Sunday, December 9, 2012

You Killed Our Students, You Killed Our People, You Killed Our Nation

University students were murdered last week*. Do you remember university? When you were technically an adult but still a child? I remember being a university student although I don’t remember how the years went by. I remember being full of hope and days filled with despair. Then more hope. Heated discussions of dreams and arguments about politics and ideas and schools of thought.
Today, university students are dead. Murdered by government forces. This brings me so much heartache. I think of the hope that their parents felt when they sent them off to seek knowledge. I imagine the students organizing a sit-in, staged to make a statement, wanting their voices to be heard. I can see them standing their ground as the “police” round them up, or their playful dash for freedom, that would make such a good story later.
The ones that were caught, knew they were going to be “slapped around”. Par for the course in the police state we have become. Then, I imagine their surprise when the beating became torture. I can feel their young hearts praying for it to stop, while the pain went on. And on. And on. I can see the confusion when the pain did stop, as harried forces decided to unceremoniously dump the bodies.
One child dying of torture may seem like a mistake to the feeble mind that ordered them “disciplined”. But how can they justify, even to themselves, the murder of two or three or four? There can be no mistake that this was murder. There was no holy calling to take these lives. They did not pose a security threat, nor were they enemies of the state. They were young men that were the victim of a system which gives power to cruel and twisted minds and silences those with minds that know what the world is supposed to be like. They might know this from innocence or intellect or philosophy or religion. They just know. This is not right. This is not how it should be.
They know all people are created equal. They know these equal people deserve basic rights of food, water, education, healthcare and security. They know that this land was rich and now it is poor. They know that a chosen few seized power and bled the country of its resources for personal gain, since Sudan has nothing to show for it. The ruling junta, in their desperation, has ceased to think rationally. In fact, they have even stopped pretending to pretend to think rationally.
In their famous “majaalis” today, what are they saying? Is there any outrage over the deaths of these children, that instead of being delivered to their families with honor, were left lying in a ditch? Or have they managed to find themselves a religious spin, to share among themselves, that they were forced to rid themselves of communists and infiltrators?
Is there no voice of reason among them to tell them to leave, that they have stripped this country of everything – land, resources, morality and lives?
We want accountability. We want justice. We want them gone.
This is not the first heinous act that this government is responsible for. Even if they say that an “isolated few” are responsible for the burning of villages or the deaths of Awadia, schoolchildren of Nyala and now University of Al-Gezira students, the truth is that they were never held accountable, therefore the collective responsibility remains that of this “Government of Salvation”.
Every day, the irony of the name they gave themselves in the summer of ’89 is raised. “Take us back to where you saved us from,” the people beg. “What carnage would you have caused if you WEREN’T trying to save us?” people ask.
They came to save us but they tortured us and drained us and bled us and threw us in a ditch. They will not let us live, they will not leave us be. They actively pursue the people to wreak more havoc on our lives. Right when you say things can’t get any worse, they do. We have reached the very depths of despair, and they tell us to take a moment, because they still have more digging to do.
Government of Salvation, what more do you want of this land? What more do you want of these people?
If you cared for this land, you would have enriched it. If you cared for these people you would have raised them up. The cat is out of the bag. You are fooling no one. Criminals straddling a distinguished position among the most corrupt nations.
If there are honorable men among you, then speak up. We have spoken, “The people, want, the regime, to go!” This chant has resonated far and wide among our fellow nations. It is time for it to be heard here. It is long overdue, but better late than never.

*The Government of Sudan maintains that the deaths were not a result of criminal actions and the four boys drowned. There was also talk of an eel. Drowned. Electrocuted. Four boys. Swimming. In a ditch. After a demonstration. At night. (24th December 2012)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Consumerism on Al Jazeera's The Stream

The Stream played my video comment on their show. It is always validating to feel that your opinion matters.
It was a very good show (if I don't say so myself), with great discussions, that raise awareness about how much we are directed towards consumerism in today's world.
See it here. Worth watching, not just an ego trip for yours truly but take stock of your life, what you need versus what you want - and if you really want it.

Here is the YouTube link:

The host tweeted:
Lisa Fletcher@lisa_fletch
This could be my most favorite ! If you're missing our discussion on consumerism, make sure you catch it online!

Of course it was your favorite! Can't blame you :)

Sunday, September 30, 2012


(Borderline pointless. Random thoughts. Slow day at work.)
People have been divided into various classifications by professionals and experts, since time immemorial. The classification that has always resonated with me is this one:

Men are four:

·         There is he who knows and knows that he knows; this is a scholar, so know him.

·         Then, there is he who knows but does not know he knows, he is absentminded, so “rouse” him.

·         There is he who does not know and knows he does not know, he is ignorant, so teach him.

·         Then, there is he who does not know and does not know that he does not know, this man is a fool, so avoid him.

The above is my personal translation of the following Arabic text. I wish I could acknowledge the source but Bing and Google have failed me (as they invariably do when it comes to Arabic references).
الرجال اربعة:
هناك من يعلم و يعلم انه يعلم، ذلك عالم فأعرفوه.
هناك من يعلم و لا يعلم انه لا يعلم، ذلك غافل فأيقظوه.
هناك من لا يعلم و يعلم انه لا يعلم، ذلك جاهل فعلموه.
و هناك من لا يعلم و لا يعلم انه لا يعلم، ذلك مائق (احمق) فاجتنبوه.

I find truth in these categories when dealing with people. You can deal with anyone in the world, but the one that does not know that he does not know, I have found in my experience to be most difficult.
Of course, this classification applies to men and women, as the use of “Men” is no more sexist than the use of “mankind” in common texts.
When people say, they don’t tolerate fools lightly, you can’t blame them. I get a little annoyed when it is said by fools, but, as shown above, there is a Fool Hierarchy Pyramid, where every level looks down on the next. In the irony of the world, the Fool Hierarchy Pyramid is almost the mirror image of the Organization Chart in many institutions and governments. Hence, a likely scenario is the homeless person by the side of the road dispensing wisdom as the Fool locks his doors, rolls up his windows and pretends not to see him.
What saddens me in Sudan is that scholars are neither recognized nor appreciated. In our country fools live long and prosper. They are rewarded, they are glorified.

Our teachers are humiliated, and our failures memorialized and if they ever get around to dying they are immortalized.

It is frustrating to see the worthy demeaned, subject to the rule of the idiot. Forced to sit and listen to outlandish speeches, claims, statements – occasionally called on to applaud and pledge allegiance.

The learned Sudanese is left with two options, to ignore the noise and try to keep living his or her life, or to try to reason with the nonsense, and you don’t get any points figuring out where that leads. Exactly. Nowhere.

One is left frustrated. Anyone will tell you that life is not fair, live with it. But when it comes to Sudan, life not only is not fair, but life is downright surreal. You are in the passenger seat and constantly amazed by the world that surrounds you, but not in a good way.

A select few have broken away from the pack. They have decided to neither ignore nor reason. They have moved out of the passenger seat. Although they cannot control their destiny, they do not sit back and await their fate. I applaud the effort of the civil societies of Sudan who come up against double resistance. The resistance of overcoming the obstacles that stand between them and their goals, and the obstacles that are hurled at them from an incompetent government, that as the saying goes, won’t crap or get off the pot.

These are the people who refuse to be broken. They refuse to become bitter; refuse to accept defeat. They seek, and they find. They plan and they execute. They care and they share. They DO, where most people don’t.

And in spite of everything they face, instead of these people being honored, we find them attacked, slandered and demonized. If they were the type, they would let this drag them down, but their souls are pure and they brush off the nonsense and raise themselves higher.

If we return to the original statement that men are four, I must admit that I don’t know where to put these people, my personal heroes. I look up to them and I am inspired by them. I try to emulate their kindness, their charity, their stoicism, their accomplishments. But I am not them.

Shakespeare said,
“Some men are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

These Sudanese civil heroes are great. They give us hope for a better Sudan, a better future, a better citizenry of a better society.

When I am engulfed by despair, I think of them and I know that, as they always say, “Tomorrow is a better day”.
*Dedicated to the people of Sadagaat and Deil Ahali and the freedom fighter, Nazim Sirag.




Saturday, August 4, 2012

BBC Interview: Sudan Post Split - Difficult Times

This is an audio of an interview that Lisa Mullins of "The World" (PRI/BBC World Service) did with yours truly, on July 9th 2012.
My fifteen minutes of fame :-) I just wish we had happier topics to discuss.
Lisa Mullins made me feel so comfortable that I felt that we had sat down for a casual chat and was a little surprised to hear myself later. If anyone approves of my words, I need to give her most of the credit. Thank you, kindly Ms. Mullins for giving the people of Sudan a voice.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

My Sudan, My Revolution

Over the course of 23 years, we have listened to our friends and relatives ask how we tolerate living in Sudan and why we don't leave. Our standard reply is that things will get better and we want to be part of building our country and helping our people achieve better living standards.

Our replies were always tinged in expressed or unexpressed resentment. What have you done for this country? Why are you complaining? You took the easy route. You chose a country that offers you dignity, livelihood and freedom. It was not your country, you have no birthright, your claim to it is selfish, perhaps gained, perhaps earned. You chose it, do not begrudge me my choice, do not deny me this deep love I have for my homeland.

What has Sudan given me?
In my time, it provided me with a decent education. It allowed my parents to provide for us which was not easy but they made it work. As time has passed, we have watched our lives crumble, our standards deteriorate, our people go hungry.

What has Sudan given us?
It has given us our home, our identity, our generosity and empathy. Yet, now, we witness the moral decay of our people, the greed and selfishness of desperation. The craftiness of the jungle, justifying corruption and stealing, in all its forms, as the litany, "survival of the fittest" resounds louder than the call to prayer. The failure of Sudan as a country is undeniable, while the failure of the Sudanese is open to dispute. We are good people. Warm and loving. Passionate and caring. Loud and proud. We are not Arabs; we are not Africans; we are Sudanese. We are a unique blend of activism and fatalism; realism and superstition; bravery and cowardice; progression and prudishness and primitiveness.
We love the old, we love the new; we love, we hate, we cry and we laugh.
We are everyone and we are no one. We combine every ethnic race but we are similar to none.

I cannot afford to lose hope for my country. I cannot survive without hope for my countrymen. This revolution gives my irrational hope, substance. This revolution brings my dreams closer with every voice that rises. This revolution has made me proud of my youth who bring drinking water to the riot police who stand over them. Made me proud of our elders who joined their sons and daughters on the streets because they remember a better time, and they too have dreams. Proud of the women who sat themselves down in the middle of the road, in plastic chairs and all their traditional glory to demonstrate that mothers and daughters have no fear, in this country of strong and outspoken women.

This is our country. We sing this in our national anthem. We want our country back, we want to live, we want to thrive, we want to work, we want to write, we want to speak our minds, we want our dignity, our freedom, our rights. Sudan Revolts is the will of the people, and the famous verse says that Destiny must comply. We are a God fearing nation and we know that we will overcome and Sudan will belong to the people once again.

Friday, April 27, 2012

From Khartoum to China – The Accidental Business Traveler: Part IV

Once the plane was up, the people started feeding us and wouldn’t stop. This airplane was a little bigger, with a little more entertainment options, but nothing to brag about. Egypt Air, you need to get your act together.

Enough with the journey, let’s move on to the adventure!

As soon as our plane landed, I put on the red wool coat I had borrowed for the trip. I didn’t approve of the color, originally. I’m not exactly a Lady in Red kinda gal; generally preferring not to stand out in a crowd. I guess that means I’m not a Roni, either (cheesy, I know, but it was right there!).

As soon as I stepped off the plane, I let out a primal “Wararoooooook!” Over the course of the next few days, this was to be my standard battle cry. You can consider yourself learned, call yourself a sophisticate, maybe even hold some sort of credentials proving one or the other, but when you get b@#$% slapped by Mother Nature, you turn primal. “Wararook!”

I mean, I know cold. I spent my childhood braving the blizzards of Indiana. Our cold, dry Khartoum winters are famous for “getting into your bones” as the locals say. Rainy winters in Alexandria were not foreign to me, but this? This was insane! I haven’t been near single Celsius digits in years. My senses were doubly offended by the impact of the temperature delta between Khartoum and Beijing. I wondered if my lungs would freeze, if my ears would snap off, if my African body would choose a new way to revolt against this unprovoked assault. My poor African body didn’t care about my work, or my quest for adventure; it just wanted to be left alone.

We walked into the impressive Terminal 3 of Beijing Airport, and my Architectural self was enthralled, shutting up the African. Chinese natives scurried ahead, eager to get home, wearing heavy coats and little else, as elderly Western tourists openly stared at everyone, making comments in their native languages, assuming no one else understood English or German or whatever European dialect they spoke– or not caring.

We went with the flow to find ourselves in “Passport Control”. Dozens of officials waited to clear dozens of lines that the travelers had formed. This was the second sign of how far I was from home. Sudanese couldn’t form a line to save their lives. If someone told a crowd of Sudanese people, “Stand in line and you will receive a million dollar check at the end, and the only condition is that you stay behind the person in front of you,” they will start pushing and shoving, jostling and circumventing, like they needed to prove that money would not stand in the way of national traditions.

I love my country. I love my countrymen, but we tend to relish our chaos and uphold our anarchy. Bless us.

So, I stood in line and shuffled along patiently, avoiding eye contact, yet maintaining physical contact with my hand luggage at all times, as I have learned to do over the years.

When my turn came up, I looked at the diminutive official who looked sharp in her uniform and cap. She sat behind a counter on which rested a device that looked like a super-sized iPhone. Its corners were too round for an iPad, so I maintain that it looked like a supersized first generation iPhone.

The lady took my passport, without a word, and proceeded to flip through the pages. She looked at my pre-marriage photograph, which was also pre-childbirth, which in my case means an entirely different weight category. I wondered if we all looked the same to her, and she couldn’t notice the difference, or if I looked like a completely different person, with my alien features and dark skin tone.

She continued to flip through the pages. Flip, flip, flip. Flip right to the beginning, flip left to the end, and repeat. I wondered if there was a problem, and wondered why she didn’t just ask about what she was looking for. Flip, flip, flip, look up. Flip, flip, flip, look down.

Eventually, she pointed to the iPhone-like device. I looked at myself and smiled, as I automatically do when encountering any type of monitor. Just as I smiled, I remembered Russell Peters stand up routine about Canadians forbidden to smile in passport photos. Great, now I won’t get into China because I smiled. Surprisingly enough, she waved me through. As I said, “Thank you!” I realized, she had not spoken a single word throughout this exchange. I really need to watch The Artist, I thought; speech is over rated.

My traveling companions also took what I estimated to be more than the average passport clearance time. This was largely due to the fact that Sudanese officials do not require entry visas to China. This little tidbit had come up in transit, and would surface every once and again. It tended to cause confusion at first but once supervisors were summoned and phone calls were made, we are waved through. The US Government may not approve of Sudan and Sudanese officials, but the Chinese Government had no problem whatsoever.

We got on a train to claim our luggage (A train! Smack in the middle of the airport! A train, I tell you!) and I kept looking around at the signs. First in Chinese, then in English. Throughout the trip, I found amusement in the English translation of signs. I’m sure they made sense to somebody, somewhere. It was like they had sent people abroad to learn English and they came back and made literal translations in silent protest at the living conditions, they had been subjected to. (You stuck me in a hole in Queens, I’ll show you!)

As I stood waiting for my luggage, that had been marked “Priority” at Khartoum Airport, I stood next to a confused Chinese lady, who picked up every piece of luggage that passed by her and replaced it on the baggage carousel again. Having done this several times, she turned to me and exclaimed, “They all look the same!” My eyes almost popped out of my head holding in my chortle. I wondered if I was on Candid Camera. They all look the same from a Chinese woman! Priceless!

If there is one thing I learned about Business Class travel, it is that the “Priority” tag means diddly.

Baggage in tow, our "delegation" walked towards the exit, and we saw our Chinese contact, Mr. Wang, waiting for us. We had worked together in Khartoum, but by the time our journey was over, I had a newfound respect for Mr. Wang, the Chinese People and China itself.

Monday, April 9, 2012

From Khartoum to China – The Accidental Business Traveler: Part III

Before take off the flight attendant came and asked what we’d like to drink. I asked what was available, and she said, “Everything. Whatever you want to drink.” Maybe, in a less fragile condition, I would have put her claim to the test but I just asked for apple juice and let it slide.

On every flight, there is the snooty flight attendant, the friendly one and the flustered one. Juice girl was the snooty type. I feel a certain resentment coming from snooty service staff. The barely concealed sneer was actually a pout, “It should have been me”.

I noticed that the flight attendants enjoyed the same meals as the Business Class Passengers, so the resentment is as meaningless as it is misguided. She was doing her job while I was seated. No doubt while I was doing my job, she too would be kicking back somewhere exotic and I didn’t begrudge her the pleasure.

I like friendly and flustered attendants. We can all relate to that and appreciate (again) a positive attitude in a thankless job. Except for the part where they spend a lot of time on their feet (as many of us do), I think they have it pretty easy. They are trained in basic procedures and need to draw upon them, as circumstances require. How hard can it be? And, aren’t service staff supposed to have a friendly disposition, by definition? I can’t see a bully dreaming of growing up to serve meals to people in the sky.

The plane was shabby, there was no in-flight entertainment, nor was there an option to raise your feet. Just the basic option of putting your seat back, which even passengers in coach got. Business Class my rear.

The in-flight magazine was also raggedy. I was told, as a very young child, that you can take your in-flight magazine with you. It’s all paid for. Since getting that authorization, I pick up the magazine for casual post-travel reading. I know that most people don’t but why should I be stuck with the well thumbed copy of February travelers, past and present? They need to do something about that. Appoint someone to distribute magazines by ticket price. Business Class get fresh off the presses and kids paying half price get stuck with the shabby ones, that they can eviscerate without embarrassing their parents.

We had gotten the piping hot towels at one point. Who came up with that idea? Why did all the airlines take it up? It’s nice and sanitary and everything, but I would think that if airlines were looking to improve, they would add the numbers of bathrooms on a plane, instead of just making up stuff that has almost zero impact on the quality of the trip. More bathrooms, now, that would get people excited.

Then the food started. Silverware and china. There were some attempts at presentation, like they hired someone to go spy on Qatar Airways, and he came back and said, “They don’t just put the food there, they draw leaves with the ketchup and stuff” so Egypt Air Chef-in-Chief was summoned and told, “Don’t just pile on the food and embarrass us. You need to draw stuff. Put an umbrella, that looks fancy. And kiwi. All exotic like”. I think the only thing that didn’t have kiwi on it was the meat.

So, they give you something to eat, and while you’re still jabbing at your fruit salad, they bring a “hot meal” which is piping hot and cools down to gelatin. Just when you have your tray organized and start a meat/juice/salad rhythm, they ask if you want tea or coffee.

Okay, the food seemed old anyway, let’s just have our evening tea, the Sudanese way, and enough with this hassle. (Food on planes always seems old. Not just stale, but like it's been through stuff. Has stories to tell.)

With the tea, in Business Class, you are offered your choice of bread! White, brown, pumpernickel, pita. Seriously. People pay more for this?

This reminded me of a flight from Nairobi to Khartoum.
An American lady sat beside me. She quickly told me that she worked for the US government and had been on assignment to monitor the elections in Nairobi. I asked her who she was going to vote for in the US. She was taken aback. I thought that this was due to the American taboo of asking who you were going to vote for, but she explained that she hadn’t thought that people in Africa were following the US elections. I already voted, she confided, because I am traveling, I can vote ahead. I voted for Gore.

Really? I asked incredulous. She asked why I didn’t approve. He seems plastic, I replied. I know that doesn’t really make sense, but he doesn’t seem like a robot (Romney) just made of plastic or something. I would have voted for Bush, I said. He seems harmless. (LOL. We all know how that turned out).

Anyway, the traveling American was complaining about everything. Everything. When I ordered something from the Duty Free and the attendant told me they didn’t have change, she rolled her eyes dramatically. I was the one buying and foregoing the theatrics, what was her problem? When they started passing out the meals, she asked where hers was. She turned to me to explain that she had ordered a “special meal”. Of course you did, I said. Why do you say that? She asked. Because you’re American, and apparently what is good enough for everyone else is not good enough for you. She actually did not take offense. She kind of liked it. When she got her meal and saw my meal (chicken, Sudanese always order the chicken on a flight. Ask flight attendants. Drives them nuts because they always run out. They should have factored it in by now). So she looks at my meal and said it looked better than her boiled vegetables. Sometimes, it really is better to go with the flow.

Sorry, Americans, but sometimes, you guys are too much.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Salutations! The Sudanese Way!

Greetings and salutations are a characteristic part of most cultures and generations. In Sudan, things are no different.

When we were in school, girls would greet each other with three kisses on the cheeks. Mwah, mwah, mwah in the air and outer cheek, every morning of every day, alternating sides. As our generation got older, you had to make sure to avoid lipstick stains and mussed hair, after a particularly enthusiastic greeting.

Male cousins and family were greeted with a pat on the shoulder, before the hand shake. The angle you lean in for the pat, and the length of the greeting was directly proportional to how close you were to the male in question. For non-relatives/male friends, the pat was short, but resounding, and socially acceptable. At one point, our esteemed government in one of its sporadic attempts to influence social behavior, and turn our largely African social norms towards others deemed more "Islamic", introduced a “sketch” that reflected that this amounted to too much physical contact and people should stick with the handshakes. Not sure it worked.

As we grew older, some males forewent the shoulder-pat-cum-bear-hug and some of both genders stopped shaking hands with members of the opposite sex. I’m still going strong. What difference does it make, really? To humor my OCD, I just scrub my hands extra hard before partaking of any meal.

Back to the air kisses.

At some point in time, Sudanese women collectively decided that three kisses take up too much time. A new greeting was introduced that combined elements of all the above. Today, when adult females greet each other in Sudan, it is with a single kiss, on the same side as the bear hug, thus saving a lot of time and avoiding the occasional accident where lips met in mid exchange, causing a moment of awkwardness. I approve of this method. Enthusiasm is duly conveyed, with minimal risk.

It is amusing to see the moment of confusion, when Sudanese come home, after a prolonged period. They are not aware of the single kiss express salutation and try to switch to mwah the other cheek, while the locals who have forgotten this obsolete greeting, are not sure what is going on. Am I holding too hard? Has my greeting gone on for too long? Do I smell? *facepalm* A few weeks into their stay, they get with it. No harm, no foul.

Things were different back in my grandmother’s day. Her generation kissed on the neck. This was a multiple threat, because they inhaled loudly as they planted the resounding kiss, making a clucking noise. Sudan is hot, people sweat, making this form of greeting as uncomfortable as it is unpleasant and embarrassing. While this action was taking place, your upper arm was squeezed until the tears came. I kid you not. I always wondered at this strength test. Was it to gauge whether you were well fed? If you would flinch? I have no answer to these questions. While you were being smelled and squeezed – wait a minute, it really is called, quite literally, “Smelled”. Our elders would say, “Come let me smell you” ("t3aali annashummik") which is equivalent to the American granny saying, “Come give Nana a kiss”. Okay, while you were being smelled and squeezed, a barrage of stock phrases and questions were being repeated and echoed, while no one listened to the other. I can attest to this fact. I used to answer with “I’m awful. Life sucks. Who are you, again?” and the litany would go on and on. Never to stop.

As a matter of fact, after everyone was seated, someone might get up and start it all over again! This provides for a lot of entertainment when family comes over from out of town, and at this point in our lives, we chime in with gusto. Squeezing and reciting with the best of them.
Allah ysallimik. Allah ybaarik feek. Allah ysallimik. Awlaadik. Allah ysallimik. Taybeen. Allah ybaarik feek. Keifkum kadi. Allah ysallimik. Ybaarik feek. Taslami. Allah ysallimikJ

So, the way you greet your family and friends pinpoints your generation and associations, at a glance.

Sudanese are a lot of things, but they are very rarely boring.

(Photo link: )


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

From Khartoum to China - The Accidental Business Traveler: Part II

I was told that we were to fly on Egypt Air, Business Class. A rudimentary Google search revealed the fact that Business Class on Egypt Air was the equivalent of Economy Class on any one of the luxury airlines, but no one was asking my opinion and the flight was just part of this adventure that I had decided to embrace.

In order to maintain the boys’ schedule, I rented a car (Thank you, Rashid) to convey my trusted maid to and from her house. She didn’t begrudge us the extra hours in exchange for relieving her of the 3 bus rides she averaged, one way, on a daily basis. With her transportation allowance intact coupled with her sympathy for my non-stop tears, she made no objections to this arrangement.

My parents were duly drafted for backup and entertainment. They enjoy their role as doting grandparents, in addition to taking the opportunity to tackle those issues we didn’t see eye to eye on – such as leaving the children alone for 5 minutes to explore their surroundings, and piling them into the car for the haircut they so desperately needed.

The day before the trip, I camped out in front of an “Exchange” or “Money Changer” as they are often called in certain parts of the world. When Sudan lost its oil revenue to the country baptized as “South Sudan”, the government introduced currency restrictions which gave birth to a thriving black market. The official rate on that particular day was 2.89SDG to a dollar, while the black market rate was hovering over 5SDG to the dollar.

Under current financial laws, Sudanese pounds can rarely be transferred abroad legally and travelers are entitled to specific amounts, based on destination. $500 for Egypt and $1,000 for China. My fellow traveler collected his Bank of Sudan approved thousand, and sold it on the spot for 5.5SDG and proceeded to congratulate himself on his business acumen, as he regaled the story to us losers.

With quality products lacking in Sudan, I tend to hoard hard currency to arrange international purchases for my household, through my long suffering friends abroad (Thank you, Siema).

So, I wasted a few hours of my life to purchase one thousand US dollars and left. Mission accomplished. Went home and updated my Facebook status, “Of all the idiotic policies in this country, Banking/Foreign Currency Policy is way up there. (Stuck in the Exchange all day)” and of course, that made everything all better.

For the record, said dollars are received at the airport, as slackers are entitled to squat. People that choose to sell their government approved dollars can only deliver upon their return.

My father, a seasoned traveler, advised me to resist the lure of the VIP lounge and to check in with the commoners, as they had more direct access to the hard currency counters. Being the angel that I am, I heeded his advice only to be stuck in passport control with a mandatory renewal procedure, as the one week delay in our schedule had placed my passport in the red zone, six months less one week till its expiration date.

Let’s rewind a little to recount that while me and my family were rushing to the airport, as a traffic jam had us behind schedule, we came across a train stuck in the middle of McNimer Road. Only in Sudan, I thought would congested traffic be augmented by a train. Maybe China just isn’t meant to be, I thought. Too good to be true. I was not going to make it to the land of Confucius after all.

Eventually, we reached the airport, and I bade my children a teary farewell, as I gave my parents meaningful looks that they correctly interpreted that I was counting on them to look after the babies. Sure, my husband was there but let’s just say that I felt better knowing that they were my contingency plan.

My mother kept repeating her instructions to leave, consider it a break, relax and have fun, as soon as work was through. My dad spoke less but squeezed my hand and patted my shoulder, as he provided me with a constant supply of tissue paper; his eyes telling me, “We got this”. I could see them holding back their tears because they knew that I didn’t need any encouragement in the water works department.

I walked in and everyone left, and I was left to the mercy of government officials who stated that even if they let the six month condition slide, the Chinese might send me back, thus giving a selfless luster to their bureaucratic obstacles.

Having duly renewed my passport with the chance 98 or so Sudanese pounds that I was lucky enough to be carrying, I proceeded to the Business Lounge. Starting my online journal with my buddies (infused with a lot of "Woot's!") , I took pictures of the place like the tourist I was, and went to get me some tea. The kind man at the counter told me I could eat and drink anything (ANYTHING!) and it was all free. So, I picked up a cup, which I had to change because it was a little iffy, and made myself tea, while asking the man at every turn, enjoying my role as bumpkin, even going so far as to say, “You have to show me, I’m not used to all this,” in my best Dorothy in Oz expression.

I got some bottled water and sat back to await the flight that I was told I would be summoned for. Business travelers don’t need to pay attention to PA speakers, they call them!

Over the years, as the youngest child of adventurous parents, we have traveled around the world. Said parents being college teachers means that our trips were on a budget, which covered food and accommodation, sometimes completely foregoing shopping, to just enjoy the experience. So, yes, I have been here and there, but Business Class was a first. Hence the title.

After a while, I asked the lady seated next to me directions to the Ladies’ Room. It was a war zone. Tissue paper strewn haphazardly, smeared with lipstick, unflushed toilets and a busted soap dispenser that had dripped onto the counter and was forming a puddle on the floor. I may not do fancy but hell, I know a glorified outhouse when I see one.

Taking my OCD back to my seat, I couldn’t resist remarking to my helpful neighbor, “Don’t go in there” with a dramatic whisper to convey the seriousness of my warning. She opened her eyes wide to acknowledge that the message had been well received and we nodded our heads simultaneously in a travelers’ bond that is so easily broken.

While the bond was still intact, she leaned into me and said, “Can I say something, please? I’m so sorry,” which is the universal way to state that I’m going to say something that you won’t like but since I said, “Sorry” you have to listen and you’re not allowed to be offended.

“Sure,” I replied warily, thinking “God, I hate travelers’ bonds. Why didn’t I just ask the service staff where the bathroom was?” and I braced myself.

“I’m really sorry, but I think you have your clothes on wrong.”

Looking down, I realized there was no “thinking” about it. The stitching was showing all around the tunic that I had elected to fulfill my “travelling wardrobe” role. I’d packed 2 extra ones, while wearing this one (inside out) to ease the layering process from 37 degrees Celsius to 3 degrees below zero that was promised in Beijing.

“Thank you,” I gushed, back in bonding traveler mode, “I just left my babies and I’m really worried and I don’t know what we’re going to do” and so on and so forth, ruining my plan to have a conversation with somebody that does not lead to my sons, or the allergies that plague my youngest or showing pictures of all the above.

I went back to the Business Outhouse and walking around suspicious pools of something, found a corner to quickly don my tunic, right side out and inside in.

I went back to my seat, and sure enough, I was called to start the boarding process. In the lines leading up to the boarding gates, we had to have our bags x-rayed once again and be subjected to a rather personal body search that took place in a booth.

As the woman patted and probed, I asked her what she was looking for and if she actually ever caught someone. “Of course!” she exclaimed, “All the time! Women try to smuggle out gold, dollars and drugs. And you know where they hide them?” she asked me, “Here, this area” reaching for my waist and unmentionables. I burst out laughing, as she opened the curtain to let me out.

Another satisfied customer, just happy to be touched. The eternal yearning for human contact. Or a perv.

These would have been my thoughts if I had been in line seeing someone so obviously happy to be searched. But, what had amused me was her jolly attitude in a thankless job, coupled with her naïve wonder at the criminal mind. “I wish they wouldn’t” she added, as I walked out. Her words conjuring up graphic images that I pushed out of my mind, but fast.

As I stood in line, I saw a former classmate of mine, looking uncomfortable and frustrated and another old acquaintance that was chatting excitedly to the woman beside her, as happy as if she was traveling Business Class. Both didn’t see me.

Eventually, I found myself on a plane to Cairo, Egypt. A city I love cautiously, as our relationship is both tempestuous and guarded. We have trust issues but enjoy each other’s company.

When I boarded the plane, I found my fellow travelers duly seated, as their choice of checking in via VIP Lounge had apparently given them dibs on boarding. I shook hands all around, sat myself down, adjusted the seat belt to allow for my girth, fastened it like the people tell you to and sat back with a smile on my face.

Here goes nothing.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

From Khartoum to China – The Accidental Business Traveler

February 28th 2012
15:40 Khartoum Time, 20:40 Dezhou Time
From Khartoum to China – The Accidental Business Traveler: Part I

When I was told that my presence was requested (if we can be so delicate) in China, I had mixed feelings. I know my husband had said that he had no objection with any travel my job might require, and that he could take care of the children on his own, but my heart was heavy, even as it soared. Any perceived objection would not be marital but that of a hard working father who would have to come home to take care of three small boys alone. God knows that with the both of us home, it was still draining. His work often required him to work late, and on the days that I had to do it alone, my physical and mental strength were strained to the core.

China! What could be more exotic? What could be more exciting? Cold! I don’t like cold! I’m way too African for cold. My babies! Who is going to love my babies when I’m not home? They might find someone to feed them, someone to clean them up, but who will squeeze them with love and kiss their tiny feet while praying to Allah to preserve them safe, healthy and happy? Daddies love, for sure, but mommies love fierce. Very fierce.

China! The Great Wall and the Forbidden City! Bird’s Nest and Tiananmen Square! Gold and red and bamboo. China, I tell you!

Then my Sudanese coworkers, tried to strip away my excitement, as only Sudanese can. You’ll starve, they told me. No food in China. I asked what Chinese ate because they seemed to be doing alright. They eat Chinese food that we can’t eat. Hearing that made me feel better, because I have no problem experimenting when it comes to food. I am not of the Sudanese school of thought that if my mother doesn’t make it and I ate it several times growing up, then it is inedible.

I refuse to think that I have tasted the perfect dish. There are so many more worlds to discover and my world may be comfortable, but I am not under any illusion that it is the best. Try everything once, I tell myself, and pack loads of meds.

The smell is overpowering, the Sudanese continued. You will not be able to tolerate it. They will steal you blind, you know, a visitor to the office chimed in. They will show you quality products and send you cheap ones.

The list went on and on.

I love my countrymen but what have they achieved lately? We keep hearing that China is the next superpower but in my opinion it is the only one. The US has failed to keep up, and now China owns the US debt (among others, Sudanese included) and has made leaps and bounds in commerce and technology, as the rest of the world seems happy to rest on their laurels – assuming they have any.

After borrowing a coat (Thank you, Rawa) and stocking up on meds (Thank you, Alyaa), in addition to downloading a translation app, and packing a few snacks and some tea (yes, I know it’s China, but in true Sudanese form, I want my tea just so, and don’t mess with it, thank you very much) I was on my way.

The company I work for decided that they were not the ones sending me on the trip (sure), hence they were not responsible for me, and forewent the allocation of a per diem, after a charade that lasted a few days. I assume the alternative was to reject the invitation and allow a more accommodating employee grateful for the chance to take my place. For a less exotic destination, I probably would have passed but the Prophet PBUH told us to seek knowledge, if it be as far as China, and I planned to follow that advice, verbatim.

I was to leave with another co-worker, who outranks me on the project, and two Client representatives. I learned that the Client was sending their people with about $300/day, which was about $3,000 more than my zero. Not to begrudge the nice folk, just pointing out that customary business travel practices are alive and well. Our host had arranged for "pocket money" and that was deemed satisfactory:-|

(My computer keeps pausing, as I type and I can’t help wondering if Big Red Brother is downloading my hard drive through the internet cable I was so happy to find in my Executive Hotel Room Office. But I’m getting ahead of myself).

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Parallel Parking Light Bulb Moment

March 3rd 2012
Today, we went to Taian Mountain. Amazing.

After we came down this World Natural and Cultural Heritage Landmark, we went to a Muslim Noodle restaurant. After the meal, I watched a woman take almost 5 minutes to parallel park. When she parked the first time around, and got out of the car, a man on the street shouted at her that she hadn’t parked between the two lines. (No, I don't speak Chinese and I was observing from a distance but that's what was being said). She went back and in due time, aligned her car perfectly with the sidewalk and between the offending lines.

Even if I didn’t see any men snickering at the time, I imagined the snide comments about women and parallel parking and how it took her so long while they could do it from the first try. I agree. They would do it from the first time, but not to this perfection.
I then had a light bulb moment.
Men do a half ass job and are actually proud of it, while women achieve perfection but still worry that they could have done it better.
When she got out of her seat, she went round to the back and picked up a tiny bundle, and held it close in the freezing weather. An infant. A mother. That’s how we mommies roll. Perfection and stress, while men half baked and proud. We could learn from each other.

Le Passage Cairo Hotel - Just Say No

If you are ever in Cairo, and need a place to stay, I would advise camping out in Tahrir Square, instead of staying in Le Passage Cairo Hotel.
As a Business Class Traveler with an 8 hour layover, Egypt Air booked me a room there on March 6th 2012. It was deplorable. The room was badly lit, toilet was broken, toilet door didn’t lock, phone/intercom only connected me to the sound of static. In addition to all of the above, stands the unforgiveable sin – internet connection not working.

No slippers in the room, so I had to choose between showering and sticking moist feet in my shoes or walking barefoot across the freezing tiles. I tried both. Equally unpleasant. Hotel stationery consisted of one bent piece of paper. The safe was only lockable via credit card so I had to walk around with my purse at all times. I do not have a valid credit card, and there was nothing to state what they were charging for this “service”. There were no electrical sockets for computers or phones, so I had to unplug the lights to recharge.

In the elevator, I ran into one of my co-workers who told me he had to change rooms because his was so dirty when he checked in.

On my out, I asked for water, as no drinking water was available in what should have been an executive room but wasn’t. The waitress/hostess/whatever they call them now brought me a glass that was so dirty, I would not let a dog drink from it.

To complete the check out of our delegation, we were left in the mercy of 3 concierges who made the decision that we should wait for the shuttle to join another hotel guest who was leaving on the same flight. I informed him that I did not care about their other guest and I wanted to go to the airport. In their Egyptian way, they stated that I was not to worry I was going to catch my plane. I stated that I wanted to leave and it was not their business to tell me when. True to Egyptian form I was told to calm down, which is the common attitude that the person that does not agree with them is hysterical and irrational.

We left the hotel 15 minutes after we were originally scheduled to, but did make our delayed flight with a detour at the Duty Free Shop, no thanks to them.

Next time you hear “Le Passage” run in the opposite direction.

For the record, I filled up the “Feedback Form” and expressed my overall rating of “Poor” and informed them that, no, I would not be interested in staying at their hotel again.

I also posted this on and must agree with another reviewer on the skimpy towels.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sudan Now, Sudan Then Part I

February 14th 2012 (Happy Valentine’s Day!)
Part I
Our country is going through rough times now. I just asked myself why I don’t write about it. Is it because I know next to nothing about politics, or is it because I shy away from the inconvenient truth that is Sudan today? Even if I don’t know much about politics, I know a whole lot about my life, and I was told, at an early age, to write what I know.
I think of my family as “middle class”, however, in reality, if middle class means average, we are, with the blessings of Allah, in the top 10%. People of the “Industrialized World” or whatever you call yourselves now, would be surprised. I am sure that our concepts of middle class differ considerably.
My husband and I are both working professionals (knock wood, with today’s unemployment rates) and we have three small boys that teach us every day what is important in life. We have a roof over our heads, food on the table and the boys are enrolled in the appropriate bilingual schools. We thank God that we can pay for medical care when required.
Most Sudanese can’t say the same.
Most of my countrymen lack basic needs. And when we say basic, we really mean it. Running water, potable water, food, education and health care. These are things that Sudanese have learned to do without. To be clear, many didn’t have it to begin with, but today we see a generation, that instead of developing has moved backward in time. We listen to our parents tell us how they would call the doctor to come over if someone was sick, in the middle of the night. How gas was delivered to your house, and how, as university students, meals were prepared, laundry done, shoes shined and students could choose one of three beds to sleep in (room, yard or roof) according to weather conditions and their fancy.
When my parents were starting their lives, with three small girls, they lived in a house provided by the University of Khartoum, where they both taught. The pseudo-colonial houses were spacious and cool, with separate quarters for the help. They had nannies for the kids and servants for the laundry and ironing. A chicken coop out back and an extended kitchen where my mother learned to cook, also form part of this idyllic world I vaguely remember, although that is probably just my imagination, putting pictures in my head of the stories that I have heard.
As was common in those days, my father was politically active, although I wonder how this soft spoken man, with the highest moral threshold I have encountered in my life, could be involved in politics. Born into a family that was nearly destitute, he and his brother took turns working and studying to provide for their mother and sisters. The value of education was never lost on their journey. I often think that they could have chosen another route; starting a business, or seeking permanent employment, but it is obvious that this never occurred to those young men, who are both professors today. (May Allah bless them with good health and long lives).
I digress. I know. I will continue to do so, so please bear with me.
My dad and my uncle, in their struggle to provide for their family, in the absence of a father, chose religion as their guidance. In a family oriented society, they did not lack for father figures, but they chose the Prophet PBUH and scholars as their role models. This, I believe was what led them to allying themselves with an Islamic Party, early in their youth.
In those days, the best secondary education was to be found in three boarding schools, Hantoob, Wadi Sayidna and Khor Taggat. My father went to Hantoob. The young men of Sudan that studied and lived together in the 50s and 60s, have a bond that we will never understand. The school was a melting pot of social and cultural diversity that molded upstanding young men who learned, on their own, about equality, diversity and tolerance.
The Islamists and the Communists studied together, bunked together, and a few years later, were incarcerated together. I never heard of animosity between them, or anything similar to the fist fights that sometimes turned fatal, that were commonplace when we studied in the same University of Khartoum most of those boarding school lads ended up in.
The point I was trying to state, before meandering off into my father’s memories, is that under President Nimeri’s rule, my dad (who I call “Poppa”) and his cronies were periodically rounded up and thrown in jail. My father refers to this period as “being guests of the government” with a nostalgic look in his eye, and a catch in his throat.
It is hard to believe that friendships were forged and maintained behind various prison bars, as they were frequently shuttled around. He speaks of the inmate that taught them French, and the other who oversaw Quran Circles and tutored them in recitation. In jail.
When I was in my final year at University (or one of them at least), I visited the Police College to collect information for my thesis. I paid an initial visit to state my requirements, and arranged a follow-up visit, to collect said information. When I went back the second time around, my contact Major General Awad Widaatallah Hussein, was very excited. He could hardly contain himself.
He asked me my full name.
When I answered, he said, “Yes! And, your mother, she doesn’t wear the traditional Sudanese Tob, correct?”
“No, she doesn’t. Not on a daily basis anyway. She’s Egyptian.”
“Yes! And she likes the color blue?”
Frankly confused, first, because of the line of questioning, with no obvious relevance, and doesn’t everyone love blue?
“I guess” I replied.
He had been pacing, while interrogating me, and then he gestured that we were to leave his office, I was to follow him. Policeman in Police College. I followed. He led me to the Dean of the College, who got up from his desk, shook my hand warmly, and with extreme emotion. He kept repeating, “Mashallah, mashallah” which is a term that means “Glory be to God” and used when looking at something remarkable, often a child that has grown, which, apparently, was the case.
Finally, I got to hear the story.
When your father was in prison, I was the police officer assigned to your family. In those days, a policeman was assigned to take care of the families of political prisoners. We would drive you to prison visits, get your groceries and run errands. I was very moved by the plight of your mother, who was taking care of three young girls alone, and going to visit her husband in jail, sometimes taking you with her.
He kept shaking my hand and I realized my petite mother, who always does what needs to be done, and my father who is never less than dignified, had left a lasting impression on a fresh graduate, heading out into the real world. I could see in his whole demeanor, that the memory of that young family had not left him, and he had spent time wondering what had become of them. The fact that I came to him enrolled in the nation’s leading University (at the time) from one of the top departments (at the time) to design a theoretical Police Academy, was a full circle moment for him. I feel good that we were able to give him a happy ending. I just wish one of us could remember what his name was.
Something tells me that political prisoners are not given the same treatment these days.
Back to my young family...

This is an excerpt from an email my father sent to a friend of his, who he forwarded this post to...

I  tell   some   of  what  was   going  on   in  that  six  months  and  ten  days   as "  guest  of  the  government ".
In   the  company  of  many  university  staff  , some   reputed  lawyers,  some   university  students , some  of  them  now  professors  and  very  high  ranking  civil  servants,  and  others  we   were  rounded  in  part  of  the  state   prison  that  was  and  probably  still  is  named   ironically  " Alsaraya"  meaning   'The  Palace'.   Among  other  things  I was  "Head Administrater'  of  the  group  mainly  caring  for  the  two  miserable    meals  of  the  day  and  organizing   cultural  and  sports  activities .    In  fact  it  was    my  sports  responsibilities       which    introduced  me  to   who  would later become  my  beloved   wife,  Taggy's   mother. 
During  that    wonderful  period   in  prison, I  met  wonderful  people  and   made lasting   friends ,  read  more  than    forty  volumes,   making  Quran  khatma  every   ten  days  ..among  other  things..In   prison  each  one  of  us   was   given  two  blankets. No  beds.  You   spread  blankets  on  floor   and  when  it  was  cold   use  one  as  cover.
You  think   six  months  and  ten  days   was  long.  Not  long  brother  Tayeb  spent  two  full  years  as  "Guest  of  Government"    just  for  a  letter  found  with  him  which  I  wrote  to  him  while  he  was    in  Cambridge  for  his  PhD.. He  came  back  with  the  letter   as  part  of  his  personal  effects  and  never  realized   that  would  take  him  where  it  did.
Those  were     wonderful   years  that   brought   us  all  very  very   close.