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Kassala, A City Loved By All Sudanese

By: Aisha Braima

KHARTOUM (Sudanow.info.sd) - All Sudanese are infatuated with the Eastern border City of Kassala. Even those who had never seen it love and long to see it.

Native and non-native Kassala poets had composed touching verse in its captivating beauty, the remarkably friendly nature of its inhabitants and its legendary love stories that gave the City a wide space in the memory of Sudanese lyric and the nation’s poetry book at large.

Kassala is a green oasis within the largely arid expanses of Eastern Sudan. It is located some 480 km east of Khartoum, facing the common border with Eritrea. Thanks to its rich tourist tradition, Kassala was selected this year to host Sudan’s celebrations marking the International Tourism Day.

Kassala’s geography is geometrical. From above it is seen as a circle divided into two equal halves by the River Gash. From the East it is surrounded by the fascinating Taka mountains series that stick out towards the sky like the jaws of a historic beast. This is the first half circle. Then we have the Sawagi locality which is an endless series of orchards, making the other half circle. Sawagi literally means waterwheels as the area is originally a farming district in which waterwheels were used to draw water from wells to irrigate fruit gardens. Now modern water pumps are used instead.

A visitor to the City during the rainy season would see the Taka Mountains series wrapped in a blanket of humid clouds. As the traveler draws closer he feels most welcome when he sees the Taka Mounts and once he enters the city, he very soon makes himself at home.

Gash River
Gash River


The first sight one sees as he enters the City’s outskirts is a series of villages inhabited by the Rashaida ethnic group, their women dressed in colourfully embroidered garments and niqabs (veils) covering their faces. Upon delving into the Southern Sawagi district, one will be in the accompany of the odor of banana, mango, grape fruit and orange orchards until he reaches the Western Bank of River Gash .The farm owners live within or nearby to their orchards. So, it is a home and a garden combined together. By the way, Kassala is confirmed as the producer of the best quality grape fruits in the World.

The River Gash is one of the City’s main landmarks. It is seasonal and runs in the rainy season (June-October) and then tends to dry up gradually. But often the River overspills its banks causing tremendous damage to farms and property. That is why it is called “the erratic river” or “the unruly river” in the local Bidhaawyeet language of the Bija ethnic group of the region. This violent river can also remind us of the Yellow River of China that often goes off the reins causing disaster and destruction. But Kassala inhabitants seem to have chosen to live with this situation, refusing to relocate to other areas.

Poet Abdel Wahhab Hillawi, a native of Kassala, says the dwellers cannot imagine a Kasala without the Gash River. ‘’The inhabitants consider the River as their City’s lifeline.. They continue to monitor its behavior, exchange news about it and wait for its flood as a lover may wait for his sweetheart who is to come back after a long time,’’ says Hillawi. “And when it starts to flow, they flock in droves to its banks to see the water and the trees and timber the River has swept in its mad flow down from the Ethiopian plateau.’’

Another important landmark of Kassala is the Toteel Spring, which is a brook out flowing from the Taka Mountains. It is the Toteel Spring that attracts visitors the most, in particular new weds honeymooning in the City. Legends surrounding the Spring claim that once you drink from its water, you are sure to come back for another drink one day. Songs and melodies that glorify the Toteel Spring continue to be composed. Foreign tourists are also keen to see the Spring, to see how unusual mother nature can be: water flowing out from the rocks.

Khatmyya Mosque
Khatmyya Mosque


Part of Kassala‘s magic is also associated with a legendary love story that can compare to Romeo and Joliet and the other international romances. That is the love story between Tajouj and al-Mahallag. Hillawi narrates the story: Kassala, in one of the Gash River’s outbursts, had given birth to a girl named Tajouj, with a beauty incomparable. It also gave birth to a boy named al-Muhallag. The birth of this couple has ushered in a story of noble human love, a story of heroism and sacrifice no less than that of Romeo and Joliet.

After some hurdles the two managed to get married. But all of a sudden Tajouj called for a divorce. Stories conflict about this plea for a divorce. One narrative is that the woman’s tribe had pushed her into this because her husband had composed poetry in excess about her beauty and his love for her, that her name and story was on every lip in the region. And that was seen by her elders as a shame, a defamation. Another narrative tells that al-Mahallag had asked his bride to dance naked for him. She said she would comply on one condition: a divorce. A third narrative says that he had wanted to see her hair, contrary to the tribal norms of that time.

After the divorce al-Mahallag became insane and died after a short while. Tajouj then also died out of grief. Tajouj is buried in a well-known grave on the Gash River bank, while al-Mhallag’s grave is still unknown.

This story has made of Tajouj and Kassala’s women an emblem of female beauty. The love story was shot into a cinema film with the name ‘’Tajouj’’. Some have called for Tjouj’s grave to be converted into a tourist cite like the Indian tomb Taj Mahal, built by King Shah Jahan to embrace his wife Arjumand Banu Begum, commonly known as Mumtaz Mahal.

The stars of "Tajouj" listen to the director Jadalla Jobara
The stars of "Tajouj" listen to the director Jadalla Jobara


The Kasala citizens are also famed for good-heartedness. “People in Kassala are kindhearted, so kindhearted that one feels all human kindheartedness originates from Kassala,’’ says Hillawi. Maymoona Badri, an office worker at a commercial company in Khartoum, says that one sign of the kindheartedness of Kassala citizens is that families in the City often host new weds at their homes when there are no vacancies in the City’s hotels during the tourist high season.

Kassala’s hospitality is also well demonstrated in the way it treats foreigners living in it. The City has become home for many Indian, Greek, Yemeni and Syrian traders. For the Ethiopians and Eritreans, whose countries border the Kassala region, the City has become their second if not the first home, especially during protracted periods of unrest in their home countries.

Spiritually, Kassala is the cradle of the Khatmiyya Sufi Order. It is home to a number of tombs and monuments of the Order’s spiritual leaders, located at the foot of the Taka Mountain and frequented by the Khatmiyya adherents and others from all over Sudan. There one can also see the Grand Mosque of the Khatmiyya neighborhood, a marvelous piece of architecture.

Another legend associated with Kassala is the existence of an elixir tree at the top of the Taka Mountain. Local tales say that if one soaks a leaf from this tree in milk, the leaf will change into gold. But the tree is, unluckily, guarded by a mammoth snake and a tiger that keep intruders off. Tell tales speak about an army general who in the 1970s tried to land his plane on the Mountain to discover the fact behind the tree, but failed to do so.

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What Else Can One See and Enjoy in Kassala? The souqs (markets) are lively and colourful, with many people dressed in clothes unique to their tribe. Souq an-Niswaan is the "women's souq" where baskets and mats are made, as well as coffee making equipment and incense. Souq ar-Rashaida is where the Rashaida tribe gather, selling their bright red and black robes for women and coloured jellabiyas(garments) for men. Khatmiya is the old part of Kassala, underneath the mountains of Taka.

The main sight is the tomb of Seyyid Hassan, one of the founders of the Khatmiyya Sufi Order, who is buried in a roofless dome next to an unfinished mosque. Locals tell you that he is so holy that when it rains, not a drop of rainwater falls through the opening in the roof. Next to the tomb is a Qur'anic school for boys. Behind the tomb, you can climb the slopes of Jebel Toteel. On the lower slopes, there are several cafes built into the rock, serving the best coffee in Kassala.


Note by the editor: No wonder that one reporter working with Reuters in 2003 wrote a fascinating tales about the city that inspired this ballad-like description of the city. It is the beauty of the tale that makes us republish the narration, in spirit. The reporter at the time spoke with two of those Kassalawites, the way the local would affiliate a person to a location of a tribe.

 

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