Upon telling Mr. Amosi, my kindergarten principal who now worked with me selling dry cigars at a shop downtown, that I was leaving to work in Sudan, he shrieked, “Are you crazy? They are going to kill you!” This is how it was, I tried to ignore his generalizations and gunshot noises directed at me most days. I would never understand what he had been through- walking from Yemen to Israel in the early 40s- so I just laughed off his bellicose antics. However, I did have some worry about my personal safety so I left the store one day in search of a gris-gris. I wanted something tangible, an amulet to keep with me at all times. That or maybe I had listened to one too many Dr. John albums, but I was convinced of its protective powers.
I have been in Khartoum now for three months and not once have I experienced real danger. And I have had my gris-gris in my backpack every day, traversing the concrete environs of this chaotic city. One day at a Sufi procession, an old man saw my gris-gris in my hand and asked if he could see it. Passing the bag through his calloused fingers, he asked, “Why do you need such things?”
“For protection.“ I shot back.
He searched my face and I looked back at his with curious eyes. In the din of drumming and chanting, we stood like this for several minutes amidst the confusion. The man then pointed to a pair of hand woven stools and we crouched down low. He pulled out a small leather pouch and started to speak about this hijab. My eyes grew as he spoke about the nebulous object, sipping my mint tea. He abruptly stood up and told me, “Head to Sheikh Mubarak in Omdurman,” and then walked away blending back into the crowd of white robes.
The next day I took a bus to Omdurman in search of this Sheikh. After receiving nonsensical directions several times, a man eventually agreed to take me to see him. Inside Sheikh Mubarak’s compound, the weather was cool in stark contrast to the harsh sun outside. I sat against a concrete slab and waited.
A few minutes passed and two ladies walked in, one holding a large bowl containing a silvery-gray liquid with a single ice cube bobbing around. The lady welcomed me in Arabic and offered me this luminous substance. I took a sip out of politeness. The liquid sloshed over my chapped lips and it tasted cold and ancient in the back of my throat. She urged me to continue drinking, but I handed back the bowl to avoid blindly “Drinking the Kool-Aid.”
Hearing a shuffling sound, I looked toward the door way; a crooked nose appeared followed by the rest of a rather grisly face. The two women immediately kneeled before this Sheikh kissing his pinky ring. My mind conjured up scenes of pimps and harlots. The wiry Sheikh walked past me and sat on several mattresses in the corner of the room.
Sheikh Mubarak adjusted his body several times until he was comfortable on the floor. After surveying the room he saw me sitting there and greeted me in a dry voice. Before I could say my next thought, one of the men that had entered the room spoke quickly in Arabic, but I heard him say the word hijab. They knew why I was there and I was comforted at not needing to describe to him my perception of a hijab in broken Arabic. He asked for my name and my mother’s name and then leaped to his feet with great vigor, walking over to me. His long fingers like spiders on the keys of a piano clutched my forehead. He started to recite verses from the Quran. I do not know how long I sat before him, but when I looked up again he was no longer there. I sat there smiling in enjoyment at the fact that I had no idea what was actually going on.
I could not see past the darkness of the doorway in front of me, but incense smoke started to billow outward. The Sheikh once again appeared before me and he held out a piece of parchment folded and wrapped together with string. As I placed the heavy paper in my glasses case, I was given instructions to find a particular leather worker in the shuk. I thanked the Sheikh and left him because several other people had entered seeking his services.
As I headed in search of the leather worker, I noticed how quickly my feet were moving. I also took notice that the temperature that was far over a hundred degrees did not seem as overbearing as usual. I opened and closed my eyes several times, looking down the dirt road.
While turning past several cell-phone stalls, clumps of leather caught my eyes. A man with large sunglasses sat before me on the floor putting a wad of snuff under his bottom lip. I took the parchment from my glasses case and handed it over to him. He nimbly used his feet to sprawl out an amorphous piece of orange leather. He sprinkled powder on both sides of the tiny scroll (I think in order to protect from water damage) and started to cut away at the leather. In four precise motions he enveloped the parchment in the leather, and then started to thread string through the top while intermittently sprinkling water on both sides. He cried “Allah Akbar” and placed the necklace around my neck. I felt its moisture on my chest and became slightly intoxicated by the pungent animal hide. I thanked and paid the man for his services and slowly walked away not really concerned in what direction my feet took me.