The website of the Sudanese Embassy in Ottawa features some beautiful ‘postcards’, many of them from either the Meröe pyramid fields at the sixth cataract of the Nile or the marine life of the Red Sea, with enticements to consider scuba diving while in Sudan.
I’ve toured the former on a camel, never done the latter; still, tourism and Sudan don’t tend to go together in the same sentence, with visas increasingly difficult to secure and permits to leave Khartoum for the places you really want to go to, rarer still. At the moment, I am sitting and watching the lights shimmering on the Beirut hillside that rises from the airport and the Mediterranean Sea. Funny thing; when I checked in at the gate in London – never had anyone say this to me before – a British Airways staff person asked me if I were truly set on going to Khartoum; was I sure. Curious.
It is past midnight as the aeroplane lifts off from Lebanese soil, turning slightly to the south, the Mediterranean now lit below by a brilliant half-moon. There are five people in this Airbus, besides me. Despite the Embassy’s appeal to the tourist, the word is not getting out.
The Delta spreads out below, the fingers of the Nile splitting its ancient silts into pieces like shattered brown glass. The blue-black of the Mediterranean gives way to the grey-brown undulence of the Egyptian Sahara. Stretching to the horizon, the sandy sea below is occasionally pock-marked with outcroppings of blue-black rock and then, amusingly, a vast crowd of pac-men, their sandy-dune mouths open to and shaped by the relentless westerlies.
Like a B-grade UFO movie, the moonscape below is suddenly broken with a mysteriously-ordered collection of dozens of what must be gigantic discs and a few squares divided into smaller squares, all arranged along the intersection of a cross, whose outer reaches then veer off into threads that eventually disappear. The edges of some of the shapes are blurred with swept-over sand. I ask the first flight attendant who passes by. What are those round things? She leans across me to peer out the window and then smiles, ‘UFOs.’ Then: ‘I’ll go ask.’ She returns in a minute to tell me that they are irrigation projects; water is drawn up from the middle of the discs and projected out from the centre through irrigation pipes. Somewhere down there little green plants are growing, it would seem.
Though it is still very early morning, the sky is lightening over the Arabian peninsula, deepening the contrast between the desert’s ochres and the convoluting dark snake that is the Nile. The River has become, like so many of the earth’s great rivers, polluted and brown, dammed at several points to provide hydro-electric power to the fuel the needs of the élites, both domestic and foreign. This is the same river in which Miriam set afloat her baby brother, one day to change the history of the Hebrew people. It is from the Nile that water is still drawn to make bricks with straw. I am told that, not so long ago, one could, from Tutti Island easily distinguish in the roiling encounter of the meandering, sediment-laden White and the rambunctious Blue Niles which striations of water came from which river – until they eventually stir themselves into a single massive flow of dulled sapphire.
The airport terminal is dully lit, though it appears a bit larger, grander, than last year, apart from a wall that has fallen down, allowing in sand, débris and, it would appear, a family of emaciated cats. I get in line for the passport check. I have been practising my minimal Arabic in order to communicate my need for someone to accompany me outside in order to find whomever is waiting for me out there with the original visa in hand. The man at the desk would appear to match my Arabic skills with similar capacities in English. He waves me in the direction of the passport control office. As I approach this familiar room, a man standing in front of the office door turns to me and asks if I am Lee. I follow him into the small, dusty and hot with plastic seating around three sides with the fourth side taken up by counters and glass walls behind which several men are busily working with paper and pens and stamps. Think Casablanca.
Only part of the process can be finished now, but it is sufficient to get us through the queue and out the other side to collect bags. Light Wilson Aganwa, director of SONAD, and a tall, large man with glasses and a grin to match his girth, who introduces himself as Jimmy Jeep, greet us and escort us to a waiting, uh, jeep. The lettering on the side of the vehicle reads: Swedish Free Mission. The lodging is nice; not much like the usual mud brick house in the informal settlement of Mayo. The three hours I have to sleep before we begin work is reduced to two and a half once I unpack and find my printer ink exploded and leaking. Bit of a mess.