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Documentary : Khartoum at Crossroads : A visitor unveils Sudan's mysterious dual nature. By day, this controversial nation is Arabic. By night, it's African. At any hour, it can be harrowing.

July 27, 1993|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KHARTOUM, Sudan — It is impossible to describe the unsettling mixture of tranquillity and bedlam, iridescence and evil, that is at this crossroads of Arabia and Africa. Here, the Blue Nile and White Nile glide into each other, mingle their waters, and roll on toward Egypt.

There is a beguiling character to the soporific stillness of a Khartoum afternoon, when the most prominent motion is the muddy river as it flows in stifling heat under the boughs of flowering acacia trees and still palms.

Khartoum by day is an outpost of Arabia, a cornerstone in the House of Islam where white-turbaned merchants squabble in the morning marketplace, crippled beggars loll in the dusty streets of downtown and the song of the mosque moves on a thick carpet of dust and air across the somnolent afternoon.

Khartoum by night slips into Africa. In the silence after dusk, the throaty sound of drums and chanting rises up in the distance from the banks of the Nile, and Nuba dancers bend and sway toward one another. In a strict Islamic society, in which alcohol is forbidden, flasks of potent aragi, distilled from pressed dates, are passed from hand to hand in the huge camps of displaced blacks from the south who have flooded the Arab north.

I arrived in the silent hours that follow the midnight curfew, imposed after the Islamic fundamentalist regime took power in 1989--the hours when slim teen-age soldiers with Kalashnikov rifles stand wary guard at every major intersection in the city.

I had my eyes open when a friend, armed with a curfew travel permit, picked me up from the airport at 3 a.m. My mission in Sudan was to try to determine the truth of allegations that the Sudanese government was training and supporting Islamic terrorists bent on the downfall of neighboring secular Arab regimes, and rumor had it that it was in the hours after curfew that truckloads of Algerian, Tunisian and Egyptian militants were moved from rest houses in north Khartoum to training camps in the Sudan desert.

We motored slowly from checkpoint to checkpoint, handing over our travel permit for inspection at each stop, until we found ourselves bearing down on a barricade in front of the presidential headquarters.

We heard it before we saw it--two soldiers screaming something at us in a deep-chested roar we didn't understand until we finally saw them in the glare of our headlights, feet planted, rifles raised and aimed at us, their eyes desperate and frightened.

"Turn off your headlights!" I yelled, the memory of similar nighttime checkpoint encounters in Lebanon, Kuwait, Egypt and Yugoslavia flooding to mind; remembering that wary young soldiers confronted with oncoming headlights may well shoot first and identify the intruders later. But my friend, seemingly paralyzed and confused, didn't respond. "Turn off your headlights!" I screamed again, reaching across the dashboard, flipping off the lights.

The soldiers strode toward the car, rifles still aimed. We sat motionless until they arrived, grabbed our travel permit, scanned it, scanned us and finally relaxed. "Salaam alayakum (Peace upon you)," I said in Arabic, making a sad attempt at companionability.

"Alaykum salaam (And on you, peace)," they finally replied, and the adventure of the night was over. Off to the hotel. No shootings. No sightings of terrorists--or anyone else, for that matter. A fitful night's sleep.

The next day, I picked up Al-Sir Sabil, renowned among foreign journalists for his ability to guide his rickety yellow taxi around the streets of Khartoum, up to the doors of secret opposition leaders by night, through the entrances of remote refugee camps by day, outside the watchful eyes of the ubiquitous Sudanese mukhabarat (secret police).

Al-Sir, as much as anyone I met in Khartoum, personified this mix of Arabness and Africanness that is so uniquely Sudanese--that is an essential part of the Sudanese style of laissez-faire Islam.

It is not at all surprising, for example, to stumble late at night upon a rowdy and alcohol-drenched party in the heart of this Islamic fundamentalist capital, only to find police outside fingering their rifles at one moment as if preparing to mount an assault in defense of Islamic principles and irrepressibly tapping their feet the next.

In the souk, you are likely to find Islamic worry beads and Koranic plaques in one stall and black magic charms made of snake parts in the next. The mystic Sufi sect of Islam, reviled by the fundamentalists in Cairo, is at home in Khartoum, its dervishes whirling in front of the camel market on Fridays.

Al-Sir often bemoaned the fact that his skin was too dark to make him an Arab and too light to make him a Negro. He prayed like most Muslims but loved nothing better than a good African-style tribal wedding, complete with dancing. "Men and women together," he emphasized.

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