I have described the Sudanese as being generous, courteous, welcoming, and yet this generous, courteous, welcoming people have contrived to kill two million of their fellow citizens in the Second Sudanese Civil War, and something like a quarter of a million more in Darfur, not to mention the systematic raping and maiming and displacement of people whose presence is considered inconvenient. I still find this slightly hard to credit. Quite frankly, the people I knew didn't seem competent enough to contrive a massacre, let alone possessed of the necessary malice.
I can remember, for instance, seeing a couple of Sudanese soldiers coming out of a chai-house hand-in-hand and actually forgetting their rifles, leaving the things propped in a corner of the hut. It was only when a kid ran after them, hollering about this most unmilitary oversight, that they thought, "Oh, yes, guns."
Another teacher told a delightful story of a Sudanese man dressed in scruffy European clothing accosting him in the street and demanding his papers. Baulking at this, the teacher asked just who the man thought he was and by what right he went about asking for other people's papers.
"I am Secret Man," came the reply.
"How do I know that?" said the teacher. "Prove it. Show me your papers."
"I need no papers," protested Secret Man, "EVERYBODY knows who I am."
Couple of days later, the teachers were in a café when a man in sunglasses and traditional Sudanese clothing sidled in and slipped into a seat at the table next to them. After a couple of minutes, he leaned over, whipped off his glasses, and triumphantly exclaimed: "It is me! Secret Man. In disguise."
These people couldn't run a bath let alone orchestrate mass violence.
If only that were true.
Looking back on Sudan with the starry-eyed wonder of one who was liberated into the world by his experiences there, it is all too easy to gloss over the grim things that coexisted with the geniality and generosity. To be honest though, violence or its potential was always there, simmering under the surface, stoked by poverty and lack of opportunity, and the manifold frustrations of a people repressed politically, sexually, and emotionally.
I've spoken elsewhere about the fighting involved in getting onto a plane, train, or bus. A returnee teacher told me that, the previous year, he and his colleagues had made the mistake of distributing all the books to all their classes at the same time. They laid the textbooks out on trestle tables, then opened the door, whereupon they were swamped by a bibliophiliac mob of students. One teacher got pinned under an upturned desk and the other two engaged in hand-to-hand combat, at the end of which they had lost 50% of their stock. Blow civic virtue, just gimme a book.
The last two headmasters of my school had been bound and flogged by the boys. The man in charge when I was there, a stooped, mild-mannered, scholarly chain-smoker called Hassan, had not been informed of this before taking up his posting. There was a notoriously corrupt headmaster who provoked riots wherever he went and who had, on one occasion, already been doused in petrol when the police arrived to rescue him. Rioting students in En Nahud had burned down the souk one year and torched the English department the next (there were scorch marks round the door jamb and flecks of burned paper in my desk), as a result of which the ringleaders had been moved on to Umm Ruwaaba, where they duly rioted for a third year.
I've written elsewhere of Mastoura taking a stick to one of the teachers in the maze, but that wasn't the only occasion when unspoken and unexplained resentments flared into violence. During another meal, two teachers (a Sudanese and an Egyptian, as I recall) suddenly started flinging food at each other, and ended up wrestling on the ground, while I sat there with a large bowl of okra upended on my head. Okra is pretty disgusting stuff at the best of times, but when it's dripping off your head it's absolutely horrible.
I met several people who had fallen foul of politics. There was a communist train station manager who had organized a strike, for which he was banged up, tortured, and told he would be executed. He and his colleagues were only released when the railroad company complained that they couldn't keep the trains running with all their qualified staff in choky, so the miscreants were pardoned on the proviso that they were posted to obscure branch lines and kept well away from strategic stations like those linking the capital with the coast.
Plenty of others had spent time inside and been beaten or worse for political or 'moral' crimes. Every school had an ex-soldier in charge of time-keeping and discipline . . . basically, he rang a bell, blew a whistle, and beat people. Apparently, our beater, Soli Akhmed, who looked like a caricature of a colonial soldier (ramrod spine, waxed moustaches, and a swagger cane), had been involved in the failed coup attempt of Hassan Hussein in 1976 and had been condemned to death. I don't know how he escaped his fate, but I do know that, come exam time, the likelihood of orderly behaviour was considered sufficiently dubious for Soli's efforts to be supplemented by two additional armed soldiers. The chemistry master proudly informed me that it was so the teachers didn't connive in the students' cheating.
There was an on-going debate while I was in Sudan regarding what was to be done about the long-standing, low scale war, largely a question of cattle rustling as I far as I could work out, between the Bagarra and Dinka tribes. The problem was that there had been some Bagarra big-wig in government who had thought it would be a good idea to arm his people with automatic weapons. When somebody pointed out that this wasn't terribly helpful, the governor of Kordofan was dispatched to negotiate a settlement. After much elaborate parlaying, it was agreed that the Bagarra and Dinka would be friends. Only they wouldn't give the government their guns back.
Informed that I intended travelling through the Nuba Mountains during the mid-year break, the Sudanese teachers regaled me with lurid tales of bloodthirsty bandits. I saw no bandits, but the young Falata men round Kadugli were distinguished by four things: bright blue robes, beadwork, plastic dress shoes, and the fact that they were all armed to the teeth. Everybody everywhere (including me for some unfathomable reason) carried a dagger with a thin ridge along the flat of the blade to ensure any wound would be more debilitating and not heal cleanly.
Travelling to Jebel Mara (the mountain in Darfur that features in Standing At The Crossroads), I mention in my diaries that the trucks drove very, very fast. On the next page, I note that our lorry was stoned as we climbed into the foothills. Fudel! I was also alarmed to discover from my diaries something I had completely forgotten, namely that even then, long before the JEM rebellion precipitated the present crisis, everyone in Darfur seemed to be armed with Kalshnikovs. According to a note I made at the time, the Fur name for the region around Jebel Mara means ‘the place of no government’. Right.
On another trip, my fellow passengers insisted on hiding me (they actually sat on me so that I was invisible) when our lorry was hauled over at a police checkpoint, though that may have been the result of a misunderstanding, as they also insisted on calling me 'Captain' throughout the journey. I don't know what they thought I was doing there. And on two occasions, once in South Kordofan, once in Darfur, people ducked when they heard a bang, the first time when a car backfired, the second when a lorry tyre burst with a loud crack. These are not the reactions of people accustomed to peace and loving-kindness.
But perhaps the nearest I came to stumbling into a disagreeable situation was in the English Club at school. The club was a bit of a burden at the best of times, but on one occasion it nearly got us into serious trouble.
John and I had announced the establishment of an English Club without giving much thought to it, apart from the fact that, though we reckoned it a very nice idea, we didn't want to do too much work to make it happen. At the first meeting, we emphasized to the students that it was their club and it was down to them to make it work, whereupon they wanted to know who would be the club's officers. Naturally, we didn't have a clue. Couldn't we just get together and sort of talk in English? Nope, not in Sudan. The lads promptly set about organizing elections and duly voted in twelve officers. I haven't the foggiest notion what they were all meant to do, but we were quite pleased the kids were taking on all the work. Then they announced that the first meeting would be about the differences between life in England and life in Sudan, and delegated us English teachers to present a couple of papers. John contrived to be ill on the day of that meeting, so muggins muddled through on his own with some predictably lame banalities that ensured the next meeting wasn't nearly so well attended. We did have one very successful session though, when a Sudanese academic, then working at William and Mary College in Virginia, visited the school en route to his family in north Kordofan, and gave a spellbinding lecture about desertification.
The danger came when we decided to have a debate about the civil war, which was then emerging from a period of relative calm and hotting up to a distressing degree, so much so that the next year one teacher described living in Kadugli as like being in an episode of M.A.S.H.
In retrospect, I am horrified by what we were suggesting. I don't remember where the idea came from, but I know that it was conceived with the best of intentions. I also know that we were playing with fire. We were only a couple of hundred miles from what passed for the front line, though that was a very fluid and permeable thing. There were boys in the school from both sides of the divide. There were boys there who had been forced to leave their villages because of the fighting. There were boys who had lost brothers and fathers, some in active combat. We might easily have triggered a small war of our own.
When the head of the English department (a superficially affable, but otherwise slightly sinister member of the Moslem Brotherhood) heard of the plan, he simply forbad it. It wasn't going to happen. And if we persisted, he said, John and I would be sent back to Khartoum. He actually told us that the police were watching us and that, if we put a foot wrong, we would be thrown out of the country. I think this might have been a bit of an exaggeration. In the course of the year, I did nothing but put feet wrong, reeling around, drinking booze, brewing beer, smoking dope, and inciting young women to demand I give them a banana. Even so, talking about the war was unacceptable.
Unfortunately, word had got out by this time and the kids were wildly enthusiastic about this opportunity to vent their feelings, though how they intended venting them, I wouldn't know. In the end, our potentially explosive English Club event was turned into a school-wide debate attended by the entire teaching staff plus Soli Akhmed and possibly a couple of plain-clothes policemen. Hassan, the very reasoned and reasonable headmaster, made a very reasoned and reasonable speech. Confronted with the ranks of teachers and God knows who else (the head of the English department was looking very alert and I had the feeling he was ready to take down names), the students didn't say anything very much at all. It was a dull, bland 'debate', a damp squib, which was probably better than a bloody great rocket going off.
Looking back on this episode, I am a little surprised that John was as keen on the idea as I was. He was no less idealistic than me, but he knew Africa better, and had a more sophisticated grasp of both the underlying sensibilities, and the emotional and moral complexities of African politics. There again, it has to be said that this was also the man who turned up in Sudan with only two pairs of underpants to last him the entire year. He was the most under-underpanted man in Africa apart from the famous Naked Man of Kadugli. He can't have been that savvy about the realities of life on the ground. We were lucky, though. We could have sparked all manner of mayhem, more, I mean, than we did ordinarily by bumbling about making the Sudanese howl with laughter.
So, it wasn't all sweetness and light. And what about the title of this piece? Well, throughout the year, I copied down amusing passages from students' essays - infelicities, funny solecisms, that sort of thing. They were so busy laughing at me that it seemed only fair for me to laugh at them a bit. But even here, it wasn't all fun and games. The title is a line from a student's essay. I suspect it's the result of two simple lexical mistakes rather than a remarkable poetic image. But it speaks loud for all that.
"I live on the Black Nile and my home is built of death and bricks."
Postcard from the Past #1 On Your Bike
Postcard from the Past #2 Dismal Self
Postcard from the Past #3 Do Not Photograph This Wall
Postcard from the Past #4 Befuddeled
Postcard from the Past #5 An Island In The Desert
Postcard from the Past #6 Oh, My Darling.
Postcard from the Past #7 Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? And what the fuck are we doing here?
Postcard from the Past #8 Where There Is No Doctor
Postcard from the Past #9 And Drugs And Rock 'n' Roll.
Postcard from the Past #10 On The Road Again
The final blog about Sudan will be a kind of 'making-of', going through Standing At The Crossroads and explaining the moral, emotional, and geographical topography of the novel.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace