The Road To Enlightenment -1982

Peter Sturman

© Copyright 2006 by Peter Sturman 

I met a great deal of kindness and hospitality when I worked in Sudan in 1982 and 1983. I was also young, arrogant and stupid. The following story is true and only embellished a little.

Old trucks never have particularly good suspension and once you are off the main highways, the roads in Sudan do not favour smooth travel. The truck I was travelling on was half-full of bags of flour or some other milled grain and several large boxes with people perched on top of them. Most of the passengers were on the roof. I’d looked at the curve of the roof, weighed the problems of getting up to it with a backpack and of trying to keep myself from falling off and opted to ride inside. As soon as the engine started up and sent shivers and rumblings through the back, the dust from the grain rose up in a cloud. Even with only breathing though my nose, my mouth filled with small particles of grain and sand blown in from the open side of the truck. I wrapped my keffiya round my face as a mask, huddled down and literally gritted my teeth. This was fun.

The school I was teaching in had been closed for a month because the students were on strike – the final straw had been when the school’s flour supply had been contaminated and the students had been presented with fresh bread with dead bugs in it. Or, at least, that was what I was told. To be honest, while I sympathised with the students, I was glad of a break. I was a volunteer and I had become increasingly aware that I didn’t know enough about teaching to really justify my position. A break from it was just what I needed – time to get out and explore Sudan, do the sights, meet the people, take some photos. Avoid responsibility for a bit. When we had originally arrived in Khartoum, and after recovering from the first week’s unavoidable reaction to the water supply, we had looked around and I had picked up a Sudan Tourist Board leaflet about the things you could see and do. The problem is that Sudan is enormous and the leaflet wasn’t all that informative. However, I’d chosen to visit the ancient tombs at Kabushiya – there was a pretty picture in the leaflet and they were reasonably accessible from Dongola, where I was based. This was why I was in the truck.

The other passengers were polite but preoccupied with their own discomfort. All except Osman, that is. Osman had befriended me as soon as he realised we were going to be on the same truck. He had gone straight up onto the roof and had desperately tried to persuade me to go up there too. I hadn’t been in Sudan long enough to realise that this open, friendly hospitality was totally normal, and I have to admit that part of my reluctance to follow him onto the roof was the sort of typical British reticence that gives us the name of being cold and aloof. Shy and unwilling to impose on others is probably a better way to describe it, but I was now conscious of having offended him. Once we got going, the road got rougher, the dust cloud got thicker and, after my head hit the roof of the converted cattle truck four times, I finally did what Osman had suggested in the first place and climbed onto the roof. The two-inch metal railing around the edge of the curved roof was just enough for a foothold, but sitting cross-legged on the very top meant you could look forward, predict the worst of the bumps and avoid travel sickness. The truck was going at a phenomenal speed over a heavily rutted dirt track and the driver was doing his best to maintain a high speed and as much stability as possible, but the odds were against him. Osman helped me move closer to the front of the curved roof. There were no handholds up here and with every swerve I felt myself slipping down one side or the other. I jammed my hands down beside me, took deep calming breaths (at least I could breathe now), and tried to ignore the growing panic and dust storm. This was more fun than I had anticipated. Osman told me that the driver wanted to get to Kabushiya before the weather turned bad, so he was hurrying. The other passengers approved of this. I just wanted to put my arms around the man squatting immediately in front of me, bury my face in his back and whimper.

Osman was one of the first off the truck – he had a funeral and a party to get to, both of which he invited me to and was disappointed when I declined. I was the last off the truck as it took a while to overcome rigor transit. I was tempted to do a Pope and kiss the ground; I was so relieved to get off the top of that truck. I followed Osman’s directions to the police station to enquire about travel to the ruins. It was getting late and the wind was getting up as the storm approached. I needed to organise a place to stay for the night. With typical Sudanese hospitality and lack of urgency, I was offered tea and sweet biscuits and asked to sit and wait as the station commander himself would want to see Al Khawaja, the Foreigner. I drank the sweet tea, rolled myself a cigarette and waited. Would the respected station commander arrive soon? Inshallah – if God wills. The commander was not, however, as pleased to see me as everyone thought. My rolling papers and plastic bag of dried loose tobacco immediately convinced him that I was smoking bango – the local version of hashish. I was very nearly arrested and a great argument ensued:

 “Ya khawaja! Da shinu? Tashrab bango?”

 “La! La, ya hajj! Ashrab su’ood! Su’ood!”

 “Oy, foreigner! What’s this? Are you smoking bango?”

 “No! No, respected person! I smoke tobacco! Tobacco!”

 Once this was cleared up, and my papers given a very good face-saving scrutiny, I finally got information about how to get to the ruins. There was no car hire, no buses, the one taxi-driver was unavailable (he was also at the funeral), but I was assured that it was an easy walk and ‘Fritz, the German’ would look after me when I got there. Hmm. This sounded better. My imagination started to embellish what I would find with help from all the stereotypical notions I held about Germans - a particularly clean tourist guest house? An alpine-style chalet? Meals at precise times. A shower with a small but adequate bar of soap? Something quasi-German to eat? A little goat schnitzel, salad and rosti, some brown bread? Maybe even lager beer. Ice-cold lager beer. Several ice-cold lager beers. I wrapped my kaffiya against the wind and sand, and headed off on foot into the desert with the sun setting behind me, sustained by anticipation.

Five kilometres later I found the ruins, but they were on the other side of a large metal chain-link fence and locked gate. However, I was damned if I was going back: an Asgard with lager was on the other side. I started to climb over. Even the appearance of the guard - who probably wasn’t called Heimdall - demanding to know what the hell I thought I was doing wasn’t going to put me off. Nor did the slavering, vicious Alsatian that obviously fancied a bit of fresh Brit. The linguistic adrenaline that comes with the flush of fear and desperation had already got me out of the police station and came straight to my aid again. I was persuasive, I was fluent, I was believable and all in fewer than 500 words of Arabic. This remarkable linguistic ability was to help me later in the same trip when I was nearly shot for pissing on the Sudanese flag. In my defence it was pitch dark, in the middle of a field, it was the pole, not the flag, and I didn’t see the damn pole or guard. The noise of my argument with Heimdall and the Alsatian eventually brought Fritz. Fritz, however, was not in the least impressed with my assumption that he ran an alpengasthof. He muttered something about the ‘verdammte Polizie’ but finally agreed to put me up for the night as the weather was worsening. As my perception of my situation slowly realigned itself to reality, it dawned on me that I was imposing on Fritz quite considerably.

 Over the course of the evening, as he showed me around, provided towels and soap for a shower (the bar was small but adequate), cooked, explained his work over the noise of the wind, and generally entertained me (no lager beer, though), my mortification and embarrassment slowly deepened. I knew absolutely nothing about the sacking of Napata in 590 BC, or the war with Axum, or the Monophysitic Kingdoms, or the problems of establishing chronology in the Nubian dynasties, or the difficulty of finding cognates for Meroitic. Basically, I couldn’t add anything to the conversation and was also quite alarmed to find that I was alone with a communist from East Berlin. This was 1982 and I wasn’t the only person in the world to believe that communists had horns, tails and sulphurous breath. He tried to ask me about life in the West but we really had so little in common that I couldn’t even help him with that. By about 9.00 pm, Fritz was bored with me and left me with a picture book of Abu Simbel. I felt embarrassed and humiliated. I had shown my self to be boorish, callow, ignorant and selfish. And my host seemed to agree.

In the morning, before trudging back to Kabushiya, I said a timid goodbye and thank-you to Fritz Hintze, Professor of the Institute of Egyptology of Berlin Humboldt University, and a leading authority on Early Sudanese Culture and Civilization; having learned a little about ancient Sudan but a lot more about myself than I was comfortable with.

Peter Sturman has lived and worked in Portugal, Sudan, China and Japan. He is married with two kids and his wife is a marvellous, wonderful person who happens to be looking over his shoulder. Peter is currently a postman in Moffat, Scotland.

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