The event depicted below occurred in December 2007.
Today was not the first time that rough-talking “intelligence police” took me to an interrogation room after spotting me with a camera in public in Sudan. It’s the second time. And each time it’s been a deeply unsettling reminder that I am currently living in a country where the uniform rules.
I was intrigued by what looked like public art in Khartoum, and click went the camera. It was hectic traffic on the busy street, and then from across the road two plainclothed men, sitting in an ordinary vehicle, signalled to me to come to them. I was walking in that direction anyway and I just knew it was time to take out my identity card and do some explaining once again.
I think I should have left behind the glint of disgust as I approached them though. By this time they had already gotten out of the vehicle. Their plain clothes made me think: “Hell, not another close-minded person who thinks I am a foreigner out to cause mischief.” (Of course the Sudanese government has loads of reasons not to trust foreigners, but I am not one of them. I don’t work for a French aid agency and I don’t want to take so-called orphans home from Darfur.)
It’s also not the first time that what seemed like ordinary citizens reprimanding me for taking photos of public spaces. It happened so often that I’ve become somewhat thick-skinned — on the advice of my Sudanese friends — to just brush it off and walk on by. There’s deep mistrust of any foreigner with a camera in this isolated part of our world. Of course politics don’t make it any easier.
Neither has a certain British teacher named Gillian Gibbons, who didn’t consult her Sudanese counterparts before giving the green light to her seven-year-old students to call a stuffed toy Muhammad. But back to the interrogation scenario for now.
I broke the cardinal rule that every foreigner in a tight spot knows: speak English. Silly me did the attempted-Arabic thing. Worse still, upon the advice of those dear Sudanese friends, I told this guy that I didn’t believe he was from the police and wanted to see his identification. That got him fired up. Ill-tempered “intelligence police” — his words, not mine — grabbed my arm and marched me to a nearby interrogation room where I was quickly surrounded by seven angry officers; some in uniform, others not.
He demanded that I continue speaking in Arabic after the few words I know ran out. I had to revert to English to explain myself but he’d have none of that. So promptly my bag was searched, my wallet was checked for ID and I had to show off the photos I had just taken, along with the pictures from my mad birthday party with local pals the other night.
It felt like an Israeli checkpoint all over again: the constant questions that feel like borderline harassment. Fortunately this time round there was no stripping down to my underpants. And I was told to march on. And reprimanded: “If I catch you taking pictures again I will arrest you.” He could speak English but insisted that I speak Arabic. Strange dark comedy.
This incident speaks volumes about Sudan. Yet, of course, it’s not the only picture there is to this wonderful people. There’s a saying about the Sudanese: they love each other but not their country. Damn right.