October 22, 2003 Special Dispatch No. 593

Panic in Khartoum: Foreigners Shake Hands, Make Penises Disappear

October 22, 2003
Sudan | Special Dispatch No. 593

During September 2003, mass hysteria spread through Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, which was ultimately quelled by police intervention and statements made by the health minister. The panic was caused by rumors of foreigners roaming the city and shaking men's hands, making their penises disappear. The rumors were spread rapidly by text messages on cellular phones, and diverted the public's attention from a breakthrough in negotiations in Kenya between Sudanese Vice President Ali Othman and SPLA leader John Garang. [1]

Several versions of the story circulated and not all involved foreigners: Initially, it was claimed that the perpetrators belonged to a Sudanese tribe; according to another version, one West African man was responsible; later, the one man was replaced in the rumor with a group of West Africans.

Al-Quds Al-Arabi correspondent Kamal Hassan Bakhit, who was the first to report on the affair outside Sudan, wrote that "the source of the horror is a foreign citizen from a West African country who is roaming through the city marketplace and draining men's virility via a handshake" and that "people are refusing to shake hands with anyone they don't know." Bakhit reported that police had received numerous complaints about someone called 'Satan's Friend,' and that they had launched an investigation and arrested a foreigner who had in his possession scarves, books on sorcery, and two million Sudanese pounds (about $1,500). [2] The following are excerpts from articles which discussed the issue:

Victims Tell Their Stories

Two of the "victims" agreed to tell their story to the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi. One of them, fabric merchant S. K. A., said that a man from a West African tribe came into his shop to buy fabric, but an argument quickly developed between the two. Then the West African shook the store owner's hand powerfully until the owner felt his penis melt into his body. The store owner became hysterical, and was taken to the hospital. [3]

While the majority of accounts involved handshaking, another victim, who refused to give his name, said that while he was at the market, a man approached him, gave him a comb, and asked him to comb his hair. When he did so, within seconds, he said, he felt a strange sensation and discovered that he had lost his penis. It was also claimed that once "'Satan's Friend' drains a man's virility," he demands that his victim pay him over four million Sudanese pounds (about $3,000) to get it back. [4]

Police Investigate, Government Steps In

The Sudanese, unsure how to handle the affair, arrested 40 people who filed complaints along with some 50 other people on suspicion of sorcery and fraud. Many West Africans were brought into police stations for questioning, amid attempts by groups of people to assault them. The police were forced to devote a great deal of effort to dispersing rioters.

The country's top politicians and health officials stepped in to try to calm things down. Attorney-General Salah Abu Zayed said that all complaints had been brought before a special investigative committee and that the first claimant would be tried for disturbing the peace since doctors had determined that he was perfectly healthy. [5] However, another report said that those who filed complaints were suffering from "neurosis" and "suggestion." [6]

High-ranking policewoman Dr. Nour Al-Huda said: "We met with the suspects and discovered that they were in fact the victims. They were accused of something they knew nothing about... One of the accused had been informed by his wife that his daughter was suffering from sharp pains and that she was going to be operated on. He rushed to the hospital, but on the way stopped to ask a man where the operating room was – and was surprised to discover that this man was accusing him of being one of those who were causing impotence via handshakes. He found himself under suspicion at a time when he was hurrying to reach his daughter in the operating room…

"In our opinion, what is at issue is not sorcery or magic. The many young men who complained were under the influence of suggestion. Since they were prepared [mentally] for this to happen, they honestly felt that they were ill."

Prominent Sudanese psychiatrist Prof. Taha Ba'asher said that the phenomenon was similar to cases of women who imagined themselves to be pregnant. [7]

Dispelling the Rumors

Chief Criminal Attorney-General Yasser Ahmad Muhammad told the Sudanese daily Al-Rai Al-A'am that "the rumor broke out when one merchant went to another merchant to buy some Karkady [a Sudanese beverage]. Suddenly, the seller felt his penis shriveling as a result of sorcery. It was the first complaint regarding the matter. Afterwards, the matter reached the media and this caused sensitivity among many." He added that all the persons who filed complaints were sent to the hospital. In all cases, the medical reports said that their penises were normal and that they suffered no atrophy or pain.

"Twenty percent came the next day to court and withdrew their complaints, claiming that they had recuperated. But some of them persisted with the charges."

Sudanese Health Minister Ahmad Bilal Othman said that the hospital directors had reported to him, in an emergency session on September 23, that no cases of impotence with the aforementioned background had been admitted to the hospitals. He said that the phenomenon was "scientifically" groundless, and that it was sorcery, magic, or an emotional problem. [8]

The pundits paid a great deal of attention to the issue. Al-Rai Al-A'am published cartoons on the subject; one showed a man extending a prosthetic hand to shake hands with another man and saying, "Prevention is better than cure," [9] and another one showing a man with both hands amputated telling a friend, "Thank God, I don't shake anyone's hand and no one shakes mine." [10]

In the Press

Dr. Abd Al-Latif Al-Buni wrote in the Sudanese newspaper Al-Sahafa that the lessons of the affair could be extrapolated to Sudanese politics: "The situation has reached the point where a wife accompanying her husband to the front door at home bids him farewell by saying, 'Be careful not to shake hands with men, but you can shake the girls' hands as much as you want.'… Out of fear of losing him, she has agreed to share [her husband with other women], even if this is a forced partnership. The same goes for the peace [negotiations] underway in Kenya. There must be concessions so that we do not lose Sudan altogether. If the wife conceded to her husband and allowed him to approach others of her gender, then the politicians can forgo political gain." 11

Ja'far Abbas, a Sudanese columnist living abroad, expounded further on the matter in two articles, one in the Saudi daily Al-Watan and the other in Al-Rai Al-A'am. In his Al-Watan article, Abbas wrote: "Even though what I write today will harm 'tourism' in Sudan, I consider it my duty to warn anyone who wants to come to Sudan to refrain from shaking hands with a dark-skinned man. Since most Sudanese are dark-skinned, he had better avoid shaking hands with anyone he doesn't know…"

Focusing on the report of the Sudanese man who lost his penis after contact with a comb, Abbas wrote: "No doubt, this comb was a laser-controlled surgical robot that penetrates the skull [and passes] to the lower body and emasculates a man!!

"I wanted to tell that man who fell victim to the electronic comb: 'You jackass, how can you put a comb from a man you don't know to your head, while even relatives avoid using the same comb?!'"

It Is a Zionist Plot

In conclusion Abbas wrote: "That man, who, as it is claimed, is from West Africa, is an imperialist Zionist agent that was sent to prevent our people from procreating and multiplying…" 12

In his Al-Rai Al-A'am article, Abbas wrote: "I had planned to visit Sudan over the Id Al-Fitr holiday, and I saved as many dollars as I could for this purpose… But I heard and read about 'Satan's Friend' who shakes your hand and then you discover suddenly that you're 'not a man.' Is it conceivable that a reasonable man would choose to visit a city gripped by the horror of castration?!…

"I pay [taxes] to the government, I bring money to my family [from abroad], and then I also need to pay a man who robs me of the thing I hold most dear and demands that I buy my stolen goods [back from] him?...

"…Our women dominate in public services and university classes. [In my opinion], men in Sudan today have a right to found an Association for the Rights of Sudanese Men; all that remains of our masculinity are our most prominent biological features, and now someone wants to rob us of them!"

Abbas wrote about the "comb incident" in this article as well: "What will probably lead me, nevertheless, to proceed with my daring plan to visit Sudan is that one of the men whose 'equipment' was confiscated said that the confiscation occurred when one of them gave him a comb and asked him to comb his hair… That is, we are not speaking of coercion. The victim could have refused to comb his hair.

"If I ever meet this beast, I will ask him how he could put someone else's comb to his head!!! It is true that we are a crazy people, [and] 10 of us use the same towel, and every home has several combs. But, alas, [the combs] are all disappearing, and all that remains is one comb, dripping grease, used by all. But this usually happens within the family. That is, we do not usually use the combs of people we do not know, except at the barber!

"Let none of you claim that you can guard against emasculation by avoiding shaking hands with anyone whose appearance indicates he is West African – since it has transpired that the ones who perform these wonders and miracles are West Africans! What does a West African look like? Black? Is there even a single white Sudanese?…" 13


[1] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 24, 2003.

[2] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 22, 2003.

[3] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 22, 2003.

[4] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 22, 2003.

[5] Al-Rai Al-A'am (Sudan), September 23, 2003.

[6] Al-Rai Al-A'am (Sudan), September 24, 2003.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 9, 2003.

[8] Al-Rai Al-A'am (Sudan), September 24, 2003.

[9] Al-Rai Al-A'am (Sudan), October 1, 2003.

[10] Al-Rai Al-A'am (Sudan), September 26, 2003.

[11] Al-Sahafa (Sudan), September 23, 2003.

[12] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 24, 2003.

[13] Al-Rai Al-A'am (Sudan), September 29, 2003.

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