Thursday, 4 November 2010

Exam Stress

Sudan Studies, Number 18, (August 1990)
Siege fever had taken grip of the teachers' 'mez'. Ustaz Abd ar-Rahim, mild-mannered head of geography at Abri Boys' School, had stacked the space under his bed with Molotov cocktails. And Mahmoud, a history teacher from Ed-Dammer, had procured a three foot iron bar which he too stowed away at easy reach beneath his mattress.

This general alert amongst my colleagues had been triggered by ominous rumours emanating from the school boarding house. The Sudan Certificate exams were only into their second day and our pupils were not happy.

They had entered the history exam, the first on the timetable, with expectations of a liberal invigilation regime about to be shattered. Ten minutes into the paper, the first of an endless stream of cheating students was detected and confronted. One irate boy caught with a crib note reportedly raised his chair above his head threatening to strike the invigilator with it.

Unable to consult their smuggled papers in the examination room, pupils filed out to the toilets in droves, hoping to glance over their pre-prepared notes there. Most were intercepted, frisked and relieved of their illegal scraps of paper. Evidence that some boys had succeeded could be seen in the form of torn strips of pages, patterned in scrawls of algebra, history and English, fluttering from the toilets, carried out towards the empty horizon on the hot breeze.

By the end of that first day, hundreds of crib notes had been seized and threats from the pupils had been heaped upon us. If the strict invigilation policy persisted we would be on the receiving end of their wrath.

The second day of exams passed in the same fashion as the first and that evening the school carpenter came to warn us of an imminent attack on the 'mez'. This had prompted Abd ar-Rahim's hurried manufacture of Molotovs and those other preparations, not usually associated with the teacher-pupil relationship.

At first we thought the sounds to be the pattering feet of a cat in the yard. But this illusion lasted for only a second. The first few stones cast were followed by a barrage of rocks and pebbles, raining over the wall into the yard and crashing onto the roof above us.

Abri rocks
Mahmoud, with his iron bar, got to the door of the yard and held it shut. The rest of us stayed under cover while the missiles and angry cries were hurled at us. The attack lasted about five minutes and the mob only moved off to pursue two teachers whom they'd spotted taking flight out of a window.

The doctor's car which doubled as an ambulance, had been in the street outside our house and was badly smashed up by flying stones. But no human casualties resulted from the students' action. The ferocity with which their displeasure had been expressed shocked only me. My colleagues quickly acknowledged that their resolve to invigilate without compromise went against the grain at Abri.

Over the years apparently, Abri had gained a reputation for being a laid-back examination venue. Parents and some local teachers cited Abri's remoteness as one justification. Their children needed a head start they argued, to make up for the poor resources on offer at the school. Teaching time was always lost during the year due to closures, water shortages, student strikes and various logistical problems. In order to put their sons on a level footing with the rest of Sudan when exam times came around, it was necessary to allow a certain amount of blatant cheating, the argument went. However, what was true of Abri in terms of limited facilities was equally true of hundreds of other schools around the country.

The step my colleagues had taken led in only one direction. We abandoned our invigilation duties and took ourselves by lorry to the regional education office in Dongola, to submit a statement, put together in conjunction with the teachers' union.

While we were going through the motions, our headmaster - an Abri man - had recruited primary school teachers and government workers from local offices, to take over the management of the exams. Those candidates identified as cheats were reinstated as far as we could tell and Abri's results in the end, seemed to be respectable enough.

I found it impossible to return to teach in the Northern Province the next year. Presumably because I'd left Abri in solidarity with the other teachers. However, the division of the education administration into academic and technical sections allowed me to switch sides, and swap Abri Boys' (academic) School for al-Ghaba Boys' Commercial (technical) School, which was still in the north.
Far less remote than Abri in the heart of Nubia, al-Ghaba was close to Dongola and I looked forward to a smoother time teaching there. Abd ar-Rahim had moved to al-Ghaba too and we settled into our new post without incident. We often reminisced about the tumultuous end to our Abri careers. On the whole, relations with the pupils had been very good. Perhaps the deeply-held aversion to examinations had little to do with lack of school facilities and everything to do with an acute dearth of university places, even for those few students who emerged from the school system with good exam results. A neighbour in Abri had summed up the extent to which school was seen as an irrelevance when asked what he intended to do on leaving. He was going to devote all of his energies he told us, to getting a visa for a Gulf country, where he could earn large sums for doing fairly menial jobs.

My hopes that al-Ghaba would be different eventually started to crumble. Solitary missiles would occasionally soar across the wall into the yard of our house. One rock cut through the air like a bullet, bounced off a table, around which a group of colleagues were playing cards, and landed at their feet without harming anyone. Compared to the mass charge that night in Abri, this was very low intensity harassment and we lived with it day to day for some time.

One night we heard the clatter of yet an other projectile hitting the roof under which six of us were trying to sleep. In the morning the precise nature of this latest salvo could be seen. Lying on the ground were the shattered pieces of a smashed bottle, around whose neck, a dark stain in the sand showed where the bottle's contents had leaked out. A singed bung of cotton wool lay in the same place. Clearly what had struck the roof the previous night had not been a stone but a Molotov cocktail. Confirmation that the academic year had come full circle. It was the morning of the first day of the Sudan Certificate Exams.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Arabic the Hard Way


It's easy. Just pretend you're swallowing the base of your tongue. Then let out a strangled cry. That's 'ain, one of the handful of letters in the Arabic alphabet which don't exist in English.

I read this advice in a text book years after acquiring colloquial Sudanese Arabic by rough and ready means. With neither a teacher nor the structure of an ordered syllabus to guide me, I attained a basic fluency in the language - by pestering people.

A most unscientific approach to language acquisition, it was certainly effective. Life in a foreign country is hugely enriched if you have a working knowledge of the language.

Two factors in Sudan helped me achieve a high degree of success. I had lots of spare time. But most importantly, I was in the perfect place to become a linguistic sponge. For four years working as an English teacher, I lived in small Sudanese communities surrounded 24 hours a day by Arabic speakers.

There was only one book on colloquial Sudanese Arabic available which I only glanced at after my first year in the country. My habit from the outset, was to carry a small notebook in the
breast pocket of my shirt wherever I went.

Sitting in the market, lounging as a guest in someone's house or perched on top of a desert lorry, I would produce this book on hearing any unfamiliar word or phrase. My victims were usually happy to repeat what they'd said and spell it out to me with a definition in English.

It took time to build up the ability to conjugate verbs and embark upon the heady business of constructing sentences! But I always had the advantage of hearing exact models of pronunciation from my Sudanese friends and colleagues. I didn't have to negotiate around the extra layer of language in text books which trys to explain at second hand, how things should be said. There was no tongue swallowing for me.

The alluring but difficult appearance of Arabic script was a further spur to my enthusiasm, rather than a hindrance.

One Christmas Day, in the tiny village of Ed-Debba on the Nile, I whiled away the hours copying out the letters of the Arabic alphabet and their equivalent English sounds, from a colleague's text book.

This opened a whole new avenue of activity. If I'd been in danger of driving some people mad by my constant badgering over the meaning of words and phrases, I undoubtedly drove others to distraction, once I started testing out my ability to read shop signs, bus tickets and newspaper headlines.

Again it paid off. Practical trial and error rather than the dry study of books allowed me to grasp the language with a constant focus on the application in real situations, of what I was trying to learn.

This was always instructive. It was frequently comic. The day I discovered the Arabic for fingernail 'daffara', I was keen for an opportunity to try it out. The chance came soon after in the village restaurant where I ate.

One of the locals arrived and greeted those of us who were sitting inside eating bowls of fuul beans. He inadvertently dropped a coin on the ground but no matter how hard he tried, couldn't prise it off the floor. With sympathetic intonation, I asked in my best Arabic if he had no, "daffara", (finger nails), with which to lever the coin up. This statement produced a ripple of mirth around me which I hadn't been expecting. Instead of finger nails, I'd asked if he had no 'naddara' - the Arabic for spectacles.

Gathering new words soon became like stamp collecting. I feverishly pursued every new lead. There was an endless supply of fresh specimens to add to my bulging notebooks. Many expressions were so colloquial, I could find no equivalent in standard Arabic dictionaries.

Sudanese Arabic has a word, 'zeefa', for the smell of sand after rain. Remarkable, in a country whose north can go years without experiencing any rain at all.

The Shaigi people who live on the Nile some 200 miles north of Khartoum, are used to drinking tea in times of sugar shortage. But this doesn't mean they drink their tea bitter. Instead they hold a date inside the mouth over which the tea washes as it's swallowed. The date is supposed to act as a sweetener. This practice of drinking 'shai banjoogli' undoubtedly predates the appearance of granular sugar in Sudan.

When I moved to the extreme north to teach in a new school in Nubia, I was delighted to hear that Arabic was the second and not the first language in the region. In fact Nubian, which crosses over into Upper Egypt, is a pre-Islamic language. And in northern Sudan it has at least three variants.

There is fierce debate as to whether 'rotana', as it's called in Arabic, is a fully-fledged langauge or simply a dialect. It seems that 'rotana' once had its own script and was a literary as well as a spoken language.

It's interesting to note the thrust of Islam in Sudan. The Nubians were the last group in the north to convert to the religion of the incoming Arabs. They in turn chose the Arabic word 'rotana', meaning 'gibberish', to describe the tongue of the Nubians.

Today Nubian is dying out. It's use in school classrooms is discouraged and younger people are unwittingly mixing the native speech of their forefathers with Arabic vocabulary.

But to me, the prospect of living amongst Nubian speakers was just as exciting as the experience of being in Sudan. It was clearly time to grab my notebook and start pestering my new hosts.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Humar an Noom

Sudan Studies, Number 15 (January 1994)

The condition known as 'noctambulism', which is less obscurely defined in dictionaries as 'somnambulism', and is spoken of in the English speaking world as 'sleep-walking', finds expression in northern Sudan in a colloquial phrase about a donkey.

This 'donkey of sleep' (humar an noom) first blundered across my path on a clear night, on the east bank of the Nile, between the villages of Argo and Burgeig. I was staying with a family who occupied one of a small cluster of government houses. The father and several of his sons worked at the nearby pumping station which poured gallons of Nile water into the irrigation channels (jadwalls) of farmers up and down the river.

On the first day of my visit I was introduced to the neighbours and after a swim in the Nile was taken on a guided tour of the area, visiting the family's cattle and the huge water pump itself. In the evening we dined on fish which had been stranded in a bend in one of the pump's massive pipes. The fish was delicious but the water with which we washed the meal down contained a hint of benzene. It too had been drawn from the metal guts of the machine.

It was an oppressively hot evening, the final nuance of discomfort being provided by squadrons of 'dive-bombing' mosquitoes, whose tormenting screeches and whirrings, greatly surpassed the itchy swellings resulting from a bite, as a form of mental torture.
At night when I was expecting to be shown to a bed somewhere in the yard, I was instructed to go after my male hosts who inexplicably clambered onto the roof of the house. On following I was surprised to find six beds (angarebs) laid out under the open skies on the narrow iron roof. The house could hold all of this on its head because it was government built and constructed of corrugated iron. The mud and jariid roofs of locally made houses could not have supported such a weight, jariid being nothing stronger than straightened palm branches stripped of their leaves.

As we lay above the mosquitoes, gazing at the stars and enjoying the breeze, I tried to explain, in an attempt at humour, that I hoped I did not walk in my sleep, to be woken unceremoniously after falling to the street below. My host, Mohammed, choosing to overlook the joke, implored me to descend if I really thought it likely that humar an-noom would take possession of me during the night.

Being less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a night at ground level, deprived of the wafting breeze andd at the mercy of the mosquitoes, I elected to stay on the 'head' of the house (rass al beet) and in doing so, gained a lasting memory of my visit, after sleeping more like hajar an-noom - the stone of sleep - than the donkey.

Monday, 13 September 2010

The Rumoured Soccer War*

Sudan Studies, Number 13 (January 1993)
Anthony Quinn, the epitome of elderly wisdom, sat cross-legged in the dust of the Libyan village, instructing an attentive group of small boys on the nature of Islam. Aided by the classical Arabic script which had been dubbed over the English sound track, Quinn gave a credible performance as the celebrated Senussi guerilla leader, Omar al-Mukhtar, who was finally apprehended and executed by General Rudolfo Graziani's Italian troops in 1931.

Bellowing his way through the part of Graziani himself, was Oliver Reed, who subjected his subordinates to such ferocious tongue lashings, that each onslaught, albeit in impeccable Arabic, induced them to intensify their efforts to pursue and slaughter Mukhtar's band of resistance fighters.

The film which charted the fortunes of a group of desert dwellers stirred into action against the colonising aggression of a militarily superior Italian power, was peppered with moments of high melodrama; not least of which was the scene depicting Mukhtar's army of embattled heroes desperately standing up to an overwhelming enemy in an oasis. To ensure that none of their number lost their nerve and fled in the face of the encroaching foe, each man hobbled himself in the way nomads tether their camels, tightly folding one leg back on itself with the rope. Unable to stand upright then, they lay in the dunes, trussed and ready, waiting for the attack from which none of them expected to emerge alive.

I'd witnessed this cinematic extravaganza several times on various TV screens in the small Sudanese village of El Ghaba, where I worked as an English teacher. The video of the film was ubiquitous in those households which possessed a television and VCR, normally as a result of having a family member earning hard currency in a Gulf state such as Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. On this occasion, I had been enjoying the cool air and leafy shade afforded by a house in the densely cultivated strip of land which separated the River Nile from empty desert. After the evening meal, my teaching colleagues, the local doctor and myself, settled down, courtesy of our host, to drink tea and watch the unfolding drama of Mukhtar and Graziani.

When the time came to take our leave and journey back to our 'mess', we loaded ourselves precariously onto the backs of two Toyota pick-ups, the property of the school and hospital respectively, and moved through silent fields of beans and date palms towards an empty Saharan landscape. On arrival outside our school, a noisy messenger accosted us, jumping from his Landrover in a frenzy of agitation. Breathlessly he informed us that Ed Debba hospital, some five to six miles up river, was overflowing with the dead and dying victims of a machine gun massacre whose perpetrators were systematically blasting their way north, up the Nile towards us. He had rushed up from Ed Debba in search of a doctor who was needed urgently, he said, to care for the ever-increasing number of wounded.

The news shattered the peace and tranquillity in which we'd passed our evening. My imagination sparked into activity, frantically calculating possible scenarios and means of escape should the gun-toting maniacs reach me in the middle of the night.

The unlikely story which we wrung from the harbinger of of these catastrophic tidings was a tale of everyday Sudanese normality catapulted into a nightmarish world of irrational violence. Apparently, some government soldiers from the south of Sudan, stationed in Ed Debba garrison, had played a football match against a team of local northern youths from a nearby island on the Nile. This match was a replay of an earlier clash in which foul deeds on the pitch and rising animosity between the teams had easily transferred itself to the spectators. Two of the main protagonists from either side had left the pitch harbouring considerable grudges which, with the passage of time had matured to the point where the locals turned up for the second game, more than a needle match by this time, armed with knives and primed for confrontation.

At half time the tension had erupted into brawling during which one of the southern soldiers was killed. Enraged, the story went, the remaining soldiers had chased the islanders to the edge of the Nile, burning their ferry boat so that they were forced to swim across to their village and then had stormed the police station, liberating all the automatic weapons and ammunition they could find there. At this stage the narrative roared into overdrive. The picture painted of the indiscriminate shooting and killing which followed the raid on the police station would have done a multitude of Graziani's proud. Women and children, sick and elderly, were mown down in equal numbers, so it seemed. The police had fled and the "loathsome" aggressors were mopping up every scrap of human life they could find along the Nile, with rapid bursts of machine gun fire.

As the Landrover forged into the darkness throwing a wake of sand from its wheels, I allowed the full force of the situation to sink in. Already I was unconsciously straining my ears for the crack of distant gunfire, the sound which an orgy of morbidity had convinced me would be my last sensory experience on earth. My colleagues appeared not to share my sense of foreboding and the way they absent-mindedly went about the routine tasks before bed, suggested to me that the prospect (so real to my fevered imagination) of a fairly immediate and gruesomely violent death, did not throw any of them off balance at all. On exchanging our customary night time pleasantries, I pondered on the ominous poignancy of us all urging each other to wake up in good health the next morning.

Once settled, I accepted a proffered wad of sa'ut with more than my usual eagerness from Ayoub, whose bed occupied the patch of sand next to mine in the yard where we slept beneath the stars. Like a large proportion of the men I knew, Ayoub was a habitual user of sa'ut, or snuff as it was sometimes called. Rock salt known as natrun (a name it shared with a desert wadi where it was extracted from the ground), tobacco and a moistening touch of water were the component parts of the substance. The function of the natrun, I had been told, was to graze the inner surface of the bottom lip, where the sa'ut was most usually placed, allowing the nicotine more immediate access to the bloodstream.

As a non-smoker unused to the effects of tobacco, my first-time 'hit' had sent my head spinning onto an elevated plane from where I had eventually plummeted, to crawl behind the house and vomit quietly in the sand. With practice I had become adept at kneading the lump of noxious material in the palm of my left hand with the fingers of my right until it was a compact pellet, ready to be wedged between the gum at the front of my lower jaw and my bottom lip. Rendering the pinch of sa'ut mudurdum in shape in this way, rolling the brown mass into a ball, dung-beetle fashion, was only one method used. Many older men brushed such niceties, scooping a liberal amount of snuff from the tin onto the open palm of the hand before throwing it loose under the tongue, all in a single, flourishing gesture. After the effects wore off, the gob of used tobacco was spat onto the ground and, in the politest company, fastidiously covered with sweepings of loose sand.

We lay in the still air, each on his own bed, each with an exaggerated bump below the bottom lip where the sa''ut generated its high voltage current around the nervous system. Ayoub, preoccupied with problems of the heart, told me again about the childhood romance he had had with a neighbour's daughter in Khartoum. Initially neither the welcome effects of the nicotine, nor the soporific rhythms of the familiar story, could distract me from thoughts of death. Haunted by the report from Ed Debba, I was in an advanced state of panic, belied by the dormant aspect of my body, lying beneath a Chinese blanket under the deep blue, star-studded dome of the night sky.

I fought repeated urges to rise (like some demented desert version of Wee Willie Winkie) and bolt through the sleeping village in search of a secure hiding place. The realisation slowly taking shape in my mind was, that there was nowhere to run to. Surrounded by desert, I had to resign myself to fate, hoping that somehow, when the gunmen came with muzzles blazing, I'd be lucky enough to dodge their bullets. Still on edge waiting for the first far off report of approaching machine gun fire, I viewed my mortal predicament as one would watch a video, and recognised that I was just as powerless to escape as the guerillas who had hobbled themselves to face their foe in the Libyan oasis.

The next morning dawned without incident and marvelling at the fact that I must have dropped off to sleep despite my fear, I brushed shoulders with my sleepy colleagues as we wandered around the yard, cleaning teeth, drinking tea and moving beds into the shade for the day. No comment was made in reference to the previous night's alarm. We were all spruced up, chalk in hands, poised at our blackboards by 8 o'clock and, as if with a life of its own, the school moved through the day in a procession of normal events. Lesson followed lesson. The talk over breakfast was the usual bout of playful verbal jousting and political debate. Of guns flashing in the moonlight, rampaging soldiers and random slaughter on a massive scale, there was not a whisper.

I managed to toil through my day graduating slowly from a state of apprehension (still alert for sounds of attack), to one of tired befuddlement, neither happy to be alive, nor convinced that the danger was truly over.

The second night passed more easily than the first. I took Ayoub's sa'ut and actually paid attention to tales of his blighted love life. By the week's end I'd all but forgotten the supposed massacre and my narrow brush with death in a foreign land. I stopped worrying about how my remains would be transported to Scotland and started to participate once again in various activities. I went to the souk and was drinking sweet coffee the colour of tar, when I overheard a fellow patron of the shop conversing with his neighbour on the subject of the fracas which had flared up at the Ed Debba football match. Politely butting in, I asked if he could tell me how many people had died in the mayhem that tragic evening. He looked at me steadily before saying that only one person, the soldier in the initial scrap, had lost his life that day. Reflecting on the power of suggestion in this sand-blasted northern Sudanese landscape where communications were so problematical, I was thankful that I had been in mortal dread of nothing more lethal than a rumoured soccer war.

On pigeon hunting duty in Amri.

*(With apologies to Ryszard Kapuscinski)

Monday, 6 September 2010

Nubian Massage

Sudan Studies, Number 11 (January 1992)

I would have felt no worse if an adult camel had taken a notion to couch its full weight on my chest. I had been running around ineffectually on a patch of sand on the Nubian island of Nulwetta playing football, when one of the island's sturdier son's barrelled into me. As the tiny point of pain somewhere to the left of my heart radiated outwards like a dark stain developing on a white 'jellabiya', my appreciation of the Nubian sunset slid behind an all obscuring horizon of pure agony. Convinced that breathing was about to cease, I steeled myself for the worst as each rasping inhalation of twilight dust sent shock waves through my body.

Nulwetta is situated in the heart of Nubia between the villages of Abri to the north and Delgo to the south. It is several hours away from the most rudimentary hospital and its inhabitants rely for medical help, both by necessity and preference, on a traditional 'folk' doctor which the more melodramatic would take great relish in referring to (quite inaccurately) as a 'witch doctor'.

My predicament came to the attention of a Nulwetta schoolboy called Fatih and he took me to the local 'doctor', who very quickly satisfied himself that none of my ribs was broken, before producing a jar of 'dilka', a type of oil, with which he proceeded to give my ribcage a vigorous massage. Despite the supposed soothing effects of the oil, his fingers felt like a fleet of tiny steam rollers. This treatment over, I was instructed to meet the 'doctor' in his house after a couple of hours for more of the same.

Fatih and I walked the sandy streets of Nulwetta towards the 'doctor', Abdel Fadil's house in the dying moments of sunset. Fatih informed me that Abdel Fadil was famous as a 'baseer' in the area and that people came from up and down the Nile to seek his consultations, rather than go to the modern doctor in Abri Hospital. At the house we drank the obligatory cup of sweet milky sunset tea, ate local 'meenain' biscuits and waited for Abdel Fadil who duly arrived and wasted no time in setting his steam rollers to work on me again.

After this second massage, the 'baseer' produced an empty jam jar and some paper. He tore the paper into five strips which he then fashioned into small cones. With his cigarette lighter he lit the first twist of paper and when it was fairly blazing, dropped it into the jar, through whose mouth, it spat bright energetic flames. When the business end of this fire-breathing implement was pressed hard against the damaged ribs, I started involuntarily letting a breathless supplication escape from my lips.

I needn't have worried. The flames soon expired as the oxygen sealed into the jar by my chest was consumed and my flesh was sucked in tightly around the rim of the jar, so that when Abdel Fadil let go, the jar did not fall to the ground but stuck fast to my ribcage, protruding improbably at right angles. After a pause during which the inhabitants of the room admired the effect Abdel Fadil's vacuum had created, the jam jar was dragged slowly across the surface of my chest without the seal being broken. This new technique caused me to utter several gasps of pain and displeasure, which unseemly display of weakness elicited peals of laughter from the assembled horde of Fadil children. The entire process was repeated five times before I was allowed to ease my 'jellabiya' back up over my chest and shoulder, wincing as I did so, in far greater agony than I'd been in before I'd sought assistance.

Brick-making on Nulwetta

'Baseer' which is defined in Hans Wehr's Arabic English Dictionary as, "endowed with eyesight" and, "having insight" (or "possessing knowledge") was the name used by islanders to describe Abdel Fadil's calling. Two years later in al Ghaba, I was to witness an old blind 'baseer' treat a footballer's wrenched knee by applying the red hot head of a six inch nail to the damaged area. The boy had submitted to the 'mismaar' without displaying a hint of fear and swore later that his injury had been healed. Abdel Fadil's amused reaction to my unheroic inability to refrain from flinching during his jam jar operation had been to comment (not unkindly) that I was the first 'khawaja' he'd seen who was a coward.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Laconda Raid

Sudan Studies, Number 8 (May 1990)

A 'laconda' is a very cheap Sudanese hotel akin to a dosshouse but low on sleaze. A typical example in central Khartoum is situated between the Gasr an-Nil and Saalih hotels. I once took some Save the Children Fund workers who'd never before eaten fuul beans, to have supper at this establishment. Patrons sat outside on straw birish mats to eat, while streams of taxis, lorries and Toyota pickups buzzed up and down, only inches away from the diners' ears, droning like oversized flies. My aid worker acquaintances, who thought the cheapest meal to be had in the capital cost ten Sudanese pounds from the Sahara Hotel, enjoyed their first taste of the ubiquitous bean and were astounded to learn that it was available in the city for as little as 75 piastres.

Months later I was back in Khartoum staying at the Gasr an-Nil. From my third floor window I had a perfect view of the boys from the laconda as they transformed their stretch of unpaved sand and dirt into a 'restaurant'. A long trestle table facing the traffic held bowls of salaata, a type of yoghurt called mish, a peppery sauce of red shatta and a wide-diameter metal pan for barbecuing mutton. On the ground at the end of the table, a charcoal burner as big as a household dustbin supported a pot shaped like a huge hip flask. This was the specialised utensil for boiling fuul beans. There was also an enormous aluminium container full of water, with a communal mug adrift on the surface.

The sheyaa stall beckoned with enticing tendrils of steam and smoke which arose from the chunks nof mutton hissing on the hot pebbles and smouldering charcoal. Sunset was approaching and the city was pleasantly warm instead of punishingly hot. I stepped out of the Gasr with some companions into the heady atmosphere of the street and wandered down towards the laconda, relishing the sound of the birds fighting in their hundreds for a place to perch in the roadside neem trees and savouring the various smells which crept into the open at nightfall. We walked up to the trestle table and ordered some fuul and sheyaa. While the others sat on the birish with beans and bread, I waited by the table until our quota of meat was charred enough to be edible.

We had been sitting on the ground eating for about ten minutes when a lorry stopped level with us and the twelve or so men, who'd been balanced on the back, descended - and with mute, uniform efficiency began to dismantle the rudimentary restaurant, throwing its paraphernalia into the back of their lorry. The barbecue went in, the bowls of yoghurt and salad likewise. The boys managed to drag the fuul pot back inside the front gate of the laconda but were not so fortunate with the water container. A member of each faction held a side of the water pot and a silent tug of war ensued.

The entire raid passed off without the exchange of a single blow or angry word, a surreal dumb show unfolding before our eyes. I remember trying to eat as fast as possible for fear that our supper was about to be whipped away from under our noses, but for some reason we were not disturbed, unlike the Sudanese customers who had their evening meals unceremoniously snatched away. Their task completed, the men boarded the truck and were driven off into the night.

The only explanation we could pluck from the mass of rumours and fictions which constantly swarmed around Khartoum like locusts, was that the newly-elected government was cleaning up the capital and was putting unlicensed traders out of business. Half an hour after the raiders had swooped, I saw the smoke of scorched meat rising from the roadside once again. the boys had hastily reconstructed their 'restaurant' and were doing a brisk trade. Earlier, the boy in charge had wished us farewell from the ruins of his establishment with a grin wider than a broad bean and the words, "Sudan is a very bad place".

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Riding the Desert Trail

Sudan Studies, Number 7 (January 1990)

Review: Riding the Desert Trail (by bicycle to the source of the Nile, by Bettina Selby. Sphere Books, Penguin, London, 1989)

This competently written account of the author's bicycle trek from the Nile Delta to the river's source at Lake Victoria in Uganda, presents a very typical traveller's log. In one sense it is a book of impressions rather gathered at speed, which barely scrapes the surface of its subject matter. Such a treatment is perhaps consistent with the transitory nature of the expedition undertaken by the author, but what she lacks in accuracy or detail, she makes up for in her sincere approach and sympathetic appreciation of the hardships endured by those who live in this region.

Just over half of the book covers time spent in Sudan and Bettina Selby dutifully records all the 'usual' things visitors encounter there. The friendliness of the people and their unstinting hospitality are present alongside the obstructiveness and apparent intransigence of Sudan's more fickle bureaucrats.

Opting to follow the Nile from Wadi Halfa rather than strike out into open desert and slog her way to Abu Hamed along the railway track (surely an impossible task by bike), the author loads her 18-speed, all-terrain bicycle into a souk lorry and enters Nubia through the 'Belly of Stones'. Alighting from the lorry at an unnamed village (most probably Abri) she moves through Sudan by pedal power for the first time. At Dongola she boards the Nile steamer which carries her upstream to the rail head town of Karima; after which she takes the train to Atbara, before mounting the saddle once again.

Inevitably her momentum is arrested when she comes up against barricades of paper work in Khartoum but she is persistent and manages to visit Renk and Nyala and gets through to Juba in a small plane piloted by an Indiana Jones clone posing as an aid worker.

The most valuable part of the book is that which deals with the author's experiences in the tragic southern region of Sudan. Not only does she paint a haunting picture of local people striving to lead normal lives amidst famine and war; her stop-over in the south gives a rare insight into the life of Juba and the ex-patriot community in that blighted part of the world.

The good intentions of Bettina Selby cannot be doubted. Her respectful adherence Sudanese dress codes, unlike the semi-naked trippers she meets on the Aswan-Halfa ferry, is the first indication of how receptive and open her attitude to her environment is going to be, and it sets the tone for the rest of the book.

Unfortunately many of her observations highlight the fact that she is taking everything in from her position on a moving platform and although insignificant in themselves, the book's errors are irksome. Had she taken a little more trouble on the southward, Halfa-Dongola leg of her trip, she would have quickly discovered that the stretch of rocky desert, empty save for a single dead tree at its halfway point - which she places after the village of Kerma - actually comes directly before that village; the place she was referring to, being Fareig.

Similarly, a stroll to the prow of the Nile steamer at some time during her three day cruise would have allowed her to quote with authority, from the brass plaque there, that the vessel was built by Clyde Shipbuilders in Paisley, instead of simply guessing that the British had, "undoubtedly built it".

Anyone who's paid any attention to her, "notorious packs of savage dogs" in Sudan knows that their notoriety stems from gross cowardice when confronted with nothing more threatening than a raised human hand. Bettina Selby's constant motion denies her the space to set these and other discrepancies to rights and it is tempting to suggest that the whole contrived venture was a pointless waste of energy. Rather, suffice it to say that the author's admirable conduct in Sudan is an example which future (sic) travellers would do well to copy. Her courage must be saluted, but the flimsiness of this well-intentioned work must call into question the validity of the short and sweet school of travel writing.

Saad Sweets had sweet wrappers to die for