Happiness and hope - the other side of Sudan
PEOPLE often ask me how I can tie myself forever to Sudan, when I have covered the worst of this country in conflict zones like Darfur. I guess I finally understood the strength of love.
The news I report is often grim. But living here for three years has also given me a unique opportunity to see a side of this fascinating place that few get to understand.
War and oppression have ripped at the fabric of society in much of Sudan, but strong family bonds have kept people together. I arrived as a stranger, alone in a place where there were few foreigners, and was welcomed by many into that family.
My new husband, Mohamed Omer Abdelati, is from northern Sudan and runs an aviation services company and the Canadian University of Sudan.
We are both 29 and Muslim and shared a circle of friends for two years, but I was often on the road and we did not really become close until 2005. When we did, we came together in this rich mix of ancient Arab and African cultures, where no culture is dominant, despite the indoctrination policies of various governments.
My wedding, for example, was a week-long affair that ended on Saturday. Pharaonic ceremonies passed down over thousands of years were more important than Muslim traditions.
During the "jirtik" ritual, the boss of the home is prophesied by whether the bride or groom first spits milk in the other's face. Chanting and singing women wave incense, waft perfumes and form a tight circle around the couple: he is draped in white cloth and carrying a huge sword; she is dressed in bright red and dripping in gold.
My Sudanese family spent many hours making traditional perfume. They picked what they call the "fingernails" of sea creatures from the Far East and stuffed hundreds of cloves in apples that they left to dry.
The mixture is ground up, boiled in a huge pot and finally poured into crystal vases full of exotic scents for daytime and evening. Chanel, eat your heart out.
Then the bride has to dance for the women in both families.
Shake it like Shakira, I thought - great fun - until I discovered it entailed learning some 75 different tribal dances, including Ethiopian shoulder-shaking.
In the old days, the bride would dance in a grass skirt and nothing else to show the in-laws how fertile she would be. Now the bride is clothed - but not very.
During the 1990s, when a hardline government enforced its strict version of Islamic sharia law, the racy bridal dance was one tradition they did not dare touch.
Everyone pitches in at a Sudanese wedding. Dozens of family and friends all work to prepare exotic dishes and design elaborate decorations.
Relatives living abroad send packages with vital ingredients, from hair extensions for the bridal dance to candles, huge quantities of gold jewellery and dresses. The bride is expected to do, well, nothing really.
For at least a month before the wedding, a Sudanese bride is locked up at home, scrubbed daily with concoctions of turmeric, coffee, crushed almonds, rice and sandalwood. She is then placed aloft over a pit of burning perfumed wood to give the skin a beautiful colour and scent.
All her body hair is removed and her hands and feet are painted in intricate designs of henna. When she emerges on the first day of the wedding, her skin is dazzling.
I invited friends and family from around the world to my wedding - 2,000 people attended the white dress night at the Palace Hotel on the banks of the Nile in Khartoum - because I wanted them to see this, the other side to Sudan.
Yet I am a rather unconventional Sudanese bride. Three weeks before my wedding, I slipped off to Darfur one more time for what a friend called my "last dash for freedom".
Authorities had banned me for almost three months from Darfur and I had finally been granted a travel permit. The 2.5 million people who suffer from the conflict there can only imagine the luxury of a beach honeymoon as they fester in miserable camps, too afraid to go home and dependent on handouts from aid workers.
My husband says he wants our children to be part of the generation that rebuilds Sudan as a more equal nation after so many years of civil war and faltering peace deals.
I just hope it doesn't take that long.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: West