We were at the last stretch of our journey. A nine hundred forty kilometer train ride through the Sahara. The train must have been at least fifty years old. It was a fittingly beige color, blending in nicely with the endless desert surrounding the tracks. Upon hearing the unwelcome news of the impending storm, we had quickly clambered onto the dilapidated, smelly train, amongst a mass of panicked, sweaty passengers. My stepfather Akasha elbowed his way through the chaos and found places for us on the hard vinyl seats. Mama, my little sister Aliyah and I huddled together.
Around us, a throng of tongue clucking old Sudanese women wrapped in bright traditional cloth, the tobe, chattered excitedly in high pitch Arabic. They wrestled with their heavy straw baskets, carton boxes, and an assortment of plastic bags. Their wrinkled, chubby underarms flapped uncontrollably as they raised their packages onto the racks above the seats. I stared at them, transfixed by the sight of their heaving, ample bodies, their vigorous prattle, their hands and feet adorned with elaborate patterns of dark henna. Finally, the women settled down, after much complicated arranging of their three-meter long garments. With what sounded like a steamy whistle and a then a sudden chug of the locomotive, we left the dusty and sad town of Wadi Halfa behind us.
Ahead of us … only days of mysterious, empty Sahara. Sunburned, centuries old sand stretched into eternity. It glistened like a mirror, undulating and shimmering softly, tantalizingly. I took one last look at the desert before the conductor pulled the wooden blinds down. Passengers had quieted, slowly lulled by the repetitive sway of the engine.
A wizened old man in a sirwal and aragi appeared along the aisles calling out his invitation for tea, “Shai, Shai.” I had seen the wide pants and tunic before, worn by my stepfather. These hung on the bony tea seller, making him look like a desert scarecrow. He handled the large, steel pot of hot liquid and small glass cups like some juggler, like someone who had done this since he was just a young boy.
Even though we had been expecting it, the haboob took us by surprise. It arrived vengefully, suddenly roaring past the darkening windows like some furious desert demon. The wind was so strong it rattled the heavy metal train as if it was a tin can, and the storm, a giant’s merciless fist. The raging, screaming force of the Sahara rose against us, unapologetically, for we were the trespassers, the offenders. This ancient power, the master of the desert had silenced the strong, dark men on the train, the clucking grandmothers, and the giggling young girls. It had caused covert glances of trepidation over the hastily wrapped facemasks. Only babies dared to scream their protest.
The haboob continued throughout the night. It had grown colder and I pulled my jacket on and around my body. I felt a slight shiver in my bones. Someone right behind me was snoring over the shriek of the wind. A child’s voice rang out asking for his mother. I stayed awake, unable to sleep, thoughts whirling in my head
After a long time, a grayish streak of light stole its way through the closed shades of the carriage. The inside of the train was still dusty but there was stillness, a lull. It was unsettling and I wondered if it was just a trick. I waited for the roar and lash to start again. It did not. It was over. Somebody woke up and made their way to the toilets in the back, shuffling in their plastic flip-flops across the sand on the floor. Someone else snorted and spat.
I peered outside. Through the slits in the blinds, I saw the sun. My heart thundered in my ears. I felt my blood rushing through my veins, through my head, swirling, like molten gold. A flowing ball on fire was rising on the horizon, over the endless emptiness outside. It burst into orange and crimson lava and washed over the dry barren land, enveloping it in warmth. I felt the traction of the locomotive, heard it gasp for air, stumble, but then it pushed on. I pressed my eye to the narrow slit … frozen, breathless.
The train hurled forward into the dawn. That is how I witnessed my first sunrise in the Sudan.