When the latest conflict broke out in Sudan in April, I was heading to Paris to attend a seminar series called “Urban Life at the Extensions.” I was going to present my own research looking at how the way we relate to and use sand can help us make sense of the pressing challenges facing society. I was looking forward to hearing other scholars, artists, activists, and writers talk about their research and projects in cities around the world. Meanwhile, Khartoum, the city of my birth, was burning.

After I boarded the plane in Toronto, where I live, I paid for inflight Wi-Fi and drifted in and out of a fitful sleep as I checked WhatsApp repeatedly for updates from my family. In Paris, I spent a stimulating week among my peers while simultaneously trying hard—and often failing—to manage the cognitive dissonance as I contended with the urbicide of Khartoum and the real and deadly threats my loved ones faced.

WhatsApp—the gift and the curse. Videos that have been circulating since the battle started showed various terrors: bombs falling, unmoving bodies on the streets, people screaming, hiding, fleeing. Photographs of destroyed homes, burned shells of cars, smoke rising. But on the app, silence was worse. Hours and days of not seeing messages from a family member fed into the anxiety of not knowing why they were not active—whether they had been hurt, had lost internet access, or hadn’t been able to charge their mobile phones because of electrical outages. It’s a hard thing: to trust silence.

Many saw this violence coming. I had watched from afar as a younger Sudanese generation born under military rule refused to accept it, and I have been inspired and moved by their bravery in the face of death. The protests of 2018 and 2019 toppled Omar al-Bashir, the country’s former dictator who had ruled for thirty years. And our country came so close to democratic government, only to reach this nightmare, which the protesters had been warning about. As rival military forces vie to fill the power vacuum left behind, their clashes—once relegated to places outside the capital, including Darfur—have reached the capital. At the time of writing, hundreds have been killed by artillery, violence, neglect, hunger, and lack of access to life-saving and life-preserving medicines and care. Hundreds of thousands more have been displaced from their homes, neighbourhoods, and the city, and millions have been left in fear of death and countless other forms of loss.

I am learning new forms of grief: renewed grief for what I had lost long before, nascent grief, anticipatory grief for what I could lose, second-hand grief, and a particularly terrorizing form of grief over losing possible futures. Fresh wounds have formed layers on top of old scars. Grief conspires with the body—it is a pummelling to the gut, a breaking of the heart, a snatching of breath, an obstruction of the throat, a tremor of the limbs. My grief is nausea, fatigue, head pressure, a ceaseless ache.

I haven’t lived in Khartoum since childhood, but it is the city most deeply woven into my being. I always believed I would return. After a recent period of major upheavals in my own life, I had been considering going back to live in Sudan, at least on a part-time basis, once my children reached adulthood. I wanted to build a life for myself there, seeing it as a new start rather than a return to something I had never really known.

My memories of Khartoum are compiled from the handful of years I spent there in the 1980s and the sporadic visits since. I was born in Sudan but moved to London with my mother shortly after, spending the earlier part of my childhood there, punctuated by visits to my father in Aarhus, Denmark. We returned to Sudan only to leave again, for the Arabian Gulf—in 1990, a year after al-Bashir seized power in a military coup. During that time, there was a period when Khartoum was under martial law, and some of the fear that I feel now, rooted in a child’s terror that anyone I loved could be hurt, reaches back to that time and paralyzes me.

When I was a child, the decision to leave was made on my behalf, and as I grew older, this absence of choice became a benign form of exile. I do not judge the choices my parents—and others—made, but I do live their impact. I find it hard to reconcile the city in flames on the news with the city I remember, even as I recognize neighbourhoods and landmarks, even as I witness them on fire. But the Khartoum I remember may never have existed beyond my own imagination.

When I visit, I always seem to arrive in the nighttime, darkness enveloping the city below, and there’s a late-night ride home from the airport (which was one of the first pieces of infrastructure destroyed in the war) through quiet neighbourhoods. At dawn, the local mosque sounds the call to prayer, followed by syncopated echoes from other neighbourhoods. A dog barks. The happy magenta of bougainvillea interrupts the streetscape, poking over walls and gates. Women in bright colours contrast with the blue and white of men’s jalabiyas. Sunlight has a different quality here, shadows are harder to find, and the sounds of traffic, street vendors, animals, music, and neighbours travel farther in the air. The city smells of sweat, sandalwood, diesel, and frankincense. It sounds like livingness and worship. Tourists are drawn by the Nile and the pyramids, but it is the sociability that surprises them the most.

Khartoum is a city in a country with a worldly reputation for generous hospitality, in a culture that places a preternaturally high value on communal care. Its air is dry and hot. Outside houses are kept zeer, red clay vessels filled with water, an offering for passersby under the desert sun. At tea times and mealtimes, especially during Ramadan, men will eat and drink outside, on mats and chairs on the side of the street, in case a traveller is far from home and is seeking company. Stray goats and dogs hold residencies in the streets, more densely near the markets. At night, the city belongs to the cats and the djinn. Its older residents remember those fleeting moments in time when they believed the city contained all they needed. Its youth have known only its periods of extreme austerity and food scarcity, alternated with dreams of lives filled with love, peace, and prosperity.

This is an elegy for a city that can never exist that I carry around in my imagination—a fabricated and romanticized version of Khartoum constructed from a child’s lived experiences and emotions and an émigré’s saudade. This is an exorcism of nostalgia. This is an evocation to stop the thought that I might not return from breaking me a little more every day.

Nehal El-Hadi
Nehal El-Hadi is the science and technology editor at The Conversation in Canada and editor-in-chief of Studio magazine. Her writing has appeared in Brick, CBC Arts, Real Life, and Guernica.