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Sudan Traditions

Ramadan

It is well worth experiencing a Ramadan breakfast if you get the chance. Fortunately, thanks to Sudanese hospitality, this is not a difficult thing to do — and many locals will be only too glad to have a foreigner join them.

Should you attend such a breakfast, here’s what you can expect.

The meal usually starts with dates and dry fruits. This is followed by a hot soup, known as shorba, which is typically made with chicken. The other food is then presented on a tray, consisting of a variety of dishes, normally including: a cold salad with yogurt and cucumber (a little like the Greek tzatziki), the famous Sudanese asida (made from cooked wheat flour), spiced meat known as kofta and fuul (a stew made with fava beans). Next, you will be served with fruit. About one hour after breakfast, once the Muslim diners have returned from prayer, typical Sudanese sweets, known as bastas, will be offered round.

Throughout the meal, fruit juice, usually freshly-squeezed, will be provided. Helomour is a sweetened spicy drink associated with Ramadan, and will almost certainly be served, too. Another popular Ramadan beverage is karkaday, made from hibiscus, and useful for regulating blood pressure, which can drop during fasting.

Weddings and marriage

In Sudan, it is common practice for family members of the betrothed to invite whoever they want to the wedding, even if the guests do not know the bride and groom. This means that, if you stay in the country for any length of time, you will almost certainly be invited to a wedding.

Food served at weddings is almost always the same, and comes either wrapped in cling film or in a polystyrene box.

A typical tray consists of a bread roll, a piece of feta-like cheese, a few black olives, one pasty-like sambuska with cheese and another with meat, one basta (Sudanese sweet), some slices of pepper and a few wilting crisps.

Whilst serving such food at a wedding might appear frugal in other cultures, Sudanese guests expect such fare. If the arrangements are not as they anticipate, they may look unfavourably upon the families of the two who are being married.

A Sudanese wedding typically lasts for three days.

The first day ('leilat al-henna') is dedicated to the man and his friends and family. It is usually the man who invites all guests for this part of the proceedings. Although the woman is present, she does not choose who will attend the service. During this ceremony, the hands and feet of the groom are decorated with henna by his female family members. At the same time, the bride is anointed with perfume and creams. The hands and feet of the bride are also decorated with henna.

The second day ('leilat al-dukhlia') is the most important day of the nuptial rites and takes place in the bride’s house. This ceremony is just for female guests. The only man that can attend is the groom.

In the evening, after a day of feasting and dancing, the bride is expected to perform a dance for her husband-to-be.

This gathering is an opportunity for the bride to show that she is pretty and worthy of marrying the man. Wearing relatively little, at least by Sudanese standards, the idea is that the woman should perform her dance in a sexy and slightly provocative fashion.

Traditionally, the next two days of the wedding were known as 'subhia and girtik', but now, for economic reasons, tend to be rolled into a single day. During the morning, the bride has to dance in front of her female guests whilst the groom receives good wishes from his male guests. In the afternoon, the couple begin their honeymoon.

The three-day wedding ceremony actually takes place roughly three months after the official and legal marriage of the couple. The groom and a male member of the bride’s family (usually the father or a brother) will sign the registration document within the community mosque. In the past, this registration procedure could take place without the consent of the bride, providing that a male member of the bride’s immediate family agreed. Nowadays, though, it is not possible to force a woman to marry against her wishes. Once the registration service is over, the couple are legally married, but Islamic culture dictates that they still cannot have sexual relations until after the official ceremony, three months hence.

If you attend a Sudanese wedding, a present is generally not expected. The proceedings will involve some form of live music and dancing, where both men and women click their fingers in the air as a sign of happiness for the couple.

As in most aspects of Sudanese life, men and women sit separately during the proceedings, although it is usually acceptable to sit together with the other side if you prefer.

Due to a noise curfew in place in North Sudan, all music stops around 11 pm and most guests will leave shortly afterwards, although some may stay on and participate in a further ceremony where both bride and groom, dressed in traditional clothes and surrounded by burning candles, sit and receive well-wishers. In some circumstances, a special permit can be obtained from the police to extend the noise curfew until midnight.

In terms of dress, the tobe, a colourful traditional dress, is popular with the ladies. They will also use the opportunity to apply copious amounts of make-up to their faces. Married women will generally wear some sort of henna design on their hands, as a sign of participation in the wedding. Many men will come to the wedding dressed in a white jalabia, or else wearing a smart shirt and trousers.

The bride will attend the proceedings wearing a white dress, similar to the one worn at Christian weddings. She will also use cream to make her face as light as possible. The groom will either wear a suit or a jalabia to the wedding.

A Sudanese marriage is more than just a union between husband and wife; it is also a marrying of the two families. For this reason, the families carefully study one another before the wedding. If they see problems in the family, or do not get on with key family members, they may choose to abandon wedding preparations.

This is one of the principal reasons why the marrying of cousins is so widespread in the country. Many families consider it ideal if they can entice two cousins to marry, as they then avoid the complications that unity between two different families can bring.

However, with divorce becoming more prevalent, there is another side to this: it can be far harder to disentangle a failed marriage within the family than between two different families.

The Dukhan Ritual

Before a wedding, many Sudanese women perform a purification ritual, which is intended to make them fit for marriage.

Wearing nothing but a loose robe or towel, the betrothed will sit for up to an hour each day above a smouldering pile of perfumed embers. This daily ritual is usually performed for a whole month before the wedding, sometimes longer.

The aromatic wood used to make the embers is called talih. Souq as-Shigiara in Omdurman is famous for selling it.

The dukhan smooths and tightens the skin. It is also believed to cleanse the woman in preparation for the new home into which she will enter.

Funerals

Not all Muslims approve of the outpouring of grief at a Sudanese funeral, believing that this is tantamount to questioning the will of Allah.

Nonetheless, funeral ceremonies are an important part of the Islamic way-of-life in Sudan and if a community member has recently died, everyone in the community will be expected to stop by and at least pay their respects.

The outpouring of grief is most obvious among the female members of the family, where they will shriek shrilly, often for hours on end.

Before the funeral, the body is washed and then it is carried to the grave. Only the men are permitted to accompany the body to the grave, whilst the women stay at home and prepare hospitality for the many mourners that will descend on the home. The local sheikh will say a few words to the body, wishing it safe passage into the next life. Then everyone that has accompanied the body to the grave — usually close family members — will help cover it in earth.



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