muhammad then.”
“Wrong! I’m not Muhammad either!” The man’s tone was business-like.
“You mean you’re Ibrahim, or Musa, the one I met in Omdurman, or was it Suk Al-Arabi?”
“No! I’m neither Ibrahim nor Musa! Don’t even try Ismail or Omar!”
“No worry, brother,” Ahmed Suk Suk said, a quick smile on his face. “Do you have fresh bread?”
“Is it the white one,” he said, “the best quality, made from the best wheat around, the long one, like this limb of mine?” He raised briefly his right forearm, holding the bowl with his left hand.
“Yes, we have that!”
“Allah is Great!” Ahmed Suk Suk uttered, raising a hand upwards, momentarily. “That’s why this bakery has a good reputation in this part of Khartoum.”
“For how much?” The other man seemed to be getting impatient.
“Please, brother!” Ahmed Suk Suk pleaded; “Just give me the dried pieces! The unsold and damaged ones you dry to preserve, the pieces you sell at a cheaper price. No cash on me today, Alek Allah!” He held the bowl with both hands in front of him, his face deeply sincere this time.
The man behind the counter looked at Ahmed Suk Suk from head to toe. He noticed the scalp cap, the seemingly swollen face and lips, the dry mouth, the rumpled and dirty jallabia, the old pair of simple shoes, and then said:
“No problem; you can have that.” He hurried into a room at the back and emerged holding in front of him between his two hands a load of dried bread pieces of varied sizes and shapes.
“God bless you!” Ahmed Suk Suk said, as he held the container firmly in front of him and the man poured the pieces into it. “God bless your children, and your children’s children, and the children of your children’s children–”
“And the children of the children–”
“Enough!” The bakery man interrupted. “I have customers ...”
Ahmed Suk Suk turned and quickly walked in the direction he had come from, a full smile on his face.
He crushed the longer pieces of the bread by pressing them with his thumbs against the bottom of the bowl, tossing a tiny piece into his mouth, as he retraced his path.
He reached Abdel Muneim’s shop. He saw there were no buyers.
“I told you I would be back in twenty minutes.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Exactly twenty minutes!” He looked at his left wrist, as if looking at a watch, though he had none, while the container rested on his right palm, and he smiled, adding: “Don’t you think I’m a trustworthy person?”
“You’re a man of your words? What’s your name again? Ahmed Sukkar?” Abdel Muneim could not hide a beam on his face.
“No! I’m the one and only Ahmed Suk Suk in this neigborhood!”
“Sincerely, Abdel Muneim, your broad beans must be ready now,” Ahmed Suk Suk said, turning his head away from the counter towards a stove on one side at the front of the shop. “I can sense the aroma, and I can see the steam jetting upwards from the cauldron, like from a chimney in one of the best hotels in Khartoum.”
“Yes, the broad beans should be ready,” Abdel Muneim said; then got out of the shop and walked to the stove and giant aluminium pot outside.
Ahmed Suk Suk followed.
“Is it the best quality; the light brown and giant variety; the most delicious?”
“Can I have a look?”
“For how much?”
“Open first and I see ...”
“But how can you see with the steam?”
“Didn’t you hear about Ahmed Suk Suk’s extraordinary eyes?”
Abdel Muneim could not control his smiles. He opened the top of the container quickly, using a piece of cloth, and waited for a short while for the emerging steam to settle; and then grasped a ladle hanging by a side handle with one hand, took the bowl from Ahmed Suk Suk with the other hand, and repeated:
“For how much?”
“Brother!” Ahmed Suk Suk said; “Please! Just give me the water. Not even a seed of beans. I’m broke today. Just the water! Alek Allah!”
“Al-laaaah …” Abdel Muneim grumbled; but then went on and scooped a few ladles-full of the hot, brownish water from the cauldron onto the dried bread pieces in the bowl.
“God bless you!” Ahmed Suk Suk said, as he watched the proprietor pour the hot liquid into the container in a circular motion. “God bless your children, and your children’s children, and the children of your children’s children, and the children of the children of your children’s children!”
Abdel Muneim handed the bowl to him without uttering a word and hurried back to the shop to attend to a couple of shoppers.
Ahmed Suk Suk followed.
When Abdel Muneim was done, Ahmed Suk Suk said:
“Brother, please that white cheese, the salty, Sudanese-processed, the one you were giving that young man a little while ago; just the water! Alek Allah!”
The shop fellow shook his head in displeasure, his face expressionless. Nevertheless, he grabbed the bowl from Ahmed Suk Suk, turned to a large rectangular tin on his side of the counter, and using a tiny plastic cup he kept in the tin, poured into the container the light, milky liquid above the cheese blocks.
“And just a pinch of this– Please!” Ahmed Suk Suk said, as he seized the bowl, and then picked a pinch of rough salt crystals from a heap in a plastic basin right in front of him.
“God bless you!” Ahmed Suk Suk said; then supported the container on his belly with one hand and sprinkled the salt crystals onto the contents with the other, adding: “God bless your children and your children’s children–”
“Yes, yes, thank you!” The shopkeeper disrupted him. “You can go now and have your breakfast outside there.”
“Thank you!” He bowed slightly, his face beaming, but only briefly.
“Just remember my container.”
“Yes, I haven’t forgotten!” Ahmed Suk Suk said. “But I’m not done yet!”
“Oh yes, you’re done!”
“How can a Sudanese have a meal of broad beans, especially boash, without oil, Abdel Muneim?” Ahmed Suk Suk said. “Do you have the popular, Sudanese-processed, yellowish, and fine quality sesame oil?”
“Oh yes, Ahmed Suk Suk! I have the popular, Sudanese-processed, yellowish, and fine quality sesame oil! But you forgot one thing?”
“And what’s that?”
“There’s no water this time!” Abdel Muneim’s face was serious, and he was shaking his head and waving an index finger in front of him to emphasize his point.
“Yes, of course, I know that!” Ahmed Suk Suk said, as he deepen his right hand into a side pocket, holding the bowl with the other hand, and removed the few coins he had; “Give me the popular, Sudanese-processed, yellowish, and fine quality sesame oil for 25 piaster – only!”
*The story won Second Place Prize in 2014 in a competition judged by Leila Aboulela building up to a book project, I know Two Sudans, edited by Djamela Majid, Amal Osman, Rod Usher, and Ali Abdulla; and published privately in London the same year.
David L. Lukudu is from South Sudan, but from the early 1990s lived in Uganda and then Kenya for nearly 15 years. He has a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and a Master of Science degree in Tropical Medicine and International Health, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London, UK. Additionally, he has published short fiction with the BBC Focus on Africa magazine, AuthorMe, the online Cook Communication magazine, the Arabic website sudaneseink.com, Warscapes magazine, McSweeney Quarterly Concern, The Guardian, the anthology, I Know Two Sudans (2014), and Literary Sudans: An Anthology of Literature from Sudan and South Sudan (Warscapes/ Africa World Press, 2016). Currently, he is based in South Sudan with the World Health Organization.