It was 104 degrees Fahrenheit around midnight tonight in Khartoum, and the hot air in the courtyard behind my hotel was filled with the sweet smell of fruit-flavored tobacco. In the nighttime heat, an audience of a hundred men and women, some dark black, some Arab, were sitting still and quiet at tables set up on the grass. Clouds of mist were falling gently over them, giving some relief from the heat, spraying out from pipes that had been suspended high above their heads by the hotel staff.
Through the dark, and the mist, and the thick fragrance, I could see dozens of hookas in their hands and on the tables. Wisps of sweetened smoke curled out of the hookas to meet the falling mist. Many of the men wore long flowing white robes and Muslim skullcaps. Others wore regular pants and long-sleeved shirts. The women all wore burkas and veils, their veils pushed back, far up, past their foreheads and behind their ears, showing their necks and their hair and earrings, and their faces painted with mascara and lipstick; some mocha faces with skulpted eyebrows; some dark black faces with bright white eyes.
All eyes were on the stage, a raised platform at one side of the dark courtyard. Pulsing loud synthesizer music, played by two keyboardists and a drum machine, filled the space around the audience with an undulating beat so rapid, and with the voice of a male vocalist so energized -- singing a Middle Eastern melody so joyously but whiningly -- that it struck a strange contrast with the slow, calm swirls of mist, and the quiet, unmoving audience.
No one moved, because everyone was entranced. It wasn't the tobacco, the music, the heat or the mist. It was the young dancers: five young women and two young men. You couldn't take your eyes off them. Dressed from head to toe in white, flowing, traditional Ethiopian clothes, with bright multi-colored hems and sashes and jewelry and headdresses -- only their faces and hands exposed. The powerful sexuality that came pulsing out from the stage didn't depend on anyone showing any skin. There were no mini-skirts, no thighs showing, no men's muscular chests or women's low-cut blouses. But the audience was transfixed by the dancers' sexiness. The girls, maybe eighteen years old, maybe twenty-two or twenty-six, all had large, beautiful breasts the size of large grapefruits, or small coconuts, covered behind the thick white material of their traditional dresses but bouncing wildly like there was no tomorrow. Their lips were painted dark, blood red. Their faces were light brown, Arabic or maybe light-skinned Indian, and they were all smiling, smiling with their mouths open, breathing heavily, almost laughing, because they were moving so fast, almost hyperactively, rhythmically, jumping, again and again and again and again, swinging their arms and twirling their hands and fingers, with such joyous abandon, it seemed childish, innocent.
But not innocent. Not those blood-red lips, not their breasts, bouncing so hard because they were pumping their chests on purpose with just the right rhythm and speed to maximize each bounce. It looked like it might be painful for them. The frenetic movement of the two boys, eighteen years old, maybe twenty, was something like a cross between turbo-charged break-dancing and an epileptic fit. Chests pumping in and out so rapidly they rivaled the girls’ bouncing breasts in speed, right shoulder in, left shoulder in, right shoulder back, left shoulder back, faster and faster, two, three shoulder thrusts per second ..... also with such joyous, childish abandon that it seemed maybe, maybe it wasn't quite sexual -- but it was. At times seeming masculine, at other times joyously effeminate, the boys were a foil to the women, mimicking one another, smirking, smiling, pushing their heads forward and back like chickens. The women and young men all did the jerky chicken move, the neck snapping back with the chin tucked down, then forward again, over and over, at exactly the same time, in unison. Face forward then sharply back, forward then sharply back, all in rhythm to the fast-paced, whining vocalist and synthesizer sound. It seemed comical, the chicken theme, a bit absurd, awkward, almost violent in its jerkiness -- but blended in with the bouncing breasts, the jumps and squats in unison, the smirking and winking, the colored lips, the break-dancing chests and shoulders, it became part of a whole orgiastic sexual drama. Both the male and female dancers were doing it, but as my eyes settled on one of the women, it was impossible not to imagine her in the throes of orgasm, moving violently like an out-of-control chicken. It sounds crazy, I know, but don't people sometimes do strange things, in those moments of passionate abandon? (“Baaahhhhhhkkk, bok bok bok bok bok baaaahhhhkkk!”)
(So maybe I was a bit high on heat, mist, tobacco.)