On the Train




The ride on the train from Kosti, known as “the steamer,” marked the start of the summer vacation. As soon as it began, I felt a mixture of sadness and joy—joy that I would be traveling on the westbound train again, and sadness at leaving my hometown, which rang with daytime noises and the singing of the fishermen on the river. I sobbed when I thought I would never return to the town’s embrace. Had my young heart already surmised that my departure would take me to a faraway country, much farther than my child’s mind could grasp? With my grandmother as my traveling companion, I started to discover the story of my family, the countryside, and the towns where her sisters and the rest of the family lived.

I never could sleep a wink the night before. I just counted the minutes and the seconds, and dozens of questions teemed in my mind: When would the train come? When would we go to the station? When would it leave? Would it already be as crowded as usual?

Grandmother would gently urge me to shut up and stop talking for a while.

Hours passed, the sun sank again, and as it was about to set, the taxi taking us to the station chugged along to the rhythms of farewell.

At the station, the passengers said, “The train’s late!”

One memorable journey began with the definitive news that there had been plenty of rain in the west of the country and all was well there. I heard my grandmother talking with another woman laden with Sudanese foodstuffs such as dried okra powder, wekab, and fermented mullet. In her other hand she held two bottles, one filled to the brim with butterfat and the other with karkar oil. Not far off I caught sight of someone resting his head on his arm, and an elderly pilgrim woman who had turned her blue cotton gown into a pillow under her tired head while she awaited the hour of deliverance.

The station was busy with passengers and people seeing them off, friendly people sharing snacks and broad beans and making space for each other on the benches. One young man moved aside to make way for my grandmother, who then launched into saying prayers for him. “May God grant you good health and give us a son like you in every town,” she said.

As one man snored, the local locomotives came and went, huffing and puffing. Under the shady neem tree, people told stories, laughing and whispering to each other. At last the boarding whistle interrupted their rest and pulled them off their seats. I yawned, my eyes struggling to shake off my drowsiness. The train was as crowded as usual. Falata girls were singing a melody tuned to the sound of them munching away at falafel and other snacks. ِI always wondered why they didn’t go to school. To the rhythm of the crowd, people began arguing, complaining, and then making peace with each other.

“For God’s sake, calm down, folks!”

“Hey, boy, you trod on my toe and it stung like a scorpion!”

“Sorry, lady—I couldn’t see you. There’s no light in the carriage.”

Everyone raced to grab a place to rest their bodies, tired after long waiting, impatient to see their families.

Then the wheels of the train started to turn, groaning like malcontent railway workers, while the houses along the track remained generously wide open, houses large enough for those departing and those arriving, full of hospitality and the delicious smell of food when your stomach is contorted by hunger—pancakes with milky tea, and beans—everything that was available given generously. These people were kind to you.

One woman’s face caught my attention. She hugged me, and a hot tear ran down the furrow in her cheek as I put out my little hand in farewell, as if she had known me from birth, as if I had been born in her lap. How warm her embrace was!

The arguments died down. The loud voices subsided, and the storytelling began. Two old men started talking about the Jawda warehouse incident, reminding me of stories about my grandfather, who worked as a policeman and lost the sight in his right eye at the time, his partial blindness testimony to a history that still saddens me and makes me cry. The town of Jawda is in a farming district close to Kosti. My grandfather’s eyes would tear up when he told his story, even the one that was sightless. But this was before I read about the historic outrage in the warehouse, where people were suffocated to death when their only crime was to assemble and demand their just rights from the first “national” government, after independence in February 1959. The authorities locked up those assembled in a pesticides warehouse that was about twenty meters square, without water, ventilation, or toilets. A hundred and ninety-eight of them died of suffocation. So that was the start of “liberation and development”!

When my political awareness started to take shape, but before it exploded and I understood the extent of the tragedy, I used to recite the poem by Sudanese poet Salah Ahmad Ibrahim, “Twenty Dozen Humans”:

If they had been a bunch of watercress, counted to be sold
To the Europeans’ servants in the big city,
The midday sun wouldn’t have scorched their skin …

There were twenty dozen humans
Dying of exhaustion
Suffocating to death

The core of my political awareness seemed to blossom on that train. The two old men went on telling stories about the Jawda warehouse, their deep grief evident in the wrinkles that the years had left on their faces.

Two women sat opposite me, one of them carrying her baby. They were talking in whispers. The face of one woman would tense up, and the face of the other woman would relax, and my own little face would follow suit in concert with the drama of their animated conversation. One of them pointed toward the back of the train, the source of a strong fragrance. It was the smell of sandalwood from a young bride. Her oiled face glowed, and she looked tired and apprehensive. Her husband, who had bright henna on his hands, swore to divorce his bride irrevocably if the old woman opposite them refused to take a chicken thigh specially prepared for the newlyweds. At the window, a girl a few years older than me held a notebook and pen. She told me later she was doing her homework… writing!

What mattered to me at the time was that the grown-ups would leave us to play as we wanted, since it would have been impossible to sleep even if the train wheels had made less noise, because the famous mosquitoes hadn’t given up their habit of droning.

The train crawled along past Mount Muya, Mount Doud, Sennar Junction, and Sennar Town and stopped a long time in Wad al-Haddad station because there was some problem at Al-Hajj Abdullah. Some of the passengers left at Sennar—with farewells, tears, and expressions of kindness.

Between their tears they wrote down their addresses and exchanged them. But I was still watching a young woman who had taken a fancy to a twenty-year-old man. Her heart melted, her blood ran hot, and she hid her tears, stumbling as she left through the train door. Oh, if he were the knight of her dreams! Gazing with desire into her sparkling eyes, he slipped a small piece of paper into her hand—a first talisman of love. Now I know why her cheeks were so flushed.

The train pulled its load patiently and faithfully. It did not falter nor flag. It gave the girl a warmth like the sound of shepherds’ flutes.

An avuncular ticket collector arrived, stern-looking and swearing that if someone didn’t pay the fare difference, they’d have to leave the train at the next station.

A man in his fifties argued his case, explaining his difficult situation. The ticket collector’s stern face relaxed. He asked who the man’s family was and, when he heard the answer, launched into a speech about Nyala.

“Oh, my,” he said. “I have many dear friends in Nyala—the Abdel Rasoul family. You know, they’re originally from El Geneina, but they moved last Ramadan to Nyala.”

Imagine how surprised I was now by this friendliness on the part of the ticket collector, who had at first been scowling. When all the passengers had left the train, his eyes teared up, though he was reluctant to cry openly.

Passengers shared bread and stories. From them, men and women, I learned the gentle rhythms of farewell when warm tears flowed, shortening the distance between the city of Obayyad and the town of Sennar Junction by the company of lovely people. I’ll never forget how, once, the train stopped for two days and we heard that, because of the rains, our journey couldn’t resume until they repaired the rails and railroad ties swept off by the rains. There were so many passengers on the train it was groaning. Some of them tried to create dry spaces under the trees that grew around the station. They lit fires, and the place smelled of food and coffee.

I’ll never forget the scene when a group of people from the nearest neighborhood came to the station and swore by God and by everyone that was dear to them that the passengers must come home with them. We were shared out between the houses—houses that I hold in my heart like beads or amulets called the Sudanese people. The local people made room for us in their homes. They brought water for us to bathe and carpets to pray on. Then food was prepared and everyone competed to do their duties as generous hosts. For two days we stayed in their homes in Sennar Junction, and my memory retains many stories from our stay, especially the farewell scene, when the conductor announced the train would continue its chugging. All the households came out with their histories, as if we had been living there since the old times. I saw some passengers exchanging the spices, dried beans, nuts, hibiscus tea, and mangoes they had brought with them to give to their families at their destinations. One girl, a little older than me, gave me a necklace with three seashells strung on a dark red thread. The image of her has endured in my mind—a girl with pretty eyes and a sweet nature. The local people didn’t go back to their houses until the train had departed, with heads at the windows and hands waving goodbye and tears glistening as they poured liberally from eyes blurred as the last coach on the train moved off, cooing in the direction of departure.

This scene often happened. It happened in Al-Hajj Abdullah and in Wad al-Haddad—in many villages where the locomotive broke down. It even happened in Mount Muya, where there are few houses scattered on the mountain, so far from the railway line that it’s an effort to reach them. But the people in those houses came despite the rain. They brought water and milk and whatever a bounteous millet harvest and their rustic way of life provided.

The journeys offered lessons and moments of wisdom, compelling stories and others that shaped my aversion to wars. Once, when I was eight, I was coming back from a vacation with my grandmother. I remember that it was a Friday afternoon and the train had stopped in the middle of the bridge between Kosti and the town of Rabak. The sound of rocket fire was deafening, and my grandmother buried my head in her arms and prayed to God to protect us from a fiery death. We heard them saying there was war in the town of Aba Island, which lies in the White Nile off Kosti. It was the first time I had heard artillery. Smoke rubbed against the windowpanes. The lights in the train were turned off, and between the darkness of the night and the river, a question that still nags me exploded like a mine: “Why war?” I sometimes heard my father talking to our neighbor about the war in southern Sudan. The idea of war terrified me, the mere idea, and I never imagined how war could be so uniquely ugly and how people were able to kill.

For many hours we could hear the rattle of bullets. I would hear people reciting nervously the shahada, the testament of faith, one person on top of another: “I bear witness that there is no god but God. I bear witness that Muhammad is the Prophet of God.” But I didn’t know this meant they were all preparing for death. Sometimes the rumble of the artillery would stop for some minutes, only for the fear to then continue.

Once it went on forever. I heard my grandmother reciting the shahada and urging me to repeat it with her. Among the voices, I could hear an invocation to all the names of God and all the righteous holy men that they might save us from a fiery death or drowning in the river below.

We stayed there till midnight, when the train was allowed to travel on to the town. The traces of smoke lasted for days, looming in the sky above Kosti from a distance. The sound of bullets was a nightmare that put fear into the hearts of the townspeople. We heard them saying that a shell had exploded in the Marabie area near the river, and that some of the families had abandoned their houses, which, like their lives, were threatened with annihilation.

Nightmares started to impose on my childhood. The greatest ogre that chased me in my dreams was an ugly image of houses destroyed, bodies burnt to cinders, and souls hovering around the moon, asking what the secret of war might be. The moon is the only light that cannot be effaced or disconcerted by war, by the smoke of fires or ruined places. Moonlight has always reassured me that peace will triumph.


[Purchase Issue 19 here.]


Ishraga Mustafa Hamid is a writer, journalist, translator, and researcher. She was born in the town of Kosti in Sudan and studied journalism. She has a master’s degree in journalism and a doctorate in sciences from the University of Vienna. She now lives in Austria, where she is an activist, especially in defending the rights of migrants. She chairs the literary committee of the Arab-Austrian House for Culture and the Arts. Her work has been published extensively in Arabic and German.

Jonathan Wright studied Arabic, Turkish, and Islamic history at St. John’s College, Oxford University. Between 1980 and 2009, he worked for the Reuters news agency, mainly in the Middle East. He began literary translation in 2008 and has since translated about a dozen novels, as well as collections of short stories, essays, and poetry. He won the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation twice, for The Bamboo Stalk, by Kuwaiti writer Saud Alsanousi, and Azazeel, by Egyptian writer Youssef Ziedan, as well as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2014 for his translation of The Iraqi Christ, by Hassan Blasim. His latest literary translations include Jokes for the Gunmen, short stories by Mazen Maarouf, and Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018.

On the Train

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