I have left behind me the security found in the comfort of friendships.
When I reached Khartoum International Airport earlier this week, my friends Abdalla, Asma and Huda were waiting for me. They had been there at least an hour already. I had waited for two other friends, Muddather and Imam, to pick me up at home in Balabil and drive me and my six-months-and-three-weeks’ worth of baggage to the airport.
It’s been a mad-crazy-hectic-where’s-the-painkillers mother of a seven-day cycle. I was tense. I was praying that the security officers at the airport wouldn’t ask me to open and unpack every bag. I felt this way because I have had various bad experiences with men in security uniforms in Sudan and even plainclothes officers from the “intelligence police”. Just the day before my departure I had some problems with police officers at the Immigration Office in Khartoum. For some reason they wanted to know how my friend, Muddather, was related to me and why he was accompanying me to the Immigration Office. Voices were raised. It didn’t feel good.
Muddather couldn’t understand the problem. Neither could I. We had been to this office just the day before and the very same security at the entrance didn’t even glance at us. We ended up in an office for yet more tense exchanges of words. Instinct kicked in and I phoned one of the higher-ranking police officers at the Immigration Office. My journalist friend Nathir had introduced me to him the day before. When he entered the room, all problems evaporated and we were still clueless on why we had been treated this way. What did these guys really want from us? There seemed to have been no problem, after all.
While sitting at the Immigration Office, I felt tears of frustration bubbling inside, waiting to be released. Because I wanted something better. Maybe a better way of obtaining permission to exit Sudan. Less hassles and stress. I resorted to my MP3 player and the Black Eyed Peas made an appearance in my ears with their mega hit asking “Where is the love?” I turned the volume up to its extreme, choosing to ignore the many voices arguing with some or other person in uniform sitting behind the large glass walls with holes in them, through which to pass papers and commands on what to do next. It was a morning of zig-zags from one office to the next; one counter here, another counter there.
I saw hands flying, self-important chronic cellphone clutchers and loads of Chinese nationals at the Immigration Office while feeling a sense of despair. Tracy Chapman sang: “If you knew that you would die today, would you change?”
How do we make sense of our Africa? Muddather has become exhausted of arguing. He usually reminds me of the words “Samha sabr”, which is an Arabic phrase advising that it’s better to have patience. Other Sudanese friends have told me that patience is beautiful. They use the exact Arabic word for beauty — jameelah — when they tell me so.
In Sudan, patience is a necessity. Without it, you’ll die of frustration. And in Sudan you learn that the small moment of a smile can change your entire destiny. It can open doors. It can even close others. Sudan is heavily dependent on interpersonal relations.
“You have to study the psychology of the person when you address them so that you know how to address them,” Muddather had told me in one of the many officials’ offices we had been to while trying to sort out my exit visa.
This exit visa thing isn’t something automatic at the office in Sudan. No. It requires two passport photos, photocopies of various documents, filling out forms and paying cash at the Immigration Office counters. And, of course, it involves a lot of patience. The wait to get anything done can seem like a lifetime. But when you finally get things done, you want to sacrifice your heart to the universe for finally releasing you from agony.
Fortunately at the airport the security didn’t ask me to open and unpack my bags. It was a straightforward procedure. The Ethiopian Air flight headed to Addis Ababa ended up being delayed by two hours, though.
So I started reading the English-language translation of the beautifully crafted Season of Migration to the North by the Sudanese author Tayeb Salih. He wrote this book in Arabic and I found out about it while reading the “Further reading” section of a guidebook on Sudan.
I bought my photocopied version of the book — most likely used as a text book — for five Sudanese pounds ($2,50) from one of the many sidewalk booksellers in Khartoum’s dusty Souk al-Arabi. These words published in 1969 all still seemed to be in the right place, despite the fact that the book was photocopied, and the thoughts contained evoked so many familiar emotions and places from my stay in Sudan. It really instilled a sense of nostalgia and I hadn’t even left the country.
By the time I boarded the Ethiopian Air flight, the words of Ahmed, a colleague in the media industry, came to mind: “Two countries in Africa have the most beautiful people. The first is Morocco and the second is Ethiopia.” I came face to face with an air hostess — or cabin-crew member, as they’re known in totally unsexy terms — and thought: “Wow, Ahmed was right. I think I am going to be very happy in Ethiopia. Maybe I can live there forever.” I still need to find out about Morocco.
I arrived in Addis Ababa shortly after 10pm. I felt scared. Because it was again a different place, language, people. Everything. Different. Also, I had been told things like “Watch out, Aids is a big problem there.” The cold outside the airport was a strong contrast from the Khartoum heat to which my body had grown accustomed — loving and loathing it in the span of a few hours.
When I arrived at my hotel room there were two packs of “Trust” condoms appropriately placed on the bedside table. The words of Ammie Khaleel, my beloved neighbour in Khartoum, came to mind: “There are many prostitutes in Ethiopia. The country is known for its sex tourism. It’s because there is so much poverty and the girls are cheap.”
I was exhausted. I wanted to finish reading the last few pages of Salih’s novel. I really feel moved by his poetic expression. Salih spent a large part of his life in England and was head of drama at the BBC’s Arabic Service.
I turned on my laptop and listened to Sudanese singer Jawahir and Egyptian pop star Tamer Hosny. I had the weird fear that the electricity would cut out, as had often happened in Khartoum, but it didn’t. The next morning, when I woke up in Addis Ababa, I feared that I would have to take a cold shower as I had been doing back at my Khartoum flat. That didn’t happen. I found warm water in the taps.
“Security is comfort,” I thought as the hot water washed over me.