Char-lez, Char-loos, Channis, and -my favourite- Size Dawwis. These were just some of the transformations to which my name was subjected in the course of my year in Sudan. And I was lucky. There was a guy called Phil who got transmuted into Phyllis.
The nature of identity and the ancillary question of purpose were important for the English teachers in Sudan and not just because most of us were young people still in the process of defining ourselves. For one thing, the testing circumstances, the isolation, the material hardship, all gave a thorough battering to such identities as we had already cobbled together for ourselves, and there were many for whom the trial was simply too testing. There are countless stories of teachers in Sudan whose sense of self was not robust enough and who consequently went round the bend, sometimes in spectacular fashion. For a while, I was mildly unhinged myself. It's worth bearing in mind here that Arabic has no verb 'to be' in the present tense. 'I am' simply doesn't exist. This is bound to be a bit of a challenge to a bunch of egocentric occidental youths whose egocentricity has not necessarily coalesced into something more mature and nuanced.
But what of purpose? Surely that is obvious? We were there to teach, weren't we? After a fashion, I think we were, but the degree to which we succeeded in this was very variable and very relative. For my part, I have no illusions about my contribution to Sudanese learning. I may have been voted one of the most popular teachers in the school at the end of year ceremony, but it had nothing to do with my pedagogical skills.
The khawajas spoke about this a lot when we were together. Not my lack of talent as a teacher, but what precise purpose we served. I think we all felt a little guilty about the fact that we were paid five times what Sudanese teachers were. It only worked out at about a hundred bucks a month if I remember rightly, but personally I've never been richer than I was in Sudan. And, time and again, no matter how we went over it, we came back to the same conclusion.
We weren't there to teach.
We were there to cheer the population up.
I'm not being facetious here. Everywhere we went, our every word and every act was greeted with gales of mirth. I first realized this fighting to get on the plane out of Khartoum. Khartoum is such a dump that you might think it normal for people to fight to get out of the place, but that wasn't the reason we were fighting. For all their courtesy, you've only got to show the Sudanese a bus or a train with limited seating, or present them with a check-in desk, and all hell breaks loose. On this particular occasion, I got caught up in the scrum, was somehow squeezed through the middle, popped out the front and went flying, toppling over piles of luggage in a spiral of limbs and curses. There was a brief pause, everybody burst into delighted laughter, and then they got stuck into one another again. I still don't know how I got on the plane. I would imagine somebody took pity, grabbed me, and dragged me into the mêlée. That was what usually happened.
And so the year continued.
Three children pitch forward in the back of a lurching lorry, I catch all three - hilarity all round. I ask for a cunt to sit on instead of a chair (kouss and kourssi, I think) - mirth unlimited. A child starts to cry at the mere sight of me, cue general convulsions. A bed falls off the back of a lorry, I holler, "Wagaf! Wagaf! Angarap!" I freely admit, the grammar was a bit dodgy (Stop! Stop! Bed!), but it wasn't that witty, certainly not funny enough to justify all the passengers falling off, too. I don Sudanese robes and start taking tombak (a sort of cross between snuff and chewing tobacco) . . . well, they were positively weeping after that. Doing yoga in the compound of the teachers' house, howling kids would be hanging from the trees surrounding the compound - mind you, that never lasted long as they generally plummeted to the ground after a while, too weak to hold on for more than a few moments. And when an overhanging branch whisked my hat off I was actually applauded. As for "Give me a banana!", which I've written about elsewhere, I'll never live that one down.
You see what I mean, though. I could list incidents like these for pages and pages, and any teacher who was there at the time could probably cite a similar number of occasions when the Sudanese were reduced to total helplessness by our antics. I don't actually remember teaching anybody anything. But gaiety and merriment followed me wherever I went. And this despite the fact that half the time I was falling apart inside. I wasn't clowning about. I was just being. And that in a very approximate sort of way.
There was a flip side to fuddelment as well in that, generous and welcoming as the Sudanese are, we were considered fair game for anyone who wanted to buttonhole us to pass the time. Consider, if you will, the following . . .
"I am pleased you meet me. I am work here in ministry. I am got GCE and I am also a painter. I am of Dillig and have big house in Obeid and big house in Dillig. Coffee? Chai? You must sit here, yes, it is better, guest. I have certificate say GCE Oxford & Cambridge Board (recites certification screed, every word) in following subject: Mathematics, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, History, English Language, Trigonometry, Algebra, Multiplication (&c. &c.). Physics is the science of light, and of power, and of machine, and P equals P times V squared over E where E is energy and I like very much English Language. Queen is good Queen, I think is most scientific queen in universe, because she take scientific students, in London which subject is thought best. I think I like science. English is best language in universe, I learn, what you think, I have grammar book, I give to pilot, where can I get grammar book? Prepositions, grammar, present tense, past tense, past perfect, what you think of these, is my English good? I think Shakespeare great, he say . . . . fill in any quote of your choosing, then garble it. Physics is science of atomic, atomic is atoms and hydrogen (&c. &c.). Do you think I have good English? Can I get Masters in English? Special subject? What is? Old English? Like Shakespeare? Chaucer? Who is? Write. I get him at British Council. Is he Shakespeare better? Different time? What time? Fourteenth century? Is time of Leonardo da Vinci and Renaissance. Renaissance last fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth century, is Chaucer time. Yours is best Queen in Universe. Loves science . . . . "
I'm not making this up and there are dozen of similar snippets dotted about my diaries. He was happy as the day was long and carried on for a comparable period of time, and I as a khawaja was expected to listen, because it was my role to provide the entertainment, and this guy was entertained by a litany of his own loves and achievements. I almost fell over just to get him laughing. At least a pratfall was mercifully quick.
I mentioned in the first of these Sudanese blogs that I was a total idiot. I think that was probably why they employed me in the first place. 'Total idiot required', that was the job description.
At the end of the school year, the students put on a review of songs, skits, and comic interludes. As one of the chief clowns in residence, I was a little disturbed to realize that, apart from khawajas, what made people laugh most were men in drag, beggars, cripples, marriage and, bizarrely, prayer rituals. Maybe those were the things that caused most anxiety in a highly religious, highly repressed, highly unjust society where illness could rapidly result in disablement and penury. Were they all really scared of me? I doubt it somehow.
"Give me a banana!"
Oh, well. It's nice to have spread a little happiness in one's life.
No tie-ins to the novel here, but feel free to buy the thing all the same.
Next week, Where There Is No Doctor.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace