Shattered Sudan | Drilling for Oil, Hoping for Peace, National Geographic: Suakin Port | Ancient, Roman and Unused | Port Sudan | Northern Sudan

Suakin Port | Ancient, Roman and Unused | Port Sudan | Northern Sudan

The greatest asset the North has is access to the sea.  This is the old port—Suakin.  Oil goes out of a newer port. Pilgrims from all of West Africa gathered at Suakin to cross Red Sea to Mecca. The trip to this port determined settlement patterns all across the Sudan.

Suakin was ottoman built but has Roman remnants and was possibly chipped into this perfectly round circle by the Romans.  Suakin was the main port from the 14th century until World War I and has never been excavated. I was jerked out of the air right after shooting this photograph and never got up to shoot aerials again…

From my journal:

The next day our charter plane lands around noon and we fly over dust for 3 hours.  I make sure there is a case of water and the sat phone has charged batteries in case we have a forced landing.  This plane is an amalgam of parts—French body, Cessna controls and American engines.

My original plan was to just continue this flight and do aerials because we have the permissions, but a three-man crew shows up with the plane and we have three people with a lot of luggage—the plane just gets off the ground at the end of this dusty airstrip with all this weight.  I decide to land, unload and then do aerials.

We land in Port Sudan and unload and pull out some of the seats just so I can work and then wait on the tarmac.  I’m afraid if we do anything else something will get screwed up.  We take off at 5:30pm and fly south—not much to this landscape, but the light is good.  We end up circling the ancient coral port city of Suakin—it looks pretty good and the light will be perfect in half an hour.  The pilot gets a call from the control tower and is told to return immediately.  There are a lot of guns here and we don’t want to be shot down so I watch the perfect light I just paid for from the tarmac.

There is a great deal of confusion at the control tower… first they say there were no permissions circulated by Khartoum, then they say they found something but it doesn’t matter.  Cherri convenes every politician imaginable on the terrace of the Hilton—a beautiful new hotel next to the decaying government provincial building.  Most of the local ministers probably hang out here getting free drinks and food from people like us.  Cherri also calls Mahdi and miraculously his mobile phone rings in Abu Dhabi where he is attending a wedding. He calls the top general in this area from his mobile and has his office fax letters.  But it isn’t until 1am that we get the ok to fly in early morning.  Kamal forgot all his ID papers and ends up in my room because I feel sorry for him.  His snoring destroys the four hours sleep I had hoped for and when I go into the bathroom there is an incredibly gross oil slick in the tub and somehow he has managed to hose down the only toilet paper.  I guess he didn’t know how to use the fancy Arabic water wand next to the toilet.

There is major confusion here about what time it is.  The pilot says there is an hour difference between the here and Khartoum and the hotel people 10 feet away from each other give me two different times an hour apart and say there is no time difference between Port Sudan and Khartoum.

So through more confusion I get up for about an hour to photograph the red sea hills.  Later that day the dust storms start and I dismiss the plane and on no sleep, we head toward Suakin by ground route.

When we get to Suakin, there are more problems.  I have my green photographer card, passport and travel permits—but after waiting over an hour, it seems this isn’t enough.  We go to a higher-level security office and wait another hour.  It is now around 3pm and I have no photographs.  It turns out they left some of the papers in the car at Meroe when we got on the plane.  It’s now 4pm and they’ve finally worked it out but they need to go back to the other security office for “just 5 minutes.”  I say ok, but I need to work.  So they leave me and I’m photographing these old guy in various states of undress going into the ocean, their Jellabia’s blowing in the wind.   They think the waters here have healing properties.  I work for ten minutes and a pickup truck pulls up and a hulking Idi Amin type jerks my cameras out of my hands and just stands there with this stupid expression on his face.  There is nothing I can do—I ask him “are you stealing my cameras?”  “Do you just want to hold it?  What?”  After 20 minutes of grilling in Arabic by some other goon asshole, Kamal shows up and somehow smoothes things over.  I’ve spent a lot of money in the last few days and don’t have a lot to show for it. 

Now Kamal and the group want to eat…. Is it possible to work in this country or not… I let them eat and wander off in disgust to try to photograph a little at dusk in the town—later they scramble everywhere to try to find me.

As we enter the old coral city, the security goons are sitting in the dust gorging themselves on fried fish sandwiches.  They wave as we enter the narrow isthmus to the city.  A guy who lives in the rubble latches onto us and becomes an impromptu guide.  At the end of the tour, he scrambles over a big pile of coral rubble that was once a building and comes back a sack of coral to sell.  It looks like he just knocked it off the reef, but maybe it is just pieces of these fallen down buildings.

As we leave we pass the security guys again—now they are lying in the dust recovering from their huge meal—they all wave.

There’s a businessman from Jordan I keep bumping into at the hotel—he is investing in the port.  He says the Arab world is coming here in droves to invest, now that things are stabilizing a bit—the Arab world is incredibly conservative with their investments and wouldn’t be doing this if peace weren’t in the offing. Sudan has great resources.  Saudi banned the import of meat from Europe and just had 600,000 sheep shipped in for Eid. Sudan has 140 million head of free-range stock.  Only ten percent of the animals here are used domestically and only another ten percent is used for export.  They have water and large schemes for agriculture and now with oil coming on line, he thinks this is a dirt-cheap place to invest.  The people here are so poor though—the government taxes a guy with a few pots, a charcoal burner, a hut and a couple of sheep. 75 percent of Sudan is technically nomadic.

All morning is spent obtaining the permissions to go to Sinkat and Erkaweit.  Both of these areas have been designated as tourist spots by the government.

We drive two hours, drop the cook at the house we are renting and pick up Ali, who is the big man of Sinkat.  Ali takes us to yet another security office where we wait for yet another hour and then are finally ushered into the main security guy’s office.  He asks me in booming perfect English how I like America.  I tell him it is a very EASY place to live.  He says “Just like here?” with a booming laugh. 

So I have a one-hour window left tonight and then tomorrow to photograph the largest nomad group in Sudan—Beja people.

When we arrive at the market the people don’t smile or pay any attention to the camera.  This is completely different from the rest of my experience in Sudan where I am usually completely surrounded if I stand still too long.  This Beja tribe is Ethiopian and they spend most of their day making and consuming coffee in elaborate ritual just like Ethiopians.

Somehow someone in the group has talked to them about doing a very elaborate mock swordfight—probably Ali—part of their fun is to make mock assaults on me and the camera.  On the drive back to Sinkat, we stop and photograph some Hadenbowa nomads.  We are staying at Halim’s home and the cook has a meal when we arrive.  They say there are no mosquitoes here, but I see them buzzing everywhere so we put up bug nets and eat our meal.

In the middle of the night (1am or so), Kamal walks into the room and says “Oh… Randy, I am sorry, but the men from security are here and they want to take all of your cameras and films.”

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