I grew up in a big house right by the edge of the Blue Nile in Wad Madani city. At the time, Wad Madani was almost the largest urban centre in Sudan, surrounded by the villages of the Gezira agricultural scheme which brought people from all across Sudan to settle and seek new livelihoods.
Times were much better those days, at least from a 9-year old girl’s perspective in the second half of the 1970s. The compound of the house where I grew up was big, about 1600 square meters, with many trees. One big mango tree and two huge guava trees are still alive in my memory in all their details. Like in all houses in central Sudan at that time, the rooms and the wide open verandas were randomly scattered to no obvious design, and people were constantly in and out through the day except for an hour or two before sunrise. There were no clear boundaries between the inside and the outside of the house and its compound being part of the main road of the Al Madaneyeen neighbourhood, one of the oldest areas in Wad Madani city. Yet in the crowdedness of that big house one central figure kept everything together in my world and the world of many others: my grandmother, around whom everything revolved.
My grandmother‘s room and her small veranda were one of the most comfortable corners in the house, always neat and permeated by the wonderful smell of Bakhoor Al Timan, the locally made Sudanese incense. Inside her cool dark room I always felt as if I was in a different world, safe from the heat of the burning sun outside. The old lumber roof was constructed to perfectly maintain coolness. An old metal safe sat right in the corner and next to it my grandmother’s classic bookshelf. The old leather-covered Qur’an and the Tafasir, interpretative texts of Islamic religion, in addition to other classics such as the Kitab Al Aghani, the Book of Songs, are all still so clear in my memory.
At that time my grandmother was in her mid sixties. She was not very tall, average height, with golden skin and big, almost brown eyes, with shulukh1, three lines on each side of her face, adding to her graceful appearance. Amena Bit Omhamed Ali Wad Abrabaen was usually called al haja2 in the neighbourhood. To those who loved her she was Bit Omhamed Ali, the daughter of Omhamed Ali. Haja Amena was born in Rufa’a city on the eastern bank of the Blue Nile. She was among the first women to attend Sheikh Babikir Badri’s girls’ school, the first of its kind in Sudan. Sheikh Badri3 opened the school inside his own home in the first decade of the 20th century.
In her everyday life my grandmother shouldered many responsibilities as the owner of a home, a business woman and caregiver for the many people who lived around her.
Every day – with no exception – she woke up before sunrise and made tea for everybody in the house. Sometimes people even came from outside and had tea. The number of those in the house would vary depending on the day, usually between 15 to 25 people, including the children. Many were guests who had come from God knows where, and only God knows where they were heading before they arrived in my grandmother’s house. Some stayed for years, mainly men and women students, casual workers and petty traders, all drawn to the house by her kindness and warmth. Some were distant relatives, others old friends. She remembered all of their many names and made sure they had their tea and a piece of bread before leaving in the morning. By the time the morning was turning to day, my grandmother had walked out of the front door and into the shop next door in the same building where she managed her grain mill. The workers were part of the household. Her rakoba4 was built right in front of the shop where she sat and welcomed customers as they came with their grain and waited for their turn. The rakoba was always clean and water was sprinkled on the floor many times during the day to cool the place and reduce the dust. Her big plastic chair was at the corner of the rakoba, in front of it an old wooden table with an exercise book to register her accounts. She sat until it was almost salat al asr time in the late afternoon, supervising, counting, chatting and interacting, every now and then reaching into the pocket of her jallabiya5 and shing out a candy for a child or penny for a needy person.
Yet the most vivid image I have of my grandmother is her elegance and grace when she went to the Mosque for Friday prayers. She would put on her white thobe6 and wear black leather shoes which showed beneath the edge of her colourful jallabiya. Her braided hair, red from the henna applied on it, haloed her round face. I can still see her today, with her folded muslayah7 under her arm, the slight scent of her pleasant Soir de Paris perfume wafting ahead of her, her soft steps slow yet steady.
Although the actual distance between the house and the mosque was not more than one kilometer, it might take my grandmother a good 40 minutes or more to arrive, along the rutted road, passing its houses with their doors always open as it used to be at that time. She would stop and greet those coming out or going in and those just sitting on the steps of their homes or shops, and pause for someone who called out from behind the walls. Many women going to the mosque would join her. The men would pass by quickly, greeting my grandmother by her name: “Al haja, as salammo aleikom”, and she and the others would respond, “Aleikom as salam”. With my hands kept warm in hers these were some of my proudest moments, reveling in her company and the atmosphere around us.
At that time, the Muslim women of my country did not have to hide or bend their heads. They put on light cotton thobes only and did not cover their heads with an extra piece of cloth to hide their features and their identity as women. Women like my grandmother walked with their heads held high, fully visible. They would spread their muslayah at the back of the mosque and sit comfortably where they were seen and their presence was felt. Following the prayers, after leaving the mosque, the men and women kept standing around in the yard in front of the mosque and shook hands. They talked and walked next to each other all the way home. That walk next to my grandmother was so pleasant and peaceful: I wished it would never end.
My grandmother is my role model both as a human being and a Muslim. Women like her have managed to struggle peacefully through a male dominated society, to fully seize their place and to unfurl their lives as they should be. May God bless her soul, she lived a fulfilling life and passed away quietly.