Intimidated by long lines outside the Egyptian embassy visa office? Puzzled by the visa form? Then head for the neem tree.
Beneath the fine-leafed tree, a few dusty meters from Khartoum’s colonial-era Egyptian consular building, is the “office” where Mustafa Ali and his convivial cohorts have for years dispensed their wisdom.
Their briefcases filled with documents and staplers serve both as a toolbox and a desk for these self-employed clerks as they help travelers fill out their visa papers for an average of about 5 Sudanese pounds (about US$1).
“We have no office. We have nothing,” says Bashir Dahab, 62, one of four in the group.
They have all traveled the region, working other jobs, before retiring and ending up back here, under the neem tree.
“We help people and at the same time it is our life. Our salary is from these forms,” Dahab says.
Not that the daily salary is anything to rely on.
“Sometimes 5 [Sudanese] pounds. Sometimes 50 pounds. Sometimes nothing,” says Dahab who, like his colleague Ali, can serve clients in English, as well as Arabic.
The goateed, bespectacled Dahab also knows a little French, learned in the early 1970s when he studied at what was then Cairo University’s branch in Khartoum.
However, their daily gathering is not only about work. It is a chance to get out of the house and chat, as other men might do at a cafe.
“Because when you are at home the wife asks you: ‘Bring chicken ... bring oil’ ... and so on and so on,” says Dahab, whose business card features sunset-silhouetted date palms emblematic of his native Nubia in northern Sudan.
So they sit under the tree on chairs they brought themselves, talking, reading newspapers and exchanging greetings with passers-by on Al-Gamhuria Street, a three-lane main thoroughfare in the crumbling, garbage-strewn heart of Khartoum.
Ali, 50, eagerly expounds on a range of topics from African culture to religion, history and languages, a reflection of the primary school teacher he was for many years.
He took up the visa trade about 13 years ago, following the lead of his relative, “Mr Jaafer,” who has a year’s additional seniority.
“He’s our boss,” jokes Ali, balding and with a mustache.
Jaafer has big glasses, a big smile and a big stomach. He leans back in his chair, places some prayer beads around his neck and rests his bare feet on the broken tank of a toilet.
This is Ramadan, when the lines at the embassy shorten and there is less business for Jaafer and the others.
“You can say it’s dead season,” Dahab says, in contrast to May and June, when many Sudanese holiday in neighboring Egypt, which ruled Sudan with Britain until 1956.
The fourth member of the group, known as Abu Digin for his gray-flecked black beard and mustache, is a native of oil-rich Heglig on Sudan’s southern border. He worked in Saudi Arabia before joining Dahab and the others about seven years ago — his trade signaled by the pen in his breast pocket.
The clerks say people are doing similar jobs outside other embassies, government offices and courts in the country, which has a 62 percent literacy level, according to the UN.
After years in the business, the visa clerks have developed a reputation.
“I heard his name,” says Mohammed Adam Ahmad, 25, who walked determinedly toward Ali after first stopping at the old stone embassy building.