“You can live for a long time inside the shell you were born in. But one day it’ll become too small.”
“Then what?” I ask.
“Well, then you’ll have to find a larger shell to live in.”
I consider this for a moment. “What if it’s too small but you still want to live there?”
She sighs. “Gracious, child, what a question. I suppose you’ll either have to be brave and find a new home or you’ll have to live inside a broken shell.”
We need a home in the psychological sense as much as we need one in the physical: to compensate for a vulnerability. We need a refuge to shore up our states of mind, because so much of the world is opposed to our allegiances. We need our rooms to align us to desirable versions of ourselves and to keep alive the important, evanescent sides of us.
― Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness
I thought home needed to be tall and luminous, a glowing building with a luxurious setting. Status. What I failed to understand is home is not where I place my head down at night or the color of my furniture. Home is the people I surrounded myself with, the ones I break bread with. The keepers of my secrets and my fears. It is to be loved and to give love without inhibitions.
The four of them stand in the cockpit of the Misdemeanor as they motor from one town to another. They pass their house, which is not theirs any longer. Libby cuts the throttle, and they stall there in front of their sprawling memory. The four of them have come up for the closing; since all of them are owners, they all must be present to sign away this place. They have given most of the land to the Maine Preservation Society, and the house, they have sold to a family who promises not to tear the whole thing down, though they know that is a lie. The oak is yellow and peeks from behind the house. The glossy white windows of the great room look down upon them. It is cold and they all wear their foul-weather gear, bright-yellow slickers, except Gwen, in a red poncho to accommodate the swell of her belly. Libby keeps one hand on the tiller and the other she slips into Tom’s hand. He gives it a squeeze and then puts his arm around her. Danny moves from the stern to stand between Tom and Gwen. They all stand on the starboard side looking at the house. Libby and Tom, then Danny, his hand resting on his brother’s shoulder, and Gwen next to him, her arms crossed over her protruding belly, her hair long and dark hanging down her back. She is no longer a beacon, but a buoy in her poncho, red right returning. The sky is gray and low and promises a choppy ferry ride to the mainland, but there in the safe haven of the harbor it is calm and windless, and the house isn’t empty, but expectant. The flat water, dark green now, lies empty, the float pulled out the month before. Going from town dock to town dock, there is no need for a tender. There is no way for them to come ashore, even if they wanted to. A house like this is not supposed to exist now. It comes from another era. It is a ghost, like the schooners that sail through the thoroughfare every summer. It is an aberration, a figment. It is their great shingled memory.
― Sarah Moriarty, North Haven
Everybody has a geography that can be used for change. That is why we travel to far off places. Whether we know it or not we need to renew ourselves in territories that are fresh and wild. We need to come home through the body of alien lands.
―Joan Halifax,The Fruitful Darkness
After eight years marked by three floods, my husband and I are thrilled to announce we have a new home. We are reunited with our cat companion, the furry fat man we call Yuri. I love watching him find all the new spots where he can lounge and spy. I’m attaching a “Yuri around the house” gallery at the end of this post for your enjoyment.
It feels amazing to be together again. It also feels wonderful not to have to rebuild a home. We did that twice, almost finishing the second time when Harvey brought the third flood, a staggering four foot and eight inches of water. There are always things to be done in any house, but it is all “elective surgery” now, as my husband says. At the end of the work day I’m always excited to go home; I want to pinch myself to make sure it is real.
The home on Pagehurst was sold last December. After repeated floods crowned by the one Hurricane Harvey brought, the old street is now owned largely by investors hoping to flip and sell. The houses are shell-like and dead, waiting for someone to care enough to start remodeling. The process is slow; not many homeowners have stayed and one wonders how wise an investor is to buy multiple homes there as several have done. We are a few miles away, in a place with better than average drainage for Houston, some twenty feet, give or take a little, higher. It rained heavily here last week, and I could look out my window and see the street. No water in the yard at all. Rain still produces an anxiety in me, but it is a vague discomfort. In time, perhaps that will fade.
I am so excited to return to normal. For me, that means a return to creativity, to being able to have the space to make things and the leisure to read, attend events, and feel human again. Well, I’ll get out of the house more once we finish building all of our new furniture! It means I can return to you, friends, and to making the kind of environment that helps the mind and spirit to flourish. The themes for the next few months have been provided by some of my Facebook friends. They are things I hope we can all cultivate and share together. Flourish is the first of 34 words that we will explore. If you would like to contribute a word to that list, please don’t hesitate to leave it in the comments. See you around!
Early one beautiful summer evening, when everyone else was drinking indoors, Tony and I walked down to the river. We lay on the grass under a tree and chatted. At one point, Tony said, “Look at the pattern of lace the leaves make against the sky.” I looked at the canopy above us, and suddenly saw what he saw. My perspective completely shifted. I realized I didn’t have his “eyes” — though once he pointed it out, it became obvious. It made me think, “My God, I never look enough,” and in the years since, I’ve tried very hard to look —
and look again.
―Julie Andrews, Home: A Memoir of My Early Years
Sudan is largely a country of desert, the Sahara reaching deeper and deeper into the nation with every passing year. Ancient civilizations once flourished here on the banks of the Nile: Kerma, Nobatia, Alodia, Makuria, Kush, Meroë- their names fade into legend. Nubia, the area of Sudan and Lower Egypt along the Nile, developed alongside and equal to the more famous kingdom of Northern Egypt and was ruled by its own line of Pharoahs. The name Sudan comes from Arabic: bilād as-sūdān, the “lands of the Blacks”. These were proud lands for centuries, but today are war torn and famine infested. We must never forget that human civilization is a fragile thing.
This is the first of a series of posts on Sudan, focusing on the beauty and artistic creativity of that nation. It is a gallery of images which have been shared online by photographers traveling and working there. Christopher Michel, David Stanley, Mark Fischer, Petr Adam Dohnálek and Arsenie Coseac have made their work available with Creative Commons Licenses. Click on the captions beneath the the photo collages to see their full albums and link to more of their images. Synkroniciti is indebted to the generosity and boldness of these travelers and artists. I encourage you to follow them.
Travel to Sudan is not easy, nor is it encouraged. The Darfur region, Blue Nile, and Southern Kordofan states are listed as off limits by the U.S. State Department, but, to be honest, the U.S. Embassy’s reach does not extend far outside the capital of Khartoum. Armed conflict is heaviest in the south of the country, where terrorism, warfare and violent crime abound. Genocide has been attempted in the provinces of Darfur and war crimes have occurred in various places across Sudan and South Sudan, which gained its independence in 2011. Both countries have been terrorized by corrupt governments, lawless military forces, disease and famine. This series will concentrate on the northern nation.
The Sudanese are descended from a combination of indigenous East African peoples and immigrants from the Arabian peninsula. By recent estimates, Sudanese Arabs make up around 70% of the population. Sudan is also home to 18 other ethnic groups and almost 600 subgroups speaking more than 100 languages. Nubians, Nuba, Zaghawa, Copts, Fur and Beja are among those groups. Most Sudanese are Muslim (around 97%), with Christians and adherents to indigenous religions filling out the mix. South Sudan, on the other hand, is less than 20% Muslim.
What does home look like in Sudan? Most are built of mudbricks or thatch, or a combination of both. Mudbricks may be covered with stucco and painted. Many houses consist of a single room, which may be round or rectangular, while others contain multiple rooms. There are also apartment buildings in Khartoum and other large cities. Some homes are designed for permanent use, while others are simple shelters for semi-nomadic families who move about the desert with their livestock. It is common for permanent residences to include a walled courtyard or garden on premises.
Earthen hut with thatched roof in Toteil, near Kassala, Sudan
View of the Taka Mountains from Toteil near Kassala, Sudan
Thatched hut house in Toteil near Kassala and Taka Mountains, eastern Sudan
In the slums outside of Khartoum, where refugees cluster and the government periodically knocks down homes on the pretense of urban planning, one can see people eking out their lives in houses cobbled together from sticks, cloth and cardboard. If they are lucky, they may have a wall or two that survived demolition. If the government ever makes good on its promise to build new homes with electricity and water, it isn’t likely that refugees and the poor would be able to live here. Unlike the nomads, these people don’t have anywhere to go.
Khartoum is a sprawling city at the confluence of the Blue Nile, flowing from Ethiopia, and the White Nile, flowing from Lake Victoria. The waters mass together here on their journey north into Egypt. The metropolitan area comprised of Khartoum, North Khartoum and Omdurman, three neighboring cities separated by the Nile and its tributaries, is home to over 5 million people.
Sudanese women visiting Tuti Island where the Blue Nile and White Nile converge
Republican Palace Museum, Khartoum, formerly and Anglican Cathedral
Cattle Drive, Omdurman
Sudanese children visiting the National History Museum, Khartoum
The bulging form of Burj al Fateh, also known as the Corinthia Hotel, is prominent on the skyline. The five star hotel, which opened in 2008, was built and financed by the neighboring government of Libya and has 18 guest floors, 173 rooms and 57 suites, with 6 restaurants, a gift shop, a club lounge, a spa and fitness center, Turkish baths, a gym, and courts for squash and tennis. Designed to mimic the shape of a billowing sail, it is known pejoratively as Khaddafi’s Egg, named for the former Libyan dictator.
On Fridays before sunset, except during the month of Ramadan, crowds gather in Omdurman at the Tomb of the 19th century leader Sheik Hamed al-Nil for a festive celebration of Islam featuring Sufi dervishes praying, singing, chanting, drumming, dancing and whirling as inspiration takes them. It’s a very colorful, happy expression of faith which is, incidentally, a major draw for tourists.
Khartoum has an easy-going façade, but there is much hiding beneath the surface. Like any large city, Khartoum contains diversity which creates flashpoints for animosity: rich and poor, Arabs and Africans, Muslims and Christians. The situation in refugee camps and slums like Mayo is dire for the poor. Skin bleaching has become a trend in many places in Sudan as young people try to look less African in order to improve their living conditions. The Sudanese government continues a disturbing tradition of seizing Christian churches without compensating the community, repurposing or selling them for profit. These injustices are not unique to Khartoum, but the lack of legal recourse in Sudan has allowed them to become highly institutionalized.
The deserts of Sudan are wild places where civilization will always be tenuous. The desperate need for water and the fearsome aspect that nature takes here, full of scorching heat and immense sandstorms, called haboob, which block out the sun, create a profound isolation from the rest of the world. While fighting is intense in the southern part of the country, where there is water and oil in close proximity, the northern reaches see less human interference. To call the desert safe would be neither correct nor prudent, but there is freedom in not having accessible desirable resources.
Boys at a rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan
Building near rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan
A set of traditional water jugs at a rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan.
Mosque near a rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan
Some of the painting in the ancient Nubian tombs at El-Kurru near Karima, Sudan.
Boys at a rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan
These deserts do contain small communities, full of tenacious people. Whether it’s a scrubby rural town, a well that provides sustenance to nomadic herders, or an archaeological site preserving the glories of Sudan’s past, life depends on the wise use of water. Sets of communal jugs can be found in such places, used by humans and and their animals. The threat of illness due to the shared vessels is outweighed by the extreme danger of dehydration. Despite, or perhaps because of, the difficulties in these desert outposts, there is a certain good humor, a certain quirkiness that plays out in the juxtaposition of donkeys and Toyota trucks. Life out here is no stranger to the beauty and resilience of absurdity.
There is so much history to be seen here, evidence of the early Nubian civilizations, which built beautiful temples and pyramids; the Romans, who never quite managed to get a toehold in Nubia after conquering Egypt; the Coptic Christians who introduced Christianity and built churches; and finally the Arab travelers who brought Islam and dotted the desert with small shrines where the traveler may pray and seek temporary shelter. The Nubian desert which so resists human habitation and meddling also preserves these fragments of the past.
There are 228 known pyramids in Sudan, more than three times the number that exist in Egypt. They are smaller, more intimate tombs than their cousins in the north, but many are beautifully detailed and well preserved. None of the Sudanese sites is as well known as Meroë, an ancient city on the east bank of the Nile that served as the capital of the Kingdom of Kush for centuries. The Meroitic civilization will be the focus of our next post on Sudan, but here’s a little sample, since I promised you pyramids.
To be changed by ideas was pure pleasure. But to learn ideas that ran counter to values and beliefs learned at home was to place oneself at risk, to enter the danger zone. Home was the place where I was forced to conform to someone else’s image of who and what I should be. School was the place where I could forget that self and, through ideas, reinvent myself.
―Bell Hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the practice of freedom
I turn on my computer to search Craigslist for apartment listings. The wireless window pops up, and I realize with some regret that all I know about my neighbours is their wireless network names: Krypton, Space balls, Couscous, and Scarlet. From this I can tell little else than that they’re fans of Superman, Mel Brooks, Middle Eastern cuisine, and the colour red. I look out my window, wondering whose house is whose and what private food and entertainment consumption occurs in each and how I will never get to know.