“Number one, number one!” the man in immaculate white head scarf and djellaba keeps asserting holding a folded jute bag in one hand and our friend Arthur’s arm in the other, lifting his chin at me with a glitter in his eye, as if Arthur was my husband and I the winner of the region beauty contest, who he was overtly coveting and about to negotiate.
In his sixties, grey hair and three-day beard, a smartphone in his chest pocket, his skin is fairer than most of the men we’ve met in Sawākin’s streets on our way to Souk El Jagar (Sawākin’s main market), and unlike them, he doesn’t wear the dark vest that completes what appears to be the inhabitants’ outfit. Despite his eagerness to communicate, our blatant lack of Arabic or Sudanese dialect, prevents any real dialogue, and any interpretation of the scene would be pure fortuity, but I must admit a slight unease when he waves his car keys at us with a big smile as if requesting to take me for a ride!
This is when I elope, leaving Arthur to his new business partner, and join Thomas, not far in front with the kids who are very keen to show the town resident dromedary to their friends from Girotondo (whom Arthur is the skipper and dad). Arrived a couple of days before them, we had a wander to buy some fresh produce the day before, and though Azur felt overwhelmed then by the heat, the dust, the incomprehensible babble, and the junk littering the streets, encouraged by his friends’ presence, he is like a fish in the water showing them around as if a local already.
We also have reasons to feel at home, because in Sawākin have gathered numerous boats we’ve met before during our trip: starting with “Brule-Vent”, our buddy boat from Darwin all the way to Malaysia and who we were stoked to catch up with (Pascal kindly came in dinghy to escort us in Sawākin’s narrow entrance, and had even cooked a ratatouille as a welcome gift which we ate with him and his brother-in-law & crew, Jean-Yves, almost as soon as we had anchored), tall ship “Yukon” who Thomas had spent a day doing the formalities with in Kupang, “Adelante” who had arrived as the same time as us in Sri Lanka, “Sea Pearl”, met in the Maldives, “Deo Juvante”, never met but who I had been in contact with to exchange information regarding a potential stop in Socotra, and of course Girotondo, met in Thailand albeit briefly but with whom we connected straight away. A family reunion of sorts!
Regardless of what tourism websites claim, you need a big stretch of imagination to picture the Coral City of Sawākin (or Suakin), now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in its former glory, back when it was a chief African port and a major slave trade hub, before being abandoned in 1920 in favor of Port Sudan. Of its Ottoman heritage and grand white coral stone buildings, alas not much remains but some carved stone facades still standing by the will of Allah, arches precariously wedged by wooden sticks, and ruins squatted by buzzards and crows.
This goes for the current city too where it is nearly impossible from the surrounding derelict buildings to tell apart which are deserted or still inhabited today. But surprisingly, we could find everything we needed during our short stay in Sawākin, from fishing supplies to provisioning, including delicious flat bread fresh out of the oven everyday of the week, and sold by the dozen in small or large yellow plastic bags which we can spot everyone walking around town with.
We’ll remember fondly the friendliness of the people, their mellow attitude, and harmonious dress code which made for a rather soothing atmosphere, and the countless curious demanding to be photographed in their arid decor of shambles, where SUV shared the dirt streets with donkey-powered carriages, goats feeding on junk and cats fighting over goat carcasses. Not to mention the utterly photogenic sightings when at dusk the sun rays brush the stones at this delicate angle and give the remaining stones and columns their full perspective and character.